My Aunt Betty once sent my father on a wild goose chase.
Not literally, of course. The only hunting my father ever did was going after Nazi soldiers early in 1945, which really doesn't count unless the Germans around St. Nazaire and Lorient had decided that shooting at Dad's unit while wearing feathers and honking would somehow bring glory to the Reich. No, this was all part of Betty's attempt to serve as a musical consultant to my parents, and with her usual grace and style, she managed to wreak havoc with a merry laugh and a big, bright smile.
It was sometime in 1955, soon after my parents got married. Mum had worn a tea-length silk organza gown in a delicate blush pink, Dad had worn a white dinner jacket, and by all accounts they'd cut quite the dash at their reception. The honeymoon was somewhat less successful - between Betty filling Mum's purse with rice as a prank (so much for pretending that they weren't newlyweds) and Mum coming down with sun poisoning during their trip to Conneaut Lake, it was not precisely the stuff of which dreams are made - but overall they were quite happy that first summer furnishing their home, getting to know each other in the most intimate way, and generally settling into married life.
Part of settling in meant building a record collection. Dad, ever the tech buff, had constructed one of those exotic new toys called a "high fidelity stereo system" so that he and my mother could listen to long playing records in style, comfort, and with the full richness of sound they deserved. They both loved show tunes, Dad loved jazz, and between them they soon had a fine selection of home entertainment choices for nights when they didn't feel like watching television, reading, or indulging in less cerebral activities.
The one thing missing from their collection was classical music. Dad had taken piano and trumpet lessons while Mum had studied violin in her teens, but neither was particularly up on Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms, let alone Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Haydn, Chaminade, Schubert, et al. It was a woeful gap in their knowledge of high culture, and assembling a good classical library was a priority.
This was why they turned to Betty.
Betty's one talent for something that did not involve clothing, makeup, getting out of chores, and cooking so badly my uncle Lou learned to make an acceptable dinner to keep himself and their brother Oscar from starving to death, was piano. She was talented enough that the family had invested in a huge upright grand that probably weighed as much as a Buick, and if she didn't practice nearly as much as she should have, she was good enough that most of the time it didn't matter. Even as an elderly woman she could still play fairly well, and I inherited a huge stack of five-finger exercise books, sonatas, popular favorites, etudes, and so on. Asking her for advice on what all-time toe-tappers would enhance their parties and private recreational moments of a non-physical nature only made sense.
Most of Betty's suggestions also made sense, even if they were a bit heavy on 18th and 19th century German/Austrian orchestral pieces. That was the accepted canon of the day, and after all, what's not to like about Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony or a nice Handel oratorio? It's a good, solid (if occasionally stolid) grounding in the Western tradition, and listening to those selfsame recordings as a child and teenager inculcated a love of fine music that eventually led me to the glories of the Italian and French Baroque.
The trouble was when Betty said that their collection would not be complete without a recording of Mozart's Italian Symphony. Dad had been vaguely aware that there was an Italian Symphony but hadn't heard it was by Mozart. Betty seemed very sure, though, so off he went to the local record shop. He'd shopped there before and knew they had a reasonably good classical section, so he was fairly confident that he'd come home with Mozart's Italian Symphony as a gift for his bride.
The clerk blinked, checked the store's records, and then informed Dad that no such recording was in stock. They did, however, have a nice version of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony by the Boston Symphony, would the gentleman be willing to accept that instead?
Dad shook his head. "No, no. My sister-in-law specifically recommended the Mozart. Can you special order it?"
The clerk frowned. "I did check our catalog, sir, and I'm afraid I didn't see any piece by that name. Are you sure of the title?"
"Betty knows a lot about music. I'm sure she's right," said Dad.
"I'll take another look," murmured the clerk. He riffled through some paperwork, shaking his head the whole time, and finally said, "I'm terribly sorry, sir, but the only Italian Symphony I could find was by Mendelssohn."
"Huh," said Dad. It was his turn to frown. "Are there are any other record stores that might carry it?"
"You might try a couple over in Shadyside, but we all order from the same suppliers," said the clerk. "Are you sure you don't want a copy of the Mendelssohn? It's a wonderful piece and the Boston Symphony does a fine job."
"Let me do a little research," said Dad, and left without purchasing a single item.
It’s not clear how much time Dad spent over the next few days (or was it weeks?) trying to track down Mozart’s Italian Symphony, nor how many record shops he visited. What is clear is that he finally gave up, bought a copy of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, and knocked back a couple of beers to take the edge off his frustration.
A few weeks later he and Mum were visiting Betty and my uncles. They’d had a good dinner (almost certainly cooked by Mum since Betty had been de facto banned from the kitchen after an attempt to make baked apples using Red Delicious) and were now relaxing over dessert when the conversation turned to music. Oscar, who was almost as interested in new technology as Dad, was interested in getting his own high fidelity stereo system when he purchased a house in a couple of years. Who better to ask for advice on equipment than his new brother-in-law?
Dad was happy to comply. He’d been the mid-20th century equivalent of a technology junky since childhood, and since he’d actually built his own stereo from the transistors on up, his advice was sound. Soon enough Oscar knew exactly what he would need and where to get it. The only question was what long-playing albums to purchase, and of course that meant asking Betty.
Betty was equally happy to comply. She’d just advised Mum and Dad, after all, so was quickly rattling off the same recommendations: a lot of Beethoven, Bruch’s Violin Concerto, light classics like Strauss waltzes, Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony –
Dad jerked in his seat. “Wait a minute. What did you say?”
Betty blinked over her coffee cup. “I said Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. You know, the one that goes da-DA-da da-DA-da da-DAAA-da-da, da-da-da-da-da – “
“Mendelssohn?” Dad exclaimed. “You told me it was Mozart!”
“I went all over town looking for it! The clerks at the record stores must have thought I was crazy!”
“Oh,” said Betty. She broke into her usual bright, charming laugh, the same laugh that had kept her siblings from beating her to death with the nearest heavy blunt instrument at least a hundred times over the years. “Guess I was wrong. Sorry!”
It is only the grace of God and the fact that my parents’ record collection was several miles away that prevented Dad from breaking Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony over her head.
As long-time readers of these diaries know full well, this sort of “la-di-da, fiddle-dee-dee, shall I compare me to a summer’s day” attitude was per usual with Betty. She was the first girl after six boys, born when my grandmother was 40 and my grandfather 45, and had had four glorious years to practice being a spoiled brat before my mother came along and ruined her status as Undisputed Princess of All She Surveyed. This attitude prevailed even during the darkest days of the Depression, and if what had been youthful insouciance eventually soured into bitter disappointment that her life hadn’t turned out exactly as she’d planned, her run as the family flibbertigibbet lasted far, far longer than anyone could have expected.
For good or ill, Betty’s life has become something of an object lesson to me. She stayed youthful in appearance and attitude in many ways, which is great, but it was the sort of brittle, heedless youth that never quite realizes that there’s a huge difference between remaining open to the new and staying faithful to one’s ideals, and having your menfolk see to all your material needs so you can buy spend your earnings on all the pretty clothes, jewelry, and cosmetics you wish. In many ways she was always a teenager, at least until Oscar died and she finally had to take responsibility for her life, and believe me, what is charming and cute as a teenager can be extremely annoying in a seventy-six year old.
This may be why I’ve never particularly enjoyed films or books that feature the character type known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
We’ve all seen these allegedly adorable creatures on screen: sweet, funny, childlike, sentimental, easily wounded, they flit into the lives of stuffy men, teach them how to enjoy themselves with their guileless affection and open hearts, then flit out again like a mayfly in the summer sun. They’re intelligent but eccentric, dress oddly, have pets that either have odd names or are just plain odd, and care little for money, position, or anything beyond dancing through the days, living life to the fullest. Their personal goals seem to consist mainly of lightening up their stuffy, emotionally constipated boyfriends, serving as someone’s muse, and having lots and lots and lots of sex that heals the wounded, often much older men who tell their stories.
This particular character type was most popular during the free spirited days of the 1960’s and 1970’s, when she showed up in films as disparate as The Sterile Cuckoo, Annie Hall, Butterflies are Free, Cactus Flower, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Sometimes she grew up a tiny bit (especially if all that healing sex led to a love child, which of course would accelerate her beloved’s emotional growth the second he felt the fetus kicking in her fecund belly), but usually whatever personal growth she experienced was minimal compared to the great changes her generous spirit and thrift shop wardrobe wrought upon the man she loved.
In short, she is pretty much a male fantasy, a projection of sweet, heedless youth. Women by and large don’t dream of being perpetually young muses, and those of us who take on a man as a project usually do so in a misguided attempt to make him grow up rather than splash about in a fountain while singing merrily to the sweetly twittering birdies in the trees. Being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is hard, not to mention that it has roughly the shelf life of unpasteurized milk.
Worse, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl has no male counterpart for the jaded, emotionally constipated woman. The closest equivalent is probably either the Despairing Young Man who is taught to count his blessings by a Wise Older Woman (Harold and Maude anyone?) or the Sensible Man of the Earth Who Tames the Career Woman (Sam Shepard’s character in Baby Boom). Neither of these is particularly close, and given the sexual politics of modern entertainment, a film or book about a Manic Pixie Dream Boy would probably have their critics sharpening their knives and the Very Serious Cultural Critics writing essays about the emasculation of the American male.
Tonight I bring you only one book, but it’s an all-time kitsch classic. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl at the center of it may be more intelligent than usual, but otherwise her story is not hers, but the story of how her bright spirit and smart mouth affected the life of a man. If that weren’t enough, her sad demise at the end of one book not only leaves her darling unable to have a satisfying relationship with another woman in the sequel, but the on-screen version was so memorable that similar cinematic deaths still reference the indelible original:
Love Story, by Erich Segal– nothing about Erich Segal's background would seem to indicate that he might someday be responsible for inflicting a terrible, yet culturally significant, novel on the unwary public. Born in the late 1930's to the prominent Brooklyn rabbi, he was a brilliant scholar/athlete at Harvard who got a PhD in classics, wrote several scholarly works on Roman comedy, and taught for years at his alma mater, Yale, Princeton, and even Oxford University. He ran the Boston Marathon for almost twenty years with a personal best time of slightly under three hours, was married to the same woman from 1975 to his death in 2010, served as a color commentator for the Olympic distance running events in 1972 and 1976, and was universally beloved of family, friends, and colleagues.
If that weren't enough, his years at Yale had brought him into contact with not one but two Presidential candidates (George W. Bush and Al Gore), both of whom had taken his classes. Segal, who was nothing if not diplomatic, refused to endorse either man for the White House, even after Gore dropped hints roughly the size of an Iowa-class battleship that he and his then-girlfriend (later wife) had been the inspiration for Segal's most famous work. The most their old professor could confirm was that Gore was a slightly better student, although he did not discourage rumors that the actual model for the male lead of Segal's fiction was Gore's classmate Tommy Lee Jones.
Regardless, Segal's career as an academic would have been enough to secure his fame, at least among classicists. He did genuinely groundbreaking work on Roman theater, most of it published by Oxford University Press, and was considered a world-class expert on Menander and Plautus. He deserved every plaudit he got, and it's little surprise to learn that his Passover seders, which combined a thorough knowledge of Jewish tradition with an equally deep understanding of classical parallels and ritual, became a legend in academic circles.
Alas for literature, so did his non-academic writings.
The first of these was not a novel. Neither was it a play, a collection of essays or lectures, a popular history, or even a book of poems. Academics, especially ones with a love of words, tend to churn out such works with depressing regularity. No, Erich Segal's first notable journey into the world of non-scholarly publications was a little bit different.
He wrote the screenplay to Yellow Submarine.
No, I am not making this up, and if you don't believe me, kindly click this link to Segal's IMDB page. I have yet to discover exactly how or why the gentle academic from the Northeast was chosen to pen the script for the Beatles' psychedelic cartoon, but that is exactly what happened. Segal didn't write the actual story - that was by a gentleman named Lee Minoff - but the script? Oh yes. Even better, he added several distinctly American (and Jewish) touches to the dialogue uttered by the Lads from Liverpool. Most notable was the line "Funny, you don't look bluish," which bewildered the Beatles but delighted audiences when the film was released in the United States.
Thrilled by the success of this effort, Segal decided to strike while the psychedelia was hot and promptly wrote a second screenplay. This one, a bold cry for the necessity of romance over social class and propriety, was the tragic tale of a pair of young lovers who might (possibly, if you squint your eyes right and stand on your head) resemble Al and Tipper Gore (but were more likely based on the doomed lovers in Dumas fils story La Dame Aux Camellias). Jenny, Italian-American, foul-mouthed, and exuberant, is the breath of fresh air who brings joy to the stuffy, repressed, hockey-playing Oliver Barrett IV. They fall in love while undergraduates at Harvard and Radcliffe, marry despite the plutocratic 1% rage of Oliver Barrett III, and are wretchedly poor but blissfully happy for several years before Jenny dies young of leukemia. Her death, tragic though it is, opens Oliver's heart to forgiving his stuffy, repressed father, and the script ends with Oliver IV and Oliver III commiserating over Oliver IV's early widowerhood.
It might seem that this story, so reminiscent of the "weepies" of bygone days like Imitation of Life or Magnificent Obsession, would have had trouble finding an audience in the more socially conscious 1960's. This proved not to be the case. After a few false starts, the screenplay was purchased by Paramount Pictures, which not only greenlit it for production, but requested that Segal turn the saga of Jennifer and Oliver IV into a novel. Segal did so, reportedly over the Christmas break at Yale, and the result, titled simply Love Story, was unleashed like a Kleenex-laden kraken upon the American public on February 14, 1970.
It was an immediate smash hit, which surprised everyone but the wise old editors who remembered how popular Fannie Hurst had been in the day. The reviews from mainline literary critics were less than kind, but that didn't stop Love Story ended up as the best selling book of 1970, with a robust 41 weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list. It was translated into thirty-three languages, sparked endless discussions about what this very old-fashioned story meant in the modern age, and allegedly was the impetus behind what cultural critics termed a "return to romance" and Wuv, Twue Wuv instead of the mindless bedhopping of the Sexual Revolution.
And what a romance it was! Today it's best remembered, if at all, for lines like "Love means never having to say you're sorry" and "What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died?" but back then lovers of romance thrilled to such jewels as:
“Her handwriting was curious small sharp little letters with no capitals (who did she think she was, e. e. cummings?).”Small, sharp, and curious...dare I say pixieish?
“What term do you employ when you speak of your progenitor?"Filial devotion, Oliver Barrett IV-style.
I answered with the term I'd always wanted to employ.
"To his face?" she asked.
"I never see his face."
"He wears a mask?"
"In a way, yes. Of stone. Of absolute stone.”
“He had then warned his daughter not to violate the Eleventh Commandment.Filial devotion, Jenny the Cliffie-style.
"Which one is that?" I asked her.
"Do not bullshit thy father," she said.”
“I wanted to keep looking at her because I wanted to never take my eyes from her, but still I had to lower my eyes, I was so ashamed that even now Jenny was reading my mind so perfectly.Ain't love grand?
'Listen, that's the only goddamn thing I'm asking, Ollie. Otherwise, I know you'll be okay.' That thing in my gut was stirring again, so I was afraid to even speak the word 'okay.' I just looked mutely at Jenny.”
“What the hell makes you smart?" I asked.Especially if the lovers insult each other every five seconds.
"I wouldn't go for coffee with you."
"Listen - I wouldn't ask you."
"That," she replied, "is what makes you stupid.”
“True love comes quietly, without banners or flashing lights. If you hear bells, get your ears checked.”Already did. The ringing on the right is the acoustic neuroma.
“You don't know about falling off cliffs, Preppie,' she said. 'You never fell off one in your goddamn life.'Ah, the famous cliffs of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
'Yeah,' I said, recovering the power of speech. 'When I met you.”
“Now would you do me a favor?' From somewhere inside me came this devastating assault to make me cry. But I withstood. I would not cry. I would merely indicate to Jennifer - by the affirmative nodding of my head - that I would be happy to do her any favor whatsoever.Such courage! Such grit! Such ringing of alarms when all the IV lines come out!
'Would you please hold me very tight?' she asked.
I put my hand on her forearm - Christ, so thin - and gave it a little squeeze.
'No, Oliver,' she said, 'really hold me. Next to me.'
I was very, very careful - of the tubes and things - as I got onto the bed with her and put my arms around her.
Those were her last words.”
Don't you want to spritz lavender on your sheets, put on a filmy nightgown, and gambol about the house? Does your spirit not feel refreshed simply by reading about a girl who swears like a trooper, has teeny weeny pixieish handwriting, and spouts ludicrous aphorisms that anyone who's actually been in a long-term relationship knows are complete hooey? Isn't Jenny just a wonderful, realistic, breath of cool clean air fresh from the briny Atlantic?
I thought as much.
The movie version of Love Story, which came out just before Christmas of 1970, proved equally popular, and equally influential. Its attractive young leads, Ryan O'Neal and Ali McGraw, were catapulted straight onto the A-list despite less than kind reviews (especially for McGraw, whose version of a Cliffie was about as close to reality as a Shakespearean play written by William-Henry Ireland). The music, written by Francis Lai, won the Oscar for best score, a shapeless knitted hat worn by McGraw that the costume designer had found at a thrift shop was reproduced in fine Wintuk Orlon by thousands of loving hands at home, and uncounted numbers of young men were dragged to the theaters by girlfriends who wanted a good, long cry.
It also managed to cop several Oscar nominations besides Best Score, including acting nominations for O'Neal and McGraw (!), a Supporting Actor nod for John Marley (who played Jenny's earthy, working class father), and, God help us all, a writing nomination for Segal's script (!!!!). It won none of the above, although Segal did manage to win the Golden Globe, probably because the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter was in Mars.
Best of all, Jenny's death scene was so carefully lit and filmed, and McGraw so artfully made up, that the unsuspecting viewer might think that stunning beauty was a major side effect of Stage IV blood cancer. This might have made some sense if Jenny had died of consumption or some other illness that causes sufferers to look deceptively rosy-cheeked, but it was so out of place with leukemia that wags immediately dubbed Jenny's condition "Ali McGraw's disease." The nickname stuck, and is still used to describe a doomed heroine who somehow manages to look absolutely gorgeous, and perfectly healthy, despite waste bins full of bloody Kleenex, dozens of medication vials by her bed, and a hospital room full of monitors, IV lines, and weeping relatives.
Segal, who was now unquestionably the richest classics professor in the Ivy League thanks to his royalties, attempted to claim that Love Story was not simply a kitschy updating of a story that had been told much better a century earlier. It was actually an American version of a French nouvelle vague, informed by his personal experience of Ivy League life and romance (and just possibly a future Vice President's PDA's with his girlfriend). That most observers thought he was full of it was not his fault; Segal, the son and grandson of brilliant rabbis who had been trained in both Jewish exegesis and Western academic criticism, did his best to defend his work, but the story itself was so thin, and the characters (especially the sparkling but doomed Jenny) so underwritten, that it's little wonder Nora Ephron commented that her tears at the climax were due as much to irritation as grief.
Love Story was not the only bestseller by Erich Segal, of course. The follow up, Fairy Tale, was an equally thin recasting of a traditional narrative that was reviewed very badly but sold very well. Even worse was the actual sequel to Love Story, 1977's Oliver's Story, which told eager readers what had happened to Oliver after Jenny's death.
Alas for lovers of free-spirited Cliffies who cuss a lot, Oliver proves a completely flop at romance despite all of Jenny's lessons; he misses the boat with one woman (who marries someone else), then has a passionate fling with a rich department story heiress who makes her money by selling merchandise made in Asian sweatshops (yes, really). Oliver, who still has a social conscience despite a career as a corporate lawyer, is horrified and breaks it off as soon as he realizes that his new love is not only much richer and more polite than Jenny, but a heartless, exploitative capitalist 1%er.
The book ends with Oliver, alone again
naturally, writing despairing journal entries about how he wishes Jenny were still alive so he'd still be alive in any but the merely physical sense. It's all quite sentimental, and silly, and readers who think that what he needs is a good swift whack upside the head with a hockey stick are probably not in the minority.
Reviewers may or may not have agreed - about the hockey stick, not the book, which was almost universally derided as even worse than Love Story - but that didn't prevent Hollywood from turning Oliver's Story into another cinematic weepfest. Ryan O'Neal, somewhat the worse for wear thanks to substance abuse and the collapse of his once-promising career, once again played Oliver, while Candace Bergen, beautiful, icy, and not really much of a dramatic actress, was Marcie, the 1% sweatshop heiress. The reviews were disdainful (can we say "20% aggregate on Rotten Tomatoes," boys and girls?), the film lost money, and, thanks be to God, that was the last we ever saw of Oliver Barrett IV.
It was not the last we saw of Erich Segal. He continued to write, both scholarly works (universally regarded as excellent) and fiction (not so much, although at least one subsequent book is considered a minor classic in France). He married in 1975 and had two daughters, one of whom is a literary critic in Britain, and continued to teach, write, and preside over the best Passover seders in academia until shortly before his death from a heart attack in 2010. He'd suffered from Parkinson's disease for over three decades but refused to let his illness impede his life until the very end, and was mourned by friends, family, and fans around the world.
Whether he looked unusually handsome as he passed from this vale of tears is not known.
So, my friends - did you ever read Love Story? Oliver's Story? One of Segal's works on Roman comedy? Did you laugh hysterically at Jenny's gorgeous death scene? Wonder why a promising young star like Ali McGraw agreed to make this film in the first place? Wish you'd never heard that !#$@$!#$ theme song? Now is the time to unburden your soul…..
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule:
|DAY||TIME (EST/EDT)||Series Name||Editor(s)|
|SUN||6:00 PM||Young Reader's Pavilion||The Book Bear|
|2:00 PM||What's on Your E-Reader?||Caedy|
|2:00 PM||Bibliophile's Wish List||Caedy|
|Sun (occasional)||9:30 PM||SciFi/Fantasy Book Club||quarkstomper|
|Bi-Monthly Sun||Midnight||Reading Ramblings||don mikulecky|
|MON||8:00 PM||Monday Murder Mystery||michelewln, Susan from 29|
|Mon||11:00 PM||My Favorite Books/Authors||edrie, MichiganChet|
|TUES||5:00 PM||Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left||bigjacbigjacbigjac|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00 AM||LGBT Literature||Texdude50, Dave in Northridge|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00 AM||All Things Bookstore||Dave in Northridge|
|Tue||8:00 PM||Contemporary Fiction Views||bookgirl|
|Wed||2:00 PM||e-books||Susan from 29|
|Wed||8:00 PM||Bookflurries Bookchat||cfk|
|THU||8:00 PM||Write On!||SensibleShoes|
|Thu (first each month)||11:00 AM||Monthly Bookpost||AdmiralNaismith|
|alternate Thursdays (on hiatus)||11:00 PM||Audiobooks Club||SoCaliana|
|FRI||8:00 AM||Books That Changed My Life||Diana in NoVa|
|alternate Fridays||8:00 PM||Books Go Boom!||Brecht|
|Fri||10:00 PM||Slightly Foxed -- But Still Desirable||shortfinals|
|SAT (fourth each month)||11:00 AM||Windy City Bookworm||Chitown Kev|
|Sat||12:00 PM||You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews||pwoodford|
|Sat||9:00 PM||Books So Bad They're Good||Ellid|