Frontlines

The man from ‘Jaws' finds more treasure

Rita Christopher July 23 1979
Frontlines

The man from ‘Jaws' finds more treasure

Rita Christopher July 23 1979

The man from ‘Jaws' finds more treasure

Frontlines

Rita Christopher

There are men who go down to the sea in ships, and there are men who come up from the sea with treasure. Author Peter Benchley belongs solidly in the latter group. The treasures he has brought up are not from the sunken wrecks he explores off the coast of Bermuda, but rather from three tales of the briny deep that have turned him into a millionaire. First came Jaws, which turned the great white shark from a curiosity of marine biology to a phenomenon of publishing. Made into a Hollywood spectacular, the toothy monster proved to have an animal magnetism that outdrew even such human crowd pleasers as Robert Redford and John Travolta.

With Jaws, which has earned more money than any other movie in history, Benchley could have put away his diving gear forever and relaxed in a sunny deck chair. But with his next novel, The Deep, he was right back in the water again, and it proved a profitable plunge. The paperback was sold for $1.5 million and Columbia Pictures bought the movie rights for $350,000. Now those deals have proved to be merely a warmup for Benchley’s just-published The Island, a yarn hung on modern Caribbean piracy. Even before The Island appeared in the bookstores, Bantam Books had paid $2 million for the paperback rights and Universal Pictures bought the movie version for $2.1 million, the highest sum Hollywood has ever paid for rights to a non-musical film. In addition, Benchley will pick up walkingaround money from book-club sales and a special bonus geared to the number of weeks the book remains on the bestseller list.

“With actors, all people want to know about is their sex lives. With authors, it’s always how much money they make,” says Benchley, trying to steer conversation off the shoals of finance. Nonetheless, he breezes through the complexities of movie deals, percentages and up-front money as easily as he moves through the intricacies of his plots. He is loath , however, to compare himself to super-authors such as Mario Puzo and Irving Wallace, whose book and movie deals have also involved record sums. “I don’t want to get into chasing records,” he maintains. “So far, I’ve been exceedingly lucky.”

There’s more than luck at work in the Benchley tradition. Peter is the inheritor of a famous literary pedigree—the grandson of humorous essayist Robert Benchley and the son of author Nathaniel Benchley, best known for The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are

Coming. (If literary talent can be assimilated as well as inherited, Benchley is in ever better luck for, as a child, he lived next door to novelist John Steinbeck.) Benchley’s father, who now jokes of his son’s success (“Who’d want to follow an act like that?”), was the first person to encourage him, to write. “When I was about 16, he told me that instead of mowing lawns all summer, he’d pay me $50 a week if I sat and wrote every day until 2 o’clock,” the author recalls.

Despite the fact that the younger Benchley soon began submitting manuscripts to The New Yorker magazine (without success), he was still not sure what direction his life was to take. But he did sense that he wanted a life with some of the adventure he has used to such dramatic effect in his novels. “I like an element of derring-do,” says Benchley, who lists among his hobbies guns, fishing and poker. “I am attracted by the idea of living with controlled risk,” he says, although on the surface Benchley hardly seems the swashbuck-

ling adventurer. He has the kind of clean-cut handsomeness that has been chronologically described all the way from “boyish” up to “perenially collegiate.” At the New York office of his publisher, an excited female executive pointed to a door gushing, “He’s in there waiting—just gorgeous.” Benchley carries the class marks of the American establishment in his voice and his manner, but with none of the attendant snobbery the phrase implies.

“I just don’t think you could meet a nicer guy,” says one journalistic acquaintance. “Peter is a rare commodity—a real gent.”

All of which is not to say Benchley is an ordinary Joe. He is the first to admit that his life is no traditional nine-tofive existence. “I no longer have to think about what I should do,” he says, “only what I want to do.” When not engaged in profit-making bouts with the typewriter, he describes his activities as “horsing around,” a phrase that encompasses tennis at his Princeton, New Jersey, home and deep-sea diving in the

PORTRAIT

Caribbean. “I first went diving in France when I was 21,” he says. “It was the kind of thing where they threw you off the side of a boat with a tank and said good luck.” One of Benchley’s later dives got him into the kind of predicament more likely to befall one of his fictional characters. Returning through United States customs with some morphine ampules he found on a sunken hospital ship off Bermuda, he was shocked when officials told him the capsules contained live drugs. “What can I tell you?” he laughs. “They were going to bust me. I had no idea those things could stay down in the water for so long and remain good.”

Undaunted by his brush with customs, Benchley returned to the search for underwater treasure in the plot of The Island. Its hero, Blair Maynard, bears an uncanny resemblance to Benchley in more than his fascination with deep-sea exploration. Like Maynard, Benchley was a newsmagazine writer, turning out Newsweek’s television section before former NBC executive Robert Kintner, then a media adviser to President Lyndon Johnson, invited him to become a White House speech writer. After 22 months at the White House, Benchley learned his services were no longer needed “when the

Nixon i came i

ripped out our television sets right after the inauguration.”

With no television set and no job, Benchley turned to free-lance writing. “That’s a part of my life I’d never want to repeat,” he comments. He claims, in fact, that he was down to $600 in the bank when he began to write Jaws. The editorial luncheon from which the great white shark emerged has become the stuff of media legend. As one story goes, large parts of the novel were suggested to Benchley rather than being originated by him. For Benchley, who has been fascinated by sharks since boyhood summers on the island of Nantucket, that thought is infuriating. “The notion that Jaws was written by a committee is completely untrue. It’s terribly painful to me to keep hearing that story. I’d been doing research on sharks for 15 years when I began the book,” he says heatedly. And, of course, in the beginning, it hardly looked like the book would be the sweet walk to the bank that it turned out to be. “I had no idea Jaws would be a best seller,” says Benchley. “After all, how many people like sharks?”

Benchley has tried to insulate himself from the critical brickbats that have accompanied his books almost as predictably as popular acclaim. By the time The Deep came along, he thought he had found the perfect solution. “I tried to be out of the country when the book was published,” he says. For The Island he has adopted another strategy: “I’m not going to read any of the reviews. think for some people there’s a real Peter Benchley syndrome at this point. They read the stories about the money and then they’re really ready to dig by the time they get to review the book.”

His novels may be the stuff of instant legend, but Benchley has no ambition turn his private life into a similar fantasy. He has tried to shield his wife, Wendy, and his two children from the inevitable publicity which has accompanied his celebrity. Apart from a wristwatch advertisement which he now regrets doing, Benchley keeps a very low profile. “One of the great things about my life,” he says, “is that I have absolutely no street recognition. I can walk down the street in Manhattan and nobody will know who I am.” But recognition of his work is a very different matter. He has made it difficult to think sharks without thinking of that shark; or without thinking of the success story of Peter Benchley.