A groundbreaking new biography paints a surprising -- and surprisingly lurid -- picture of the writer and thinker
Ayn Rand was capitalism's Helen of Troy: the brain that launched a thousand wild ambitions. A Russian Jew forced to flee her home of St. Petersburg in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, Rand immigrated to a United States erupting in skyscrapers and highways and championed a new philosophy with man at its center and rationality, work, and self-interest as its principles. Novels like The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) set millions of feet marching to the beats of different drummers. If readers sometimes came for the volcanic sex scenes, they stayed for the titanic vision of individual achievement.
Anne C. Heller's new biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made (Doubleday), portrays the author as part god, part gorgon: a woman of powerful intellect and petty grievances who preached lofty individualism while demanding lockstep allegiance from her followers. Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan recently visited Heller, a magazine editor and journalist who worked on the book for five years, to talk about Rand's life.
How did you become interested in Rand?
Until about 10 years ago, I had never read a word of her. Then I met Suze Orman while I was developing a personal finance magazine. Suze e-mailed me a copy of the famous speech from Atlas Shrugged in which Francisco d'Anconia defends making money as a moral act. The speech begins: "You think money is the root of all evil?" I intended to read only the first line, but I found myself reading the whole thing. I admired the pace and snap of the language. The argument was powerful. It represented things I didn't believe in but had no definitive argument against. And I loved parts of it, like where she says money will give you the means for the satisfaction of your desires, but it will not provide you with desires. That struck me as wise and pertinent.
Until now, the only biographies of Rand appear to be the work of her disciples. How come?
Among people who write and publish serious biographies, Rand had not even been thought of. She is considered a writer of unpleasant, anticommunist potboilers. I belong to a biographers' group, and some of them were under the impression that she represented a "greed is good" philosophy and a Darwinian social code. I told them that I found her thinking more complex and challenging than they were giving her credit for. In any case, I wasn't promoting her or her ideas. I was writing objectively about her life and work.
A Book of the Month Club survey pegged Atlas Shrugged as the second most influential book after the Bible.
I think Rand has this life-changing effect on people because many read her at a tender age. It's a time when they are trying to separate from their parents and the context of their childhood and to become somebody on their own. And her language is so uplifting -- it goes swooping up into the clouds when she talks about the characters she considers heroes. The reader travels along with her.
Entrepreneurs, in particular, love Rand. They buy her books in first editions. They name companies after her characters.
Rand would love what they are doing as well. I think part of her appeal is she gives people permission to do whatever they damn well want, so long as it's idealistic in some way. Rand's emphasis is on productive, original business. She ennobles something that might otherwise be treated as mundane. So entrepreneurs are inspired by the heroic enterprise in Atlas Shrugged. People became architects after reading The Fountainhead. She also teaches some very interesting lessons about punishing talent, that mediocre people try to drag down those who are more talented than they are.
Entrepreneurs love to talk about all the people who once called them crazy.
Rand was aware that most people prefer safety to risk. In her novels and nonfiction, she celebrated entrepreneurs as the productive engines and unsung heroes of 150 years of Western prosperity.
Rand wrote in a period when most people wanted safe jobs in large companies. Do you think her work ushered in, or at least presaged, the romantic idea of entrepreneurship that prevailed later in the century?
In the 1950s and 1960s, she was certainly the most visible proponent of the brainpower, courage, creativity, and vision she attributed to independent businessmen, and she fiercely defended their right to the wealth they generated. She also inspired the libertarian movement of the 1970s -- though she didn't approve of it -- which entrepreneurs often find sympathetic to their aims.
What would an Ayn Rand–style hero for postindustrial America look like? Which business or political leader comes closest?
Most important, a Randian hero operates outside the realm of government subsidies and government contracts. I imagine she would have loved Bill Gates in his early years. As to politicians, she liked very few, for reasons you can guess.
As you researched her life, what most surprised you?
Rand's mission was to create an "ideal man" and a microcosmic ideal world in Atlas Shrugged. When the culmination of her life's work was greeted with derision by the educational establishment, she lost much of her energy and curiosity. In many ways, she became a very ordinary person.
Rand seemed to presage the very contemporary idea of self as brand. To what extent did she anticipate the likes of Anthony Robbins and Oprah?
She had no wish to be at the center of an enterprise, except as it helped to spread her influence and ideas. Her longtime protégé and lover, Nathaniel Branden, was the one who launched her business ventures. Unlike her, he was a gifted promoter and businessman. He sold everything he could think of: reproductions of art and music she loved, tapes of her lectures -- only he had the brilliant idea of renting the tapes instead of selling them. So people would play the tapes for groups and charge admission, then send him back the tapes plus 50 percent of the profits. Rand's income from these ventures was small compared with sales of her books. But the tapes and music services helped keep those sales humming. And the art service sold prints of her husband's paintings.
Certainly Rand was unusually conscious of the commercial value of her name -- her brand -- and protected it fiercely from usurpers. She even had a lawyer on retainer just to pursue people who advertised a John Galt line of curtains or Roark drill bits. The curtains were a real product, by the way.
Given that Alan Greenspan was a member of her coterie and contributor to her newsletter, to what extent should we hold Rand accountable for the economic meltdown?
To what extent can Marx be blamed for Stalin's massacres? I don't like to blame the writers and thinkers for the way the executors use their ideas. That's silly.
It wasn't until last year that Greenspan retracted the arguments for self-interest that he made in the essay "The Assault on Integrity," published in Rand's newsletter The Objectivist in 1963. I find it incredible that he went 45 years without having revised that thinking. Still, the Randians liked him less over time. They think he sold out because he didn't reinstate the gold standard.
Greenspan's reevaluation of his beliefs notwithstanding, are there aspects of Rand's ideas that our current economic leaders should bear in mind?
I think the most important idea may be her emphasis on individual liberties. She viewed the expansion of state power, which most certainly included government economic power, as a bad thing in itself. She believed that it favored some parties over others and stymied innovation and competition. She also believed that government intervention introduces coercion into the marketplace, which threatens freedom. She didn't recognize the social contract or even individual well-being as an important opposing value.
What would Rand have thought of the fortunes being made from Facebook and similar companies?
She would not like people who use such things and might not love the things themselves. But she would say if people are willing to pay for it, then you have a right to the money. Rand idealized the Founding Fathers and the tycoons of late 18th- and 19th-century America. The railroad builders and the steelmakers. The miners and the inventors. She admired big engineering projects. But as she got older, people seemed to get smaller. They were doing smaller things. What she would not have liked is people doing a little arbitrage, earning $250 million, and taking that out of the productive capital of the country.
It's interesting that Rand wrote sweeping epics full of exalted ideas about the ascendancy of man, yet she's almost as famous for her sex scenes.
I think the sex scenes are very appealing to many people. Rand would say that we have been taught that there is a mind-body split. The body's lusts are bad, but the mind can control them. She would argue there is no mind-body split. What your soul longs for, your body longs for, too. If you are a moral person, you desire the best thing you see out there for yourself.
Are the keepers of her flame possessive of her? Did you encounter any resistance or hostility?
The keenest resistance came from the single heir to Rand's property, papers, and copyrights, a former philosophy professor and Rand disciple named Leonard Peikoff. Peikoff remained by Rand's side through her final illness and death in 1982. He is a strict constructionist of Randian ideas and the chief guardian of her legend, which, according to him and his circle of friends, is as the world's best novelist and greatest philosopher after Aristotle.
In 1986, Peikoff's cousin, Nathaniel Branden's ex-wife Barbara Branden, wrote a book that disclosed for the first time the fact that Nathaniel had been Rand's lover as well as her acolyte, although he was 25 years her junior. Peikoff refused to believe this until some years later, when hard evidence turned up. He has not spoken to more than a few outsiders since then, and he would not speak with me or grant me access to her papers.
Both the Brandens were major sources for you. I'm surprised they are not retributive, given her treatment of them.
The Brandens have been publicly attacked by generations of Randian true believers, and they had a story to tell. They met Rand as worshipful undergraduate students in 1951. In my view, Rand engineered the Brandens' disastrous marriage so that she could safely take Nathaniel, then 24, as her lover. She was 49. She browbeat Barbara and her own husband, Frank O'Connor, a passive, gentle man, into agreeing to the affair and keeping it a secret. It lasted 14 years. And when finally, at 38, Nathaniel fell in love with a 23-year-old artists' model and Rand devotee, Rand ousted him, the model, and Barbara from her Objectivist cult and tried to sabotage his career. The Brandens, now divorced and living in L.A., argued to me that her moral absolutism, her appetite for admiration, and her strong cruel streak had damaged them and ruined many others' lives.
The book addresses some other unsavory aspects of Rand's life.
She had a habit of exaggerating her own suffering, and she often forgot to credit those whose ideas she borrowed and who helped her in more material ways. She humiliated her husband. She could be narcissistic, shrill, demanding, untidy, even unclean, and her use of amphetamines exacerbated her angry outbursts, unkempt periods, and paranoia. In later years, she participated in what Barbara Branden called kangaroo trials of her closest followers and seemed to relish punishing them for small infractions. In the end, she suffered from loneliness, a sense of betrayal, and bitterness.
Rand was very similar to her characters in that she was unwavering in her beliefs. In what ways was she unlike them?
She was not fearless. She was certainly not without a desire for recognition and adulation, as Roark and Galt both are. She suffered from depression and once said, "John Galt wouldn't feel this. He would know how to handle this. I don't know," and "I would hate for him to see me like this." Yet she also wrote, at the end of Atlas Shrugged, "I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don't exist. That this book has been written -- and published -- is my proof that they do."
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