Levin, Ira 1929–
Levin, Ira 1929–
PERSONAL: Born August 27, 1929, New York, NY; son of Charles (a toy importer) and Beatrice (Schlansky) Levin; married Gabrielle Aronsohn, August 20, 1960 (divorced, January, 1968); married Phyllis Finkel, 1979 (divorced, 1981); children: (first marriage) Adam, Jared, Nicholas. Education: Attended Drake University, 1946–48; New York University, A.B. (philosophy and English), 1950.
ADDRESSES: Home—New York, NY. Agent—Harold Ober Associates, 425 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10017.
CAREER: Novelist and playwright. Military service: U.S. Army, Signal Corps, 1953–55.
MEMBER: Dramatists Guild (council member, 1980–), Authors Guild, Authors League of America, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
AWARDS, HONORS: Edgar Allan Poe Awards, Mystery Writers of America, 1953, for A Kiss before Dying, and 1980, for Deathtrap; Antoinette Perry Award nomination for best play, 1978, for Deathtrap; Bram Stoker Award for lifetime achievement, Horror Writers of America, 1997; Grand Masters Award, Mystery Writers of America, 2003, for a lifetime of great work.
A Kiss before Dying, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1953, reprinted, ImPress Mystery (1999).
Rosemary's Baby (also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1967, reprinted, with new afterword by the author, New American Library (New York, NY), 2003.
This Perfect Day (also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1970.
The Stepford Wives (also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1972, reprinted, with introduction by Peter Straub, Perennial (New York, NY), 2002.
The Boys from Brazil, Random House (New York, NY), 1976.
Three by Ira Levin (contains Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, and This Perfect Day), Random House (New York, NY), 1985.
Sliver, Bantam (New York, NY), 1991.
Son of Rosemary: The Sequel to Rosemary's Baby, Dutton (New York, NY), 1997.
No Time for Sergeants (adapted from the novel by Mac Hyman; first produced on Broadway, 1955; produced on the West End, 1956), Random House (New York, NY), 1956.
Interlock (first produced on Broadway, 1958), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1958.
Critic's Choice (first produced on Broadway, 1960; produced in London, England, 1961), Random House (New York, NY), 1961.
General Seeger (first produced on Broadway, 1962), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1962.
Drat!, The Cat!, with music by Milton Schafer, first produced on Broadway, 1965.
Dr. Cook's Garden: A Melodrama (first produced on Broadway, 1967), Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1968.
Veronica's Room (first produced on Broadway, 1973), Random House (New York, NY), 1974.
Deathtrap (first produced on Broadway, 1978), Random House (New York, NY), 1979.
Break a Leg (first produced on Broadway, 1979), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1981.
Cantorial (first produced off-Broadway, 1988), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1990.
Also author of scripts for the television series Clock, Lights Out, and U.S. Steel Hour.
ADAPTATIONS: A Kiss before Dying was filmed by United Artists in 1956 and again in 1991; No Time for Sergeants was filmed by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1959; Critic's Choice was filmed by Warner Bros. in 1962; Rosemary's Baby was filmed by Paramount in 1968; Dr. Cook's Garden was filmed by the American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. (ABC) in 1970; The Stepford Wives was filmed by Columbia in 1975 and by Paramount Pictures in 2004; The Boys from Brazil was filmed by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1978; Deathtrapwas filmed by Warner Bros. in 1982; Sliver was filmed by Paramount in 1993. Rosemary's Baby was recorded on audio cassette and released by Random Audiobooks, 1986; Footsteps, an unproduced play, was adapted as a TV film by the Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. (CBS) television network, 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: In his plays and novels, Ira Levin exhibits "a continuing preoccupation with dark matters," James Lardner stated in the Washington Post Book World. Levin's first novel, A Kiss before Dying, is a murder mystery; Rosemary's Baby is a horror novel, as are This Perfect Day and The Stepford Wives; The Boys from Brazil is a thriller about the resurgence of a Nazi underground; and Levin's most successful play, Deathtrap, is a mystery comedy. Despite his dark themes, Levin's many popular successes have shown him to be "a professional writer with an ear attuned to the elusive tempo of the times," as Robert Lima wrote in Studies in American Fiction.
Levin decided at the age of fifteen that he wanted to be a writer. After completing high school at the prestigious Horace Mann school, he studied for two years at Drake University, and then transferred to New York University. During his final year, he entered a screen-play writing contest for seniors sponsored by the CBS television network. Although his half-hour teleplay won him only a 200 dollar runner-up prize, the National Broadcasting Company, Inc. (NBC) television network offered him 400 dollars for the script, which they turned into an episode for Lights Out. When Levin graduated, his father agreed to support him for two years while he pursued his passion for writing; if in that time he had not succeeded, Levin agreed, he would defer to his father's goal for him, which was to join him in the toy business. In 1953, Levin was drafted into the Army and was based in Queens, New York. During that time, he wrote and produced training films for the U.S. government. His career as a television writer began in the early 1950s, and he contributed to some of the era's top programs.
His first novel, a mystery titled A Kiss before Dying, appeared in 1953 to rave reviews. The novel is told in three parts: the first from the point of view of the supposed killer of a young girl; the other two from the points of view of the girl's two sisters as they attempt to track down the killer. Writing in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, Drexel Drake described A Kiss before Dying as a "remarkably constructed story depicting an inconceivably vicious character in episodes of chilling horror." Anthony Boucher of the New York Times Book Review maintained that "Levin combines great talent for pure novel writing—full bodied characterization, subtle psychological exploration, vivid evocation of locale—with strict technical whodunit tricks as dazzling as anything ever brought off." James Sandoe of the New York Herald Tribune Book Review was moved to call A Kiss before Dying "the most striking debut of the year." The Mystery Writers of America organization awarded the novel an Edgar Allan Poe Award as the best first novel of 1953.
It was fourteen years before Levin issued another novel. With the success of his stage adaptation of Mac Hy-man's No Time for Sergeants in 1955, which ran for more than 700 performances on Broadway and launched the career of actor Andy Griffith, Levin devoted many years to writing exclusively for the theater. But in 1967, he returned to the novel form with Rosemary's Baby, the story of a young couple in the clutches of a modern cult of devil-worshippers. The Satanists want Rosemary, the young wife, to give birth to the son of the Devil, hoping that the child may "overcome the influence of God's son, Christ," Lima explained. But Rosemary is a recently lapsed Catholic who may be only hallucinating the devil-worshippers out of religious guilt. She is unsure whether she is truly threatened or merely fantasizing her danger. "One by one, untoward events happen," a writer for Time reported. "Dark signs and other-worldly hints occur; black candles, 'tannis root' or Devil's fungus, missing articles of clothing." "The delicate line between belief and disbelief is faultlessly drawn," wrote Thomas J. Fleming in the New York Times Book Review. "We are with [Levin] entirely, admiring his skill and simultaneously searching out possible, probable and improbable explanations of how he is going to extricate his heroine."
The setting for the novel, a gloomy Manhattan apartment building, is based on a building where Levin once lived. It "had a laundry room kind of like the one in the book," Levin explained to a writer for Publishers Weekly. "I would never let my wife go down there alone." Other details in the book are based on items from the daily newspaper. For the time period covered in the novel, some nine months during 1965 and 1966, Levin worked appropriate newspaper stories into Rosemary's Baby to make it more realistic. Coincidentally, Pope Paul VI's visit to New York occurred at the same time that Rosemary would have conceived her baby, so Levin worked it into his story. "The contrast between the Papal visit and what was happening to Rosemary produced some highly effective and quite unexpected drama," according to the Publishers Weekly article.
Critical appraisal of Rosemary's Baby was generally favorable. Barbara Nelson of Library Journal, for ex-ample, compared Levin's writing in the novel to the work of Shirley Jackson. Both authors, she claimed, suggest a "veneer of normality with hideous evil forces busy just beneath the surface." Peter Corodimas of Best Sellers also praised the novel, calling it "an exercise in sheer terror and tight craftsmanship" that is "superb." Fleming, however, ultimately judged Rosemary's Baby to be "just another Gothic tale" because of its literal resolution. But in her conclusion, Nelson contended that Levin "suspends disbelief so effectively that the unwary reader may well be converted to belief in the supernatural."
Levin's next two novels, This Perfect Day and The Stepford Wives, have similarly chilling premises. In This Perfect Day, a huge subterranean computer regulates all human behavior. In The Stepford Wives, the wives in a suburban community are turned into obedient robots. Alex Keneas of Newsweek stated that, in This Perfect Day, Levin "knows how to handle plot, twisting here and turning there, so that his story breezes along…. For a quick couple of hours it takes you away." Speaking of The Stepford Wives, Webster Schott of Saturday Review complained that it "is written with a grade school vocabulary, a high school version of syntax, and a best-selling author's understanding of what mass audiences want." But Martin Levin of the New York Times Book Review found a "broad current of humor beneath the horrific surface of this little ambush of Women's Lib, life, and the pursuit of happiness."
The Boys from Brazil, Levin's next novel, postulates a Nazi underground in South America led by the infamous Josef Mengele, the doctor who performed hideous experiments on prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Mengele's experiments with cloning lead him to attempt to clone Adolf Hitler and thereby restore the Nazi movement. He clones ninety-four babies from Hitler's genes and places the children with parents similar in age and occupation to Hitler's own parents, hoping that at least one of the children will grow up with Hitler's driving ambition for political power. In his review of The Boys from Brazil, the critic for the New Yorker claimed that "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 farfetched, silly story with surprising grace."
Many of the characters in the novel are based on actual people. Mengele, for example, is the real doctor from Auschwitz who was long rumored to be hiding in South America. And the novel's hero, Yakov Liberman, who tracks down fugitive Nazis and exposes the cloning plot, is based on the actual Nazi hunter Simon Weisenthal. This use of actual people as fictional characters drew criticism from R.Z. Sheppard of Time. Sheppard felt that "the turning of Josef Mengele into a mad scientist from the pages of a 1940s comic book 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." However, most reviews of The Boys from Brazil judged it to be an entertaining novel. Valentine Cunningham of New Statesman, for example, felt that "the plot unfolds utterly enthrallingly to make a superior read in this genre." And Gary Arnold of the Washington Post called it "a snappy pop entertainment synthesis of accumulating suspense, detective work, pseudoscientific speculation and historical wish fulfillment." Writing in Newsweek, Peter S. Prescott admitted that a Levin novel "is like a bag of popcorn: utterly without nutritive value and probably fattening, yet there's no way to stop once you've started."
The idea for The Boys from Brazil came from a newspaper article on cloning in which Hitler and Mozart were given as examples of the wide range of cloning possibilities. "Needless to say," Lardner observed, "Levin never gave much thought to a novel about the cloning of Mozart." Levin's ideas for books and plays "are not so much born as incubated," Alfred Gillespie wrote in People. A story idea is first jotted down in one of his many notebooks and will, over a period of years, be added to and mulled over until it coalesces into a complete plot. The process of writing, too, takes time. Levin admits to being a slow writer. Drat!, The Cat! took ten years to reach the stage; Rosemary's Baby was six years in the making; and Deathtrap took six years from initial idea to full production.
Levin's playwriting efforts since his initial success with No Time for Sergeants have been only moderately fruitful. Besides No Time for Sergeants, only Critic's Choice enjoyed a substantial run on Broadway. The folding of Drat!, The Cat! after only a week, Levin told Gillespie, "succeeded only in sending me back to novels." There was a break in this run of bad luck when Levin returned to the stage in 1978 with Deathtrap, a comedy mystery involving Sidney Bruhl, a failed playwright who toys with the idea of murdering a young playwright and stealing his play. Filled with twists and turns that keep the audience guessing as to the protagonist's real intentions, Deathtrap ran on Broadway for over four years—from February 26, 1978, to June 27, 1982—making it the fourth-longest-running play in Broadway history at that time.
The play's structure—"as convoluted as an artichoke," Richard F. Shepard wrote in the New York Times—has garnered the most critical attention. Levin succeeds in turning inside-out many cliché mystery situations so that the audience is always surprised by the unexpected. A psychic character, neighbor to the Bruhls, even predicts various plot twists in advance, but her predictions only serve to mislead the audience. According to Walter Kerr of the New York Times, Levin "engages us all in an open-handed, evening-long game of hide-and-seek…. [He] has brazenly opted for revealing all, showing us the naked machinery, inviting us to compete in putting the pieces into the jig-saw. And surprised us anyway. The sheer cockiness of his method compounds our delight." Sylvie Drake of the Los Angeles Times called the play "two hours of escapist fun, a roller-coaster ride through convolutions of plot and psyches."
Deathtrap provides as many laughs as chills, following in the tradition of Arsenic and Old Lace and other Broadway thrillers. Sidney Bruhl's witty remarks about the writer's life and the writing of mysteries are a running commentary on the play itself. "All the way through," Shepard remarked, "[Deathtrap] is laughing at itself and perhaps at the genre on which it is a takeoff, although at its moment of murder it wipes the smile off your face." Levin, Lardner wrote, "is after laughs as well as screams…. Deathtrap is capable of generating both responses, sometimes all but simultaneously." Speaking to Gillespie, Levin defends the thriller tradition in theater. "Thrillers are satisfying deep down," Levin says, "because they give you the chance to deal safely with violence and murder…. They're horror stories with happy endings." Deathtrap, too, has a happy ending. In addition to its record-breaking run on Broadway, the play was performed by four national touring companies, was made into a film, and won an Edgar Allan Poe Award.
Levin's next two plays, Break a Leg and Cantorial, were less successful, and again he returned to the novel, this time with the 1991 thriller Sliver, so named because the action takes place in a high-rise apartment in Manhattan built in a sliver of space between two other buildings. The main characters in the tale are a thirty-nine-year-old divorcée who has recently moved into the building—and who is being observed there through an elaborate series of hidden cameras—and her rich and apparently charming lover. "No species is as curious—and as prurient—as the human race," Carolyn See commented in the Los Angeles Times. "Sliver is about this phenomenon." New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt noted that Levin "plots cleverly, even scaring us into thinking he has revealed the identity of his madman … too early in the story." Writing for Washington Post Book World, suspense author Peter Straub pronounced the novel to be "as pointed, slim and nasty as its title promises" and adds that it "serves as a reminder that we can always use another new novel by this careful and painstaking writer—he's too parsimonious by half." Straub further noted, "Right up to the conclusion, Levin's people keep surprising us with their refusal to conform to the roles and attitudes the conventional thriller would assign them."
On October 12, 2003, Levin's unproduced play Footsteps premiered as a television movie on CBS starring Candice Bergen, Bug Hall, and Bryan Brown. Ray Richmond of the Hollywood Reporter.com described the play as "an original suspense thriller with abundant twists and turns that recalls the 1960s classic 'Wait Until Dark.'" A biographer for Intercourse with the Dead Web site noted that Levin once told Mervyn Rothstein of the New York Times that he believed his early, unsatisfactory relationship with his father influenced his writing. Levin commented: "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."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 3, 1975; Volume 6, 1976.
Fowler, Douglas, Ira Levin, Starmont House, 1988.
Best Sellers, April 15, 1967, Peter Corodimas, review of Rosemary's Baby.
Chicago Sunday Tribune, October 25, 1953, Drexel Drake, review of A Kiss before Dying.
Christian Science Monitor, September 27, 1972; September 14, 1978.
Library Journal, April 15, 1967, Barbara Nelson, review of Rosemary's Baby.
Los Angeles Times, March 29, 1979; February 18, 1991, p. E6.
Nation, April 3, 1989, p. 463.
New Republic, June 20, 1981.
New Statesman, April 16, 1976, Valentine Cunningham, review of The Boys from Brazil.
Newsweek, April 17, 1967; March 16, 1970, Alex Keneas, review of This Perfect Day; November 5, 1973; February 23, 1976, Peter S. Prescott, review of The Boys from Brazil.
New York, September 8, 1997, p. 135.
New Yorker, November 21, 1953; November 5, 1973; March 8, 1976, review of The Boys from Brazil.
New York Herald Tribune Book Review, October 18, 1953, James Sandoe, review of A Kiss before Dying.
New York Magazine, November 12, 1973.
New York Times, October 25, 1953; March 5, 1978; April 30, 1979; August 17, 1981; June 8, 1982; April 23, 1985; February 12, 1989, p. 28; May 16, 1990; February 25, 1991, p. C20.
New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1967, Thomas J. Fleming, review of Rosemary's Baby; October 15, 1972; March 14, 1976, Thomas J. Fleming, review of The Boys from Brazil; March 31, 1991, William H. Banks, Jr., review of Sliver, p. 16; October 5, 1997, James Polk, review of Son of Rosemary, p. 23.
People, May 15, 1978, Alfred Gillespie, review of The Boys from Brazil.
Publishers Weekly, May 22, 1967; July 3, 1987, p. 38; December 21, 1990, p. 45; June 1, 1992, p. 26; June 12, 1995, p. 23; August 25, 1997, p. 47.
Saturday Review, April 15, 1967; October 7, 1972.
Studies in American Fiction, autumn, 1974, Robert Lima.
Time, June 23, 1967; November 12, 1973; February 23, 1976, R.Z. Sheppard, review of Boys from Brazil.
Village Voice, November 8, 1973.
Washington Post, October 5, 1978; July 22, 1979; July 26, 1979.
Washington Post Book World, February 15, 1975; February 10, 1991, Peter Straub, review of Sliver, p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter.com, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/ (October 10, 2003), Ray Richmond, review of Footsteps.
Intercourse with the Dead, http://www.intercoursewiththedead.com/ (August 4, 2004), Ira Levine biography.