Ira Levin, whose horror and thriller fiction touched on universal and occasionally Jewish themes, died Monday of a heart attack in his Manhattan apartment. He was 78.Levin’s horror, thriller and science fiction novels mined our oldest taboos, fears and boogeymen to chill and entertain generations of audiences. “Rosemary’s Baby,” made into a chilling movie by Roman Polanski, stirred classic Western and even pagan fears of Satanism and the devil.
The thriller “The Boys From Brazil” made us worry that unregenerate Nazis would attempt to clone Adolph Hitler, and “The Stepford Wives” spoofed and satirized late-20th century suburban life and the feminist movement.
Many of Levin’s books were turned into Hollywood hits. The Stepford Wives has been done twice, and a second version of The Boys From Brazil has been announced for 2009. Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski and starring a young Mia Farrow is considered one of Hollywood’s greatest horror pictures.
Levin suffered a fatal heart attack in his Manhattan apartment on Monday, the Associated Press reported.
Levin, a New York City native, spurned his father’s toy business, finished second in a screenplay writing competition held by NBC while he was a senior at New York University, and burst on the U.S. literary scene with his first novel, “A Kiss Before Dying,” a murder mystery that won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for mysteries as 1953’s best first novel.
“Rosemary’s Baby” 14 years later told the tale of a New York couple in an apartment building full of Satanists who want the young wife to bear the devil’s baby.
Thriller novel giant Stephen King has been full of praise for Levin’s work. He has described Ira Levin as “the Swiss watchmaker of suspense novels, he makes what the rest of us do look like cheap watchmakers in drugstores.”
Despite the presence of devils and surgically engineered perfect wives, Levin’s work also touched on Jewish themes.
In “The Boys From Brazil,” an old Nazi hunter, clashing with a radical rabbi, refuses to let 94 cloned teenaged Hitlers be exterminated for the sake of future Jewish safety, saying, “This was Mengele’s business, killing children. Should it be ours?”
One critic said, “These moral paradoxes, undeveloped though they are, both extend and intensify the disquieting uncertainty which had been Levin’s chief characteristic.”
His 1989 musical, “Cantorial,” featured a ghost in a synagogue. Levin told the New York Times in 1989 that he thought a haunted synagogue would be an interesting subject to write about.
”Mainly because I had never read anything, or seen anything, about a haunted synagogue,” he told the Times. ”One night, about eight years ago, it suddenly dawned on me that if a synagogue is haunted it should be haunted by a cantor, whose singing could be very exciting in a theater. So that made it a play instead of a book.”
The play ran at the Jewish Repertory Theater in New York before moving on to a Broadway run, and some critics at the time called it a “very Jewish play, almost a mystical one,” the Times said. But Levin demurred.
”I certainly don’t regard it as a religious play, or as a Jewish play,” he said at the time. ”I wrote it with Broadway in mind. There certainly is the religious side, but if you keep looking, it can also be interpreted in a completely other way – as a more traditional ghost story, which is how some of the younger people who saw it at the Jewish Rep told me they viewed it. They said they saw it as a play about obsession, about a young man possessed by an idea, a ghost. And the two ways sort of coexist.”
Levin told the Times he received a bar mitzvah, at which famous cantor-opera singer Richard Tucker was the cantor, but he was not from a religious family, nor was he observant.
Here is a good list of Levin’s work.