A Few Things About Peter Benchley

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.

8 Responses

  1. Personal Benchley TriviaHere
    Personal Benchley Trivia

    Here are a few of my random personal associations regarding Peter Benchley and his sharks:

    – When I was a kid we used to play “White Shark” when we met in the public pool in the summer. “Der weisse Hai”, the white shark, was the german title of Jaws, the movie that all the other kids seemed to know, and the game was about one of us being the white shark and sneak up towards the others in a secret underwater approach, and then to suddenly burst through the surface screaming “White shaaaark!” I hadn’t seen the movie (I had hardly seen any movies back then) and therefore invented my own role in that game, which was to be the “killer carp”.

    After the initial resistance of the other kids (“There is no killer carp in ‘The White Shark’!”), the carp became an essential antagonist in the play, as I was waterproof and fast like a fish back then and could easily wrestle down the attacking sharks most of the times.

    – At the age of twelve, I was basically through with the books of the children’s and youth book section of your small school library, so I got a special note on my library card that said that I was allowed to use the grownup’s section as well (the school library also served as the public library of our little town). The first grownup book I lent was Irving’s “The World According To Garp”, and the second one was Benchley’s “Jaws”. I liked them both and found thme to be pretty “grownup”.

    – The first time I went to the United States was in the summer when I was seventeen. I came there as part of a summer exchange programme and lived with a family in Michigan for a month. It was a very hot summer, and our usual daily activity would be to ride our bikes through heat and cornfields to the next town’s videostore (which was about an hour away), rent a couple of VHS movies and then return to the twilight coolness of the house to watch them into the wee hours of the night.

    One of them was “Jaws: The Revenge”, which must have just come out brand-new then. I neither knew the word ‘jaws’ nor ‘revenge’, so the kids explained them to me, until I got what they meant and finally realized that this movie was the follower of what we’d call The White Shark (which I still hadn’t seen).

    So now I had not only learned two new english words (among all those other essential expressions that you are not taught in english lessons at school and that I had learned during my time there) and had, by the example of ‘revenge’, been enlightened about the correct pronounciation of the the english letter v (of which I’d had no idea that it was was pronounced differently than the letter w in english), but was also invited to finally watch the first Jaws movie, which they had sitting right there in their shelf. I saw more movies in that summer than I had seen in my entire life before.

    – After a diving course in the Red Sea (including meeting sharks – though no white ones – face to face) during my travels in my early twenties and a few strange jobs and apprenticeships later on, I decided to become a marine biologist. Unfortunately, I hadn’t cared much for my marks at school, as I always thought I’d go to arts school anyway, and that for this, only my portofolio would be of any importance. So it was hard to get a place at a university (in Germany, we have a numerus clausus to limit the number of students) and I had to use the time until i got accepted somehow meaningfully. I did this by becoming a temporary scientific assistant at a marine observatory on Helgoland, a tiny rocky island in the North Sea (which is said to perfectly match the description of the island that hosts the wizard prison Azkaban in the Harry Potter universe, btw) and by reading numerous books of and about underwater adventurers and diving pioneers like Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Hans Hass, as well as all kinds of novels about diving and the deep blue. Among them, I remember having started another novel of Benchley (The Deep) but not having liked it at all and never having finished it. I also never became a marine biologist.

    — So much about my personal Benchley trivia. Rest in peace, Peter!

  2. PB’s rehab detective story
    PB’s rehab detective story & more

    PB also wrote The Deep–an opening film scene with jacqueline Bisset in a wet t-shirt is immeorial as as is a giant moray biting into Lou Gosset’s shaved skull. His rehab detective story is believable as is the tale of left-behind buccaneers in the West Indies and the yachties they shipwreck. He wrote thrillers like few others did or could.

  3. I enjoyed reading about you
    I enjoyed reading about you and your friends in Michigan and how you learned the two new words.

  4. Same story hereFurtively
    Same story here

    Furtively reading my parents’ copy of Jaws was, I believe, the first time I ever read a sex scene. I’m still impressed by the two-times concept–one time fast (for him) and then a second time slow (for her). Coincidentally, Happy Valetines Day to one and all.

  5. thanks, bill… i still have
    thanks, bill… i still have to take good care not to pronounce it “rewenge”, though.

  6. Here is what I don’t
    Here is what I don’t understand. When I was a kid, there was a stereotype German accent in movies in which the Germans pronounced w’s like v’s. They said things like, “You vill tell me vhat I vant to know.” What’s the deal with that?

  7. the stereotype is right. the
    the stereotype is right. the german way to pronounce a w *is* v, and as we germans know that there’s this difference, we’re real careful *not* to pronounce the english w’s as v’s.

    the problem with that, though, is that we pronounce our v’s the exact same way we pronounce our w’s (unless we pronounce the v’s as f’s, which sometimes is also the case), so the idea that this might be different in the english language doesn’t even occur to some of us (like me) if we aren’t told so.

    so, in my brave attempt to munch the w’s correctly, i carried it too far and double-u’ed all the sounds that in german would be v-sounds, not realizing that in english, w-sounds and v-sounds aren’t identical…. get what i mean???

  8. Aha! Yes, I see what you
    Aha! Yes, I see what you mean. Interesting. Lucky you didn’t stay in the South where I come from, or you might have learned to say, “Y’all.”

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