Levin, Ira

Levin, Ira
Aug. 27, 1929-Nov. 12, 2007
American novelist


For forty years, Ira Levin has been writing creepy thrillers in which elements of mystery, suspense, horror, the supernatural, fantasy, and science fiction unite to form a heady mix. Levin's first novel, A Kiss before Dying, brought him instant fame when he was twenty-four. His other successes include Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil, and, most recently, Sliver. His works for the stage include Deathtrap, a comedy-mystery that ran continuously on Broadway for more than four years. Much of his output has been adapted for the screen. Thomas M. Disch, writing in Entertainment Weekly, speculated that "Ira Levin may well be America's finest hack writer," and Newsweek's Peter S. Prescott acknowledged that a Levin novel "is like a bag of popcorn: utterly without nutritive value and probably fattening, yet there's no way to stop [reading] once you've started." That kind of left-handed praise has left no scars on Levin's ego, since he sees himself as a "popular entertainer" who enjoys reading the kinds of works he writes and who thinks, perhaps correctly, that "they may very well last longer than the more serious types of fiction."

Ira Levin explained his working method to Robert Viagas of the Norwalk (Connecticut) Fairpress (February 15, 1984): "The point in dealing with unrealistic subject matter is that it is incumbent on you to make it all as convincing as possible, to work it out as logically and truthfully within that context." When asked by David Sterritt in an interview for the Christian Science Monitor (September 14, 1978) why thrillers have such widespread appeal, Levin answered, "I think they touch deep emotional chords. They touch our fears, anxieties, guilts. It's a way of exercising or exorcising them. It gives the emotions a workout."

Ira Levin was born in New York City on August 27, 1929, the only son and younger child of Charles Levin, a toy importer, and Beatrice (Schlansky) Levin. He was a good-natured but quiet boy who had few friends and "had to be pushed into the open air." At an early age he became a fan of detective stories, riddles, anagrams, and puzzles-interests that he retains to this day and employs in his convoluted plots. His abiding fascination with those childhood interests enabled him to win the New York magazine competition four times and motivated him to build a large collection of mystery stories.

Levin told David Sterritt that he wanted to be a writer from the time he was fourteen or fifteen years old. "Before that," he continued, "I wanted to be a magazine illustrator-I probably would have painted Gothic scenes….When I started, my ambitions were much higher. I was going to write serious plays and tragedies and the great American novel. But so far, what I've been doing is purely entertainment….When I got out of college, I stopped reading things that weren't fun to read-I don't care what it is, if I'm not having a good time I put it aside."

Levin spent his childhood in the Bronx, but his family moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan when he was thirteen. That year he celebrated his bar mitzvah, with the famous Metropolitan Opera tenor Richard Tucker as the cantor, but he told Mervyn Rothstein of the New York Times (February 12, 1989) that he "was not from a religious family" and does not consider himself "an observant Jew." Despite his family's comfortable circumstances and his education at the elite Horace Mann school, Levin's childhood was not trouble-free. He explained to Rothstein: "I finally did work out a very good relationship with my father, but it was rough growing up. We had a lot of conflict, and I think it surfaced in many of my works."

After spending two years at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Levin transferred to New York University, mainly because it was known for its excellent courses in the writing of film scripts. He majored in English and philosophy, receiving an A.B. degree in 1950. While at New York University, he entered a CBS television scriptwriting contest that offered a $200 prize. Levin's half-hour script about a 103-year-old woman, mute and almost paralyzed, who foils a plot to murder her was only a runner-up in the contest, but he sold it for $400 to NBC, which produced it for the Lights Out television series.

Following his college graduation, Levin talked his father, who had expected him to join the family's toy business, into subsidizing his writing ambitions for a trial period. While writing A Kiss before Dying, he marketed several more television scripts. His ability to make a living at writing, young though he was, was quickly demonstrated by the success of A Kiss before Dying, which was published in 1953. It received a prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America as the best first novel of the year and was made into a movie starring Joanne Woodward, Jeffrey Hunter, and Robert Wagner in 1956. A second, less successful film version appeared in 1991, with Matt Dillon and Sean Young.

A Kiss before Dying is a mystery set mostly on a college campus that Levin has called "pretty much like Drake," and it is told in three segments. The first is narrated by a college student who, like Clyde Griffiths in Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy, murders his pregnant girlfriend because he wants to marry a woman from a rich family. The other two parts are narrated by the victim's sisters, who try to track him down, with suspense maintained because the identity of the killer has not been revealed in the first segment. The novel won high praise from many reviewers, including Anthony Boucher, who cited it in the New York Times (October 25, 1953) for "technical whodunit tricks as dazzling as anything ever brought off….Here is not merely an extraordinary first but an extraordinary suspense novel by the highest professional standards."

Drafted by the United States Army in 1953, Levin was assigned to its pictorial center in the Astoria section of Queens, New York, where he helped write and produce training films for the troops. He also found time to write more television scripts, including an adaptation of Mac Hyman's best-selling novel No Time for Sergeants, about a hillbilly draftee. In 1955 he was discharged three months early so that he could write the stage version of the service comedy. A hit that ran for 796 performances on Broadway, the play marked the beginning of Levin's generally unrequited love affair with the theatre, which he calls his "mistress," as contrasted to books, his "wife." A film version of No Time for Sergeants was released in 1958, with Andy Griffith as the bumbling draftee.

Although Levin did not publish a novel for another dozen years, he did manage to write five produced plays during that hiatus, only one of which turned out to be even moderately successful. Interlock (1958), a psychological melodrama starring Maximilian Schell, folded after only four performances on Broadway. Critic's Choice (1960), a comedy that dealt with the dilemma of a theatre reviewer who is called upon to pass judgment on his wife's play, fared better. With the decided asset of Henry Fonda in the title role, it ran for three months on Broadway and was made into a 1963 movie that starred Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, with less than dazzling results. Levin's next theatrical effort was General Seeger (1962), which starred and was produced and directed by the volatile actor George C. Scott, who reportedly pushed Levin down a flight of stairs during the play's out-of-town tryout. Reviewing for the New York World Telegram & Sun (March 1, 1962) that short-lived production about a soldier who died a military hero but who, according to his widow, was actually a suicide, William Peper wrote that Levin's "Freudian melodrama takes off on a flight of muddled cynicism about the public image of the army….His plot is too predictable to be entirely engrossing." General Seeger shut up shop after only two performances.

Drat! The Cat! (1965) turned out to be Levin's biggest disappointment, since, although he had worked ten years on that musical about a policeman and a female jewel thief, it closed after only eight Broadway performances. Years later, he told Alfred Gillespie for People magazine (May 15, 1978): "I still love Drat! almost in its entirety, and money would have saved it. We came into New York penniless." The musical included Levin's lyrics for Milton Schafer's song "She Touched Me," which has since become a standard. Also unsuccessful was Doctor Cook's Garden (1967), starring Burl Ives as a Vermont country doctor who eliminates contentious townspeople in the same way he disposes of noxious weeds. Levin took over the direction of the play from George C. Scott, who bowed out before the opening because of disagreements with its star, Burl Ives. The play was panned in all the major media and survived for only eight performances on Broadway.

While Levin's wife was pregnant, he began work on a novel about the birth of a baby who is the offspring of the devil. Inspired by the impending "blessed event" and also by a lecture he had attended on the cycles of human life, Levin decided upon witchcraft as the means of incarnation. He refused to let his wife read the manuscript and later told an interviewer from Publishers Weekly (May 22, 1967), "I don't think any pregnant woman should read it," but, he added, "the obstetrician did read it and loved it." The product of Levin's own gestation was Rosemary's Baby (1967), a runaway bestseller that, by 1978, had sold five million paperback copies in the United States alone. Set in a cavernous Manhattan apartment house, the chiller is peopled by Satan's agents in human disguise-fellow residents who are actually witches, fiends, demons, and other nefarious characters. The subsequent 1968 movie, which was directed by Roman Polanski, starred Mia Farrow, Ruth Gordon, and John Cassavetes, and was filmed in the Dakota, a neo-Gothic cooperative apartment building in New York City, was a four-star triumph with both critics and public.

A venture into science fiction, Levin's next novel, This Perfect Day (1970), depicts a time some 400 years in the future, when the world is run by a giant supercomputer that regulates every aspect of human life. In so doing, it exploits Orwellian fears (including Levin's own uneasiness) that individual rights such as privacy may not survive. Reviews tended to be tepid, or occasionally uncharitable. In the Washington Post (February 21, 1970), for example, Aaron Latham chastised Levin for having "taken Huxley's [Brave New World] …taken Orwell's Big Brother…and borrowed so much of Vonnegut [i.e., Player Piano] that he should probably share royalties."

Set in suburbia, The Stepford Wives (1972) was based on Levin's stay in Wilton, Connecticut from 1963 to 1967. Written while he was getting a divorce, the novel chillingly brings to life an imaginary town in which housewives are murdered by their husbands and replaced by robots. Not surprisingly, The Stepford Wives failed to endear itself to feminists, but it was a commercial success. Assessing it for the Saturday Review (October 7, 1972), Webster Schott applauded Levin for his "magician's touch," the spell he cast, and the novel's believability, but he deplored its "grade-school vocabulary," "high school syntax," and pandering to a mass audience. The Stepford Wives became the third Levin novel to be made into a movie.

After toying with the idea of a Nazi-hunter story for more than a decade, in 1972 Levin came upon a New York Times article on cloning-a method of reproduction from a single parent. Its author, who illustrated the piece with pictures of Mozart and Hitler, speculated that an embryo containing cloned genetic material might be implanted in a donor womb. "Well, of course I ignored Mozart and started thinking about Hitler," Levin told Andy Port of Women's Wear Daily (December 27, 1977). "Nazis make terrific villains." The result was The Boys from Brazil (1976), a story of ninety-four incipient Hitlers cloned from the Fuhrer's tissues by the former Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele and implanted in the wombs of South American peasant women in the hope that at least one would grow up to reenact Hitler's career. The reviewer of The Boys from Brazil for the New Yorker (March 8, 1976) observed, "The writing is smooth and suspense-inducing, the characters are wafer-thin but plausible, and Mr. Levin once again proves himself to be an author who can tell a fairly far-fetched, silly story with surprising grace." Registering a dissenting opinion in Time (February 23, 1976), R. Z. Sheppard maintained that The Boys from Brazil "requires more than a suspension of disbelief. It also requires a suspension of taste. Exploiting such a monster for entertainment and profit is enough to give evil a bad name." The Boys from Brazil came to the screen in 1978 with a miscast Gregory Peck struggling with a German accent as Josef Mengele and Laurence Olivier splendid as the Nazi hunter, a character based on Simon Wiesenthal.

Only three plays by Levin surfaced during the 1970s. In Veronica's Room (1973), an elderly couple lures a younger couple into a room endowed with some very eerie powers. Aided and abetted by the redoubtable Eileen Heckart and Arthur Kennedy in the leading roles, Veronica's Room was open to the Broadway public for seventy-six performances. Levin vented his splenetic feelings about critics in Break a Leg, in which a theatrical producer plots to get rid of an antagonistic reviewer by any means short of murder. After a brief "work-in-progress" run on Broadway in 1974 and an Off-Off-Broadway production in 1976, Break a Leg emerged on Broadway, where the critics, as usual, had the final word. Glenn Currie, a reviewer for United Press International, dismissed it as "by far the worst play of the 1978-79 season." Despite a cast that included Julie Harris, Rene Auberjonois, and Jack Weston, Break a Leg opened and closed on the same night.

Ira Levin found some solace in the monumental hit Deathtrap (1978), a convoluted whodunit about a neurotic, down-and-out author of stage thrillers, played by the virtuosic classical actor John Wood, who stoops to murder in an attempt to regain his fame. When he was interviewed by Allan Wallach for New York Newsday (March 19, 1978), Levin said that the riskiness of writing for the theatre had led him to consider making Deathtrap a novel, "but it somehow felt as if it just had to be a play." On opening night, a New York Times critic, Richard Eder, walked out on the play, and Glenn Currie fumed, "What a waste of acting talent!…Deathtrap has a complicated plot which violates credibility." But for once Levin had the last laugh on his tormentors, for Deathtrap ran for 1,792 consecutive performances on Broadway, the fifth-longest stand ever racked up by a nonmusical play. A film version appeared in 1982, with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve heading the cast.

Cantorial, Levin's comedy-drama about the ghost of a cantor who haunts a former synagogue on Manhattan's Lower East Side that has been renovated and occupied by a yuppie couple, was first staged in 1982 in Stamford, Connecticut. Reviewing a subsequent, largely rewritten version that opened Off-Broadway in October 1988, the New York Times critic, Richard F. Shepard discovered that "it sets the right note theatrically almost to the very end….Cantorial has humor and humanity."

When asked by Richard F. Shepard of the New York Times (March 9, 1978) why he has continued to write for the theatre when his novels have been so much more successful, Levin answered: "Part of it is that you get such a quick reaction from something on a stage….After years of writing a book and never getting immediate evidence that things are working as you want them to, it's gratifying to hear the audience come on right away." He added, "My books are more theatrical than the other way around. I think in terms of scenes rather than chapters. Critics have accused me of writing books with an eye to the movies. I'm really writing for the stage." He has never adapted one of his books for the screen because he has "always felt that it's better to go on to something else rather than rewrite something that you've done already." He has conceded that his track record indicates that he has paid a high price for indulging in that pleasure, because the writing of plays affords less margin for error.

Sliver (1991) is Levin's first novel in fifteen years. The story concerns voyeurism as practiced in a tall, narrow ("sliver") apartment building in Levin's own neighborhood, Manhattan's Upper East Side. Unknown to the tenants-who have an odd way of dying-the more-than-slightly-kinky owner has installed a secret closed-circuit television network in their apartments for his viewing pleasure. The psychotic landlord has an eye on a beautiful editor. "Sliver becomes so irresistible that it will have you phoning in sick," Thomas M. Disch wrote in Entertainment Weekly (February 15, 1991). And in her review for the Chicago Tribune (March 12, 1991), Linda Stewart observed, "Like Hitchcock, [Levin] knows how to push the right buttons….What a devastating movie this would make." Before publication, Sliver was sold to Bantam Books, along with ten-year licenses to reprint all of Levin's novels except A Kiss before Dying, for $1.02 million.

Although Levin constantly jots down in notebooks his ideas for possible books and plays, he never starts writing until he has worked out the plot in his mind and established most of the characters. During an interview with Tom Sutcliffe for the Guardian (October 31, 1978), he said, "I usually have just the beginning and ending in mind, and a general idea of what I'd like the middle to look like….I'm a very slow worker. I usually play with an idea for several years before it reaches the point where I'm ready to start." Rosemary's Baby and Deathtrap each took six years to complete. While working, he holes up in his apartment and sees virtually no one but his sons, writing only 500 words a day and going no further until he decides what he has written is perfect. "I have never been able to work unless I'm really excited about what I'm doing, unless it demands to be written," he has said. "That's why I've written relatively little, considering how long I've been at it."

Ira Levin is a tall, somewhat husky man whose beard and black, "Mongol-warrior eyes" have in the past been said to lend him an appropriately satanic air, but one interviewer once described him as a "shy, gracious grizzly of a man with a soft voice and laugh." Twice married and twice divorced, Levin has three grown sons by his first marriage. A longtime Park Avenue resident, he lives in a penthouse with a grand piano on a raised platform, a giant projection screen for watching television-and a telescope for checking out his neighbors. He belongs to the Authors Guild, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, and the Dramatists Guild, of which he has been a council member since 1980.

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