Ira Levin’s Creepy Valentine: Rosemary’s Baby and the Power of Place

Rosemary's Baby book cover

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse had signed a lease on a five-room apartment in a geometric white house on First Avenue when they received word, from a woman named Mrs. Cortez, that a four-room apartment in the Bramford had become available. The Bramford, old, black, and elephantine, is a warren of high-ceilinged apartments prized for their fireplaces and Victorian detail. Rosemary and Guy had been on its waiting list since their marriage but had finally given up...

It may or may not be a coincidence that Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin’s sly valentine to the lost world of mid-twentieth-century New York, entered my life at the same time as my growing awareness of the power and mystery of place. Already beginning to travel widely but not yet a fiction writer myself, I still remember the mild shock I felt on encountering environments so different from those I already knew that some of them barely seemed like places at all. Anyone living amid the regular, measured blocks of a city who encounters the scaleless, dreamlike spaces of the desert for the first time will know what I mean. My own transition from New York to Colorado’s Front Range wasn’t as drastic; still, it was a defining moment for me when I first hiked to the crest of the foothills, and suddenly, unexpectedly (don’t ask me why I didn’t expect it), that first vista of the Rockies stretched out panoramically before me. There it was, not a poem about mountains, not an Ansel Adams photograph or a travel poster, but the thing itself, forcing its presence on me through the crisp, clear air, twenty miles farther west. What mattered wasn’t merely discovering the mountains, startling as that was. There was also the awakening of the part of me that was capable of wanting them, the surprise of finding a piece of myself I had previously not even known existed.

I was not consciously considering any of this when Rosemary’s Baby became part of my inner geography. All I remember clearly is that, some time after my first reading, I began to see the plain facts of the city where the novel was set, and where I then lived, as things behind whose surfaces lurked evil secrets or twisted unexplainable mysteries. I felt almost a shiver of fear that such possibilities could exist alongside the tangible surfaces and spaces of city life: street signs, long, endless walls of high-rise apartment buildings on the avenues, textures of sidewalks or paint on fence rails, the juicy greenness of a park, the light from the sky or late afternoon sun falling on a facade. Perhaps, I thought, the city might contain these unspeakable things precisely because of the mundaneness of the details, the ordinariness I could see proving the horror I could not. In other words, I was hooked.

Looking back on that time, I think it was multiple re-readings, spurred on by this kind of enchantment, that allowed me to find the exceptional, intimate feeling for a certain kind of middle-class life in New York half a century ago that is the book’s triumph. For what lasts in Rosemary’s Baby is the precision of its middle-classness, the particular way it triangulates the physical and social landscape, the inner consciousness of mid-century New Yorkers who lived neither very high nor very low on the social scale.

Before going any further, though, I ought to admit what you doubtless already suspect: Rosemary’s Baby is a novel I love. Don’t you have books like that in your life, too? I mean the ones with cracked spines or yellowing pages that you’ve read half to death but cannot give up, the ones you reach for when all you want is the gratification of getting lost in a story, and that you could find on the bookshelf in the dark if need be. Once I would have dismissed that love as a guilty pleasure, like the taste for gummy bears, irrelevant to my “real” response to it, as if the sources of simple gratification were simple in themselves, easy to penetrate and understand. It was only those multiple re-readings and re-re-readings I spoke of, along with the slow passage of time, that let me pierce the novel’s calculated artlessness and perfect construction to find its beating heart. But I never would have found that heart if I hadn’t fallen in love with it and let the love carry me deep into the novel’s interior in ways mere admiration or literary analysis alone never would.

Consider all the implications welling up from the novel’s opening paragraph with its limpid, affectless language. Nothing in the writing advertises its presence as a literary “device,” yet anyone familiar with the events being described can sense a whole world unfolding. A few years too old to be classified as baby boomers, Rosemary and Guy emerge as upwardly mobile young moderns of the postwar era with all the values and attitudes of their set. They are clearly in love with the Bramford’s Victorian architecture, not as something they grew up with, but as playful nostalgia from an era they never knew, something they can live in, admire, luxuriate in, yet still feel some distance from and walk away from any time they want, a kind of contentless form. Perhaps they even take some secret pride in their ability to find beauty and value in what the generation before theirs would have regarded as an unfashionable mistake. But––and this is equally important––the privileged perspective isn’t the result of personal privilege that might have come from having money or social standing. The Woodhouses are simply one more anonymous couple who had to get in line, wait their turn, and nearly had to settle for the boring anonymity of a modern highrise on the east side.

That is a lot to reveal in these first three sentences, creating circumstances and expectations that will prove critical to the story as it unfolds. In that story, Rosemary and Guy move into the Bramford, which, unknown to them, is populated by a coven of latter-day witches. The first witches they meet seem like nothing more than the nice, elderly couple down the hall in 7A. Soon afterward, though, Guy, an obscure but ambitious young actor, learns their secret and eventually arranges to have Rosemary put under a spell and impregnated by Satan in return for a critical breakthrough role in his acting career. Only toward the end does Rosemary begin to recognize that each new development might be a conspiracy against her, or could be rationalized away with an innocent explanation. When another actor who snatched a crucial role away from Guy suddenly goes blind, letting Guy step in to replace him, she wonders if it was an accident or a witches’ spell. When Rosemary’s older friend, the children’s book author Edward “Hutch” Hutchins falls into a mysterious coma, was it because he began to suspect the sinister truth or did he just happen to fall ill? “You’re going to have your baby in four days, Idiot Girl,” she thinks near the end. “So you’re all tense and nutty and you’ve built up a whole lunatic persecution thing out of a bunch of completely unrelated coincidences. There are no real witches. There are no real spells.”

Told from the unsuspecting Rosemary’s viewpoint, the horrific truth about her pregnancy emerges gradually, through this smokescreen of realistic-seeming detail. Realism that isn’t real at all, of course, but carefully heightened with a flawless eye and ear for the exact level of Rosemary and Guy’s particular tastes and interests as minor figures in the “creative” and “artistic” subsector of the city’s middle class. Moving. Fixing up the apartment. Going to the theater or “a friend’s exhibit of metal constructions.” Rosemary and Guy meet Hutch for dinner at Klube’s, a small German restaurant on twenty-third street. Guy buys a shirt advertised in the New Yorker. Next-door neighbors Messrs. Dubin and Devore live in an apartment with red-and-gold-striped wallpaper and a black sideboard visible from the hall. Rosemary’s predicament acquires its scary credibility from this near-documentary treatment, allowing the author to flawlessly blur the lines between lived experience and fantasy until the very last scene. Yet this feeling seems to me so inward in its understanding of the key characters’ attitudes and needs, so delicate and sweetly precise, that at times it peels free of the function it serves for the thriller and takes on a life of its own, making Rosemary’s Baby read almost like a novel of manners.

And so, perhaps inadvertently, a second story emerges from beneath the thriller, one with an almost tender regard for the beliefs, tastes, and rituals of upper-middle-class life in the big city half a century ago, the dailiness of it, the familiar comforting humdrumness of shopping trips, errands, parties, the taste in furniture, clothes, art, wallpaper, restaurants, encounters on the street or apartment halls with friends and neighbors. Instead of the high life of The Great Gatsby or the grinding slum realism of Call It Sleep, we get Rosemary traveling to upper Broadway for swordfish steaks and across town to Lexington Avenue for cheeses, “not because she couldn’t get swordfish steaks and cheeses right there in the neighborhood but simply because on that snappy bright-blue morning she wanted to be all over the city, walking briskly with her coat flying, drawing second glances for her prettiness, impressing tough clerks with the precision and know-how of her orders.” Hutch presents the Woodhouses with a teak ice bucket with an orange lining as a housewarming present. Rosemary wears a pair of burgundy silk lounging pajamas. Guy plays an LP of Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter. Rosemary sees Dubin or Devore (she isn’t sure which) carrying a suit swathed in cleaner’s plastic. Guy forgets to pick up his favorite dessert: a pumpkin pie from Horn and Hardart’s. Rosemary votes (Lindsay for Mayor). As these bits of cultural detritus accumulate, they begin to evoke a whole social horizon, of lives lived with a careful balance of cheerfulness and anxiety amid the small potatoes of middle-class hopes and disappointments. Guy’s acting ambitions may bring him success, even stardom, but he could just as easily wind up with a life of commercials and soap operas and affluent obscurity surrounded by a whole Bloomingdale’s worth of tasteful artifacts his half-success would bring. There’s pity and empathy and possibly some cruelty in that, something the author surely never intended.

Or perhaps he did. One of the mysteries, to me, of Rosemary’s Baby is exactly how aware Ira Levin was of the extent and depth of his imaginative dive. That he was aware I have no doubt; Levin has stated that he anchored his story in the reality of that place and time as a way of making himself believe his unbelievable story, which then made it possible to persuade his readers. But this does not have to mean anything as straightforward as mining his own life for material. Perhaps the need to make his story feel credible forced him ever deeper into the emotional logic of how his characters’ lives were performed and how they came to life physically in their urbane setting, bringing out possibilities he hadn’t anticipated. Regardless of its origins, the effect is a story written so close to its title character’s consciousness that it leaves the reader with only the smallest possible distance between Rosemary’s knowledge and understanding of the life she lives with Guy and the book’s portrayal of the same.

Why should this bring such freshness and tenderness to the story? I have a theory about Rosemary and the novel’s attitude toward her and the city where she lives. A refugee from a big, traditional, suffocatingly close family in the Midwest (“stupid Rosemary Reilly from Omaha”), Rosemary comes to New York without (apparently) anything more than a high-school education, a need to spread her wings, and guilt over the past she abandoned. Hungry for knowledge and freedom, but as yet unfocused, she initially bonds with her older friend, the children’s book author Hutch, who gives her “strong tea and talks about parents and children and one’s duty to oneself. She asked him questions that had been unspeakable in Catholic High; he sent her to a night course in philosophy at NYU. ‘I’ll make a duchess out of this cockney flower girl yet,’ he said, and Rosemary had had wit enough to say ‘Garn!’”

New York in the '60s, then, turns out to be exactly what Rosemary thinks she needs, without ever quite resolving her relationship either to her adopted city or the one she left behind. She gets a job (as a secretary) at CBS, takes a sculpture class in addition to the philosophy course, goes on dates, lives in an apartment with two girls from Atlanta on lower Lexington Avenue. In other words, without significant education, breadth of experience, or the leisure to invest in any special interests or pursuits, lacking the drive or purpose that might push her toward a larger cause or goal, Rosemary, by the most natural of processes, becomes part of the vast army of unattached young women pursuing the big city’s endless charivari of things to do, groups to join, people to meet, opportunities for sensations, experiences and diversions they never knew back home. Can you hear Burt Bacharach’s music playing in the background yet? Eventually (we are not told how or when; this is all backstory) she meets Guy, the struggling young actor, so full of talent and potential and drive to succeed that it becomes fatally easy for Rosemary to abandon her own vague aspirations in favor of his intensely focused ones without noticing the deep difference between them. She has friends while he has contacts. She’s something of a homebody while he constantly makes the rounds of meetings and casting calls (“How was the meeting with Stanley Kubrick?” “Didn’t show, the fink.”). He calculates and strategizes, she often has a guilty conscience. Some of this behavior, occurring as it does, a few years before the flowering of the women’s movement, may strike new readers as overly passive or submissive. And yet because the story is fundamentally Rosemary’s, written almost claustrophobically close to her viewpoint, it’s her consciousness of her circumstances that becomes controlling, becomes the authentic one. Fashionable attitudes and pop irony may be the outward trappings of Rosemary’s mind, but deep down, in her secret heart, she’s as sincere as the real Victorians who once lived in her Victorian apartment.

Some authors might have made satire out of Rosemary’s halting steps toward sophistication, poking fun at her endless, rootless pursuit of the proper artisanal cheese, her interestingly creative friends, her apartment painted in the perfect shade of off-white (“The painters came on Wednesday the eighteenth; patched, spackled, primed, painted, and were gone on Friday the twentieth, leaving colors very much like Rosemary’s samples.”). This sort of comedy has been done so often that it’s now overfamilar, the accepted stance to take toward newly acquired manners. To his credit, Levin did not do that––could not have done it without an unacceptable loss of sympathy for his title character. Something in the artistic dilemma of needing to be true to Rosemary’s genuine desire for happiness, comfort, and love, but also true to the inauthenticity of her tastes creates the alchemy that makes the novel’s approach so exceptional and fresh. Consider, for example, the party Rosemary and Guy give for their friends in their beautifully refurbished apartment. It’s a critical moment in their lives, a chance to assert who they are and stake a claim to a certain social status before their peers (“‘Can I look around?’ Claudia asked. ‘If the rest of it’s as nice as this I’m going to cut my throat.’” A very mid-'60s thing to say).

And so, instead of laughing at Rosemary, we’re allowed to feel some pity, some understanding, as she makes garlic bread, wearing her loose brown hostess gown and her Vidal Sassoon haircut, serving her Chilean seafood casserole (“chupe”) while her hired bartender named Renato pours the drinks. Now it’s the moment after dinner when everyone is gently lubricated and relaxed; no one is trying to role-play or impress anyone any more. This scene is worth quoting at length. Read it not only for the spring-water transparency of the language, but also for the way details chime against details, so that the depth and completeness of Rosemary’s satisfaction acquire a kind of poignance.

Joan’s over-fifty date sat on the floor by her chair, talking up to her earnestly and fondling her feet and ankles. Elise talked to Pedro; he nodded, watching Mike and Allan across the room. Claudia began reading palms.

They were low on Scotch but everything else was holding up fine.

She served coffee, emptied ashtrays, and rinsed out glasses. Tiger and Carole Wendell helped her.

Later she sat in a bay with Hugh Dunstan, sipping coffee and watching fat wet snowflakes shear down, an endless army of them, with now and then an outrider striking one of the diamond panes and sliding and melting.

“Year after year I swear I’m going to leave the city,” Hugh Dunstan said; “get away from the crime and the noise and all the rest of it. And every year it snows or the New Yorker has a Bogart Festival and I’m still here.”

Rosemary smiled and watched the snow. “This is why I wanted this apartment,” she said. “To sit here and watch the snow, with the fire going.”

Hugh looked at her and said, “I’ll bet you still read Dickens.”

“Of course I do,” she said. “Nobody stops reading Dickens.”

Guy came looking for her. “Bob and Thea are leaving,” he said.

If there is such a thing as a poetry of upper-middle-class life, it must resemble this passage. Notice, among other things, the wonderfully evocative way the names of the characters themselves help establish the setting and period. Dee Bertillon. The Chens. Hugh and Elise Dunstan. Lou and Claudia Comfort. Jimmy and Tiger Haenigsen. Guy’s agent Allan Stone, who arrives with “a beautiful Negro model named Rain Morgan.” I wonder what Jimmy and Tiger do. Is he an editor at Newsweek, she a modern dancer? What kind of counternovel would their lives make? How do the other partiers react to Allan and Rain’s presence? Thinking about what Rosemary and Guy’s party might look like to Rain Morgan is almost a novel in itself. It is the heightened believability of such a scene, its faithful recreation, not just of physical locale, but the bond between place, mood, and attitude, that makes the horror story all the more shocking as it emerges and makes Rosemary’s growing suspicion of a conspiracy all the more pitiable.

Finally, let me ask you to consider, once again, the complex relationship between the characters’ tastes and their identities. That complexity grows out of the fact that the characters are clearly proud of their advanced, fashionable tastes (and meant to be seen as such). And surely it is true that new tastes and attitudes can be liberating and if you believe in liberation, why shouldn’t this be a cause for pride? Yet tastes that are genuinely new also involve some form of risk. They might fail to catch on. Or if they do catch on they might create discomfort and enmity, threatening familiar practices and relationships. Such matters are not normally considered playful or fun.

It is in this context that the novel’s measured mixture of sophisticated tastes and utterly expected attitudes toward them becomes so funny, surprising, and perhaps shrewd, treating the characters’ appetites for Chilean seafood or Bogart films, not as rarefied and special, but as familiar, comforting contrivances by which the characters mutually reaffirm their identities. Re-read, if you would, Hugh Dunstan’s remarks in the party scene quoted above, in which he uses his surface exasperation with the city where he lives as a backhanded way to express his hopeless (and probably unexamined) affection for it. Though this is never stated, it’s easy to guess that his attitudes are probably unformed by any serious exposure to other experiences of place, making his cosmopolitanism oddly provincial. There is something deeply insightful about these layered, contrasting feelings.

The recent revival of interest in mid-century tastes may cause those who know Rosemary’s Baby only from the unusually faithful movie made from it in 1968 (with its meticulous production design), or know that era through such enterprises as Mad Men or “Design Within Reach,” to see my reading as nostalgia. This is a mistake. The author’s imaginative act may be evocative (and the passage of time may throw its documentary-like feel for its era into high relief), but nostalgia forms no part of it. Maybe I can explain it by comparing it to The Moviegoer, another novel about another lost world I also happen to love. This time it’s mid-century New Orleans that’s so powerfully summoned: the fading summer light, the electricity in the air before a Gulf coast storm, the smells of cooking or sewage, the humidity and flying bugs, the familiar prattle of family and friends ensconced in tight social circles. Though I have visited New Orleans multiple times, I’ve never been on intimate terms with it and cherish Walker Percy’s masterpiece partly for its power to completely realize and immerse me in something I know only from a distance. Perhaps place simply matters to me in ways I can’t explain, making me more than normally susceptible to works that make me feel the essence, the quiddity, of any locale at all. To reverse Gertrude Stein’s crack about Oakland, there is always a there there, and it was Ira Levin’s accomplishment to have intuited and captured a slice of his own particular thereness as few others have.

It is said that you never read a book the same way twice, but how do you re-read a place? I raise this because as surely as I know a new kind of self arose in Colorado, I also know the older, urban self never really disappeared; rather it lingered stubbornly to demarcate or irritate the new, making sure my Coloradoness would never be as absolute as my New Yorkness had once been. And I think if you can live with that, if you can accept the tension between different senses of place in yourself, maybe it’s a good thing if it deepens your awareness of the several movie sets in which your life is invested. So I wonder: is it possible that the things in Rosemary’s Baby are so starkly evoked to me because I read about them within sight the foothills preceding the Front Range, the evergreens dusted with a light coat of snow? What about that night course in philosophy at NYU? I never took one of those, yet I can still see book-carrying students, Rosemary among them, bustling in and out of the slightly dilapidated stone buildings a block or two off Washington Square. What of Rosemary’s bay window (in which I never sat), with those fat, wet snowflakes? I can picture the snow casting a soft, blurring blanket over the city’s sharp edges and dirty corners; I can see empty avenues with long lines of traffic lights turning red, then green, red, then green, to no avail. Can I imagine such things more easily, do I feel their absence/presence more sharply because I contemplate them from a tree-shaded street in Wisconsin at nine o’clock on a July evening? With flickering fireflies? And a motorboat’s dark shape gliding across the surface of a lake that just barely reflects the night sky?

By now I can no longer separate the novel’s way of realizing time and place from my own sense of what it means for a place to be a place at all. Perhaps I read and re-read that book because it taught me how a place can be. But it seems equally likely my growing understanding of place taught me how much Rosemary’s Baby has to offer in that regard.

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