Whenever Ayn Rand met someone new—an acolyte who’d traveled cross-country to study at her feet, an editor hoping to publish her next novel—she would open the conversation with a line that seems destined to go down as one of history’s all-time classic icebreakers: “Tell me your premises.” Once you’d managed to mumble something halfhearted about loving your family, say, or the Golden Rule, Rand would set about systematically exposing all of your logical contradictions, then steer you toward her own inviolable set of premises: that man is a heroic being, achievement is the aim of life, existence exists, A is A, and so forth—the whole Objectivist catechism. And once you conceded any part of that basic platform, the game was pretty much over. She’d start piecing together her rationalist Tinkertoys until the mighty Randian edifice towered over you: a rigidly logical Art Deco skyscraper, 30 or 40 feet tall, with little plastic industrialists peeking out the windows—a shining monument to the glories of individualism, the virtues of selfishness, and the deep morality of laissez-faire capitalism. Grant Ayn Rand a premise and you’d leave with a lifestyle.
Stated premises, however, rarely get us all the way down to the bottom of a philosophy. Even when we think we’ve reached bedrock, there’s almost always a secret subbasement blasted out somewhere underneath. William James once argued that every philosophic system sets out to conceal, first of all, the philosopher’s own temperament: that pre-rational bundle of preferences that urges him to hop on whatever logic-train seems to be already heading in his general direction. This creates, as James put it, “a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned … What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is—and oh so flagrantly!—is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is.”
No one would have been angrier about this claim, and no one confirms its truth more profoundly, than Ayn Rand. Few fellow creatures have had a more intensely odd personal flavor; her temperament could have neutered an ox at 40 paces. She was proud, grouchy, vindictive, insulting, dismissive, and rash. (One former associate called her “the Evel Knievel of leaping to conclusions.”) But she was also idealistic, yearning, candid, worshipful, precise, and improbably charming. She funneled all of these contradictory elements into Objectivism, the home-brewed philosophy that won her thousands of Cold War–era followers and that seems to be making some noise once again in our era of bailouts and tea parties. (Glenn Beck and Ron Paul are Rand fans; Alan Greenspan, once a member of her inner circle, had his faith in the market’s rationality shaken by the crash.)
It’s easy to chuckle at Rand, smugly, from the safe distance of intervening decades or an opposed ideology, but in person—her big black eyes flashing deep into the night, fueled by nicotine, caffeine, and amphetamines—she was apparently an irresistible force, a machine of pure reason, a free-market Spock who converted doubters left, right, and center. Eyewitnesses say that she never lost an argument. One of her young students (soon to be her young lover) staggered out of his first all-night talk session referring to her, admiringly, as “Mrs. Logic.” And logic, in Rand’s hands, seemed to enjoy superpowers it didn’t possess with anyone else. She claimed, for instance, that she could rationally explain every emotion she’d ever had. “Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive,” she once wrote, “and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life.” One convert insisted that “she knows me better after five hours than my analyst does after five years.” The only option was to yield or stay away. (I should admit here my own bias: I was a card-carrying Objectivist from roughly age 16 to 19, during which time I did everything short of changing my last name to Randerson—a phase I’m deeply embarrassed by, but also secretly grateful for.)
Rand insisted, over and over, that the details of her life had nothing to do with the tenets of her philosophy. She would cite, on this subject, the fictional architect Howard Roark, hero of her novel The Fountainhead: “Don’t ask me about my family, my childhood, my friends or my feelings. Ask me about the things I think.” But the things she thought, it turns out, were very much dependent on her family, her childhood, her friends, and her feelings—or at least on her relative lack of all that.
Anne Heller’s new biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, allows us to poke our heads, for the first time, into the Russian-American’s overheated philosophical subbasement. After reading the details of Rand’s early life, I find it hard to think of Objectivism as very objective at all—it looks more like a rational program retrofitted to a lifelong temperament, a fantasy world created to cancel the nightmare of a terrifying childhood. This is the comedy, the tragedy, and the power of Rand: She built a glorious imaginary empire on that nuclear-grade temperament, then devoted every ounce of her will and intelligence to proving it was all pure reason.
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.
Rand tends to inspire either religious-grade conversion or wild denunciation, and over the last 40 years a good-size library of violently partisan books has emerged: inside accounts from worshippers, detractors, worshippers turned detractors, detractors turned worshippers. A truly neutral biography seems impossible. Anyone deep enough to be an authority is probably either a true believer or a heretic. But Heller manages to find a nice middle ground; she seems equally happy exposing admirable and ugly secrets. She discovered Rand’s work late, in her forties—well beyond the usual indoctrination age—and, although she calls herself “a strong admirer,” she was denied access to the official Rand archives for being insufficiently pious. Occasionally her tone seems a bit too casually reverential, as when she calls Rand’s satirical skill “at least as keen and passionate” as that of Charles Dickens—a stretch, I think—or says that Rand wrote “more persuasively from a male point of view than any female writer since George Eliot,” which is just silly. (Septimus Smith, for one, would like to deliver a 30-page interior monologue in defense of Virginia Woolf.)
Overall, though, Heller does a remarkable job with a subject who was almost cripplingly complex—a real woman starring in her own propaganda film about a propagandist whose propaganda eventually takes over the world. Toward the end of her life, Rand listened as a prominent psychologist stood onstage and dismissed her fictional heroes—those idealized steel barons and physicists and composers—as implausible. Soon she’d had enough and stood up in the crowd, outraged.
“Am I unreal?” she shouted. “Am I a character who can’t possibly exist?”
She intended this, one suspects, as a refutation. It strikes me as maybe the most profound question she ever raised.
Ayn Rand and the World She Made
By Anne Heller.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. $35.