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Ira Levin, at 78; novels included 'Rosemary's Baby,' 'Stepford Wives'

Ira Levin also wrote a long-running play, 'Deathtrap.' Ira Levin also wrote a long-running play, "Deathtrap." (ap/file)
Email|Print| Text size + By Larry McShane
Associated Press / November 14, 2007

NEW YORK - Best-selling writer Ira Levin - whose genre-hopping novels included the horror classic "Rosemary's Baby," the Nazi thriller "The Boys From Brazil," and the satirical fantasy "The Stepford Wives" - suffered a fatal heart attack in his Manhattan apartment Monday, said agent Phyllis Westberg. He was 78.

Mr. Levin's output was modest - just seven novels in four decades - but his work was firmly ensconced in the popular imagination. Together, his novels sold tens of millions of copies, Westberg said. Nearly all were made into Hollywood movies, some more than once. Mr. Levin also wrote the long-running Broadway play "Deathtrap," a comic thriller.

Combining elements of several genres - mystery, Gothic horror, science fiction, and the techno-thriller - Mr. Levin's novels conjured up a world full of quietly looming menace, in which anything could happen to anyone at any time.

His page-turning books were once compared by Newsweek writer Peter S. Frescott to a bag of popcorn: "Utterly without nutritive value and probably fattening, yet there's no way to stop once you've started."

The novelist's father was in the toy business and had hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps. But Mr. Levin, a native New Yorker, decided at age 15 that he wanted a career in writing, and he finished second in a screenplay-writing competition held by NBC while a senior at New York University.

He worked as a television writer before finishing his first novel, "A Kiss Before Dying," a murder mystery that was an instant success. It won the Edgar Allan Poe Award as the best first novel of 1953, and it was twice turned into a movie, in 1956 and in 1991.

It took 14 years for Mr. Levin to finish his second novel, "Rosemary's Baby," the creepy tale of a New York couple in the clutch of Satanists who want the young wife to bear Satan's child.

"The Stepford Wives" was Mr. Levin's satirical tale of a suburban New England town where the spouses were converted into subservient robots, while "The Boys From Brazil" detailed a South American underground where the infamous Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele tried to clone Adolf Hitler.

The idea for the latter book came from a newspaper article on cloning, which suggested Hitler and Mozart as examples of the disparate possibilities for the new technology.

Besides "Deathtrap," Mr. Levin also wrote the Broadway adaptation of "No Time for Sergeants." The 1955 show, which launched the career of actor Andy Griffith, ran for about 700 performances.

He wrote several other less successful plays, including "Drat! That Cat!" which closed after a week in 1966. A song from it, "She Touched Me," with lyrics by Mr. Levin and music by Milton Schafer, became a hit for Barbra Streisand as "He Touched Me."

Mr. Levin's two marriages, to Gabrielle Aronsohn and Phyllis Finkel, ended in divorce. He leaves three sons from his marriage to Aronsohn: Adam Levin-Delson of Bothell, Wash.; Jared and Nicholas, both of Manhattan; a sister, Eleanor Busman of Mount Kisco, N.Y.; and three grandchildren.

In interviews later in his life, Mr. Levin expressed some displeasure at the tide of popular Satanism his work appeared to unleash. "I feel guilty that 'Rosemary's Baby' led to 'The Exorcist,' 'The Omen,' " he told The Los Angeles Times in 2002. "A whole generation has been exposed, has more belief in Satan. I don't believe in Satan. And I feel that the strong fundamentalism we have would not be as strong if there hadn't been so many of these books."

"Of course," he added, "I didn't send back any of the royalty checks."

Material from The New York Times was used in this obituary.

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