Before There was Stephen King… There was…
by Z.J. Czupor
You may not know this author’s name, but you’ll certainly recognize his works.
He only wrote seven novels, and they were all adapted into films. He wrote tense, taut plots in multiple genres including mystery, Gothic horror, and science fiction weaving futurism or the supernatural into best-selling thrillers.
A talented writer, he also wrote ten plays including the longest running comic thriller on Broadway. And he was a songwriter.
He won two Edgars and in 2003 was named Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America.
Ira Marvin Levin (1929-2007) was born in New York City to Russian Jewish immigrants. His father was a toy importer. Levin attended Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and New York University, where he graduated in 1950 with a degree in philosophy and English. He also served in the Army Signal Corps from 1953-1955.
While a senior in college at NYU he wrote a screenplay for a competition held by NBC-TV. He finished second, but his script “Leda’s Portrait” ran on NBC’s suspense series Lights Out in 1951.
After graduating from NYU, he asked his parents if he could stay home to work on his writing. They were supportive and Levin’s father told him he could have two years to concentrate solely on writing, and if he wasn’t able to make a go of it in that amount of time, it would be time to join the family toy business.
But Levin did make a go of it. He sold several television plays within those first two years. After a few flops in his second year, he decided to write a novel. He had just finished writing his first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, when he was drafted into the army. He was then twenty-two years old. He was still serving in the Signal Corps and stationed at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey when A Kiss Before Dying (Simon & Schuster, 1953) won the 1954 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel.
The novel was adapted twice into film in 1956 and 1991. Critics and reviewers considered A Kiss Before Dying a modern crime classic. The novel follows a charming man who will stop at nothing, even murder, to get where he wants to go. His problem is a pregnant woman who loves him.
Stephen King said, “The novel’s real screeching bombshell is neatly tucked away about one hundred pages into the story.” King described the novel as unique “in the sense that a key element of the story—a revelation about who committed a particular murder—takes the reader by complete surprise.”
Levin then found success on Broadway by adapting a comedic play called No Time for Sergeants in 1956 from the Mac Hyman (1923-1963) novel of the same name. The storyline is about a hillbilly drafted into the United States Air Force. The play starred a young Andy Griffith (1926-2012), and it launched his career. The play, which ran for 796 performances was later adapted as a film (1958) and as a television comedy (1964). Levin followed that with Critics Choice in 1960, a play about a Broadway theater critic who finds himself reviewing an awful play written by his wife. That play was made into a film (Warner Bros., 1963) starring Bob Hope and Lucille Ball.
Levin was 15 years old when his parents took him to see the New York production of Ten Little Indians. He said, “As those figurines vanished one by one from the mantlepiece and the actors vanished one by one from the stage, I fell in love with theatre that grips and dazzles and surprises. I was already a novelist. Now I was a would-be-playwright too.”
Unfortunately, his next play, Drat! The Cat! (1965) flopped. It lasted only eight performances. This late Victorian melodrama and musical spoof follows a young girl who is frustrated by society’s obstacles in obtaining a career. So, she dons a tight feline costume and turns to burglary of high society homes in Manhattan in the 1890s. The play did enjoy some positive reviews and Levin innovated in challenging theatrical rules by breaking “the fourth wall,” in which characters address the audience directly.
Levin returned to writing novels. Fourteen years later, he and his wife, who was pregnant with their third child, lived in a New York City apartment. He considered the building’s laundry room creepy and would not allow his wife to enter it alone. And from that spawned the idea for his next novel, Rosemary’s Baby (Random House, 1967), which sold over four million copies making it the top best-selling novel of the 1960s. Book reviewer Leslie Lindsay said, “Rosemary’s Baby sold millions after The Today Show interviewed Levin, surging the title onto the New York Times bestseller list” (Oct. 11, 2017).
Meanwhile, he refused to let his wife read the work while she was pregnant. Unfortunately, their marriage dissolved a year later.
Critics called the book a “perfectly crafted thriller,” “a genuine masterpiece,” and …”a seductive impeccably-written horror novel.”
The novel concerns married couple Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, who move into a Gothic style apartment building in New York City. They are warned the building has a history involving witchcraft and murder, but they ignore this. Rosemary is pregnant and begins to suspect her neighbors are part of a Satanic cult and grooming her to use her baby for rituals. Critics have regarded the film version (Paramount Pictures, 1968) to be one of the greatest horror movies of all time and it faithfully follows the novel.
As a novel, Rosemary’s Baby, launched a “horror boom” in fiction, preceding William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) and the early works of Stephen King.
Years later, Levin said he had mixed feelings about Rosemary’s Baby, including religious guilt for he felt his work had played a significant part in the popularization of the occult and belief in witchcraft and Satanism. “A whole generation has been exposed, has more belief in Satan. I don’t believe in Satan.” On the other hand, he dismissed people who claimed to hear backward messages in song lyrics and other superstitions. He said, “I really feel a certain degree of guilt about having fostered that kind of irrationality.”
And in a jest of honesty, he said, “Of course, I didn’t send back any of the royalty checks.”
Levin continued to create successful best-selling novels such as The Stepford Wives (1972), The Boys from Brazil (1976), and Sliver (1991). All three novels were adapted into popular films.
In the 1960s, Levin moved to Wilton, Connecticut, which he said is a “step” from Stamford, a major city fifteen miles away. It was while living in this town that he developed the idea for his satirical novel The Stepford Wives. In the New York suburb of Stepford, one of the new Stepford residents eventually discovers that wives have been murdered, replaced with look-alike robotic creatures, and programmed by their husbands to be content mothers and housewives.
After the book was published, “Stepford wife” earned a place in the American lexicon. The term became a derogatory buzzword for a submissive wife, meaning someone who is completely obedient, and doing what other people want without questioning or criticizing. In the novel’s introduction, novelist and poet Peter Straub praised Levin’s approach for “the controlled composure of its prose and the jewel-like perfection of its structure.”
The novel and film achieved the status of social satire and psychological horror. Film critic Pauline Kael (1919-2001) called the movie, “the first women’s lib Gothic.” People started calling the exurbs, “Stepford World,” and in 2003, the New York Times published a “Stepford Spring” fashion supplement along with a Maureen Dowd column headlined “The Stepford Wives: Now Showing at the Botox Salon Near You.”
Levin again stepped back into theater writing with his original play, Deathtrap (1978), which holds the record for the longest-running comedy-thriller on Broadway. The play ran from 1978-1982 with 1,793 performances. Deathtrap was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play, Actor, Actress, and Director (1978). The play also earned Levin his second Edgar Award for Best Play.
Critics said the play incorporated the best components of thrillers and horror stories, murder, deceit, innocent dialogue with hidden sinister meanings, plot reversals, unexpected turn of events, and comedy. Levin wrote the screenplay for the film version of Deathtrap which starred Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon, and Christopher Reeve (Warner Bros. 1982).
A year later, Levin followed with another best-selling novel, The Boys from Brazil. His plot was prescient about biological engineering and follows a Nazi-hunter’s pursuit of the real-life person, Josef Mengele (1911-1979), who plots to clone Adolf Hitler, and create a new leader for the Nazi movement. At the time of publication in the 1970s, genetic engineering was a concept only realized in fiction. Now, it’s here. While cloning had been mentioned in previous books, Levin is credited with moving the word “clone” from science exploration to the public domain.
The novel spawned two film adaptations (1975 and 2004) plus three television sequels.
Stephen King said, “Every novel he has ever written has been a marvel of plotting. He is the Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel; he makes what the rest of us do look like those five-dollar watches you can buy in the discount drug stores.”
In 2003, the Mystery Writers of America named Levin its Grand Master. That same year, The Horror Writers Association gave him the Bram Stoker Award for lifetime achievement.
Novelist David Morrell, co-founder of the International Thriller Writers organization, wrote a new intro to Rosemary’s Baby for its 50th birthday reissue. He said, “After decades of endless copycats and spin-offs and made-for-TV movies that made the book feel like a campy caricature, Levin grew seemingly disdainful of his defining work. He wrote less and to less acclaim, rarely did interviews, and stopped mingling among the New York literary circles he once so desperately wanted to be part of. If Levin ever really experienced or enjoyed his literary fame, he didn’t say so. I never once heard him comment on his career or what had happened. I’m just intuiting that he had to know he was a success, but I’m not sure he did.”
Levin considered himself a Jewish atheist. He married twice and had three sons with his first wife and had a total of four grandchildren.
Ira Levin died of a heart attack at his home in Manhattan on Nov. 12, 2007. He was 78 years old.
Levin first wrote No Time for Sergeants as a one-hour teleplay (ABC, “United States Steel Hour,” Season 2, Ep. 14, March 15, 1955) and then expanded the story for the full-length theatrical version. The play inspired the later television situation comedy Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., (CBS, 1964-1969) which was a spinoff of The Andy Griffith Show (CBS, 1960-1968).
The film version of Deathtrap (1982) caused a sensation due to a kiss shared by actors Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, a kiss which did not occur in the theatrical play. While the film earned more than $19 million at the box office, it supposedly lost $10 million in sales because of that kiss. In fact, preview audiences in Denver, Colorado booed the kiss. (The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies by Vito Russo, 1981).
Levin also wrote the lyrics for Drat! The Cat!, which included the song “She Touched Me.” Long after the show closed, Blue Pear Records issued an original cast album from a surreptitious recording of a live performance. The original cast starred Elliott Gould, who sang the song. At the time, his wife was Barbra Streisand. She changed the song title to “He Touched Me,” which soared to number two on the Easy Listening Chart in 1965.
Mary Higgins Clark (1927-2020) used the line, “He called you a boring Stepford wife,” in her 1999 novel We’ll Meet Again (Simon & Schuster).
Mengele was a German officer and physician during WWII and dubbed the “Angel of Death,” for his deadly experiments on prisoners in concentration camps. After the war, he fled to Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil, all while Nazi hunters from West Germany and Israel wanted to bring him to trial.
The play Ten Little Indians, that Levin saw when he was fifteen, was a 1943 play written by Agatha Christie (1890-1976). It was based on her 1939 novel And Then There Were None. The plot concerns eight disparate guests who arrive at an isolated mansion on an island off the coast of Devon, England. They are tended to by two married housekeepers. Soon the guests start dying one at a time. The remaining guests try to find the murderer amongst them.
ZJ Czupor is president of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and past Vice President of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (RMMWA). In addition to writing monthly columns for Rogue Women Writers and RMMWA, he is the author of THE BIG WEIRD: Haikus in Times of Pandemic and Chaos, available at Amazon.