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Opening Arguments

What can you say about a writer who died?


Oh, yeah, and Probert B. Parker, too.

Does that convey typographically that I was annoyed by the coverage of their deaths? Well, I was peeved, anyway. In fact, I had a near Mother Teresa moment. She and Princess Diana, recall, died within days of each other in 1997, and the coverage seemed stunningly lopsided. Oh, dear God, Di has been taken from us! How can any of us cope with our grief? She can never be replaced! The world mourns! Oh, yeah, and some nun expired. Worked with the poor or something.

Now, sometimes, death isn't fair. Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis died on the same day, and that should have been big news, but there was hardly a peep about it, because it happened to be on Nov. 22, 1963. But it is beyond unfair when the death of someone destined for sainthood is overshadowed by our fawning, faux grief for a pretty celebrity.

I wrote an editorial to that effect. And the publisher spiked it -- first time that ever happened to me. Why? I asked. Well, I was told, many of our readers loved Di and are mourning her passing. But that's just the point, I said. They should care more about Teresa's death.

You never win an argument with a publisher. So all that day, in what became known as Leo's Teresa Meltdown, I made trips to the outside area where the smokers gathered, waving a printout of my pulled editorial and shoving it in people's faces. "Want to read an editorial about Mother Teresa not getting the respect she deserved in death?" I would say (shout, according to some observers). "Well, take a look, because this is the only place you can ever read it!" Nothing was accomplished, but I felt better.

Now, I don't mean to compare Eric Segal to Princess Di, and certainly not Robert B. Parker to Mother Teresa. But the coverage of their deaths was similarly lopsided.

Segal may have been a fine college professor, but the only thing he ever did to catch the public's attention was write "Love Story," one of the sappiest, most insipid, poorly written novels of all time, which was turned into "Love Story" the film, one of the sappiest, most insipid, poorly acted movies of all time. Love means never having to say you're sorry. That was it, the sum total of Segal's contribution to the public good. But his obit got the full treatment everywhere. From The New York Times:

The novel spent more than a year on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list. It has sold tens of millions of copies and been translated into many languages.

Released to great fanfare on the book's coattails, the movie, starring Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw, appeared at the end of 1970. In a 2000 article, Variety called it “the first of the modern-day blockbusters,” writing that it had grossed nearly $200 million and saved its studio, Paramount Pictures, “which was facing imminent destruction.”

“Love Story” received seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Mr. Segal's screenplay; it won the Oscar for best original score.

Pretty good run for "Love Story," and it brought Segal enough fame to earn his place in pop culture, but then he went back to academic obscurity, publishing books that no one read.

Much less was made of Robert B. Parker's death.  I heard Segal's death mentioned several times on TV, Parker's none. The Times had a very good obit, talking about the characters he created and how influential he was on other writers. But that's not the one run by many of the papers that put Segal at the top of their obit page. The paper I saw that set me off had a couple of sentences about Parker under the Segal obit. He wrote detective novels.

Yeah about 60 of them, in the mode of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, lean, tough novels, but with modern sensibilities -- unlike almost all other private eyes, his character Spenser was in a committed relationship. Parker created intriguing characters and complex plots and made attempts at psychological insights.

And all of his books, added together, sold 4 million copies worldwide. But "Love Story" sold "tens of millions." Now that I've vented, guess I can't really blame the media.

But I do feel better.


Mon, 01/25/2010 - 11:55am

Right there with you on the Princess Di/Mother Teresa dichotomy. At the time, my (now) wife and I were dating and not yet married. I needled her quite a bit for getting caught up somewhat in the Princess Di drama, pointing out how ridiculous it was when Mother Teresa wasn't getting near the grief. The fact that she didn't cut me loose after that was probably a pretty good demonstration that she has a high tolerance for my particular brand of crap.

I'd ask what the big deal was about Princess Di. The response would usually mention something about her philanthropy. Mother Teresa's death showed that the philanthropy angle was mostly a pretext. I think the deal was that a bunch of little girls grew up wanting to be princesses and here was a real one cut down early in life. And that's about it.

Pete C
Mon, 01/25/2010 - 12:18pm

Anger is a part of grief. I was sitting at a family dinner in a younger day, when the radio in the background announced the death of someone greatly important to my innards. And my older brother said, "Pass the potatoes." I looked around the table and saw only a circle of strangers. Regarding Diana and Mother Teresa, there's that word, "should." They should care more. My thought at the time was that Mother Teresa would have understood perfectly well. I think it really was not faux grief for Diana. I've heard that little girls still like to dress up as princesses. It's probably close to archetypal, but anyway, a deep impression.

Bob G.
Mon, 01/25/2010 - 12:21pm

Nah...you go ahead and blame the media...!
Nothing wrong with "nibbling" the hand that feeds you (when warranted).
Remember...whatever is MORE sensational will ALWAYS get the ink.
And welcome to the United States of Entertainment.


Tue, 01/26/2010 - 6:18pm

I didn't care about Princess Di or Mother Teresa.
I will miss Parker, though.
Spenser was always miscast in attempts to bring him to the screen. He was supposed to look like an old-fashioned tough guy, a retired heavyweight boxer. Robert Urich? Really?
Why hasn't someone persuaded Howie Long to play Spenser? He'd be perfect, flattop haircut and all. And I can't help but picture Sarah Silverman as Susan, if Silverman's willing to take a non-comedic role. Any ideas for Hawk?