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Jul 4, 2000

Creators and Producers: A Biography of Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand was one of the three “founding mothers” of modern libertarianism. She is best known as the author of Atlas Shrugged and other novels.

Ayn Rand did more than anybody else to develop a compelling moral case for individualism, liberty and free markets.

She won over millions to the philosophy of natural rights which had fallen out of fashion more than a century ago. She developed a coherent view of ethics, economics and politics. Rand was most famous for her dramatic philosophical novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). A New York Times reviewer acknowledged that “Ayn Rand is a writer of great power.” According to a survey by the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club, Atlas Shrugged ranked second after the Bible as the book that most influenced people’s lives. Rand wrote much more, non-fiction as well as fiction. Some 20 million copies of her books have been sold, and new collections of her writings and books about her continue to pour off the presses.

The Russian-born Rand spoke with a thick accent and didn’t seem entirely comfortable in the public spotlight, but she made the most of it. She appeared on TV with the likes of Mike Wallace and Phil Donahue, and Playboy published an interview with her.

She framed issues with refreshing clarity. For instance, she wrote: “What is the basic, the essential, the crucial principle that differentiates freedom from slavery? It is the principle of voluntary action versus physical coercion or compulsion…The issue is not slavery for a ‘good’ cause versus slavery for a ‘bad’ cause; the issue is not dictatorship by a ‘good’ gang versus dictatorship by a ‘bad gang. The issue is freedom versus dictatorship…If one upholds freedom, one must uphold man’s individual rights; if one upholds man’s individual rights, one must uphold his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to the pursuit of his own happiness…Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life…”

Rand disagreed with friends of liberty who hoped to gain influence with free market economics alone. As she wrote, “most people know in a vague, uneasy way, that Marxist economics are screwy. Yet this does not stop them from advocating the same Marxist economics…The root of the whole modern disaster is philosophical and moral. People are not embracing collectivism because they have accepted bad economics. They are embracing bad economics because they have embraced collectivism.”

It’s true Rand became a prickly pear. She lost patience with those who couldn’t understand her and compatriots who deviated from her views. In part, perhaps, this was because she had spent so many years struggling to escape from Russia, to establish herself in Hollywood, to overcome publisher rejections and endure harsh reviews. If she hadn’t been such a strong personality, she never would have survived—and her glorious ideas might have been lost.

Rand had a striking presence. As biographer Barbara Branden described Rand upon her arrival in America at age 21: “Framed by its short, straight hair, its squarish shape stressed by a firmly set jaw, its sensual wide mouth held in tight restraint, its huge dark eyes black with intensity, it seemed the face of a martyr or an inquisitor or a saint. The eyes burned with a passion that was at once emotional and intellectual—as if they would sear the onlooker and leave their dark light a flame on his body.” Later in life, chain smoking and sedentary habits took their toll, but Rand was still unforgettable.

Rand was born Alissa Rosenbaum on February 2, 1905 in St. Petersburg. Her father Fronz Rosenbaum had risen from poverty to the middle class as a chemist. Her mother Anna was an extrovert who believed in vigorous exercise and a busy social life, but Alissa wasn’t interested in either. After school, she studied French and German at home. Inspired by a magazine serial, she began writing stories, and at nine years old she resolved to become a writer.

The Rosenbaums’ comfortable world ended when the Czar entered World War I which devastated the nation’s economy. Within a year, more than a million Russians were killed or wounded. The government went broke. People were hungry. Bolsheviks seized power..

The Russian Revolution spurred Rosenbaum to invent stories about heroic individuals battling kings or communist dictators. At this time, too, she discovered novelist Victor Hugo whose dramatic style and towering heroes captivated her imagination. “I was fascinated by Hugo’s sense of life,” she recalled. “It was someone writing something important. I felt this is the kind of writer I would like to be, but I didn’t know how long it would take.”

At the University of Petrograd, she took courses with the stern Aristotelian Nicholas Lossky who, scholar Chris Sciabarra showed, had an enormous impact on her thinking. She read plays by Friedrich Schiller (she loved him) and William Shakespeare (hated him), philosophy by Friedrich Nietzsche (provocative thinker), novels by Feodor Dostoevsky (good plotter). She was utterly captivated by foreign movies. She had her first big crush, on a man named Leo who risked his life to hide members of the anti-Bolshevik underground.

In 1925, the Rosenbaums got a letter from relatives who had emigrated to Chicago more than three decades before so they could escape Russian anti-Semitism. Alissa expressed a burning desire to see America. The relatives wrote back agreeing to pay her passage and be responsible for her. Miraculously, Soviet officials granted her a passport for a six months’ visit. On February 10, 1926 she boarded the ship De Grasse and arrived in New York with $50.

She soon joined her relatives in a cramped Chicago apartment. She saw a lot of movies and worked at her typewriter—usually starting around midnight, which made it difficult for others to sleep. During this period, she settled on a new first name for herself: Ayn, after a Finnish writer she had never read, but she liked the sound. And a new last name: Rand, after her Remington Rand typewriter. Biographer Branden says Rand might have adopted a new name to protect her family from possible recrimination by the Soviet regime.

Determined to become a movie script writer, she moved to Los Angeles. Through her Chicago relatives, she got a movie distributor to write a letter introducing her to someone in the publicity department of the glamorous Cecil B. DeMille Studio. She started work as an extra.

At DeMille’s studio, Rand fell in love with a tall, handsome, blue-eyed bit actor named Frank O’Connor. They got married April 15, 1929. She no longer had to worry about going back to the Soviet Union. She applied for American citizenship.

The DeMille Studio closed, and she found odd jobs such as a freelance script reader. In 1935, she had a taste of success when she got as much as $1,200 a week from her play Night of January 16th which ran 283 performances on Broadway. It was about a ruthless industrialist and the powerful woman on trial for his murder.

Rand spent four years writing her first novel, We the Living, about the struggle to find liberty in Soviet Russia. Kira Argounova, the desperate heroine, became the mistress of Communist Party boss Andrei Taganov, so she could raise money for her lover Leo Kovalensky who suffered from tuberculosis. Kira finally denounced the Communists to Taganov. Eventually, Kira was shot for trying to escape the country.

Rand finished the book in late 1933. After many rejections, Macmillan agreed to take it and pay a $250 advance. The company published 3,000 copies in March 1936, but the book went nowhere. Although word-of-mouth gave it a lift after about a year, Macmillan had destroyed the type, and We the Living went out of print. Rand had earned just $100 of royalties.

In 1937, while struggling to work out the plot of The Fountainhead, Rand wrote a short, lyrical futurist story about an individual versus collectivist tyranny—Anthem. Rand’s literary agent sold it to a British publisher but couldn’t find a taker in the American market. About seven years later, Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce General Manager Leonard Read visited Rand and O’Connor—then living in New York—and remarked that somebody ought to write a book defending individualism. Rand told him about Anthem. Read’s small publishing firm Pamphleteers made a U.S. edition available in 1946. It has sold some 2.5 million copies.

Anthem offered a bold affirmation of liberty, going far beyond more famous anti-totalitarian novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1941) or George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) or 1984 (1949). In Anthem, a man rediscovered the word “I.” He explained, “My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose. Neither am I the means to any end others may wish to accomplish. I am not a tool for their use. I am not a servant of their needs.”

Meanwhile, Rand finished plotting The Fountainhead in 1938 after nearly four years of work. Then came the writing. The hero, architect Howard Roark, expressed her vision of an ideal man. He battled collectivists all around him to defend the integrity of his ideas, even when it meant dynamiting a building because plans were altered in violation of his contract.

Roark defended his action by saying, in part: “The great creators——the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors—stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won.”

Selling The Fountainhead proved tough. Rand’s editor at Macmillan expressed interest and offered another $250 advance, but she insisted the company agree to spend at least $1,200 on publicity, so Macmillan bowed out. By 1940, a dozen publishers had seen finished chapters and rejected the book. One influential editor declared the book would never sell. Rand’s literary agent turned against it. Her savings were down to about $700.

Rand suggested that the partial manuscript be submitted to Bobbs-Merrill, an Indianapolis-based publisher which had issued The Red Decade by anti-Communist journalist Eugene Lyons. Bobbs-Merrill’s Indianapolis editors rejected The Fountainhead, but the company’s New York editor Archibald Ogden loved it and threatened to quit if they didn’t take it. They signed a contract in December 1941, paying Rand a $1,000 advance. With two-thirds of the book yet to be written, Rand focused on making her January 1, 1943 deadline for completion.

She found herself in a friendly race with her friend Isabel Paterson, the hot-tempered, sometimes tactless journalist then working to complete The God of the Machine. Paterson wrote novels and some 1,200 newspaper columns, but it was The God of the Machine which secured her reputation. The book mounted a powerful attack on collectivism and explained the extraordinary dynamics of free markets. Paterson was 19 years older than Rand and for several crucial years served as her mentor. English professor Stephen Cox, of the University of California (San Diego) believed that with Paterson, Rand had “what may have been the closest intellectual relationship of her life.” Rand and Paterson got together when Paterson was proofreading typeset pages of book reviews she wrote for the New York Herald Tribune. She introduced Rand to many books about history, economics and political philosophy, helping Rand develop a more sophisticated world view.

Paterson was born January 22, 1886 on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Her parents were poor farmers, and she got most of her education at home. She talked her way into a job at the New York Tribune, became a writer and turned out book reviews for a quarter-century. According to Cox, she was “a slight woman, 5’ 3” tall, very nearsighted, a lover of pretty and slightly eccentric clothes, fond of delicate foods, a light drinker, a devotee of nature who could spend all day watching a tree grow…” Paterson held stubbornly to her views and told all who would listen what she thought about an issue. Dominating conversations tended to limit her social life, especially as she became a dissident against the New Deal expansion of government power, but she did have some stalwart friends. One remarked that “if people can stand her at all, they eventually become very fond of her.”

The Fountainhead was published in May 1943, the same month as The God of the Machine. From conception to publication had taken Rand about about nine years. Paterson promoted it in a number of Herald Tribune columns. The Fountainhead generated many more reviews than We the Living, but most reviewers either denounced it or misrepresented it as a book about architecture. One of the most surprising reviews came from the New York Times where Lorine Pruette wrote: “Miss Rand has taken her stand against collectivism…She has written a hymn in praise of the individual.”

Rand was thrilled to get a letter from famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. “I’ve read every word of The Fountainhead,” he wrote. “Your thesis is the great one…The individual is the Fountainhead of any Society worthwhile. The Freedom of the Individual is the only legitimate object of government: the Individual Conscience is the great inviolable.” Many readers erroneously assumed Roark was modeled after Wright, but he was reported to have kept a copy of The Fountainhead by his bed at Taliesin West, Arizona. He designed a house for Rand which was never built because Rand and her husband decided to stay in New York City, but the drawing remains in the Wright collection.

For a while, Bobbs-Merrill’s initial print-run of 7,500 copies moved slowly. Word-of-mouth stirred a groundswell of interest, and the publisher ordered a succession of reprintings which were small, in part, because of wartime paper shortages. The book gained momentum and hit the bestseller lists. Two years after publication, it sold 100,000 copies. By 1948, 400,000 copies. Then came the New American Library paperback edition, and The Fountainhead went on to sell over 6 million copies.

The day Warner Brothers agreed to pay Rand $50,000 for movie rights to The Fountainhead, she and O’Connor splurged and each had a 65 cent dinner at their local cafeteria. Rand fought to preserve the integrity of the script and was largely successful, though some of her most cherished lines were cut. The movie, starring Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal and Raymond Massey, premiered July 1949. It propelled the book onto the bestsellers lists again.

Earlier, when the book had just been published, Rand told Paterson how disappointed she was with its reception. Paterson urged her to do a nonfiction book and added that Rand had a duty to make her views more widely known. Rand rebelled at the notion that she owed people anything. “What if I went on strike?” she asked. “What if all the creative minds of the world went on strike?” This became the idea for her last major work, tentatively called The Strike.

As Rand worked on the book for some 14 years, much of that time in their New York City apartment, 36 East 36th Street, everything about the story became larger than life. It featured her most famous hero, mysterious John Galt, the physicist-inventor who organized a strike of the most productive people against taxers and other exploiters. The book introduced Dagney Taggart, Rand’s first ideal woman, who found her match in Galt. A friend suggested that the tentative title would make many people might think the book was about labor unions, and she abandoned it. O’Connor urged her to use one of the chapter headings as the book title, and it became Atlas Shrugged.

The book overflows with provocative ideas. For example, copper entrepreneur Francisco d’Anconia, in a conversation with steel entrepreneur Hank Rearden, expresses Rand’s vision of sex: “a man’s sexual choice is the result and sum of his fundamental convictions. Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life. Show me the woman he sleeps with and I will tell you his valuation of himself.” d’Anconia talked about the morality of money: “Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort…Money demands of you the recognition that men must work for their own benefit, not for their own injury, for their gain, not their loss…the common bond among men is not the exchange of suffering, but the exchange of goods.” Rearden defending achievement: “I have made my money by my own effort, in free exchange and through the voluntary consent of every man I dealt with…I refuse to apologize for my ability…I refuse to apologize for my success…” From John Galt’s climactic radio broadcast to the oppressors: “We are on strike against the dogma that the pursuit of one’s happiness is evil.”

Rand’s ideas were as controversial as ever, but sales of The Fountainhead impressed publishers, and several big ones courted her for Atlas Shrugged. Random House co-owner Bennett Cerf was most supportive, and Rand got a $50,000 advance against a 15% royalty, a first printing of at least 75,000 copies and a $25,000 advertising budget. The book was published October 10, 1957.

Most reviewers were savage. The old-line socialist Granville Hicks sounded off in the New York Times, and others were similarly offended by Rand’s attacks on collectivism. The most hysterical review of all turned out to be in conservative National Review where Whittaker Chambers, presumably offended by Rand’s critique of religion, likened her to a Nazi “commanding: ‘To a gas chamber—go!’” Word-of-mouth proved too strong for these naysayers, and sales began to climb, eventually past 4.5 million.

With Atlas Shrugged, Rand had fulfilled her dreams, and she became depressed. She was exhausted. She no longer had a giant project to focus her prodigious energies. She leaned increasingly on her Canadian-born intellectual disciple Nathaniel Branden with whom she had become intimate. To serve the growing interest in Rand and help revive her spirits, he established the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI) which offered seminars, marketed taped lectures and began issuing publications about Rand’s philosophy which she called Objectivism. Branden was sometimes a ruthless enforcer of Objectivist orthodoxy, but he displayed remarkable skills promoting the ideals of individualism and free markets. An estimated 25,000 people went through NBI courses.

Good times continued until August 23, 1968 when Branden told Rand about his affair with another woman. Rand denounced him publicly, and they split, although the reasons weren’t fully disclosed until Branden’s ex-wife Barbara wrote a biography that was published 18 years later. Nathaniel Branden went on to become a bestselling author about self-esteem.

Meanwhile, Rand turned to nonfiction writing. For A New Intellectual (1961) gathered selections on her philosophy from We The Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She edited and published The Objectivist Newsletter (1962-1966), The Objectivist (1966-1971) and The Ayn Rand Letter (1971-1976). A number of her essays, together with essays by Nathaniel Branden, Alan Greenspan and Robert Hessen, were reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1962). With a flair for controversy, she titled one essay collection The Virtue of Selfishness (1964). Her essays on culture appeared in The Romantic Manifesto (1969). Outraged at youthful rebellion against capitalism, she issued another essay collection, The New Left: the Anti-Industrial Revolution (1971).

Rand endured surgery for lung cancer. She kept more to herself after Frank O’Connor’s death in November 1979, nearly oblivious to how her ideas inspired millions. She did make two tumultuous appearances on the Phil Donahue’s nationally-syndicated TV talk show—one of them before a big crowd in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The following year, knowing that Rand loved trains, precious metals entrepreneur James U. Blanchard III arranged for her travel in a romantic private rail car from New York to New Orleans where, on November 21, 1981, 4,000 people cheered her as she delivered “The Sanction of the Victims.” She talked about how business people perform the vital service of transforming new knowledge into improved products and services. Yet they generally despised as greedy capitalists and—what’s worse—they finance universities, Hollywood studios and other institutions that spew out propaganda for suppressing liberty. She urged business people to defend the morality of liberty.

Rand’s heart began to give out in December. She hung on for three more months, asking her closest associate Leonard Peikoff to finish several projects. She died in her 120 East 34th Street, Manhattan apartment on March 6, 1982. She was buried next to O’Connor in Valhalla, New York, as some 200 mourners tossed flowers on her coffin. She was 77.

Publishers have been busy with new Rand titles. Peikoff, who founded the Ayn Rand Institute, brought out Philosophy: Who Needs It (1982), largely material drawn from The Ayn Rand Letter. Peikoff put together The Early Ayn Rand, A Selection from Her Unpublished Fiction (1984). Then he edited The Voice of Reason, Essays in Objectivist Thought (1988). Ayn Rand Institute Executive Director Michael S. Berliner edited Letters of Ayn Rand (1995). Claremont Graduate School scholar David Harriman edited Journals of Ayn Rand (1997).

At a 50th anniversary celebration of The Fountainhead, in New York’s Tiffany Hall, English professor Stephen Cox observed: “Rand’s courageous challenge to accepted ideas was rendered still more courageous by her willingness to state her individualist premises in the clearest terms and to defend the most radical implications that could be drawn from them.”

The 40th anniversary of Atlas Shrugged was marked in October 1997 at the Renaissance Hotel, Washington, D.C., a day-long event sponsored by the Cato Institute and the Institute for Objectivist Studies. An amusing highlight of “Atlas & the World” was a scantily-clad, mightily-muscled Mr. Universe holding a giant globe. “The message of Atlas Shrugged,” remarked Institute for Objectivist Studies Executive Director David Kelley, “is that capitalism..allows and rewards and celebrates the best in human nature. And socialism, or any form of collectivism, is not just inefficient, it is immoral. It is a degrading expression of envy, of malice, of the lust for power in the few who rule and the fear of freedom in the many who submit.”

Rand’s books continue to sell some 300,000 copies a year without being advertised by publishers or assigned by college professors. Although she has had the greatest impact in the United States, the hotbed of individualism, she does have readers around the world. Atlas Shrugged is in German. There are editions of The Fountainhead in French, German, Norwegian, Swedish and Russian. We the Living is available in French, German, Greek, Italian and Russian editions. French and Swedish translations of Anthem are underway.

There has been an outpouring of books about Rand. Barbara Branden’s biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, appeared in 1986. Nathaniel Branden told his story in Judgment Day (1989). Peikoff wrote Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand (1991). That same year brought Los Angeles entrepreneur Ronald E. Merrill’s The Ideas of Ayn Rand. New York University scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s Ayn Rand, the Russian Radical, published in 1995, placed her ideas in the context of Russian philosophy. As Newsweek reported, “She’s everywhere.”

The 1997 release of Michael Paxton’s documentary film Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life was nominated for an Academy Award. In May 1999, Showtime aired The Passion of Ayn Rand, starring Helen Mirren as Rand, Peter Fonda as Frank O’Connor, Eric Stoltz as Nathaniel Branden and Julie Delpy as Barbara Branden.

Ayn Rand was a miracle. She came out of nowhere to courageously challenge a corrupt, collectivist world. She single-mindedly seized the high ground. She affirmed the moral imperative for liberty. She showed that all things are possible.

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.