Benchley, Peter 1940–2006
Benchley, Peter 1940–2006
(Peter Bradford Benchley)
PERSONAL: Born May 8, 1940, in New York, NY; died February 11, 2006, in Princeton, NJ; son of Nathaniel Goddard (an author) and Marjorie (Bradford) Benchley; married Wendy Wesson, September 19, 1964; children: Tracy, Clayton, Christopher. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (cum laude), 1961. Hobbies and other interests: Diving, tennis, wildlife, the theater, films.
CAREER: Author. Washington Post, Washington, DC, reporter, 1963; Newsweek, New York, NY, associate editor, 1963–67; The White House, Washington, DC, staff assistant to the President, 1967–69; freelance writer and television news correspondent, beginning in 1969. Writer, narrator, and host of television series The American Sportsman, 1974–83; co-creator of television series Dolphin Cove, 1989; host of television series Expedition Earth, ESPN, 1990–93; executive producer of miniseries Beast, NBC, 1996; host of radio series Ocean Reports, 1997–2000; creator, co-executive producer of television series Peter Benchley's Amazon, 1999–2000. Co-writer, co-producer, co-creator, and narrator for "World of Water" film series, New England Aquarium, 1998. Member of board of directors, Sea-Web; member of board of advisors, Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute. Spokesperson for the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science's Center for Sustainable Fisheries, 2001–06. Military service: U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, 1962–63.
MEMBER: Century Association, Coffee House, Spee Club, Hasty Pudding Institute of 1770.
Jaws (also see below), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1974, special abbreviated edition published as Selected from Jaws, Literacy Volunteers of New York City, 1990.
The Deep (also see below), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1976.
The Island (also see below), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1979.
The Girl of the Sea of Cortez, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1982.
Tiburon, Distibooks International, 1983.
Q Clearance, Random House (New York, NY), 1986.
Rummies, Random House (New York, NY), 1989.
Beast, Random House (New York, NY), 1991.
Three Complete Novels (contains Jaws, Beast, and The Girl of the Sea of Cortez), Random House Value Publishing (New York, NY), 1994.
White Shark, Random House (New York, NY), 1994.
Peter Benchley's Creature, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1998.
(With Carl Gottlieb) Jaws (based on his novel of the same title), Universal, 1975.
(With Tracy Keenan Wynn) The Deep (based on his novel of the same title), Columbia, 1977.
The Island (based on his novel of the same title), Universal, 1980.
Time and a Ticket (nonfiction), Houghton (New York, NY), 1964.
Jonathan Visits the White House (juvenile), McGraw (New York, NY), 1964.
(Editor, with Judith Gradwohl, and contributor and author of introduction) Ocean Planet: Writings and Images of the Sea, H.N. Abrams/Times Mirror Magazines (New York, NY), 1995.
Shark Trouble: True Stories about Sharks and the Sea, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
Also author of introduction for Secrets of the Ocean Realm, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1997. Contributor to periodicals, including Holiday, New Yorker, Diplomat, Moderator, Vogue, New York Herald-Tribune, New York Times Magazine, and National Geographic.
ADAPTATIONS: Beast was adapted as a television mini-series entitled The Beast, NBC-TV, 1996; Peter Benchley's Creature was adapted as a television mini-series, ABC-TV, 1998. Q Clearance was recorded on audiotape, Recorded Books, 1989; White Shark was recorded on audiotape, Random House, 1995.
SIDELIGHTS: Ever since he began exploring the Atlantic with his father, Peter Benchley was been fascinated by the sea. In 1974 the young writer turned that fascination to profit with a novel that was on the New York Times best-seller list for more than forty weeks. Jaws "put sharks on the map and made him the most successful first novelist in literary history," according to Jennifer Dunning in the New York Times Book Review. Most of Benchley's novels involved the ocean in one way or another. His first three—Jaws, The Deep, and The Island—are stories of high adventure in which an unexpected menace lurks in the water; his fourth—The Girl of the Sea of Cortez—is less dramatic and more lyrical, a sort of poetic fable with an environmental theme.
Peter Benchley inherited more than just a love of the sea from his father: his literary talents were a family legacy as well. His grandfather was the celebrated humorist Robert Benchley, and his father, Nathaniel, who was also a writer, encouraged his son's interest by offering him, at fifteen, a small salary if he would write every day for a summer. By the time Peter was twenty-one, he had a literary agent from the same institution that represented his dad. Though Peter de-emphasized the role his heritage played in launching his career, Doubleday editor Thomas Congdon became increasingly aware of its importance when he and Benchley were discussing the proposal for Jaws.
Most of the money in publishing is made by authors with proven track records, while first novels by unknown writers are generally ignored. But the financial risk of publishing Benchley's first book of adult fiction was mitigated by his famous literary name. "I didn't realize it at the time," Congdon told the Miami Herald, "but Benchley did have a track record—his father and his grandfather."
Benchley's proposal also fit the formula of a best seller. "First, its subject was something-about-which-the-gen-eral-public-knows-a-little-but-wants-to-know-more," explained a Miami Herald reporter. "Secondly, it conjured up a race memory: the external menace. Such situations as a fire in a skyscraper or a jumbo jet with a dead pilot at the controls. Such appeal to our survival instincts." Not only did Jaws catapult to the top of the best-seller lists, it also became an enormously successful motion picture—so successful that it spawned three sequels: Jaws II, Jaws 3-D, and Jaws the Revenge. None of these equaled the original film's intensity, however. Still, Benchley estimated that the combined revenue from the movie rights, paperback rights, and magazine and book club syndications provided him with enough income to write freely for ten years.
Despite its unqualified popularity, Jaws drew fire from some critics for what they perceived as weak characterization, contrived sub-plotting, and inappropriate allusions to Herman Melville's classic fish tale, Moby Dick. "Benchley claims he wanted to keep this a serious novel, as well as a best-seller, and that was probably his mistake," asserted Michael Rogers in the Rolling Stone. "None of the humans are particularly likable or interesting; the shark was easily my favorite character—and one suspects, Benchley's also." Writing in the New Statesman, John Sparling similarly said that the "characterisation of the humans is fairly rudimentary…. The shark, however, is done with exhilarating and alarming skill and every scene in which it appears is imagined at a special pitch of intensity." Other critics, including John Skow, were even less appreciative. "Nothing works," wrote Skow in Time, "not a hokey assignation between [the police chief's] wife and a predatory ichthyologist, and especially not an eat-'em up ending that lacks only Queequeg's coffin to resemble a bathtub version of Moby Dick."
When asked how he felt about having his novel compared to Melville's, Benchley told Palm Springs Life: "I'm embarrassed. It isn't that kind of book, really…. It's a novel, and I think it's a good one, but it's a story not an allegory. I mean it's nice being a little bit rich and a little bit famous, but dammit, I didn't intend to rank with Melville."
One critic in tune with Benchley's intentions was Gene Lyons. "What one gets from Benchley, and this, I think, is the essence of his commercial genius, is escape," Lyons wrote in the New York Times Book Review. "Instead of wallowing among the commonplaces of our culture's self-doubt, [his protagonists are] lucky enough to have An Adventure. But for the mundane accidents of fate, it might have been you or me."
Though the plots of Benchley's adventures occasionally strain the limits of credibility, their backgrounds are always carefully researched. In an author's note to The Island, his gruesome tale of seventeenth-century-style pirates holed up on an island near the Bahamas, Bench-ley wrote that he "consulted scores of books, and while I have endeavored to avoid any resemblance to real characters, I have tried equally hard to be faithful to historical reality." Chicago Tribune Book World contributing critic Lloyd Sachs felt he succeeded: "Benchley has certainly done his homework on pirate lore—his portrait of the murderous but honorable buccaneer Jean-David Nau and his tenth-generation pirates, who are on the brink of extinction, is convincing and entertaining and more than a little affecting. Benchley succeeds in making their plight touching and funny with one small detail: that they have come to prize 6-12 insect repellent more than just about anything."
With the appearance of The Island—Benchley's third adventure novel—Washington Post reporter Joseph McLellan concluded that Benchley "writes according to a formula. The formula moreover is a simple one: take a lot of salt water and put into it—something unexpected and menacing. Anybody can do it, and in the wake of Jaws, quite a few have tried. The problem (the writer's problem, not the reader's) is that nobody seems to do it quite as well as Benchley."
Despite a successful track record as an adventure novelist, Benchley abandoned his "formula" when he wrote The Girl of the Sea of Cortez. An idyllic tale of a young girl's fascination with the sea and its inhabitants, this book moves much more slowly than Benchley's thrillers—and that is too slowly, according to some critics. "This could be a refreshing deviation [from the style of his previous novels], but Benchley doesn't tell a story," noted Lola D. Gillebaard in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "His words describe rather than dramatize. Though his descriptions are often lyrical, this reader yearned for more conflict, more 'and then what happened?'" Writing in the Washington Post Book World, Thomas Gifford expressed a similar view: "When Benchley sticks to the manta ray, the girl, and the memories of her late father …, he is often effective, even poignant, moving. But out of water he is quickly beached and gasping his last. The problem is the plot." Tony Bednarczyk, on the other hand, thought that "the continual unveiling of thoughts, feelings, discoveries and wonderment about the underwater world," is what makes The Girl of the Sea of Cortez a success. Benchley's "book is dedicated to the infinite and mysterious wisdom of Nature," Bednarczyk concluded in Best Sellers. "It is not to be missed."
Benchley continued to tackle new genres and subjects with his next work, Q Clearance, which he described as "a spy comedy." Set in the post-Reagan era, the novel features Timothy Burnham, a speechwriter or "ventriloquist" for the salty-speaking President Ben Winslow. After Burnham involuntarily gains "Q clearance" because of a promotion, he receives confidential information—which is to be destroyed—concerning nuclear energy. Thereafter Burnham must endure the strong censure of his very liberal wife and children. Calling Q Clearance a "prime example of that vanishing literary species, the comic novel," Los Angeles Times contributor Elaine Kendall noted that the book's appeal rests in the "merciless sendup of various bureaucrats easily recognizable to anyone who reached the age of reason during the past four administrations."
Kendall also appreciated the humor in Benchley's 1989 novel, Rummies, deeming the book "more satirical, less reverent, and far wittier" than many others on the same subject. Dan Wakefield summed up the book's theme in the Washington Post: "At its best and most convincing … it is about the successful treatment of an Ivy League, up-scale, Eastern intellectual establishment alcoholic." At his family's insistence, Scott Preston, an editor for a large New York publishing house, enters a substance abuse center. There he encounters an assortment of people he considers unlike himself in every way, but he comes to realize that he has more in common with them than he does with anyone else; "Preston is made miserably aware that all differences of education and background vanish in the brotherhood of addiction," Kendall explained in the Los Angeles Times. "His evolution from a know-it-all, above-it-all, self-deluding lush to a vulnerable human being … is told in moving passages," Wakefield added. When a former glamour/movie star is murdered at the facility, the other patients become involved in solving the crime and working to see justice done; but Wakefield asserted that "the real drama" is still in witnessing Preston change from an out-of-control drinker into a recovered person. In his review of Rummies for the Chicago Tribune, David E. Jones declared that "Benchley's credentials as a storyteller … are only reinforced by this effort."
The publication of Beast in 1991 and White Shark in 1994 marked the author's return to a familiar formula: "lethal creatures, relentless pursuers, and vast quantities of saline solution," as Stefan Kanfer remarked in Time. In Beast, the setting is Bermuda and the menace is a giant squid. This story of a tentacled killing machine offers, according to Bill Kent in the New York Times Book Review, "a crude simplification of the way humans exploit marine life. The book's environmental subtext, in which Mr. Benchley argues that the best cure for our abuse of natural habitats is to leave well enough alone, saves this novel from being too much a copy of his earlier success." Clearly, noted Chicago Tribune Books reviewer James Kaufmann, "Benchley … did not set out to write cutting edge literary fiction, and criticizing the book for not being what it never tried to be is unfair. Still," he concluded, "Beast is an immensely enjoyable reading experience." White Shark did not fare as well with the critics. The novel centers on a Nazi-engineered superweapon—code-named "White Shark"—that "looks more like Arnold Schwarzenegger than any fish," chided Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times. The steel-toothed mechanical soldier apparently sank to the ocean floor at the close of World War II, but more than fifty years later, off the coast of Bermuda, it erupts from its airtight shell and begins to wreak havoc on all things edible.
A year after White Shark, Benchley was able to redeem himself in the critics' eyes with a surprising departure from his "tear 'em up" sea fiction. The 1995 essay collection Ocean Planet: Writings and Images of the Sea (labeled a coffee table book by some) was edited by Benchley and Judith Gradwohl, director of the Smithsonian Institute's Environmental Awareness Program. It features an introduction by Benchley and short writings by an impressive array of environmentalists, travel writers, and novelists, Benchley among them. Published as a companion volume to the Smithsonian's "Ocean Planet" exhibit, the work includes stunning photography, little-known facts and statistics, and entertaining sea lore.
Benchley's nonfiction book Shark Trouble is, in a way, an attempt to make up for the shark hysteria he had caused with earlier books. Benchley began by chiding the media for naming 2001 "the year of the shark attack." He noted that there were no more attacks that summer than any other year, but the media made it seem like a bad year for shark attacks through its hype. Benchley wrote, "for every human being killed by a shark, roughly ten million sharks are killed by humans." However, he did insist that sharks should be deeply respected and offers many tips on when and where to go into the ocean. He also warned of dangerous sea creatures other than sharks and included his own family stories of encounters with these creatures. "Shark Trouble helps us see that all the planet's creatures are interconnected, interdependent, magnificent in their own right," said Polly Paddock of Knight-Ridder Tribune News Service.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Authors in the News, Volume 2, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 4, 1975, Volume 8, 1978.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 14, 2002, Teresa K. Weaver, "Book Buzz: Benchley Back in Shark Waters," p. E1.
Best Sellers, August, 1982, Tony Bednarczyk, review of The Girl of the Sea of Cortez.
Booklist, April 15, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Shark Trouble: True Stories and Lessons about the Sea, p. 1362.
Boston Herald, July 25, 2001, "It's a Benchley Summer," p. 20.
Chicago Tribune, November 17, 1989, David E. Jones, review of Rummies.
Chicago Tribune Book World, May 13, 1979; August 8, 1982; June 8, 1986.
Detroit News, May 6, 1979.
Entertainment Weekly, June 3, 1994, p. 50; December 30, 1994, p. 120.
Fortune, August 26, 1991, p. 113; August 8, 1994, p. 107.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1991, p. 551; April 1, 1994, p. 410.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 5, 2002, Jeff Guin, review of Shark Trouble, p. K748, Joe Stein-man, review of Shark Trouble, p. K568; July 3, 2002, Polly Paddock, review of Shark Trouble, p. K5952.
Library Journal, February 1, 1994, p. 109; June 1, 1995, p. 152.
Locus, May, 1994, p. 21.
Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1986; November 24, 1989.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 22, 1982; April 16, 1995, p. 8; December 3, 1995, p. 5.
Miami Herald, June 8, 1975.
New Statesman, May 17, 1974; June 22, 1979.
Newsweek, May 10, 1976.
New Yorker, February 18, 1974.
New York Times, January 17, 1974; May 30, 1994, p. 13.
New York Times Book Review, February 3, 1974; May 16, 1976; May 13, 1979; July 8, 1979; May 9, 1982; December 17, 1989; July 7, 1991, p. 7; June 5, 1994, p. 22; April 23, 1995, p. 14.
Palm Springs Life, April, 1975.
PR Newswire, September 5, 2001, p. 5806.
Rolling Stone, April 11, 1974, Michael Rogers, review of Jaws.
Time, February 4, 1974; July 5, 1982; July 1, 1991, p. 70.
Tribune Books (Chicago), July 7, 1991, p. 7; June 28, 1992, p. 8; June 19, 1994, p. 3; July 23, 1995, p. 8.
Washington Post, September 1, 1978; April 30, 1979; October 19, 1989.
Washington Post Book World, June 13, 1982; June 8, 1986; June 30, 1991, p. 4.