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'Jaws' Author Peter Benchley


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'Jaws' Author Peter Benchley

by Hillel Italie

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Peter Benchley

NEW YORK, New York - Peter Benchley, whose novel, "Jaws," terrorized millions of swimmers even as the author himself became an advocate for the conservation of sharks, has died at his home in Princeton, New Jersey on Saturday, February 11. He was 65.

His widow, Wendy Benchley, married to the author for 41 years, reported his passing to The Associated Press on Sunday, February 12. She said the cause of death was idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive and a fatal scarring of the lungs.

Thanks to Benchley's 1974 novel, and Steven Spielberg's blockbuster movie of the same name, the simple act of ocean swimming became synonymous with fatal horror, of still water followed by ominous, pumping music, then teeth and blood and panic.

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'Jaws' star Roy Scheider (left) on the film set with co-authors Peter

Benchley and Carl Gottlieb

"Spielberg certainly made the most superb movie; Peter was very pleased," Wendy Benchley told The Associated Press. "But Peter kept telling people the book was fiction, it was a novel, and that he no more took responsibility for the fear of sharks than Mario Puzo took responsibility for the Mafia."

Born on May 8, 1940 in New York City, Benchley was the son of novelist Nathaniel Goddard Benchley and the grandson of humorist Robert Benchley. Benchley knew early in life that he wanted to write, but finding the appropriate forum for his writing took him a bit longer. He attended the elite Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, then graduated from Harvard University in 1961.

Benchley worked as a reporter for the Washington Post and as television critic for Newsweek. He spent two years as a speechwriter for President Johnson during the last two years of his administration. During turbulent times, Benchley wrote some "difficult" speeches about the Vietnam War.

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Peter Benchley did double duty on 'Jaws.'

He not only co-authored the screenplay but

had a small role as a television reporter.

His first novel, "Jaws" (1974), spent more than forty weeks on the New York Times best-sellers list, earning him praise as the most successful first novelist in history. Among Benchley's other novels are "The Deep" (1976), "Beast" (1991) and "White Shark" (1994).

A 1974 article in People magazine described Benchley as "Tall, slender and movie-star handsome, with eyes like the deep blue sea." The author's interest in sharks was lifelong, beginning with childhood visits to Nantucket Island in Massachusetts and heightening in the mid-1960s when he read about a fisherman catching a 4,550-pound great white shark off Long Island, the setting for his novel.

"I thought to myself, 'What would happen if one of those came around and wouldn't go away?'" he recalled. Benchley didn't start the novel, for which he received a $7,500 advance, until 1971 because he was too busy with his day jobs.

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Peter Benchley

"There was no particular influence. My idea was to tell my first novel as a sort of long story . . . just to see if I could do it. I had been a freelance writer since I was 16, and I sold things to various magazines and newspapers whenever I could."

Thomas Congdon, the editor of "Jaws," said that he had been impressed by some articles Benchley wrote for National Geographic and arranged a lunch at a French restaurant in New York - "a second-class restaurant, not first class, since he was an unknown."

"The lunch didn't go very well," said Congdon, an editor at Doubleday at the time and now retired. "His nonfiction ideas did not seem very promising, but at the end of the meal, I said, 'Have you ever thought of writing a novel?' And he said, 'Well, I have an idea about a great white shark that marauds an Eastern coastal town and provokes a moral crisis in the community.'"

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Shark Is Still Working Producer Michael Roddy (right) introduced

author Peter Benchley at JawsFest '05.

Congdon loved the idea, but said Benchley was reluctant to start the book because he couldn't afford time away from his journalistic work. So Congdon got him $1,000 as a down payment, in return for an initial submission of 100 pages.

"Ninety-five percent of it was jokey stuff, because he thought that was the way you do it," said Congdon, who dismissed a longtime publishing legend that the book was heavily edited and as much his triumph as Benchley's.

"But the first five pages were wonderful. There were no jokes. I wrote heavily in the margin: 'NO JOKES.' He went out and did it again, and it generated whole industries - the movie, amusement park rides. It changed the way people looked at sharks."

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Peter Benchley (right) learns about the controls of the F.G. Walton

Smith from vessel master Robert Loos.

While Peter Benchley co-wrote the screenplay for "Jaws," and authored several other novels with similar themes, he was especially proud of his conservation work. He served on the national council of Environmental Defense, hosted numerous television wildlife programs, gave speeches around the world and wrote articles for National Geographic and other publications.

"He cared very much about sharks. He spent most of his life trying to explain to people that if you are in the ocean, you're in the shark's territory, so it behooves you to take precautions," Wendy Benchley said.

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Peter Benchley with one of his favorite subjects

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