Ira Levin Biography
Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1929. Education: Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa, 1946-48; New York University; 1948-50, A.B. 1950. Military Service: Served in the United States Army Signal Corps, 1953-55. Awards: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe award, 1954, 1980; Bram Stoker award, 1997. Agent: Harold Ober Associates, 425 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10017, U.S.A.
A Kiss Before Dying. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1953; London, Joseph, 1954.
Rosemary's Baby. New York, Random House, and London, Joseph, 1967.
This Perfect Day. New York, Random House, and London, Joseph, 1970.
The Stepford Wives. New York, Random House, and London, Joseph, 1972.
The Boys from Brazil. New York, Random House, and London, Joseph, 1976.
Sliver. New York, Bantam, and London, Joseph, 1991.
Son of Rosemary: The Sequel to Rosemary's Baby. Thorndike, Maine, Thorndike Press, 1998.
No Time for Sergeants, Adaptation of the novel by Mac Hyman (produced New York, 1955; London, 1956). New York, Random House, 1956.
Interlock (produced New York, 1958). New York, Dramatists Play Service, 1958.
Critic's Choice (produced New York, 1960; London, 1961). New York, Random House, 1961; London, Evans, 1963.
General Seeger (produced New York, 1962). New York, Dramatists Play Service, 1962.
Drat! That Cat!, music by Milton Schafer (produced New York, 1965).
Dr. Cook's Garden (also director: produced New York, 1967). New York, Dramatists Play Service, 1968.
Veronica's Room (produced New York, 1973; Watford, Hertfordshire, 1982). New York, Random House, 1974; London, Joseph, 1975.
Deathtrap (produced New York and London, 1978). New York, Random House, 1979; London, French, 1980.
Break a Leg (produced New York, 1979). New York, French, 1981.
Cantorial (produced Stamford, Connecticut, 1984; New York, 1989). New York and London, French, 1990.
A Kiss Before Dying, 1956, 1991; Critic's Choice, 1963; Rosemary's Baby, 1968; Dr. Cook's Garden (TV), 1970; The Stepford Wives, 1975 (also Revenge of the Stepford Wives, TV, 1980; The Stepford Children, TV, 1987; The Stepford Husbands, TV, 1996); The Boys from Brazil, 1978; Deathtrap, 1982; Sliver, 1993.
Ira Levin by Douglas Fowler, Mercer Island, Washington, Starmont, 1988.
Director: Play—Dr. Cook's Garden, New York, 1967.
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The heroine of Rosemary's Baby is overwhelmed by the "elabo-rate … evil" of the witches' coven through whose agency she has unknowingly borne Satan's child, which now lies in a black bassinet with an inverted crucifix for a crib toy. Elaborateness is, indeed, the chief characteristic of both evil and good in Ira Levin's novels. Bud Corless of A Kiss Before Dying makes neat lists of ways to arrange his pregnant girlfriend's "suicide" and to win her eldest sister's love. In This Perfect Day all human actions are ostensibly directed by a world computer and everyone must touch his identification bracelet to scanners before he can do anything, go anywhere, or receive any supplies. The novel's hero, Chip (or Li RM35M4419, to give him his "nameber") fights system with system in a complicated expedition to disable UniComp's memory banks. The first dozen pages of The Boys for Brazil describe, course by course, Dr. Mengele's dinner party-cum-briefing for the assassination of ninety-four retired civil servants, each of whom has unwittingly adopted a clone of Hitler, produced by the Doctor, who now intends to recreate Hitler's family environment.
Such procedures provide the sustaining interest and suspense of Levin's novels, combining neatness and system with Satanism, secrets, universal surveillance, violence, and death. Rosemary uses a Scrabble set to work out the anagram which identifies her friendly neighbor Roman Castevet as devil-worshipping Steven Marcato. In A Kiss Before Dying Dorothy's provision of "Something old, Something new, Something borrowed, And something blue" enables her sister to deduce that Dorothy intended marriage, not suicide. The husbands of The Stepford Wives make speaking, moving replicas of their spouses. They begin with seemingly innocuous sketches of each real wife and tape recordings of her voice; they end by killing her off-stage. Levin increases the "reality" of such sinister processes by mingling them with ordinary routines of eating, pregnancy, moving to a new house, etc.
Both good and bad characters must, at times, revise their elaborate plans on the spur of the crisis. Their expedients are ingenious, often complex, and the pleasure of following Levin's details is enough to make some of his novels re-readable when their surprise is over.
The forward movement and acceleration of the plots are further complicated by sudden reversals, single or double, overt or psychological, in which characters (and often readers) are temporarily disoriented. For example, Rosemary, arriving at the logical conclusion that her husband had joined the coven, "didn't know if she was going mad or going sane." Joanna cannot tell if her best friend is still a person or has become an automaton. (She is an automaton, and stabs Joanna). Although the reader is sometimes prepared for these discoveries, there are also unexpected shocks, such as when Rosemary, thinking herself safe, sees her witch-obstetrician enter, or when Chip, suddenly taken prisoner by a trusted team-member, discovers that betrayal is really recruitment by the elite subterranean programmers. The effect on the reader of such continual reversals and realignments is a constant uneasiness as to his personal safety and moral identity, which produces horror very successfully in Rosemary's Baby, but rather mechanically in This Perfect Day and The Stepford Wives. No doubt Levin's constant readers now anticipate his surprises, which may account for his increasing detail of violence as excitement in The Boys from Brazil.
Occasionally and chiefly in This Perfect Day, Levin's literary antecedents are apparent. His shock techniques are essentially those of Ambrose Bierce and Villiers de I'Isle Adam. Bud's slow plunge into a vat of molten copper recalls H.G. Wells's "The Cone" with its archetypal death by blast furnace. The world of UniComp is essentially a Brave New World with a Big Brother mentality, but controlled by a mad scientist out of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who rejuvenates through body transference. In short, Levin has drawn upon the almost inescapable traditional materials of his genre, but he uses them intelligently and individually.
Increasingly, Levin's novels imply larger significances. Looking at the copper smelter, the murderer says seriously, "It makes you realize what a great country this is." Rosemary's subtly evil apartment house is owned by the church next door, and there are seemingly casual references to the Death of God. An ideal universe of "the gentle, the helpful, the loving, the unselfish" is the vision of a power-joyful egoist. Even the intelligent Stepford husbands in a strange feminist fable want only big-breasted, floor-waxing, mindless wives. A wise old Nazi-hunter, clashing with a radical rabbi, refuses to let ninety-four teenage Hitlers be exterminated for the sake of future Jewish safety, saying, "This was Mengele's business, killing children. Should it be ours?" These moral paradoxes, undeveloped though they are, both extend and intensify the disquieting uncertainty which had been Levin's chief characteristic.
Sliver, which came fifteen years after The Boys from Brazil, seems almost a parody of earlier motifs. There is the sinister apartment house of Rosemary's Baby, now dominated by the corrupting power of television. Its owner, Peter Henderson, a hi-tech Peeping Tom, has bugged every room for closed circuit TV and watches the most intimate lives of his tenants—the soap operas God sees. Like God, Peter rewards and punishes, while manipulating a plot to avenge his actress-mother's death. There is also the violent fall of A Kiss Before Dying as Peter pushes Kay (less innocent and sympathetic than Rosemary) backward through a window—although she manages to hold on while her cat claws out his eyes. Levin's processes in this novel have become pedestrian, and there is no real shock of reversal since Kay has known of and participated in Peter's surveillance. Nor is a reader likely to be much disquieted by learning that three other New York buildings have been similarly wired. Instead, Sliver is basically a melodramatic parable about television, for which Levin himself wrote in its golden age. Then, a character says, it was more real because shows were live. Now it corrupts, and Sam Yale, Peter's intended victim, points out that "TV madness" was bound to come. He and Kate give in quickly to the lure of Peter's multiple screens, even while disapproving.
There is promise in the premise of Son of Rosemary, sequel to the book that shocked the world thirty years earlier. But the world has changed a great deal since then, as Rosemary learns when she awakens from a coma on November 9, 1999, to discover that her son Andy has since become a guru revered and loved throughout the world. She finds herself surrounded by similar adoration as a sort of latter-day Virgin Mary—only the "savior" she has spawned is an anti-Christ who has managed to hide his past from a spiritually hungry world. Despite the intriguing idea behind the story, it lacks the impact of the earlier book—yet another sign that times have changed.
—Jane W. Stedman
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