Levitt attended Columbia University, from which he received his bachelor's degree in 1921 and his law degree in 1924.
In 1917 Levitt joined the United States Army as an infantry private. Immediately after graduation, he was admitted to the New York bar and opened his own law practice. In 1941, Levitt reentered the army, this time as a captain in the Judge Advocate General's Corps. By the end of World War II, he had been promoted to colonel and was in charge of the Corps' training center in the borough of Queens in New York City. He maintained his connections to the military for many years thereafter, serving in the reserves and doing regular two-week tours of duty every summer.
Levitt was also active in community affairs: he was a member of the American Legion; a Mason (thirty-third degree); a member, and later president, of the Union Temple of Brooklyn; and a member of the board of directors, starting in 1950, and vice-chairman of the Brooklyn chapter of the American Red Cross.
Levitt entered politics soon after the war ended. In 1946, he served as campaign manager for the reelection bid of the scandal-scarred Democratic minority leader of the New York State Assembly, Irwin Steingut. In 1952 he was appointed to the New York City Board of Education by Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri and was elected its president in 1954. In September of that year, Levitt was asked by gubernatorial candidate W. Averell Harriman to join the Democratic-Liberal ticket as the candidate for comptroller of New York State. The previous candidate had been forced to withdraw from the race because of a damaging scandal. It was just a few weeks before the election, but on November 2, 1954, with help from Harriman's coattails, Levitt was elected comptroller.
He remained in Albany long after Harriman was gone, for a record six consecutive four-year terms. Levitt redefined the office of comptroller by pursuing an aggressive nonpartisan program of audits. Year after year, his staff turned out investigative reports that probed the management and disbursal of public funds statewide. Levitt, who liked to be called "Colonel, " acquired a reputation as steady, conservative, and serious. His audits, which included evaluations of procedures and management performance, in addition to the more customary balance-sheet data and budgetary accountings, were known for both their thoroughness and their fairness.
In 1961, at the urging of a group of disenchanted Democratic leaders, Levitt decided to seek the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York City. The ensuing primary campaign against incumbent Mayor Robert F. Wagner proved to be the only time Levitt ever lost an election. He was regarded as unbeatable in his reelection campaigns for state comptroller and survived the Republican ascendancy in Albany when Nelson A. Rockefeller dominated New York State politics. When the Democrats regained control of the state house in 1974, after Rockefeller had been appointed vice-president by Gerald Ford, Levitt won election to his sixth and final term with a victory margin of over 2 million votes.
Meanwhile, Levitt gained power within the New York Democratic organization. In 1965, he was chairman of the party's state convention. He also served as a delegate to the Democratic national conventions in 1968, when Hubert Humphrey was nominated, and in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was nominated. When Levitt declined to stand for reelection in 1978, he did not support the Democratic nominee to succeed him as state comptroller, New York City comptroller Harrison J. Goldin. Levitt, who had always tried to take a nonpartisan approach to the fiduciary duties of the comptroller, was concerned by Goldin's partisan reputation. He also was worried that Goldin would be inclined to make aggressive use of state pension funds to relieve New York City's fiscal crisis, an action that Levitt considered a violation of the comptroller's fiduciary responsibilities. Instead, Levitt informally supported the more conservative Republican nominee Edward V. Regan as his successor. Regan won the election. After he retired from public office, Levitt took a job in New York City, as an investment officer at the Lincoln Savings Bank. He was at his desk when he died.
Member of American Legion
Member of the Union Temple of Brooklyn
On June 30, 1929, Levitt married Dorothy Wolff, a schoolteacher; they had one child, Arthur Levitt, Jr. , who would grow up to be a leading Wall Street businessman and president of the American Stock Exchange.