Originally appeared in Liberty Magazine, July 1992.
It has been nearly thirty hours since Andrea Rich called me with the terrible news: Roy Childs had just died in a Florida hospital, apparently from respiratory failure. I am pleased to write this tribute, a welcome relief from my tears.
Roy and I were close friends for twenty-one years; over the past six years, we talked on the phone virtually every day. He used to say that I knew him better than anyone else. That was a great compliment, for I loved the man dearly.
How does one explain Roy Childs? I am tempted to answer: For friends no explanation is necessary, for strangers no explanation is possible. Roy was a presence - physical, intellectual, and emotional. To meet him once was to remember him forever. Roy was an army of raw emotions which, as they careened and collided in his immense frame, were refined by a powerful intellect, expressed with a rich voice and tempered with a wry sense of humor. It is difficult even to imagine a skinny Roy Childs; everything about him was bigger than life.
It is also difficult to imagine the libertarian movement without Roy Childs. He was a colossus who profoundly influenced the early movement. Those who know of Roy only through his book reviews should read some of his early work on anarchism and political theory. Those articles reveal a mind of astonishing brilliance and depth, a mind fueled by a passion for ideas and a love of liberty.
Aside from his original contributions, Roy played a crucial role in the early movement. He disseminated and popularized the anarchistic ideas of Murray Rothbard, thereby giving libertarians a much-needed radical alternative to the more conservative views of Ayn Rand. The conflict and competition between those two paradigms, the Randian and the Rothbardian, excited many young libertarians and inspired them to explore new frontiers in libertarian theory.
There was yet another area where Roy played a crucial role, one he was especially proud of. Through his articles and reviews, Roy introduced a predominantly Objectivist audience to a broader philosophical framework, most notably to works by Aristotelian philosophers on epistemology and ethics. Those books provided valuable intellectual ammunition, and they helped to wean many young Objectivists from their cliquish, defensive attitudes.
J.S. Mill once said of Jeremy Bentham that he was a teacher of teachers. This was equally true of Roy, especially with me. During the early seventies, Roy told me repeatedly that I should branch out into fields other than philosophy. He complained (with characteristic tact) that I was “tabula rasa” when it came to history, and that philosophers who know nothing except philosophy are a social menace. (He believed the same was true of economists and other specialists.) Libertarianism would never progress without interdisciplinary scholars. Therefore, Roy asked rhetorically, why didn’t I become one? Did I want to remain a boy Objectivist for the rest of my life?
I took Roy’s advice to heart, and for the next eight years I devoted myself almost exclusively to history. Roy didn’t always give good advice, but when it was good, it was very good.
Those were exciting times, the early seventies, when Roy and I lived in the same Hollywood apartment building. I was writing my book on atheism, and Roy was writing a remarkable series of articles on “Anarchism and Justice” (published in The Individualist). Here we were - two budding intellectuals with a diet of discussion consisting of epistemology, psychology, politics, theories of sex, and much more.
Inflamed with the innocence and enthusiasm of youth, Roy and I haunted libraries and bookstores, attended lectures, gave lectures of our own, participated in debates on anarchism, religion, and free will, and bugged Nathaniel Branden. Roy seemed delighted when I called him “the fountainhead of libertarian gossip.” He quizzed everyone on the Rand-Branden split and had figured out the details of that scandal long before they became public knowledge.
We were flat broke during those years, but we didn’t seem to mind. Pleasures of the mind substituted for creature comforts. Roy was happy if he had enough money to go to the movies and buy an occasional classical record. We brought in some money by writing book reviews at twenty-five dollars a pop, which kept us in frozen dinners and soft drinks for a week. Roy’s biggest score came when he located a bookseller who had drastically underpriced a first edition presentation copy of We the Living, which Roy could resell for a handsome profit. But there was a problem: the dealer was thirty miles away, and Roy lacked transportation. Roy offered me twenty dollars if I would drive him on my motorcycle. So we piled aboard a 250cc “two banger” Yamaha and embarked on a sixty-mile journey along treacherous California freeways.
With Roy as my constant companion, I had a perpetual source of free entertainment. I often urged Roy to repeat his best routines for young fans, who would double-up with laughter as he acted out the role of a disturbed Donald Duck (complete with an authentic voice) who was doing “sentence completion” in group therapy. (“Mother was always…sitting on me. Mother was always…dunking me in water.”) Or Roy might deliver his famous speech explaining how Dracula was the ideal Randian hero. (Dracula pursued his rational self-interest according to the standard of “vampire qua vampire”; he despised mysticism as manifested in holy water and the cross; most significantly, it was he who penetrated and the woman who was penetrated.)
Roy and I often reminisced about those halcyon days; we wondered what had changed, and why. The libertarian movement seemed to have lost much of its vitality, and the viciousness of politics had turned many former friends into bitter enemies. Or maybe it was just us - older, wiser, and somewhat more cynical.
Roy’s later years were not easy for him. Plagued with physical problems, and faced with the need to earn a living, Roy was unable to muster the time and resources to undertake major projects. He often spoke of his desire to write a book on the history and ideas of the modern movement. And he desperately wanted to have his own newsletter, so he could write the kind of incisive commentaries and articles he had become famous for as editor of Libertarian Review.
Unfortunately, these dreams were never realized. Roy had been stigmatized in some circles as “difficult,” so he found it nearly impossible to obtain funding. Much of the movement he had helped create turned its back on him, and I shudder when I recall the pain this caused him.
Yes, Roy could be difficult at times, but he gave far more than he got. His ideas and his vision, the fruit of many years of intense intellectual labor, were free for the asking. He sparked enthusiasm in others when he felt none himself. He set up projects for others when he had no hope of getting one himself. He was a generous and kind man.
Some libertarians stuck by Roy to the end. I wish to thank those people on Roy’s behalf. He spoke of you often, and with great affection.
Barely a day has passed since Roy ceased to exist, and I already feel pangs of terror and dread. So much of what I am I owe to him. I would probably have given up long ago, if not for his counsel and encouragement.
Farewell, my fine friend! Farewell!
George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith's fourth book, The System of Liberty, was recently published by Cambridge University Press.