Lacking enough knowledge of Peter Benchley’s life for a real tribute to the writer, who died yesterday at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, here are a few random associations:
1) His grandfather was Robert Benchley, a great humor writer from the sophisticated Algonquin circle of the 1920’s and 30’s. Peter Benchley wasn’t funny like his grandfather, even though his book made a lot more money than any of Robert’s ever did. The easiest way to get familiar with the distinctive satirical stylings of Robert Benchley is to watch the actor Campbell Scott’s superb rendition of Benchley’s amazing “Treasurer’s Report” stage comedy bit in the 1994 film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.
2. I read Jaws as a kid — one of the first grownup books I ever read, in fact — and I enjoyed it. One thing that stuck out in my then pre-adolescent mind and still does today: the film left out the book’s only steamy sex scene, in which the police chief’s wife has a quickie affair with the marine biologist. Yes, that’s right, Roy Schieder’s wife slept with Richard Dreyfuss — in the book. Why do you think George Costanza wanted to be a marine biologist? I don’t usually second guess Steven Spielberg, but I think this sex scene was part of the subtext behind the police chief’s rivalry with the scientist, and I think Spielberg made a mistake in not filming that scene.
3. As a kid in the seventies, I thought it was very cool that Jaws took place on Long Island, where I lived. I was never scared of sharks when we went to Jones Beach — exciting things like getting bit by a shark never happened to kids like me. Now that I am a father, though, I see it differently. I remember yelling at my 14-year-old son to get closer to shore this summer, and I believe he informed me that there were no sharks on Long Island, to which I loudly responded “Have you ever heard of a freaking film called Jaws?!”
Goodbye to Peter Benchley, author of one really good book.