No one, according to Heller’s portrait, struggled with the unreality of Objectivism more than Rand herself. She wept, throughout her life, at the world’s refusal to conform to her ideal vision of it. Although she claimed that “one must never attempt to fake reality in any manner,” she repeatedly withheld or distorted facts to feed her own mythology. (When she died, in 1982, none of her followers even knew her real name.) She carried on an increasingly toxic sexual affair with a married disciple 25 years her junior; when he had his own affair with a younger woman, Rand slapped him, excommunicated him, and falsely accused him of embezzlement. Her special brand of reasoning led her to some unreasonably ugly positions—e.g., that homosexuality is “disgusting” (which caused gay Objectivists to pretend to be straight); that Native Americans, having failed for millennia to create a heroically productive capitalist society, deserved to be stripped of their land; that women are ideally “hero worshippers” who should submit themselves, body and soul, to great men. “I think I represent the proper integration of a complete human being,” Rand wrote while composing her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. After the book’s publication, however, she fell into a deep depression and chided herself for not being more like her ideal man. “John Galt wouldn’t feel this,” she wrote. “He would know how to handle this. I don’t know.” All of which makes her—if not an ideal person, or even really anything close—at least an ideal subject for a biography.
Ayn Rand was born Alissa Rosenbaum, in St. Petersburg in 1905. Her father, a pharmacist, was successful enough to buy both the pharmacy he worked in and the building that housed it. Her mother, foreshadowing her daughter’s future, named the family cats after American place-names. The family employed a cook, a nurse, a maid, and a governess. It was a bad time, of course, to be Russian Jews, and also a bad time to be a prosperous business owner—to be both basically guaranteed disaster. The Rosenbaums were subject to strict anti-Semitic laws, the constant threat of pogroms, and—just as Alissa was hitting adolescence—the Russian Revolution. At 12, Rand watched Bolshevik soldiers march in and take her father’s pharmacy. He would never really work again, and she would spend her adulthood railing, from across the world, against anyone who used force to “loot and mooch” from productive businessmen. As violence escalated and the Russian economy imploded, the Rosenbaums were forced to leave St. Petersburg and move into a small unheated house in a resort town on the Black Sea.
“Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive,” Rand wrote, “and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life.”
Alissa showed strong Objectivist traits from the start: As a child, she was solitary, opinionated, possessive, and intense—a willful and brilliant loner with literally zero friends. At 9, she decided to become a writer; by 11 she’d written four novels, each of which revolved around a heroine exactly her age but blonde, blue-eyed, tall, and leggy. (Rand was—by her own standards—unheroically dark, short, and square.) At 13, she declared herself an atheist. It’s hard not to suspect, based on many of these childhood anecdotes, that Rand suffered from some kind of undiagnosed personality disorder. Once, when a teacher asked her to write an essay about the joys of childhood, she wrote a diatribe condemning childhood as a cognitive wasteland—a joyless limbo in which adult rationality had yet to fully develop. (It was possibly a good thing that she never had children.) In middle school she found herself uncharacteristically intrigued by another student, a seemingly intelligent girl who was also popular—a contradiction in the Rand cosmology. Hoping to solve the mystery, and possibly even make a friend, Rand approached her. “Would you tell me what is the most important thing in life to you?” she asked, showing once again her flair for smooth opening lines. “My mother,” the girl answered. Rand turned away, disgusted. As an adult, she called this exchange “the first most important event in my life socially” and analyzed it as follows: “I had thought she was a serious girl and that she was after serious things, but she was just conventional and ordinary, a mediocrity, and she didn’t mean anything as a person.”
Alissa Rosenbaum left Russia on the brink of her 21st birthday. As the train pulled away she shouted to her family: “By the time I return, I’ll be famous.” She never made it back. She arrived in New York, wept at the glory of its skyline, and changed her name. (The origin is unclear—although we do know that “Rand” is not, as she once claimed, based on a Remington-Rand typewriter, since that brand wasn’t produced until after her rechristening. Ayn, by the way, rhymes with “pine.”) “No one helped me,” Rand would later write, “nor did I think it was anyone’s duty to help me.” In fact, her family and American friends helped her quite a lot. She moved in with, and borrowed money from, relatives in Chicago, one of whom owned a theater where she watched hundreds of movies for free. Eventually she moved to Hollywood, ran into Cecil B. DeMille in a parking lot, and somehow, despite her broken English, got a job reading scripts. Success arrived slowly but steadily after that: her first play, her first novel, her philosophy, her cult. Today, her books sell over half a million copies a year.