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A quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute, edited by Brian C. Anderson.

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Neither God nor Devil
Two new biographies show Ayn Rand in all of her complexity.
11 November 2009

Ayn Rand and the World She Made, by Anne C. Heller (Nan A. Talese, 592 pp., $35)

Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns (Oxford, 384 pp., $27.95)

Ayn Rand’s midcentury novels continue to strike a chord because they read as though culled from today’s headlines. Here, Rand’s “looters” raid government coffers to bail out their poorly performing industries; there, Rand’s “moochers” demand that the “producers” pay for their health care. More than a quarter-century since her death, and a half-century since Atlas Shrugged’s publication, Random House has moved more than a quarter-million copies of the 1,168-page tome in 2009 alone. Rumors abound of Rand’s magnum opus finally reaching the big screen, with Cherlize Theron and Angelina Jolie discussed as cinematic Dagny Taggarts. The timing couldn’t be better for reconsiderations of Rand.

The titles of two new biographies—Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made and Jennifer Burns’s Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right—imply a subject more deity than mortal. The books describe a woman driven to greatness yet paralyzed by fear. Where her acolytes see a god and her detractors a devil, Rand’s biographers see a flawed person of massive achievement.

Like those of her creations Howard Roark and John Galt, Rand’s life was the story of the inner-directed individual standing up against a recalcitrant world. The Russian immigrant transcended a language barrier to become one of the most widely read novelists in the English language. The outspoken right-winger triumphed in two politicized industries—publishing and Hollywood—where the deck seemed most stacked against her. And despite being written out of the conservative movement, Rand became bigger than the movement popes who excommunicated her.

Alisa Rosenbaum didn’t become Ayn Rand without help. Were it not for the rugged individualism at the heart of her philosophy of Objectivism, that wouldn’t be noteworthy, let alone controversial. Both Burns and Heller take pains to highlight the friction between Rand’s philosophy and her life. Rand’s family sacrificed enormously to get her out of post-revolutionary Russia; in America, previously unknown Chicago relatives provided her room, board, and transportation to Hollywood. Despite Rolls-Royce and mink-coat promises, Rand never paid her relatives back. Numerous benefactors moved by her sorry state in 1920s Hollywood, including a donor directing $50 to the neediest girl in a boarding house for Tinseltown wannabes, aided her effort to become a studio scriptwriter. Later, after marrying actor Frank O’Connor but not wanting to bear children, Rand got her in-laws to pay for an abortion.

The handouts aiding her climb would seem trivial if not for Rand’s insistence that she made it from obscurity to fame without assistance. “No one helped me,” Rand boasted in Atlas Shrugged’s afterword, “nor did I think it was anyone’s duty to help me.” This contempt for self-sacrifice on behalf of another—a contempt at the heart of Objectivism— makes any biography depicting Rand as recipient or practitioner of altruism (she would play benefactor after playing beneficiary) controversial among her followers. The inconvenient history serves to indict the practicality of a philosophy whose paragon couldn’t even practice what she preached. The Rand who emerges in Goddess of the Market and Ayn Rand and the World She Made, though, is less hypocrite than human. Who can be faulted, really, for making life’s journey without the occasional lift along the way?

More troubling to Objectivists than the monetary debts Rand incurred is the intellectual debt she owed Isabel Paterson, the cranky right-wing novelist and longtime New York Herald-Tribune columnist, who took Rand under her wing during the 1940s. “The only philosophical debt I can acknowledge is to Aristotle,” Rand wrote. But Paterson taught Rand economics, contributed to the timelessness of The Fountainhead by convincing its author to delete references to contemporary figures like Hitler and Stalin, used her column to boost her friend’s literary career, and, in vain, tried to shake Rand from her addiction to amphetamines. “As she began to educate herself about philosophy Rand turned to Paterson for a durable frame of reference,” Burns writes. “In New York Paterson had ranted against Kant, Hegel, and Marx, quoting instead Aristotle and the dictum ‘A is A,’” a catchphrase later used incessantly by her pupil. One wonders about the degree to which Paterson served as a negative role model, too, as the tempestuous older woman’s penchant for issuing insults and being insulted herself perhaps gave Rand comfort as she indulged infamously in such socially maladaptive behavior.

Rand was as quick to whitewash the influence of mentors as she was to charge intellectual theft among those she mentored. Rather than take pride in her growing influence, she denounced anarcho-libertarian Murray Rothbard and the founders of the Libertarian Party as plagiarists who had stolen her ideas. Even students who launched Objectivist clubs, or spread the novelist’s ideas through “free university” courses, weren’t safe from her lawyers or vituperative denunciations. Rand’s knack for eyeing would-be friends as enemies—Ludwig von Mises (“bastard”), Friedrich Hayek (“our most pernicious enemy”), Barry Goldwater (“not an advocate of capitalism”), among others—ensured that the Church of Objectivism remained monotheistic.

The man most responsible for making the Objectivist movement adopt a cult of personality was Nathaniel Branden, so devoted to Objectivism that he incorporated Rand’s last name into his own. Libertarian moralizers, such as Branden, unconsciously adopted some of the uglier qualities of the extreme collectivists whom they railed against. While purporting to be the antitheses of Hitler and Stalin, Objectivists conducted star-chamber trials, demanded that followers denounce relatives, and imitated Rand’s aesthetic tastes (smoking, Mickey Spillaine: good; mustaches, Shakespeare: bad). “A slip of the tongue by an Objectivist who liked Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho or secretly didn’t like the paintings of one of her favorite . . . contemporary artists, Spanish surrealist Jose Menuel Capuletti, could bring accusations of mysticism, whim worship, malevolence, or an attitude of ‘anti-life,’” Heller notes. In a similar vein, Burns points out: “When Ayn and [husband] Frank purchased a new piece of furniture, the Objectivist dining table became all the rage.”

The causes of the fall of the Objectivist movement in the late 1960s, though now universally accepted, were for decades fiercely contested. In 1954, the 49-year-old Rand and the 24-year-old Branden embarked upon a sexual affair unknown to anyone save their spouses. For the next 14 years, they maintained a May-December romance that varied in its sexual intensity. In 1968, frustrated by Rand’s pressure to resume the relationship’s sexual component, Branden revealed in a letter that he had been involved in an affair with a model who appeared the physical embodiment of the Nordic goddesses who peopled the pages of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. The stocky creator of such leggy beauties couldn’t bear Branden’s rebuff. “Nathan’s letter was a devastating rejection not only of Rand, but of the Objectivist philosophy itself,” Burns writes. “Objectivism taught that sex was never physical; it was always inspired by a deeper recognition of shared values, a sense that the other embodied the highest human achievement.” The personal rejection, then, was received as a rejection of Objectivism itself. How could a man value a lighthearted twentysomething actress/model over the author of Atlas Shrugged?

Hell hath no fury like a scorned Ayn Rand, who disinherited her “intellectual heir,” used her clout to kill his publishing deal, closed the Nathaniel Branden Institute devoted to spreading her ideas, and airbrushed her former evangelist/lover from the dedication page of Atlas Shrugged. Objectivists, including Branden’s relatives, had to foreswear contact with Branden if they desired to maintain a connection with Rand. Most satisfying to the many Objectivists whom Branden had browbeaten over the years, Rand excommunicated her St. Paul by spittle of invective, slapping him and denouncing him publicly with vague charges of immorality.

Damning evidence that such cultishness endures appears in, of all places, the front and back matter of both biographies. “Because I am not an advocate for Rand’s ideas, I was denied access to the Ayn Rand Papers,” Heller concedes in her preface. In a bibliographic essay, Burns, who was granted access to Rand’s papers and who adopts a slightly more respectful tone toward Objectivism, echoes the disappointment of past biographers in finding bowdlerized passages in Rand’s published papers. Burns explains that “the published versions of Rand’s letters and diaries have been significantly edited in ways that drastically reduce their utility as historical sources.”

Burns’s access to Rand’s papers is one of the few distinctions between her biography and Heller’s. As Rand did, Heller understands that sex sells, and she devotes more attention to the Rand-Branden affair, while Burns emphasizes Rand’s interaction with various figures on the American Right. Reading either book is worthwhile and engrossing. Reading both is redundant.

Strawmen and superheroes are the stuff of novels. Real life is messy, complicated, and inconsistent. The characters of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are one-dimensional, Manichean, and nominally human. Their creator was none of these. Readers of Ayn Rand’s biographies can be grateful for that.

Daniel J. Flynn, author of A Conservative History of the American Left, blogs at www.flynnfiles.com.

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