Convinced that “every young man in the world is fascinated with either sharks or dinosaurs,” as he said in an interview with National Geographic, Peter B. Benchley ’61 never shied away from the creatures that launched him to fame.
After the incredible success of his novel “Jaws” and the iconic Steven Spielberg-directed film co-written by Benchley, the novelist spent the rest of his life protecting sharks and promoting marine conservation.
Written in the back room of a New Jersey furnace company during the winters and in a small converted Connecticut turkey coop in the summers, the novel “Jaws”—about a great white shark “that wouldn’t go away”—inspired the 1975 film, one of the first summer blockbuster movies in Hollywood.
Benchley, who died in 2006, once said that all of his stories are “what if’s.”
“Jaws” was inspired by a story he read about a fisherman who had caught a 4,550-pound great white off of Long Island.
In a 1999 interview with Time, Benchley said he did not anticipate that “Jaws” would be a runaway success.
“No, I knew that ‘Jaws’ couldn’t possibly be successful,” Benchley said. “It was a first novel, and nobody reads first novels. It was a first novel about a fish, so who cares?”
Jaws stayed on the bestseller list for 44 weeks, selling over 20 million copies. Its film interpretation was the first movie to surpass $100 million in U.S. box office recipients.
Benchley’s interest in writing started when he was young. He freelanced starting at 16, and he continued writing through college as a stringer for The New York Herald Tribune. Later in life, he wrote speeches for President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Benchley was as indefatigable in his conservation campaigns as he was in his writing, striving to protect the animals his novel villianized.
Benchley has become a celebrity in the marine conservation world. In an email, Marie Levine, Founder and Executive Director of the Shark Research Institute, calls him “a great friend, a shark conservationist, and one of our patrons for many years.”
After Benchley’s death in 2006, she and the Institute honored him by inaugurating The Peter Benchley Shark Conservation Awards, which are given for outstanding contributions to shark conservation in science, advocacy, and media.
In an interview with The Paris Review, writer John McPhee remembers playing tennis with Benchley while both were living in Princeton, N.J.
“The thing I was so awed by and so admired about Peter was that he never stopped,” McPhee remembered. “Peter wrote and wrote and wrote ... The fact that he made all this money—life was about something else.”
Harvard was a place “pivotal for him,” Benchley’s brother Nathaniel wrote in an email to The Crimson. In college, Benchley concentrated in English, was a member of the Spee Club, and took a particularly formative course with visiting lecturer Lillian F. Hellman.
Following his graduation, Benchley traveled around the world with Charles D. Ravenel ’61, meeting people such as Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru whom he would later include in his book about his travels named “Time and a Ticket.”
Nathaniel Benchley says that his brother’s success was made more meaningful by his approach to life.
“Peter always understood that fame is a matter of luck and timing, as well as talent,” Nathaniel writes. “In person, Peter was even funnier and looser and more thoughtful than the characters he wrote about.”
—Staff writer Michelle B. Timmerman can be reached at email@example.com.