Peter Benchley, author of Jaws, dies at 65
Feb 13, 2006, 12:13 GMT
Washington - Peter Benchley, who inspired fear in swimmers around the world with his novel Jaws only later to become an advocate for sharks, has died at his home in Princeton, New Jersey. He was 65.
His wife, Wendy, told The New York Times that the author died Sunday of pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive scarring of the lungs.
The sea served as the setting for Benchley's novels such as 1976's The Deep, 1979's Island and 1991's Beast, but his most famous was Jaws about a marauding 6-metre-long great white shark that feasts on holidaymakers at an American seaside community.
The 1974 novel not only became a best seller, but it also made Steven Spielberg famous for his big-screen version of the book. Both inspired years of great white mania from media articles and documentaries to cancelled seaside vacations and comedy skits.
Later, however, Benchley said he regretted writing a book that demonized sharks and campaigned to protect them and other ocean life.
Born on May 8, 1940, Benchley grew up in New York City in a writing family. His father, Nathaniel, was also a novelist, and his grandfather Robert was a writer, humourist and member of the Algonquin Roundtable.
He worked as a journalist for The Washington Post and Newsweek before becoming a speechwriter for US president Lyndon Johnson from 1967 to 1969.
He was working as a freelance writer when an editor with Doubleday publishers approached him about writing a novel. Benchley pitched him the idea for Jaws, which became an immediate bestseller. A year later, its fame grew with the release of Spielberg's movie of the same name.
Marine biologists, however, did not receive the book so warmly. Most notably, the famed French explorer Jacques Cousteau said Benchley's novel got sharks all wrong.
'There are a lot of people I have met who consider this a reference to sharks, which is a disaster,' he told the Miami Herald. 'However well-written and advertised it was, it is a bad book. Sharks don't behave like that.'
Later, Benchley became an advocate for protecting sharks and an educator on shark behaviour. He made dozens of television documentaries on ocean life and campaigned for marine protection.
He said he was the inspiration for the character of the marine biologist in Jaws.
'The voice of Hooper the scientist was my voice urging the populace not to embark on some mad vendetta against an animal that was just doing what nature programmed it to do,' he said. 'If there's an underlying theme in the books I've written about marine creatures, it's that man has a responsibility to co-exist with his environment, not to try to dominate it.'
Benchley was also an avid diver, communed often with sharks and admitted to having a few close calls himself.
'The most serious time was in the Bahamas when an oceanic white-tip shark made a run at me because I was bleeding from my leg, having been caught in a fisherman's line,' he said in an interview posted on his website.
He said he tried to hit the shark with a stick: 'He grabbed the stick, which was attached to my wrist, and ran away with it, shooting through the water and dragging me like a puppet behind him.'
Benchley's last book, Shark Life: True Stories About Sharks and the Sea, was published last year. It is a primer on sharks and safely enjoying the sea.© 2006 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur