Liu Heung Shing/AP
Author Robert Parker, shown in July 1985, died this week at age 77.
Author Erich Segal, shown at his home in Golders Green, North London, in July 1988, died this week at age 72.
Commentator Mo Lotman is author of the book Harvard Square: An Illustrated History Since 1950. He lives in Somerville, Mass., with his dog, Comet.
If you live in or around Cambridge, Mass., the news this week has marked the end of an era. And no, I'm not talking about Scott Brown's Senate victory. Two famous writers with local connections have died. One penned the novel and screenplay Love Story, perhaps the most famous movie ever set here. The other lived in Harvard Square and put his most celebrated character in the alleys and bars of the neighborhood.
On the surface, it would seem the two men have little in common. OK, maybe it's not just on the surface. Erich Segal was a rabbi's son from Brooklyn who eventually moved to England. Robert Parker was born and bred in Massachusetts, served in Korea, and lived on Ash Street in Cambridge until his death. Segal wrote one enormously successful work and then largely faded from the spotlight. Parker churned out bestseller after bestseller, some of which were turned into television shows and films. Parker was a gruff but unpretentious family man who named a succession of dogs "Pearl" and hated academics. Segal was fluent in several languages and a professor at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Oxford.
To get an idea for the difference, just look at who played the leading men in the screen adaptations of their work. With Parker, it's Robert Urich, Tom Selleck and Ed Harris. With Segal, it's Ryan O'Neal.
Courtesy of Mo Lotman
Commentator Mo Lotman lives in Somerville, Mass., with his dog, Comet.
But Cambridge is a funny place: like Love Story's Oliver Barrett IV and Jenny Cavilleri, it's a marriage between Brahmin and working class. A mix that, like Jenny's owl glasses, shouldn't work, but does.
Harvard has turned out presidents, princes, senators and Supreme Court justices. But it also hired Timothy Leary. A whole generation of psychedelic wanderers have hung out in Harvard Square, as did the founders of Microsoft. The Boston Bruins drank at the Oxford Grille, where bar brawls would spill out onto the street every weekend. But 50 feet away, earnest guitarists sang to hushed audiences in the liquor-free folk club Passim. Jugglers hammed it up for summer strollers while punks in studded collars lit up doobies on the subway plaza.
Even Parker's Spenser knew that brawn and street smarts were better leavened with a little sophistication. Sure, he was a tough detective and an ex-boxer, but he was also a gourmet who dated a psychologist.
Before he was famous, Parker wrote manuals for Raytheon. A snippet of technical writing for a missile begins, "To start, push 'to start' button." Before he was famous, Segal wrote a 300-page essay on the comedy of Roman playwright Plautus.
Somehow, both of these gentlemen represent Cambridge, Mass., in all its contradictory glory. Here's hoping they're sharing a whiskey — or a lemon spritzer — in the great Harvard Square in the sky.