Corrections or additions?
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
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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