On Authors: Ira Levin, of ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ Dies at 78

Today’s NY Times brought the sad news of the death of the author Ira Levin, by way of his obituary, Ira Levin, of ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ Dies at 78. It was written by Margalit Fox

The Times also recently reported on the passing of Norman Mailer, in an obituary written by Charles McGrath, Norman Mailer, Towering Writer With a Matching Ego, Dies at 84.

By the way, Mr. McGrath is a fine writer in his own right. As noted in VQR, Charles McGrath, “Charles McGrath is currently a writer-at-large for the New York Times. Previously he was the editor of the New York Times Book Review, and prior to that, served as head of The New Yorker’s fiction department.

Mailer was a superb writer. The first book that came to my mind when I heard of his death was Armies Of The Night, a fabulous piece of work, featuring Mailer as both reporter and protester.

All these men are authors. I’m writing this just two days before I am to give a talk to a group of librarians from the City University of New York, which by the way is the hometown of all these fine writers, and I write this post as a reminder that libraries are where we go to find writing; for without authors there would be no writing, and hence no need for libraries.

I am writing about Mr. Levin due to a particularly vivid memory that goes back over three decades.

On a crisp day in the middle of November, 1975, I took my daughter Alison for a stroll in the park. She was then not quite one, so I did the strolling as she observed from her stroller.

We then lived on West 93rd Street, and entered the park at the 93rd Street entrance. This was about five years before my wife and several friends began work on a project to get the city to renovate the playground that is just to the north of that entrance, and only those old enough to remember how the playground was then and how much better it is today can fully appreciate just how much they improved the quality of that patch of ground through several years of voluntary effort.

We veered to the north to avoid the Central Park Reservoir, and walked along a path near its northern edge. (Just over a decade later I would run around the Reservoir almost every morning for close to a year, stopping only when our family left the city to move to Chappaqua, our current home in the suburbs of New York.)

As we neared the stone bulding that was built as a pumping station, the twin of a similar building on the southern edge of the Reservoir, I noticed various trucks and film equipment, so I knew that a film shooting was in progress.

I learned the name of the movie when I saw it a few months later. It was The Boys from Brazil, based on the novel of the same name by Mr. Levin.

OOPS! I just looked up that move in imdb and realizeed that the movie was Marathon Man. We had strolled by as they were filming the climactic scene at the end, where the hero, the character portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, struggles with the villain, portrayed by Sir Lawrence Olivier.

Then again, Mr. Goldman is also a fine author, and I saw Mr. Levin’s play Deathtrap when it first opened on Broadway. Not only did it have a plot with more twists and turns than I can recall, but it had an exceptional cast, with Marian Seldes and John Wood in the leading roles. I first saw Mr. Wood on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, one of my mother’s favorite plays. He also starred for a while in Peter Shaeffer’s Amadeus, the play that starred Ian McKellan and first brought his enormous acting skills to the attention of the American audience; now Sir Ian McKellan, he is world-famed for his portrayal of Gandalf in the movies based on the Tolkien novels, The Lord of the Rings. [1]

Oliver’s character in Marathon Man is based on the notorious Nazi, Mengele. I’ve become more aware of him recently as I am reading some of the writings of Simon Wiesenthal and Telford Taylor as part of my work on the Chaim Stern project.

Mr. Taylor, was a fellow class parent when Alison attended Columbia Greenhous Nursery School on West 116th a few years later. (Another now well-known class parent is Roland Betts, a friend since childhool of the current President Bush and the founder of the Chelsea Piers recreational complex on Manhattan’s West Site; he is a graduate of Yale and was then a school teacher in Harlem. Another is Richard Lingeman. Now the Senior Editor of the Nation, he was then working on his monumental biography of Theodore Dreiser, and our family visiting him and his family in their weekend home in Ellenville, New York.)

I just realized, as I did when writing the post “Hello World” through the ages, that once you start writing about good writing — or the authors of good writing — then it is hard to stop. For example, I find it near impossible to quote a passage from Shakespeare without enclosing more and more of the surrounding text — it is so compelling.

But I will draw to a close, for if you want to read more writing, from authors good or bad, then just head for the nearest library, and ask the librarian for some guidance.

Notes:

1. The Sunday Times Magazine had an article about the filming of the movie Amadeus many years back. I think it was written by Mr. Shaeffer, the author of the play. He said that Mozart’s music was played constantly during weeks of filming, yet he never found it tiresome.

My favorite scene from that movie is the one where Salieri chances upon a collection of fragments of Mozart’s compositions. As he reads them, the soundtrack has the music they denote, and each section is as compelling as the next. Salieri is astounded, and comments that that reading the manuscripts was like reading “dictation from God.”

Actual examples of manuscripts by Mozart and many other composers, including Beethoven, can be found in the Morgan Library in New York City. Mozart’s are notable for their clarity, in that there is little evidence of any correction. Beethoven’s, on the other hand, have numerous strikethroughs and revisions. It is as if he used a hammer and chisel to put the notes on paper; the evidence of his overwhelming creative energy is compelling.

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