Ira Levin was born in New York City on August 27, 1929, to a toy merchant and importer, Charles Levin, and his wife, Beatrice Schlansky Levin. As a boy, he became fascinated with magic and began frequenting shops that sold supplies for professional magicians. In his early teens, he developed a passionate interest in theater and in mystery stories. Soon, he had decided to be a playwright or novelist—or both. However, his father was insistent that his son enter the family’s toy business. After graduating from the Horace Mann School in New York, Levin decided to attend Drake University in Iowa, but after two years moved back to New York and enrolled in New York University, from which he received a bachelor of arts with a major in English and philosophy. Levin was in his senior year when he won the second-place prize in CBS’s screenplay contest.
After Levin graduated, the conflict with his father about a choice of career resumed. Eventually the two agreed on a plan: For two years, his father would support Levin financially while he tried to establish himself as a writer. If Levin was unsuccessful after two years, he would join his father’s business. Levin quickly succeeded, however, selling screenplays to the television anthology series Lights Out and The United States Steel Hour and stories to such magazines as The Ladies Home Journal and Manhunt. In 1953, when he was only twenty-two years old, Levin published his first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, in which he employed techniques using multiple narrators and points of view similar to those used by James Joyce and William Faulkner. A best seller, it won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for best first novel in 1954.
Later in 1953, Levin was drafted into the United States Army. Soon after his discharge, he wrote first a teleplay and then a stage play based on Mac Hyman’s comic novel about military life, No Time for Sergeants. The play became a huge success on Broadway, running for nearly a thousand performances. However, his next five plays were failures, with one running for only a few months and the other four running for only a handful of performances each. Finally, after fourteen years, Levin decided to try his hand at writing a novel again, and the result, Rosemary’s Baby, a tale of a midwestern woman who comes to New York and is impregnated by the devil, was one of the best-selling novels of the 1960’s. It was soon adapted for the screen by writer-director Roman Polansky as a film starring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. Other best-selling novels followed: This Perfect Day (1970), The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil (1976), and Sliver. In 1978, Levin returned to the theater with his most important contribution to the mystery genre, the slyly satirical Deathtrap, which became the longest-running mystery in the history of Broadway, with almost eighteen hundred performances. In 1980 the Mystery Writers of America gave Levin an Edgar Award for Deathtrap, and in 2003 that organization presented him with a Grand Master Award.
Levin was married twice—to Gabrielle Aronsohn from 1960 to 1968 and to Phyllis Finkel from 1979 to 1981. He had three sons by Aronsohn: Adam, Jared, and Nicholas. He died November 12, in New York.