Wrapping Up The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Rosemary’s Baby By Ira Levin

(Click here for information on the 2022 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. This week, the final selection, Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin)


Well, constant readers, again this year we expand the concept of “summer” into “any point before December 31st”. I guess I could make the connection between Christmas and the main character’s lapsed Catholicism… but I’m really more interested in Levin as a male novelist who suggests that Husbands Are Trash.

We looked at his The Stepford Wives in this space in 2013, and despite having seen the extremely-faithful 1968 film adaptation, I was still surprised by how, in print, Stepford retreads a lot of the same ground. Mainly: ladies, think twice about getting married, because your loving husband is fully capable of having you turned into a robot/raped and impregnated by Satan in order to further his own career.

As the novel opens, Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, married barely a year and living in Guy’s studio bachelor pad, have just been notified that they’re off the waiting list for an apartment in the celebrated Bramford building, and despite having recently signed a lease in a soulless high-rise, Rosemary urges her husband to tour the apartment, accompanied by the snappy New York real estate patter of the manager, Mr. Micklas:

“This apartment has four rooms, two baths, and five closets. Originally the house consisted of very large apartments- the smallest was a nine- but now they’ve almost all been broken up into fours, fives, and sixes. Seven E is a four that was originally the back part of a ten.”

Rosemary, a housewife with artistic ambitions, and Guy, an actor who mainly works in television, find the apartment odd from the start, including the fact that the elderly previous tenant (“she was one of the first women lawyers in New York state”) has placed an enormous secretary cabinet in front of the linen closet before falling into a coma and dying.

Like Stepford, this is a very short novel, and the clues come fast and furious, here aided along by “Hutch”, an elderly friend of Rosemary’s from her post-collegiate bachelorette days, the sort of academic that conveniently offers information relevant to the mystery that is unfolding. In this case, Hutch immediately warns the Woodhouses against the Bramford, detailing its weird and gory history involving the occult in New York, including a satanic cult, a number of murders, and at least one instance of cannibalism amongst the tenants. While even he expresses doubts that the most notorious resident, Adrian Marcato, conjured up “the living Satan” in the Bramford lobby in the last century, he still warns

“eventually a house becomes a – a kind of rallying place for people who are more prone than others to certain types of behavior.”

Guy and Rosemary make the move anyway, and as August passes into September, they are more concerned about Guy’s acting career seeming to stall out; he’s still getting residuals from an Anacin commercial and gets three days work on Another World, but is passed over for a plum role in a play. Meanwhile, Rosemary is at home dealing with decorating and furnishing the new apartment, as well as the creepy basement laundry room and her nosy neighbors, the elderly Minnie and Roman Castevet.

This is how fast Levin moves the plot: Rosemary meets Terry, a young woman living with the Castevets after they “rescue” her from a life of drug addiction. The two make a pact to do their laundry together and seem to become fast friends… and then just three days later, Guy and Rosemary arrive home to find the building a crime scene, as Terry has apparently committed suicide by jumping out of the Castevets’ 7th floor window.

This incident coincides with Minnie and Roman taking even more of an interest in Guy and Rosemary’s lives (Roman claims to come from a family with theatrical connections) and a bizarre incident that results in Guy’s good fortune: the actor that won the part is suddenly, inexplicably struck blind and Guy is hired for the role.

Guy also suddenly takes an interest in fatherhood, and Rosemary (long-practiced in the Rhythm Method) plans a romantic date night for the day most likely for a successful conception. Things Do Not Go As Planned, when she conks out after dinner and has a horrifying nightmare involving John and Jackie Kennedy, her neighbors and some kind of monster. She wakes up nude in her own bed the next morning with some bad scratches and Guy slickly dismisses the suggestion of marital rape… which to Levin’s credit, is exactly what he has depicted.

Guy seems fine with the Castevets taking an intrusive interest in the process of conception and Rosemary’s subsequent pregnancy, and (like Walter Eberhart) dismisses his wife’s misgivings as hysteria. After changing obstetricians to a “society” doctor recommended by the Castevets, she’s put on a strange program of herbal milkshakes prepared by Minnie, and continues to lose weight and suffer excruciating pain as the pregnancy progresses, concerned waved away by both husband and doctor.

Rosemary rebels after the new year, throwing herself a party and inviting only her old friends, making a point of excluding the Castevets and the other Bramford residents that Guy has been spending all of his free time with. Guy tries to keep an eye on her, but her old girlfriends get her away from him (the literally lock him out of the kitchen) and question her about what is going on, why she looks so sickly and frail and assure her that the symptoms she’s having are NOT NORMAL, convincing her to seek a second opinion from her original doctor.

When she informs Guy of her plans the next morning, and he declares her friends “not-very-bright bitches”. In the midst of their fight, Rosemary’s pains suddenly stop and her pregnancy suddenly feels “normal”. In the following weeks she begins gaining weight, and resumes the herbal regiment Minnie provides.

However, Rosemary’s suspicions are reignited when Hutch comes to visit, notes several odd things about the Castevets (Minnie brought over candles during the 1965 NYC blackout… but why are they all black candles?) and later he fails to meet her for a brunch appointment; Rosemary finds out that he’s fallen into a coma. Rosemary starts putting clues together again after she catches Guy in a lie, has a strange conversation with the actor who went blind, and finally receives a death-bed message from Hutch. And, like Stepford, she gets up the courage to seek help getting away from Guy, only to find that she only has men to turn to, and those men betray her: when she returns to her original obstetrician, he listens seriously to her story, suggests she rests in his office while he makes arrangements to have her admitted to the maternity ward at Mt. Sinai… and calls her husband an doctor to inform them that she’s having prepartum psychosis. The shock of the betrayal (and a last-ditch effort to escape) sends Rosemary into labor, and when she comes to, Guy informs her that the baby has died… and in the cruelest twist of all the doctor blames her:

“In the hospital I might have been able to do something, but there simply wasn’t time to get you there.”

However, as the weeks go on, and Rosemary remains sedated, constantly watched over by the Castevets’ friend, she starts to doubt that story…  and she’s willing to resort to murder and plans on a murder-suicide to prove herself right, crawling through the linen closet that previous tenant had blocked off and finding the whole coven celebrating the birth of the anti-Christ, as her husband suggests

“I mean, suppose you’d had a baby and lost it; wouldn’t be the same? And we’re getting so much in return, Ro.”

I don’t have all that much to say about Roman (uggghhhhhhhh) Polanski’s 1968 film, mainly because it is exceptionally faithful to the source material. Levin backgrounds the first part of the book with the impending visit of Pope Paul VI to New York (Guy and Rosemary watch his address at Yankee Stadium on their “date night”), which is cut from the movie. The film does its supporting casting extremely well: while John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow are fine as Guy and Rosemary, the casting of a slew of classic Hollywood light comedy stars as the satanists is where is really shines: Ruth Gordon was the major comeback story, but Ralph Bellamy and Patsy Kelly are also extremely creepy in their roles.

Odds and Ends:


A made-for-TV sequel aired in 1976, with only Ruth Gordon returning in her role; Guy and Rosemary are played by George Maharis and Patty Duke, who strike me as exactly the TV equivalents of Cassavetes and Farrow.

This TV sequel had no relation to Son of Rosemary, Levin’s final novel, which was itself combined with the original for a 2014 TV miniseries

The introduction to the 2014 tie-in edition by Otto Penzler notes that as a person Levin was a rather jolly fellow who truly enjoyed the company of other people, but was insecure about his lack of frequency of his publishing (“only” seven novels over 44 years) and ambivalent about the success of Rosemary’s Baby, as a self-described Jewish Atheist, and the rise in interest in the occult in the following decades.

Availability: Book and movie in print and streaming.

Name That Book! Update
Still accepting queries and solutions via email, look for a major overhaul in the new year! Again, I ask for your patience as I process these hundreds of requests and create a format that’s easier for everyone!


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9 Responses to Wrapping Up The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Rosemary’s Baby By Ira Levin

  1. I didn’t reread this one, having picked it up at the college library in 1997 while working on my MLIS. Definitely a period piece, but now I want to read some other best sellers from this time period. I’ll have to be better about the ISBC this coming summer. It’s a great idea!

    • mondomolly says:

      Aw, thanks! And I am definitely interested in this era of best sellers- especially in light of Levin’s comments about interest in the occult and how Rosemary begat The Exorcist, The Omen, The Other…

  2. Andrea Smith says:

    One of my favorite authors! There’s also one he wrote years earlier, called “A Kiss Before Dying” which examines the same theme: men are inherently evil, do not ever marry one lol.

    • mondomolly says:

      Thanks for commenting! Rosemary and Stepford are the only two of his I’ve read, and it’s definitely got me curious about how he portrays men/husbands/marriage in his other work!

  3. Funbud says:

    I read Rosemary’s Baby one summer when I was in college and found it an incredibly creepy read, even after having seen the movie. Rosemary’s isolation as a young bride (her family is far away -Colorado? – and her girlfriends are mostly single and busy) was very visceral on the page and somehow very modern. And I love when she gets the first solid clue that something sinister is up with the Castavets: Hutch leaves her a book about witchcraft with a message that “the title is an anagram”. She gets out the scrabble board and starts moving letters around and suddenly…chilling!
    The film has less period detail than the novel, making it less dated.

    • mondomolly says:

      That is a really good point that I don’t really touch on- the book is written in 1967 but set in 1965, which makes it just that much farther away from the national attention on the mainstream women’s movement of the late 60s/70s. In a lot of ways Rosemary and really square and conservative, in a way that was much less obvious in ways that it would be a few years later, IMO.

  4. Fran says:

    I know the film Rosemary’s Baby is well regarded as a classic, but I much prefer the book. The funny thing is that it’s extremely faithful to the source, as you mention, almost a 1:1 adaptation as far as dialogue and setting. But any of Rosemary’s internal thoughts and questioning Polanski just cuts out. Without it, Rosemary loses her agency and her intuition… which would steer her right if not the influence of her repressed childhood… which is also cut from the film. Your recap made me question why exactly Polanski made these changes. After reading it, the next time someone asks me why the book is better, I’ll say because Ira Levin doesn’t trust men! xD

    • mondomolly says:

      I love it! I’m going to have to rewatching the movie version of the Stepford Wives (as if I need an excuse) because I think that adaptation similarly subtly softens the depiction of the men.

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