Ira Levin, playwright and novelist, who was responsible for such best-selling novels as Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives and The Boys From Brazil — died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 78.

One wonders if Ira Levin wasn’t a warlock of writing. His few novels, possessing an economy of words, bewitched readers. He wrote with a wicked sense of humor, and enjoyed putting a devilish spin on what could have been a formulaic plot. Maybe calling him an alchemist would be equally fitting.

A Kiss Before Dying, won a Mystery Writers of America award for best first novel. In it, Levin inserts a critical character and plot revelation, not at the book’s end, but in the middle. This was a precursor to the mid-book shocks in novels such as Thomas Tryon’s The Other and William Goldman’s Magic. In Rosemary’s Baby, his second book, he changed the perception of devil worship. Members of the coven were dotty old people; endearing in many ways. It made people wonder about their neighbors, and question religion. The success of the subsequent film was due in great part, to writer-director Roman Polanski not tampering with Levin’s story or words. The leanness of his prose adapted well to the screen.

The characters of Rosemary and her husband Guy were involved in New York theatre. Levin, himself, was a playwright. His plays in the suspense field, “Veronica’s Room” and the more successful “Deathtrap,” tweaked the genre. “Deathtrap” was a spin on Sleuth with a major tip of the hat to the famous French film Diabolique. Levin seemed to take glee in combining the plot elements and perversely twisting them into something new. It was though he enjoyed winking at those in the know in the audience.

He rattled our senses with cloning and androids in, respectively, The Boys From Brazil and The Stepford Wives. The latter producing its own cultural reference. Both of those works were adapted into films, increasing Levin’s literary popularity. The movies, however, fell short of reproducing the tension and frisson of fear that were conveyed by Levin’s writing.

Ira Levin was not a prolific writer. There were long gaps between his works. What he wrote had a long gestation period. He left his audience/readers with so few works; yet, what remains is bountiful. The prose was spare and clean, not a word was wasted. Ira Levin had a penchant for brevity, yet he said volumes.

Courtesy of Sheila Merritt

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