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This column was prepared for the February 15, 2006 issue of U.S. 1

Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Between the Lines

You only get one chance to make a first impression, they say, and we

journalists, as much as anyone else, particularly harbor our first

impressions of newsmakers we meet in the course of our work. That’s

why we winced at the news of Peter Benchley’s death at the age of 65

on Saturday, February 11.

We remember our introduction to Benchley back in 1974, when we were

freelancing for the Town Topics newspaper in Princeton and Benchley –

while the son and grandson of two famous writers – was nevertheless a

hustling freelance writer living with his wife and young family in a

modest house in Pennington. The news was that Benchley’s first novel,

a piece of light reading about a shark that terrorized a Long Island

beach community, had suddenly soared to Number 1 on the New York Times

bestseller list.

We drove out to Pennington for an interview. Benchley invited us in

and sat patiently through the interview. Then he stood patiently as we

struggled with a Polaroid camera to get a photo of him standing in

front of the fireplace, with the portrait of a shark that ended up on

the cover of the book on the mantel.

The best part of the interview came when a courier delivered a

package. Benchley opened it and gave an "I’ll be damned" sort of look

to his wife and us. It was an early proof of the New York Times Book

Review and – sure enough – there was "Jaws" at Number 1. Just like you

or I might have been, Benchley had to see it to believe it.

Benchley hit it very big, of course, and moved from the small house in

Pennington to a bigger one in Princeton’s western section. But we

always sensed that he didn’t change all that much as a person. He took

part in town events, kept on writing (particularly in support of

environmental causes), and participated in the "folly" of sculptures

in the summer of 2004.

We were not surprised to see the comment from producer Richard

Zanuck: "He was friendly and witty and very much a gentlemen" after

his fame, as well as before.

One of our last memories of Benchley came from Princeton president

Shirley Tilghman, speaking at the dedication ceremony of the new

Berlind Theater at McCarter a little over two years ago. In what was

otherwise a pretty dry ceremony, Tilghman credited her friend Benchley

with telling her the classic theater joke about George Bernard Shaw

inviting Winston Churchill to his play opening and saying "bring a

friend, if you have one." To which Churchill replied, "I can’t make

opening night, but I’ll come on the second night, if you have one."

Princeton will miss the wit and wisdom of Peter Benchley.

– Richard K. Rein

To the Editor:

Your surprising comparison of Doris Duke and Albert Einstein (U.S. 1,

February 1) unfortunately omitted a most compelling locale for

communing. I refer to EMC Square, at Princeton’s Borough Hall, where

A. Einstein can be found any day. This statue, compelling for its

sculptural prowess, admirable proportions, and pithy remarks carved

into its pedestal, is an elegant spot to become engaged with the

presence of the man.

I suspect that as many as 50 percent of the area’s residents have yet

to make their first visit to EMC Square. Melvin A.


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