Altar Ego

Ayn Rand and the World She Made BY Anne C. Heller. Nan A. Talese. Hardcover, 592 pages. $35.

The cover of Ayn Rand and the World She Made

One of my high school summer jobs involved washing test tubes and pretending to be an apprentice research assistant in a biochemistry lab at a hospital in Manhattan. My coworkers, the actual researchers, had followed their boss, the senior scientist, from a midwestern university. All women, all blond, they seemed to share some arcane knowledge beyond the scientific and to be bound by some common thread beyond their professional and collegial connection.

One outward manifestation of this mysterious bond was that each wore a heavy ring engraved with a dollar sign. They patiently explained to me that this meant they were Objectivists, followers of Ayn Rand. I wasn’t ever sure what this entailed, exactly, except that her philosophy advised people to keep whatever money they earned and posited that society would crumble if everyone did what was good for others instead of what was best for themselves. I still remember the contemptuous sneers with which my new friends pronounced the word altruism. All my life I’d been taught to share and be helpful, so I had some trouble figuring out how these obviously decent, friendly, hardworking women could espouse beliefs that seemed so heartless and selfish. I had an easier time with the two novels they pressed into my hands. Both were written by their idol; both were steamy page-turners in which the characters were either having rough, passionate sex or delivering equally impassioned speeches expressing their ideas about life.

Since then, I haven’t thought much about Rand, except when I watched a compelling 1999 movie, The Passion of Ayn Rand, in which the writer was brilliantly portrayed by Helen Mirren. And from time to time, I’ve noted the frequency with which Rand’s two most widely read novels—The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957)—reappear, half a century after their publication, on best-seller lists. Unlike so many popular novelists I read during those high school summers, Rand has never slipped into the obscurity of the small-town-library book sale. In fact, as Anne C. Heller points out in her engrossing new biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, thirteen million copies of Rand’s books are in print in the United States, and every year approximately five hundred thousand more are sold.

Born in 1905, the eldest daughter of an upwardly mobile Jewish pharmacist in Saint Petersburg, the future philosopher was an awkward, standoffish, and difficult little girl. Her eccentric and problematic personality was doubtless the last thing her parents needed to deal with as they coped with historical and political turmoil, with the awful exigencies of surviving as Jews in the virulently anti-Semitic climate of czarist Russia, and with the upset and privations they suffered during and after the revolution. Later, Rand’s experience of the horrors of collectivism would contribute to a “sense of life” that championed the individual and advised resistance to any political system that encouraged or obliged its members to think and function as a group.

Rand (who would change her name from Alissa Rosenbaum and downplay, though never completely hide, her ethnic origins) possessed, early on, a sense of purpose, a conviction of being gifted and special, and a prodigious ambition to express herself as a writer. She was an avid reader of Nietzsche and Victor Hugo; one of her best friends at school was the sister of Vladimir Nabokov. In 1926, just before her twenty-first birthday, she seized her chance to pass through the small window of time that allowed Russians to travel abroad, leaving home to stay with her mother’s relatives in Chicago. Despite what she told the US officials who granted her a visa, she had no intention of returning to her native land.

In Heller’s admirably evenhanded portrait, Rand appears as having been single-minded, ruthless, and beyond either modesty or embarrassment in her determination to succeed. After six months, she left Chicago for Hollywood and, soon after arriving, had the good fortune to meet Cecil B. DeMille, who hired her as an extra in the biblical drama King of Kings. On set, she met and fell in love with an actor named Frank O’Connor, who was playing a Roman soldier; he was a strikingly handsome man who, by all accounts, looked fabulous in a toga. Rand and the quiet, long-suffering O’Connor were married in 1929, and Heller does a particularly fine job of conveying the essence of this unconventional, unequal, but undeniably close union: “'Frank is the power behind the throne,' Rand sometimes told acquaintances. 'Sometimes I think I am the throne, the way I get sat on,’ a friend heard Frank reply.”

DeMille was sufficiently impressed by Rand to hire her as junior screenwriter. She authored screenplays, stage dramas, and fiction and enjoyed some minor triumphs commingled with frustrating failures. An early play, a courtroom drama titled The Night of January 16th, earned Rand and O’Connor a comfortable income even through the worst of the Great Depression. Her first novel, We the Living, an epic set in Russia, was published in 1936 (the same year as Gone with the Wind) to considerable, if mixed, attention. But Rand was disappointed in her publisher’s failure to support the book.

Success and fame would come with The Fountainhead, a novel on which Rand spent years and that she partly researched by stalking Frank Lloyd Wright, whom she used as a model for the novel’s architect hero. Once again, the book received mediocre reviews at best, and its initial sales were disappointing, but its reputation spread among readers drawn to its high-octane sex scenes and to the philosophy espoused by its dashing hero—a belief system that emphasized individual achievement, genius, rationality, and private enterprise and that derided religion, social welfare, and self-sacrifice. When Warner Bros. agreed to turn the novel into a film (which would star Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal), Rand’s reputation and financial security were established; she would remain well known, even infamous, for the rest of her life.

Heller portrays Rand as a woman who was at once a phenomenon of courage and self-determination, a monster of egotism and narcissism, a sharp logician, and a fanatic ideologue. She never glosses over the awfulness of Rand’s public and private behavior (Rand appeared as a friendly witness to help the House Un-American Activities Committee root out the Communist menace threatening Hollywood), and she cites the lies and half-truths that Rand told about subjects ranging from her family background to the philosophical influences that helped form the ideas she claimed to have invented. Yet Heller defends Rand from the critics who have gleefully and unjustly, in Heller’s opinion, savaged her novels. As a champion of Rand’s talent, Heller has her work cut out for her, especially when it becomes necessary to summarize the plots of Rand’s books, narratives even more implausible and melodramatic in outline than at their full and often inordinate lengths. Here, for example, is Heller’s synopsis of the famous sex scene in The Fountainhead: “Late at night, Roark lets himself into the heroine’s expensively scented bedroom through a terrace window. He stands in his dirty work clothes, hands on hips, legs astride, and lets her look at him. She crouches in terror beside her dressing table. He is laughing. He picks her up and throws her on the bed. Although she is in her midtwenties, she is a virgin.”

During the latter part of Rand’s life, she became an influential and sought-after public speaker, a powerful right-wing political force, and the head (together with her lover, soul mate, and chief disciple, Nathaniel Branden, a man twenty-five years her junior) of both a popular movement and a cult (a term she despised). The group, known as the Collective and based in Manhattan’s East Thirties, sought to dictate every aspect of its loyal members’ lives, determining what music and art they should like (Rachmaninoff was good, Brahms bad) and offering free (if unlicensed and irresponsible) psychotherapy. Members were required to subscribe to a series of tenets that included “Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived” and “Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.”

This section of the narrative must have posed a challenge for a biographer seeking to write about her subject without judgment or condemnation. You can’t help feeling sorry for Rand’s endlessly patient husband and for Branden’s wife, both of whom (in the interests of honesty and intellectual integrity) were kept apprised of the progress of their spouses’ affair. One’s heart also goes out to the long-term friends and casual acquaintances whom Rand—whose mercurial temper was exacerbated by amphetamines—turned against, violently and viciously, often for the crime of insufficiently venerating her genius and importance.

One imagines that Rand would have approved of much of what Heller has written: the balanced tone of her book, its reasonableness, its respect for what a struggling Russian refugee accomplished and achieved. And yet having finished the biography, one can almost hear the impossible Rand railing against Heller’s failure to award her the place she always believed she deserved in the pantheon of the most glorious, solitary, and self-made literary giants.

Francine Prose’s most recent book is Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife (Harper, 2009).