Ira Levin was one of the most versatile writers of contemporary times, sustaining two distinct careers – one as a best-selling novelist, the other as a full-tilt Broadway playwright – while also writing in nearly every genre imaginable, from suspense to comedy, horror to science-fiction, fantasy, drama – even musical theater. (Full works index) All while creating some of the most recognized and enduring works of popular culture: Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, Deathtrap, The Boys from Brazil... and in the process, helping to cultivate multiple emergent sub-genres (modern horror, dark suburbia, young adult dystopia, feminist dystopia/horror...)
His landmark plots suspend disbelief through an eerily palpable sense of reality, achieved through the crafting of wholly-believable worlds and fully-dimensional, empathetically-observed characters (The Stepford Wives), ever-ratcheting tension (Rosemary's Baby), iron-clad plotting (The Boys from Brazil), and uncanny prescience (This Perfect Day). Plus a dash of dark, satirical wit.
Born in the Bronx, New York in 1929, Ira Levin attended the Horace Mann School and (after a two-year stint at Iowa's Drake University) New York University. While at NYU, a CBS television writing contest got him his first professional credit, and an agent – whereupon he began writing half-hour fantasy/suspense television fare during TV's "golden age."
Fresh out of college, Levin wrote the Edgar Award-winning suspense classic A Kiss Before Dying (set in a fictionalized version of Drake's Des Moines). Just before its publication, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where – while not occupied in the writing of standard-issue training films – he scripted two one-hour teleplays, Notebook Warrior and the breakthrough success No Time For Sergeants. Immediately out of the army, he made his Broadway debut, with his full-length stage treatment of Sergeants.
The many screen adaptations of his books and plays which would follow were already beginning – with 1956's CinemaScope release of A Kiss Before Dying.
Levin spent the next 14 years crafting original full-length stage plays, beginning with his psychological drama Interlock (1958), his urbane comedy Critic's Choice (1960), later filmed starring Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, his searing military drama General Seeger (1962) and his one musical, Drat! The Cat! (1965) – which yielded the Barbra Streisand standard He Touched Me.
Levin returned to novel writing with a work that would prove no less than culture-defining: 1967's Rosemary's Baby – the book credited with ushering in the era of modern horror that continues to this day. In 1972, The Stepford Wives similarly took its own place in the collective psyche, as both a cultural reference point, and – like Rosemary – a touchstone of social and domestic fiction.
Levin would spend the remainder of his 50+ year career alternating between novels and plays.
On the theatrical front, Levin crafted one of the most enduring works of contemporary theater – 1978's comedy-thriller Deathtrap – the fifth-longest running play in Broadway history, itself serving to usher in a renewed era of metatheatricality.
Levin's other high-profile novels include tech-laden The Boys from Brazil, Sliver, and This Perfect Day – his science-fiction opus that envisions a near-future world shockingly similar to our own. His later theatrical offerings include the mind-bending Veronica's Room, the theatrical revenge comedy Break A Leg, and the seriocomic, semi-musical Cantorial.
“Stepford Wives depicted the backlash against feminism twenty years before Susan Faludi wrote ‘Backlash’.”
In his novels, as well as his plays, Levin was often first to the table in dealing with themes and subject matter that had previously gone unexamined, or had yet to take shape in the public consciousness:
Yet his goal was straightforward:
Levin once likened his work to that of Edward Hopper:
Indeed, the seemingly effortless nature of Levin's prose has often been misinterpreted. But as colleague Peter Straub (Ghost Story) wrote:
“Levin’s prose is clean, precise, and unfussy specifically in order to be as transparent as possible: he wishes to place no verbal static between the words on the page and the events they depict,” adding that his work
“...resembles a bird in flight, a haiku, a Chinese calligrapher’s brushstroke. With no wasted motion, it gets precisely where it wants to go.”
Levin received a 1978 Best Play Tony Award nomination for Deathtrap, and was the recipient of multiple Edgar Awards – including 2003's lifetime achievement Grand Master award, as well as an additional lifetime achievement award from the Horror Writers Association. He was a Councilmember of the Dramatists Guild for thrity years, during which time he served as a Tony Awards voter.
Ira Levin died in New York in 2007, at the age of 78.