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.