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Ira Levin; Wrote 'Rosemary's Baby'

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Ira Levin, 78, a writer of entertaining if highly implausible suspense novels, including "Rosemary's Baby," "The Stepford Wives" and "The Boys From Brazil," as well as the long-running Broadway play "Deathtrap," died Nov. 12 at his home in New York after an apparent heart attack.

Mr. Levin's novels, whose plots centered on urban Satanists, creepily submissive wives and a Nazi doctor's efforts to clone Adolf Hitler, were praised for their taut and imaginative writing. At times, the books were criticized for questionable taste and stretching credulity to its limits, but they were unremittingly popular with readers.

Many of his books were turned into star-driven film adaptations, and one, "The Stepford Wives," contributed a catchphrase to the American vocabulary. "Stepford" became shorthand for someone with the personality of an automaton.

Mr. Levin also had an uneven playwriting career. But he managed two long-running hits, "No Time for Sergeants" (1955) and "Deathtrap" (1978). The second lasted four years on Broadway and has been the subject of countless dinner theater revivals.

One musical, "Drat! The Cat!" (1965), closed after eight Broadway performances, but a song from it, "She Touched Me," whose lyrics Mr. Levin wrote, became a pop standard recorded by Barbra Streisand and other singers.

Mr. Levin, the son of a toy importer, was born Aug. 27, 1929, in the Bronx, N.Y., and raised in Manhattan. He attended the elite Horace Mann School and used writing as a means to avoid joining the family business.

By his senior year at New York University in 1950, he was a runner-up in a CBS scriptwriting contest for a story about an old invalid who outwits her would-be murderers: her nephew and nurse. NBC paid $400 for the story and used the plot for an episode on the mystery anthology series "Lights Out."

His first novel, "A Kiss Before Dying" (1953), told the story of a pregnant college woman's killing from three narrative perspectives: the socially ambitious man who planned it as well as the victim's sisters, who track him down.

Writing in the New York Times, author Anthony Boucher praised Mr. Levin's "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."

The Mystery Writers of America named "A Kiss Before Dying" the best first novel of the year, and it became a 1956 film starring Robert Wagner as the psychopath. Another version was made in 1991 with Matt Dillon.

During Mr. Levin's Army service, he adapted to television and the stage "No Time for Sergeants," Mac Hyman's best-selling novel about a hapless military draftee from the sticks. The play ran for two years on Broadway and made a star of Andy Griffith.

Mr. Levin struggled for decades to repeat that theatrical success. One play, "Critic's Choice," a comedy about a theater reviewer who is assigned to cover his wife's theatrical production, became a 1963 film with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. Others, which had more macabre themes, closed quickly.

Then came "Deathtrap," a wry and twisty thriller about a has-been playwright who thinks of killing a young writer to steal his play. It was nominated for a 1978 Tony Award for best play and resurrected Mr. Levin's stature on Broadway, even though the show was not universally admired by critics.

Meanwhile, Mr. Levin had established himself as a gifted novelist of the occult with "Rosemary's Baby" (1967), based in part on his wife's pregnancy but with a major tweak -- the baby of the title is the spawn of Satan.

The story is about witches in a Manhattan apartment building who conspire to create a little devil within an unwitting mother's womb. Yet there also remains the question of whether Rosemary, a lapsed Catholic, might be hallucinating the terror as a form of religious guilt.

The book sold 5 million copies and was widely translated, including into Maltese. Director Roman Polanski's acclaimed 1968 screen version starred Mia Farrow, Ruth Gordon and John Cassavetes.

After the book came out, Mr. Levin told Publishers Weekly he had refused to let his wife read the manuscript and, maybe as a publicity ploy, advised the same to other pregnant women. However, he added: "The obstetrician did read it and loved it."

"The Stepford Wives" (1972), about a Connecticut town where men kill their wives and replace them with robots designed to please them, was written while Mr. Levin was undergoing a divorce.

An article on cloning from the New York Times provided the kernel for "The Boys From Brazil" (1976), which featured Nazi doctor Josef Mengele implanting genetic material from Hitler into the wombs of South American peasant women.

Mr. Levin once defended his literary style to the New York Times: "My books are more theatrical than the other way around. I think in terms of scenes rather than chapters. Critics have accused me of writing books with an eye to the movies. I'm really writing for the stage."

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

Survivors include three sons from the first marriage, Adam Levin-Delson of Bothell, Wash., and Jared Levin and Nicholas Levin, both of New York; a sister; and three grandchildren.

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