RIP Robert B. Parker, Erich Segal, icons of pop literature
Two towering figures of pop culture have died this week. Erich Segal, the classics professor who wrote the sentimental 1970 bestseller Love Story, suffered a fatal heart attack on Sunday in London. On Monday, Robert B. Parker, who revitalized the hard-boiled detective novel with his Spenser series, was found dead at his desk.
Segal was 72; Parker was 77.
I never read Love Story, or saw the hit movie starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw — as a teenager I was quite the literary snob. But scorning a particular ride does not mean it’s any less a landmark in your cultural theme park. Like Rod McKuen and Richard Bach, Segal was inescapable in the 1970s.
Love Story gave the era its romantic tagline — “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” — which Boomers have done their best to live down since about 1981.
Son of a rabbi, Segal had a parallel career as a distinguished scholar of Greek and Latin literature at Yale, Princeton and Harvard, where he earned a doctorate in comparative literature in 1965. His notoriety as a jet-setting pop novelist alienated American academia, however. After Yale denied him tenure, Segal moved to England, where he became a fellow at Oxford.
Before Love Story, Segal worked on novels and screenplays, including the animated Beatles’ movie, Yellow Submarine. But Love Story was a phenomenon. Its simple plot: a privileged boy and a working-class girl fall in love at Harvard, only to face tragedy when the young woman is stricken with a fatal disease. It sold a million copies in hardcover. The paperback had a first print-run of 4,325,000 — a record.
Love Story was vilified by critics and other writers. The judges of the National Book Award threatened to resign unless its nomination was rescinded. John Lennon once quipped, “Love means having to say you’re sorry every 15 minutes.”
Segal wrote several additional ’70s and ’80s bestsellers, including Oliver’s Story, The Class and Man, Woman and Child. He continued his scholarly work, publishing The Death of Comedy, a history of comedy from ancient Greece to modern times, in 2001.
A serious runner who competed regularly in the Boston Marathon, Segal battled Parkinson’s disease for the last 30 years of his life.
Robert B. Parker, a Boston native, studied classics of a different sort. At the time he published his first Spenser novel, The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973, the hardboiled detective novel was a dead genre. But Parker loved Raymond Chandler and the other great crime writers of the ’30s and ’40s, and within a few years he had resurrected the form all by himself.
The author of more than 50 novels, including 37 featuring Spenser, Parker paved the way for such later bestselling crime writers as Dennis Lehane, Robert Crais, and dozens of others.
“For a long time, the American detective genre was defined by the big three: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald,” Crais said yesteday. “I would say Robert Parker is the fourth.”
Parker let it be known that Spenser was his alter-ego, noting they both liked good food, baseball and jazz. Both were Korean War vets. “Let’s just say we’re not dissimilar,” he told an interviewer in 1996.
Despite his passing, the prolific Parker will entertain fans with additional books. Split Image, featuring another series hero, Jesse Stone, is due out next month. Chris Pepe, his editor at Putnam, says several other titles, including more than one Spenser novel, are “in the pipeline.”
Erich Segal, Robert B. Parker — in his own way, each wielded enormous influence in American popular culture. Do they leave you with fond memories of books read long ago?