Rand, Ayn (1905–1982)
Rand, Ayn (1905–1982)
Pro-capitalist, anti-religious novelist and philosopher, and founder of philosophical "Objectivism." Name variations: Alissa Rosenbaum (1905–1926); Ayn Rand (1926–1929 and in professional life throughout); Ayn O'Connor (1929–1982). Pronunciation: Ayn rhymes with pine. Born Alissa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 2, 1905; died in New York on March 6, 1982; daughter of Fronz Rosenbaum (a chemist) and Anna Rosenbaum; attended schools in Russia; University of Petrograd, B.A. in history, graduated with highest honors, 1924; married Charles Francis "Frank" O'Connor (an actor and painter), on April 15, 1929; no children.
Immigrated to America (1926); became naturalized citizen (1931); was a movie extra and screen-writer in Hollywood, then wardrobe chief for RKO pictures (1926–32); was a screenwriter, playwright, and novelist (1932–44); was a freelance writer and Objectivist leader (1950–82).
We, the Living (Macmillan, 1936); Anthem (Cassell, 1938, revised, 1946); The Fountainhead (Bobbs-Merrill, 1943); Atlas Shrugged (Random House, 1957); For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (Random House, 1961); The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New American Library, 1964); Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New American Library, 1966); The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature (World, 1969); Philosophy: Who Needs It? (Bobbs-Merrill, 1971); The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (New American Library, 1982); The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z (New American Library, 1984). Co-editor and contributor to The Objectivist Newsletter (1962–65) and its successor The Objectivist (1966–71); writer and publisher of The Ayn Rand Letter (1971–76). Columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
Ayn Rand's claim to fame rests on her huge didactic novels The Fountainhead (1943) andAtlas Shrugged (1957) which developed a cult following among pro-capitalist students in the 1950s and 1960s. Earnest, quirky, and dogmatic, Rand thought of herself as the height of rationality, but her personality and her writings proved just the opposite. A Russian émigré and one of the most outspoken anti-Communists of the 20th century, she glorified capitalism, hated all forms of socialism, and thought of selfishness as a positive virtue.
Alissa Rosenbaum (her original name) was born in St. Petersburg in 1905, the year of the first, unsuccessful, Russian Revolution. Her family were secular Jews and her father ran a prosperous chemist's business. As a girl, she read voraciously and began writing stories which emphasized heroism, self-mastery, and unconquerable determination, to all of which themes she would return as a mature writer. Her family was on a visit to Britain in 1914 when the First World War began and had a difficult journey back to Russia. When she was 12, the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in Russia. Her father's business was seized by the new Soviet state, and the family, impoverished, fled to the Crimea. After three years of Civil War, they returned to their home city, now renamed Petrograd, in 1921. Rand entered the university at the age of 16 and graduated in history before her 20th birthday. She worked for awhile as a guide at state museums, meanwhile learning all she could about America, whose movies and skyscrapers she found intoxicating.
An invitation from relatives who had emigrated to America before the revolution delighted her. It enabled her to get a passport and leave Russia, to which she swore she would never return. After a cursory visit to her relatives, she hurried on to Hollywood, where she hoped to get a part in a film or else become a screenwriter, and changed her name to Ayn Rand. Being physically short and dark, and having a thick foreign accent, she was unlikely to be singled out for starring roles in the Hollywood of the 1920s. But Rand had an iron will. She soon learned to speak and write English effectively and played in several films as an extra, while bombarding the studio chiefs with scenarios and scripts. They were baffled at the unrealistic settings she proposed and the degree of heroic integrity her characters displayed, but were impressed by her productivity. Within six months, she had landed a job with Cecil B. De Mille as a screenwriter's assistant.
Rand met, and soon married, Frank O'Connor, who was another movie extra, bit-part player, and painter. In subsequent years, she attributed to him many of the heroic qualities she created in her fictional heroes even though, according to their friends, he was a mild, unambitious man with little of his wife's drive or determination. The marriage enabled her to become naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1931. De Mille's studio went out of business in 1928, but she was able to secure a job with the wardrobe department of RKO Pictures and rose to become head of the department by 1932. Hollywood suffered far less than most American industries during the Great Depression—the movies' escapism attracted the anxious and the unemployed—and Rand rose with the boom that accompanied the new "talkies." She regarded her work behind the scenes as no more than a deplorable necessity, however, and was jubilant in 1932 when for the first time she sold a screenplay, "Red Pawn," to Universal Pictures. It was a tale of heroic self-sacrifice by a woman, oddly enough for one who claimed to despise altruism and selflessness. Rand then had the vexation of seeing the studio change its mind: "Red Pawn" never appeared on the silver screen.
Her first real breakthrough came with a play which was variously entitled Night of January 16, Penthouse Legend, and Woman on Trial, which ran first in Hollywood and then for seven months on Broadway in New York. It was a courtroom drama, arranged so that at the beginning of each performance members of the cast chose 12 members of the audience to be jurors. They heard the evidence and had to decide whether to convict or acquit the female lead of murdering her lover, whose death could also be seen as a suicide. Rand wrote two endings so that the play would wind up in a way appropriate to whichever verdict the jury chose. She was indignant at how often audience-juries found her heroine guilty when Rand's own intention had been to establish the opposite. Autocratic with her work, she also disliked alterations made for the New York stage and was careful in later productions to have final say on matters relating to the script.
Her later plays were less successful, but after 1935 Rand began to concentrate on novels. Her first, We, the Living (1936), was another story of the self-sacrificing Russian woman, giving herself sexually to one man in order to help another whom she truly loves. As one of her biographers, James T. Baker, remarks: "This seems to be the only type of self-sacrifice she ever approved." Critics found the novel pathetically didactic and regretted that Rand's moralizing about individualism and against Communism so often impeded the flow of what was, in itself, a gripping adventure story. The decade of the 1930s witnessed the high point of American intellectuals' enthusiasm for collectivism and socialism, and made an uncongenial environment for Rand's ideals. Sales were slow at first but increased as word of Rand spread among the procapitalist minority. Even so the book was not reprinted after the first run of 3,000 had sold out, and it remained almost unobtainable until reissued in 1960 in the wake of her second blockbuster, Atlas Shrugged.
In the mid-1930s, Rand set to work on her first magnum opus, The Fountainhead, the story of an uncompromising architect, Howard Roark. Roark's trials and tribulations are largely caused by the philistine majority who do not share his pure vision, and by mealy-mouthed bureaucrats and collectivists who lack his singleness of purpose. In the end, through sheer force of will and integrity, the granite-like Roark is able to have his own way and build the monumental skyscrapers of which he has always dreamed. Along the way, he tames the petulant female lead, Dominique Francon, with some rough bedroom antics. Dominique, like most of Rand's female characters, takes a masochistic pleasure in being crushed into submission to the will of a lordly man in what are virtually rape scenes.
Rand, in preparing the novel, worked without pay for a New York architectural company and studied the business assiduously for the sake of making her work as authentic as possible. Many of its pages read convincingly as an account of the building business between the wars, especially when Rand has relaxed her grip on the ideological reins for a moment. She broke off from writing this big book to campaign for Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential candidate in 1940. She had become a fierce opponent of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and the big, pseudo-socialist government which, in her opinion, Roosevelt was creating. After Willkie's defeat, which she attributed to his concessions to the left, Rand got back to work. Her manuscript won the enthusiastic admiration of Archibald Ogden, an editor at Bobbs-Merrill, who read an early fragment of The Fountainhead in 1941. His employers were cool at first, but Ogden and Rand together convinced them that it was a sound project. Rand then wrote the last half of the book at high speed in 1942 and it appeared on schedule in May of the next year. Like We, the Living, it got poor reviews but gathered a strong following of enthusiasts who spread the news by word of mouth. It had sold 100,000 copies by the end of the Second World War, two years later, and Rand was able to sell the movie rights for $50,000 without losing control over the film script.
She returned to Hollywood and spent the late 1940s there, at the Hal Wallis studio, writing screenplays for six months of every year and working on her own fiction for the other six. She was now highly paid, acquiring expensive tastes, and finding the intellectual climate more congenial than it had been in the 1930s. A wholehearted McCarthyite, she was glad to see America in general, and Hollywood in particular, undertaking an anti-Communist "red-hunt" and was a cooperative witness before the House Committee on un-American Activities and at the trial of the "Hollywood Ten." Despite her passionate anti-Communism, however, she agreed with Marxists that religion was a form of mass deception. Her militant atheism made her unacceptable to leading conservative intellectuals such as William F. Buckley, Jr., even though he shared her pro-capitalist outlook.
Rand supervised Warner Bros.' filming of The Fountainhead (1949), starring Gary Cooper as Howard Roark and Patricia Neal as Dominique Francon. By then, sales of the book were approaching the one-million mark, and although the movie was not an overwhelming box-office success it introduced her work to a wider audience than ever before. She was hard at work on an even more ambitious novel, which finally saw the light of day in 1957 as Atlas Shrugged. In it, she imagined what would happen if America's entrepreneurial capitalists decided to go on strike. In her view, the nation would collapse without their ingenuity, dedication, and hard work. The plot describes how, one by one, the industrialists disappear under mysterious circumstances, often in Colorado. Ordinary citizens, left behind in a foundering society, sometimes hear the cryptic question, "Who is John Galt?," and learn that ships carrying foreign aid supplies abroad are being blown up on the high seas by a pirate named Ragnar Danneskjold. The novel's climax is the revelation that Galt is none other than the heroic capitalist mastermind who has led the secession, and that Danneskjold is one of his faithful lieutenants, who understands that foreign aid does far more harm than good. In a radio speech which takes up nearly 100 of the book's 800 pages, Galt broadcasts his philosophy to a mesmerized national audience and dictates the terms on which he will return with the other entrepreneurs to revitalize America. This windy, hectoring speech, which brings the novel's action to an unwelcome standstill, is a full statement of Rand's own philosophy, and she had enough
clout by then to force her editors, who wanted it cut drastically, to leave it almost intact. As in The Fountainhead, the subplot witnesses the forceful sexual taming by John Galt, the manliest of men, of a proud woman, Dagny Taggart, who is herself the dynamic head of a railroad corporation.
While she was writing Atlas Shrugged, Rand met a Canadian psychology student, another secularized Jew who had undergone a name change, from Nathan Blumenthal to Nathaniel Branden. They became ardent friends and, apparently, lovers, even though Branden was just then wooing and wedding another woman, Barbara Weidman ( Branden ). Returning from Hollywood to New York where Branden was studying for a doctoral degree in psychology, Rand encouraged him to develop a lecture series based on her novels. In 1958, he abandoned psychotherapy and founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI), where Rand enthusiasts could hear his lectures and attend question-and-answer sessions with the author herself. "She radiates intelligence" wrote one student, adding later that "this short, dumpy, ugly old woman with a dense Russian accent was intellectually exciting, but personally unimpressive." Rand wrote no more fiction after Atlas Shrugged, turning instead to treatises. Among her philosophical works, published in the last 20 years of her long life, were For the New Intellectual (1961), The Virtue of Selfishness (1964), and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966).
There was no one more radical than she in championing the autonomy and supremacy of the individual through the rhetoric of her novels. Philosophically she was a wild and freaky anarchist, an iconoclast, a radical individualist. She created fictional heroes who challenged the authority of Corporate America, who fought the conformity of the American nation-state … and brought it down with a resounding crash.
The NBI, preaching the Randian philosophy of "Objectivism" in the heady atmosphere of the 1960s, soon developed an eager following of students in search of strong emotional commitments. They accepted from Rand that cigarette-smoking was life affirming, some "true believers" even imitated her taste in brooches and badges in the shape of dollar signs, and shared her craze for black billowing capes, tango dancing, and other seemingly eccentric rather than "objective" tastes. One such convert, Jerome Tuccille, later wrote a humorous memoir about it, in which he noted: "Objectivism can be a wonderfully appealing religion substitute for disaffiliated Jews and Catholics from the middle class who turn to it with a mania formerly reserved for their ancestral religion." It was even more exacting than orthodox religion, he added: "To be in disagreement with the ideas of Ayn Rand was to be, by definition, irrational and immoral. There was no allowable deviation." Rand was sufficiently respected to get lecture invitations at major universities, including Harvard, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins, and won the admiration of several men and women who went on to play prominent roles in national affairs, notably Alan Greenspan, who served as an economic advisor to presidents Ford and Reagan and became chair of the Federal Reserve Board in 1987. But an air of crankishness also attached to Rand, and she was often listed as one of America's colorful but zany counter-culture theorists, especially after the appearance of a long Playboy interview in 1964. Theorists of radical libertarianism, such as the economist Murray Rothbard, treated her with more suspicion than enthusiasm.
Success, recognition, and the prosperity of the Branden Institute appear to have gone to Rand's head, and in 1968 the Objectivists split, with Branden, her right-hand man, being expelled amid rumors of sexual misconduct, exploitation of Rand's fiction and philosophy, and clashing egos. According to Barbara Branden, who wrote a graphic biography of the leader, The Passion of Ayn Rand, the schism was due to Nathaniel Branden's declaration to Rand that he refused to have sex with her anymore, and her discovery that he had taken another lover. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the episode, which had all the markings of a feud in a fundamentalist church or a Marxist sect, Branden stormed out, leaving Leonard Peikoff, another stalwart supporter, as the chief official exponent of Rand's views. Objectivism lost many of its supporters in the calmer air of the 1970s, but the Ayn Rand Letter kept the faithful up to date with her thoughts and activities until the end of 1975, when severe illness forced her to abandon it. She died in New York in 1982, at the age of 77.
sources and suggested reading:
Baker, James T. Ayn Rand. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1987.
Branden, Barbara. The Passion of Ayn Rand. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986.
Harriman, David, ed. Journals of Ayn Rand. NY: Dutton, 1997.
Merrill, Ronald E. The Ideas of Ayn Rand. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1991.
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. NY: Random House, 1957.
——. For the New Intellectual. NY: Random House, 1961.
——. The Fountainhead. NY: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943.
Tuccille, Jerome. It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand: A Libertarian Odyssey. NY: Stein and Day, 1971.
Uhl, Douglas Den, and Douglas Rasmussen. The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia