Mar 1, 2014
A short biography of Ayn Rand, one of three women who launched the modern American libertarian movement.
A week before her 21st birthday, Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum left the Soviet Union, never to return. Officially, she had come only to visit family in Chicago — but Rosenbaum had other plans. As a girl, she had watched the Bolshevik revolution reduce her middle-class family to poverty, and was convinced that communism would destroy Russia as well. After staying several months with her relatives, practicing her English, she headed to Hollywood to begin a new life under a new name: Ayn Rand.
By a stroke of luck, Ayn (it rhymes with “mine”) encountered legendary director Cecil B. DeMille on her second day in town. He gave her work as an extra in his film King of Kings, as well as advice on how to break into Hollywood screenwriting.
Between work as a script reader and then file clerk at film studios, Rand struck up a romance with an actor named Frank O’Connor, whom she had met on DeMille’s set. In 1929 they would marry, remaining together until his death in 1979.
Rand’s career as a professional author began in 1932 with the sale of a screenplay, Red Pawn, which was never produced. The income from the sale nevertheless allowed Rand to quit her despised job as a clerk in RKO’s wardrobe department and focus on her writing full time. Within two years, she had completed a novel and a play, in addition to her many short stories.
The play, initially titled Penthouse Legend, was a courtroom drama and murder mystery, in which members of the audience were selected to act as jurors and decide the play’s outcome. Rand herself regarded the play as a “trial” for the audience: jurors who shared her sense of reverence for heroic individualism would, she believed, vote to acquit. The play ran in Hollywood as Woman on Trial and then, following Rand’s move to New York City, enjoyed a successful three month stint on Broadway in 1935 under the title Night of January 16th.
The novel, published in 1936, was We the Living, the story of a woman named Kira who, in the years after the Russian Revolution, feigns love for a communist official to help her aristocratic paramour Leo. It is the closest thing to an autobiographical work that Rand wrote, and shows how collectivist systems perversely crush what is most noble in the human spirit. Critics received the book fairly well, but its popular success was more limited. The New York Times published a short review, in which Harold Strauss wrote that Rand “can command a good deal of narrative skill, and her novel moves with alacrity and vigor on occasion,” though he also noted that the “blind fervor with which she has dedicated herself to the annihilation of the Soviet Union” had produced a book “slavishly warped to the dictates of propaganda.” An unauthorized Italian film version, Noi Vivi, was made in 1942, and at first, its production was encouraged by Mussolini because of its anticommunism. One story about the film, possibly apocryphal, maintains that when the dictator finally recognized its broader antiauthoritarian and individualist themes, he had it banned.
In 1937, Rand penned the novella Anthem, which depicts a dystopian collectivist future where even the word “I” has been forgotten. The book was published the following year in England, not appearing in the United States until 1945. The Canadian rock band Rush would later adapt the story for their album 2112.
On June 26 of 1938, Rand began writing The Fountainhead (described here in greater detail), a project that would occupy her through the end of 1942. After selling movie rights to Warner Brothers, she returned with her husband to Los Angeles to begin work on the screenplay. In the back of her mind were the first rudiments of a plot for another novel, tentatively titled The Strike.
As the fame of The Fountainhead and its author began to spread — both by word of mouth and, after 1949, through the film based upon it — Rand returned to New York. There she began to attract a group of young intellectuals who had been inspired by the conception of personal virtue articulated in her book, which emphasized scrupulous integrity and the pursuit of rational self-interest.
By the early 50s, Rand had surrounded herself with an inner circle of admirers who met for late-night philosophical discussions and sat in rapt attention as Rand read from her magnum opus in progress. The group was given the ironic name “The Collective,” and included future Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, as well as Barbara and Nathaniel Branden, who would remain her intellectual allies and closest confidants for almost twenty years.
By 1957, The Strike had become Atlas Shrugged, and its publication by Random House transformed Rand from novelist of ideas to the leader of a full-fledged intellectual movement. Atlas follows Dagny Taggart, the operations VP for the Taggart railroad line, and Hank Rearden, steel magnate and inventor of a revolutionary new alloy called Rearden Metal, as they attempt to salvage their businesses amidst economic collapse and discover why all the country’s most talented artists and entrepreneurs seem to be vanishing.
The novel is epic in both length — it weighs in at 1168 pages — and theme: where The Fountainhead had trumpeted the value of individualism as a virtue of personal character, Atlas Shrugged set out to illustrate the conflict between two diametrically opposed moral and political philosophies. One is altruism, which on Rand’s conception is the principle that ethical conduct consists in living to serve others and that the pursuit of one’s own happiness is wicked and indulgent. Through her villains and the events of the novel, Rand connects that morality to political collectivism and tyranny, illustrating the ways in which the one leads inevitably to the other. Their opponents, led by Taggart, Rearden, and the enigmatic John Galt, exemplify Rand’s own philosophy of Objectivism. In an ambitious and unorthodox move, Rand places at the book’s climax a 60-page speech by Galt, in which her theory is laid out in detail. It encompasses not just her ethical egoism and political commitment to laissez faire capitalism, but also her ideas about human nature, metaphysics, epistemology, and the relationship between reason and emotion.
Atlas would be Rand’s last foray into fiction. For the next ten years, she promoted her philosophy through her nonfiction writings — including The Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and For the New Intellectual — her newsletter, The Objectivist, her column for the Los Angeles Times, and the Nathaniel Branden Institute, which ran well-attended courses and seminars in Objectivist ideas until Rand and Branden fell out for personal reasons in 1968.
Rand would continue to publish The Objectivist, later renamed The Ayn Rand Letter, and lecture on college campuses. She would also release three compilations of her own essays and talks: The Romantic Manifesto, The New Left, and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.
Following her death in 1982 from lung cancer, the late libertarian scholar Roy A. Childs wrote that tracing Rand’s influence on the libertarian movement was “rather like trying to sort out the effects of Christianity on Western Civilization.” Rand’s former secretary Robert Hessen gave the New York Times this explanation for her profound impact:
There were lots of defenses of capitalism versus socialism when Atlas came out in the 1950s, but they were mostly “bathtub economics” — you know, capitalism is superior because it is more efficient and it makes bigger and better bathtubs than the Soviet system. She provided a moral defense that had an electrifying effect on people who had never heard capitalism defended in other than technological terms. She made it clear that a free society is also a productive society, but what matters is individual freedom.
Rand’s influence has continued to grow over the last two decades. Her work has inspired scholarly publications, such as the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, organizations devoted to her ideas, such as The Objectivist Center and Ayn Rand Institute, and a plethora of college groups. Rand herself has been posthumously prolific: the last two decades have seen the publication of the compilation Philosophy: Who Needs It, excerpts from her journals, selected letters, informal lectures on fiction writing, and even a collection of her marginal notes from books in her library.
Jerome Tuccille’s lighthearted history of the conservative and libertarian movements of the 1960s is aptly titled It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand. Many, and perhaps most, future libertarians first encountered libertarian ideas through Rand’s novels, whether they ultimately accepted her Objectivist philosophy or not. Her enormous contribution to the growth of libertarianism — a term she herself rejected — was not, in the end, her philosophical arguments for a free society, but rather the literary vision she presented of that society and of the kind of person best suited to it. Her message was personal no less than political, and her readers inspired not only by her depiction of the benefits of political liberty, but of the nobility of the free individual life.