Rosemary's Baby was published in 1967. Up to this point in his career, Levin had already experienced considerable success. His first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, had created a big splash in 1954, and remained in print selling strongly.
He'd also made his mark writing television scripts and, even more so on Broadway, with two hit comedies.
So, with a classic crime novel under his belt and some hilarious and highly successful shows... Was the natural next move Rosemary's Baby?
Well, a suspense novel absolutely made sense — A Kiss Before Dying was a masterpiece of suspense. But what about a suspense novel which was also a full-blown story of the supernatural?
Novels of the supernatural had climbed the bestseller lists before, notably the works of Dennis Wheatley. But such books pretty much resided in a genre ghetto. They were horror stories.
And unlike crime — which has always been respectable, indeed is regarded right up there with real literature — horror was as disreputable as fantasy or science fiction.
And science fiction, with a few very rare exceptions, was the kiss of death in the marketplace, both then and now. (Note how Rosemary's Baby is described as a "suspense thriller" on the Fawcett cover... no hint of horror or "genre".)
The most striking precursor of Rosemary — and a superb novel in its own right — is Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife, which like Levin's novel locates its tale of dark magic in a mundane and realistic setting (in this case amidst the academic rivalries of an American university town).
But Conjure Wife was packaged and marketed in paperback as a pulp horror confection (the cover shown here calls it "Science Fantasy"). Not much chance of critical respect or breakthrough bestseller status for poor, much-deserving Mr Leiber.
Rosemary's Baby, on the other hand was aimed squarely at the mainstream. How did Levin and his publisher's make such a shrewd move?
Well, there were precedents. Ray Russell's 1962 novel The Case Against Satan was a tale of demonic possession which anticipated William Peter Blatty by about ten years, and it had received respectful reviews and respectable sales, propelled by a blurb from Ian Fleming.
But when Russell's novel appeared in paperback, it was packaged as a sensational and lurid story.
Unlike Rosemary's Baby, which was given classy and restrained art based on the hardcover design.
And then there was Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, which was a big success in 1959. Indeed, Barbara Nelson in the Library Journal explicitly compared Rosemary's Baby at the time of its publication to the work of Jackson.
But as the title indicates, Shirley Jackson's novel was a haunted house story following in the classic tradition.
Nobody was getting knocked up by Satan in Shirley Jackson's book
Interestingly, when it was first published, Rosemary's Baby was nominated for an Edgar Alan Poe award for outstanding crime (in this case presumably suspense) fiction. Levin's debut, A Kiss Before Dying had actually won an Edgar.
But Rosemary's Baby is a tale of the supernatural, and unashamedly so. Ira Levin showed great courage in crossing the line into this genre. And his publishers, Random House, are to be applauded for supporting him so effectively.
Because at this time no one was putting horror stories in tasteful covers (like Burnt Offerings, published six years after Rosemary, in 1973) and thereby targeting a mass audience.
There was no thriving category of mainstream supernatural fiction. Levin invented it with his novel — and The Exorcist, Audrey Rose, Burnt Offerings, Carrie and hundreds of others owe him a huge debt.
Oh, and in answer to the question we began with... I think there was only one reason Ira Levin wrote Rosemary's Baby. Because the idea had seized him, and he was passionate about it — and having a hell of a good time writing it. All of which shows in the superlative quality of the book, which I'll discuss in my next post.
Meanwhile, for anyone interested in the specific genesis of this novel and the ideas behind it, there is an outstanding website at Ira Levin Org. That's where I got the handwritten note by Levin showing the first, you'll excuse the expression, seed of Rosemary's Baby.
(Image credits: the lovely, and beautifully designed Fawcett cover, with its Freudian penetration of the 'O' by the 'R', is from the Internet Archive. The Devil Rides Out is from The Dennis Wheatley Project (an excellent site). The American paperback of Case Against Satan is from Flickr. Conjure Wife is from Battered, Tattered, Yellow and Creased. The Haunting of Hill House is from Too Much Horror Fiction, a useful and insightful blog. As mentioned, the Ira Levin handwritten note is courtesy of the absolutely excellent Ira Levin Org. Burnt Offerings is from Good Reads. The red Dell cover, the first paperback incarnation, is also from Good Reads. Both of these latter covers, incidentally, are designed by the great Paul Bacon.)