Ira Levin, 78; his novels include ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ ‘Stepford Wives’

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Times Staff Writer

Ira Levin, who gave the devil his due in “Rosemary’s Baby,” created an archetype in “The Stepford Wives” and brought a notorious Nazi to fiction in “The Boys From Brazil,” has died. He was 78.

Levin, a novelist, playwright and screenwriter, died Monday of a heart attack in his New York City apartment, according to his agent, Phyllis Westberg.

When “Rosemary’s Baby” came out in 1967, it helped change the publishing landscape. Set in New York, the novel concerned a young wife in the grips of satanic cultists who wanted her to give birth to the devil’s baby with the hope that he might overcome the influence of God’s son, Christ.


Rosemary, a lapsed Catholic, believes she may be hallucinating out of religious guilt. But the devil-worshipers are there, and -- as it has been repeatedly observed -- the book is the ultimate in paranoid fiction.

“No matter how bad Rosemary thinks things are, they’re actually much, much worse,” David Streitfeld noted in the Washington Post.

“The delicate line between belief and disbelief is faultlessly drawn . . . .” Thomas J. Fleming wrote in the New York Times Book Review.

The novel, which has sold more than 5 million copies, and the subsequent movie adaptation directed by Roman Polanski and starring Mia Farrow, opened the floodgates for imaginative touches of evil in the book trade and led to such popular fare by other writers as “The Exorcist,” “The Omen” and “Carrie.”

Levin’s next notable success came with “The Stepford Wives” (1972), the tale of a suburban Connecticut town full of beautiful housewives that mysteriously turn from independent-minded women into obedient, husband-worshiping zombies.

Hollywood snapped it up and filmed it twice, in 1975 starring Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss and again in 2004 with Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler. There also were made-for-television sequels.


The term “Stepford Wives” also became part of the popular lexicon to describe women who seemed to take on mindless, subservient roles to their spouses.

His next major success, “The Boys From Brazil,” (1976) offered the tale of a Nazi underground in South America led by the infamous Josef Mengele, the actual Nazi doctor who performed heinous experiments on children at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland during World War II.

In Levin’s telling, Mengele’s experiments lead him to try to clone Adolf Hitler and with it the entire Nazi movement itself. In addition to Mengele, many of the characters in the book have real-life counterparts or are based on them. Yakov Lieberman, the Nazi hunter who pursues Mengele and exposes the plot in the novel, was based on Simon Wiesenthal, who hunted Mengele in real life.

Although most critics viewed it as an entertaining novel, R.Z. Sheppard wrote in Time magazine that “exploiting such a monster for entertainment and profit is enough to give evil a bad name.”

Hollywood again embraced Levin’s novel, turning it into the 1978 thriller starring Laurence Olivier as Nazi hunter Lieberman and, improbably, Gregory Peck as the menacing Mengele.

In addition to his thrillers, Levin wrote plays, including the comedies “No Time for Sergeants” and “Critic’s Choice,” and “Deathtrap,” a murder mystery that merged comedy and suspense.


Like many of his works, “Deathtrap” was made into a movie and starred Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. Levin also penned the Broadway musical “Drat! The Cat.”(1965).

But the popular thrillers gave him lasting recognition. Newsweek critic Peter Prescott once commented 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 son of a toy manufacturer, Levin was born in New York City and wanted to become a writer since he was a teenager. He studied at Drake University in Iowa before transferring to New York University.

His career as a television writer started in college, and included scripts for the early 1950s television shows “Clock,” “Lights Out” and “U.S. Steel Hour.”

Drafted into the Army in 1953, Levin was stationed in Queens, N.Y. where he wrote and produced training films.

His debut novel, the murder mystery “A Kiss Before Dying,” was published in 1953. The story is told in three parts -- from the point of view of the supposed killer of a young girl and from the points of view of the girl’s two sisters as they hunt the killer.


The book received excellent reviews and won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America as the best first novel of 1953.

In the New York Times Book Review, Anthony Boucher wrote 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.”

“A Kiss Before Dying” was filmed twice, once in 1956 starring Joanne Woodward and Robert Wagner, and in 1991 with Sean Young and Matt Dillon.

Levin next turned his attention to playwriting, scoring a critical success in the mid-1950s with his adaptation of the Max Hyman book “No Time for Sergeants,” which ran for more than 700 performances on Broadway and launched Andy Griffith’s career. It would later be turned into a film, also starring Griffith, and a short-lived television series.

Levin would not hit the bestseller lists again until 1967 with “Rosemary’s Baby,” which sold 2.3 million copies by the time the movie came out the next year.

He told the Washington Post that the idea for “Rosemary’s Baby” came to him during a lecture on the importance of cycles.


Levin said he was struck with the idea of unnatural birth, noting that “the opposite side of the traditional myth of the Son of God had never been written.”

“The Stepford Wives” was inspired by a section in Alvin Toffler’s book “Future Shock” on domestic robots. Levin noted that he wrote the book just after divorcing. “I was feeling pretty bitter about the relationship between the sexes,” he said.

“The Boys From Brazil” sprang from a newspaper article on cloning, in which Hitler and Mozart were given as the range of possibilities from the process.

“Needless to say, Levin never gave much thought to a novel about the cloning of Mozart,” James Lardner wrote in the Washington Post.

In a writing career spanning six decades, he published just seven novels and went 14 years between his first and second books. “I have never been able to work unless I’m really excited about what I’m doing, unless it demands to be written,” he told the Post.

His marriages to Gabrielle Aronsohn and Phyllis Finkel ended in divorce.

He is survived by his sons, Adam, Jared and Nicolas; and three grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements were pending.