RIP, Peter Benchley

The novelist Peter Benchley, who died too young at 65 last weekend, will always be best remembered as the author of "Jaws," the runaway best-seller of a mid-70s novel that became an even better and more successful movie.

Peter BenchleyBut I remember Benchley for something else as well:  "Jaws" was one of three events in a decade-long span that put Martha's Vineyard on the map. The other two had to do with the Kennedys - the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in July 1969 and Jackie Onassis buying a house on the island in the late '70s. 

That Benchley helped give the Vineyard its cachet is ironic, since the Benchleys had long called Nantucket their summer home.

His father, Nathaniel Benchley, wrote a novel called "The Off Islanders" in the early '60s about a Russian submarine commander running aground off Nantucket while sneaking a glimpse of America through his periscope.

A crew from the sub goes ashore in search of a boat large enough to dislodge the sub and, this being the height of the Cold War, sets off a panic (I won't give away the great ending if you haven't seen the movie).

The movie "Jaws," which Benchley co-wrote, shared more in common with "The Off Islanders" than its coastal New England locale.

The influence of his father's nostalgic take on islander foibles was evident in the screenplay Benchley cobbled together for "Jaws," often writing dialogue for that day's scenes with screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, who later wrote a book about the filming called "The Jaws Log."

It was Bruce the mechanical shark - there were actually three, as any fan of the movie will tell you - who was the star of the film, no easy task considering the flawless ensemble acting of Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss.

But what I most love about the movie, and for which I'll always be grateful to Benchley, was that this bracing saga could have taken place anywhere on the Cape and islands.  It was Long Island in the book, Martha's Vineyard in the movie, but it could just as easily have been Buzzards Bay, where I saw "Jaws" as a kid.
(photo credit, coralfreealliance.org)

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