Issue 11.3: June/July 2008

The Fisherman's Wife

interview by Robert Banfelder
photos by Sergio Goes

 

Last August, I met a living legend: shark fisherman Frank Mundus, who was visiting Long Island from his home in Na‘alehu, Hawai‘i, to promote his recent biography, Fifty Years a Hooker. To those involved in blue water fishing, Frank’s name is synonymous with big, big sharks. Aboard his now-famous vessel, Cricket II, he hooked the largest great white caught on rod and reel—3,427 pounds—in the waters off Montauk. (Sadly, the International Game and Fish Association did not award Frank the rod and reel record for that fantastic fish on a technicality: There was a dead whale floating nearby, which the IGFA considered chum. Chumming violates IGFA regulations.) Frank also harpooned the largest great white shark ever caught (4,500 pounds). Now 82, he’s recognized, although not at first, as the inspiration for the fictional character Captain Quint in Peter Benchley’s book and later Spielberg’s movie, Jaws. Much has been written about Frank and his epic battles with the world’s scariest fish, but few know about the woman behind the legend, Jenny Mundus, who deserves as much credit for landing and taming an irascible, stubborn old salt like Frank as Frank deserves credit for landing the world’s biggest sharks.

Robert: Jenny, what is it like to be married to a living legend?
Jeanette:
Frank will just have to get used to it. Only kidding, Bob. Being married to a living legend sure beats being married to a dead one! I suppose in many ways, Frank and I are in complete contrast to one another. He is a fish-eating, leathery, octogenarian sea dog, and I am a forty-something, nonleathery, animal-loving, vegetarian landlubber. When he’s not fishing, Frank keeps himself busy on our 20-acre sheep farm here on the Big Island; however, I am the more accomplished sheep wrestler as I don’t want Frank to be beaten to a pulp by any of our 160-pound rams during their monthly worming sessions. When we’re home on the farm, Frank’s actually more of an arborist than an Ahab, inspecting, watering and fertilizing his fruit trees. It’s only during the run-up to the fishing season that I’m reminded of his legendary status. That’s when he gets requests for newspaper, TV and radio interviews, and the fan mail starts pouring in. Other than that, I don’t experience much of Frank’s legendary status.

How did a forty-something, nonleathery, animal-loving, vegetarian landlubber wind up with a fish-eating, leathery, octogenarian sea dog in Hawai‘i?
It all began back in the spring of 1988, when Frank was a fish-eating, slightly less leathery, sexagenarian sea dog in Montauk, NY, and I was a twenty-something, vegetarian landlubber in England. One day, I wrote Frank a letter, picking his brain about sharks and asking him if his 3,427-pound great white shark had been accepted as an IGFA record. I have been fascinated about sharks since childhood: what motivates their attacks on humans, and how much can we ever know about these fish? Anyhow, I did not expect a reply, and I was amazed when Frank wrote me back. We became pen pals, and that fall he invited me over on a vacation to go out on a couple of charter trips with him and see sharks close up. Frank and I found that we had a lot in common. And since he would be a fish out of water across the pond in England, we decided to stay in America after our marriage. Otherwise, the 2,000-plus-mile daily commute could become a “reel” drag. Consequently, Frank had to relinquish his dreams of British citizenship and knighthood from the Queen.

How would you describe Frank’s personality?
I think that Frank’s personality could best be described as a composite of Long John Silver (salty, pirate-like yet heroic, and on occasion slightly duplicitous, hard-working and a good cook), The Honeymooners’ Ralph Kramden (humorous, irascible and stubborn) and Archie Bunker (a nonracist version of Archie, with a ballistic temper and malapropistic tendencies).

During Frank’s career, were you concerned that he might wind up as shark bait?
No. Frank’s too coarse and salty for a shark’s sensitive palate! During the first season he went fishing after our marriage, I did mention to him that this worrying thought had crossed my mind. However, Frank explained to me that only in Hollywood movies does a great white shark jump into a boat and sink it. Although, many years ago, he did have a 100-pound, 4-foot-long, hooked mako shark leap 15 feet into the air—aiming toward Frank at a 45-degree angle on the flying bridge. It hit the guy-wire that holds up the mast, slid down the wire and landed on the chum stool before it bounced overboard!

Did Frank’s disappointment with regard to the IGFA ruling affect you personally?
I wasn’t living with him at the time when this happened. I was still in England and wrote to Frank asking him if the IGFA had ratified the record. He wrote back to me, explaining why it had not been recognized as a record fish. I was sad for him, but along with many other people, I believe that his 3,427-pound great white shark is still the largest fish in the world ever caught on rod and reel.

Is Frank disappointed in not initially being recognized as the inspiration for the Captain Quint in Jaws?
It doesn’t seem to bother Frank much. In fact, many people now realize that Frank’s background and personality helped inspire the novel and screenplay. If you type in “Peter Benchley” at Wikipedia, you’ll see a couple of references to Frank being recognized as the fisherman on whom Peter Benchley based Quint. Frank also has a tape of a 1996 Roy Scheider interview in the Hamptons, in which Mr. Scheider says, “He’s [Frank Mundus] the inspirational character for Quint in Jaws.”


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You co-wrote Fifty Years a Hooker with Frank. How did that come to pass?
When Frank decided it was time he wrote his autobiography, he wanted me to collaborate on it. However, I did not graduate college in England, and felt I should go back to school and finish my education to better assist him with the book; so in 1997, I graduated from the University of Hawai‘i with a B.A. in English. I partly worked my way through college, and also obtained tuition waivers based on my grades. This way, I wasn’t a financial burden to Frank. The financial burden was yet to come … in the shape of Arnold, our 500-pound pet boar.

Your pet boar?
Arnold gate-crashed our place one night in 1996, during a rerun of The Ed Sullivan Show. We suspect that he was part of a litter of piglets that was scattered after hunters shot their mom. Anyway, Frank had heard a commotion outside our living room, and so we went outside to investigate and found a 5-pound Arnold trying to turn over a garbage can! Frank said, “Let’s catch him!” At the time, neither of us had any idea of how huge Arnold would grow—from 5 pounds to 500 in less than two years! Arnold was an “only wild pig child” for two years, and then our first dog arrived on the scene. Arnold responded to that threat by trying to eat the puppy. Then we expanded our menagerie and unknowingly provided Arnold with
nemeses in the form of “killer geese.” Four years after that, we moved, bought a handful of sheep, another dog and some goats and chickens.

Jenny, Frank having just celebrated his eighty-second birthday this October, and you being forty-something, did Frank rob the cradle? Did he sweep you off your feet by promising you an adventurous life—vicariously or otherwise?
If Frank had robbed the cradle, he would have turned around and sold it on eBay, and someone would have sent me the auction listing. No, Bob, he swept me off my feet by telling me lots of wacky jokes; I laughed so hard I fell over. Yes, Frank promised me an adventurous life, and we’re still having one.

I understand that one of Frank’s dreams is to appear on Oprah. How’s that going?
Back in 2003, Frank realized one of his dreams when he received a letter from the Queen of England. Frank had written Her Majesty and asked if she wanted to go shark fishing. In the Queen’s response, she thanked Frank, stating that she didn’t require his services at present. Frank has appeared on many national TV programs, but never appeared on Oprah. You
never know.

Is the Cricket II going to stay in Riverhead, New York, or is it eventually going to Florida as a research vessel?
As far as I know, the Cricket II will stay in Riverhead. Frank says, and I quote, “More people will be able to see the boat there and step aboard and enjoy it on display at the Atlantis Marine World Aquarium in Riverhead, NY.”

Is Frank still shark fishing?
Frank doesn’t take customers and friends out fishing very often here and does it mostly for charter in New York. There are more sharks off Montauk than off Hawai‘i. Off Hawai‘i, Frank caught mainly threshers in the 200-to-300-pound class. Sharks are few and far between here, but when he does get a shark, it’s generally a big one. White sharks are protected by law now, so he only tries to catch species that are legal.

Since Frank still takes clients out, is he planning on building you a widow’s walk atop the farmhouse anytime soon?
He was going to, but put solar electric panels up instead. We live 2,000 feet above sea level, and you can’t see the ocean from our home. People ask Frank if he can see the ocean from where he lives, and he replies, “I hope not!”

Has Frank exhausted his repertoire of wacky jokes that bowled and won you over, or is he still in the strike zone after almost twenty years of marriage?
Yes, Frank’s still in the strike zone. But I swear I’ll go on strike the next time I hear another corny joke of his. And I keep telling him, “Three strikes and you’re out!” I think we’re mixing metaphors here between bowling and baseball, Bob. But, what the heck. Anyway, I now and again give Frank a reprieve because every so often he’ll come up with a winner—one that bowls me back over. That’s why I cut him some slack from time to time.

Do you think—now that you have momentarily upstaged Frank—that he can handle it?
Well, Bob, if Frank can handle bringing in a 4,500-pound white shark almost single-handedly, he can cope with anything, including, perhaps, even a little scene stealing from his salty sidekick. He’d have to be an idiot not to let me enjoy my moment in the publicity chum slick. HH