I sat in a corner on the sofa, thoroughly engrossed, turning the pages of Atlas Shrugged. Reading one of the most popular works of fiction ever published may sound like a fairly ordinary thing to do. But at the time the novel was not even completed. I was reading the manuscript. And the sofa was in the living room of Ayn Rand’s apartment.
The time was March 1956.
At that point, Miss Rand was well known for her previous novel, The Fountainhead.
I read The Fountainhead in September of 1955. I was overwhelmed by it. To me, at the age of 21, the world seemed a jumble of blurred fragments with no cohesion or stability. People were insubstantial, constantly changing. They seemed willing to accept humdrum, “nine-to-five lives.” I couldn’t bear it nor deal with it. I needed a great deal more. I wanted to know that it was possible and right to aspire to “ride with the gods” and reach for the stars. I had attempted to read books of philosophy but they made no sense to me, bearing no relation to life as we live it.
In sharp contrast, The Fountainhead presented a vision of the world and of people that explained and validated my desperate need. I couldn’t put the book down.
As soon as I finished it, I sat down to write my first fan letter. I thanked the author for being so specific in presenting the character and values of Howard Roark. I also told her that I had come to New York at the age of 17 to be a ballerina. It turned out that Leonard Peikoff, a young student of philosophy and a member of her circle, had asked Ayn if she would let him see any good letter from a female of the appropriate age with the view of meeting and dating her. She showed him my letter and told him to decide if he wanted to pursue it. Leonard chose to call me. I vividly remember the exaltation I experienced as a result of that phone call. In the following hours, if I was not exactly dancing on the ceiling, I’m sure I didn’t quite touch the ground.
Leonard and I met at a little French restaurant on West 55th Street. We both carried paperback copies of The Fountainhead so we would recognize each other.
I have no memory of eating, but I do know that I bombarded him with question after question about how to apply the philosophy to areas not covered in the The Fountainhead. After over two hours of explaining issues to me, Leonard suggested that I meet Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. Many of my questions had to do with psychology and the Brandens were better qualified to address them.
It was the beginning of a period of sun-blessed days.
Nathan and Barbara liked me. Not too long afterward there was to be a gathering at their apartment for the purpose of hearing Barbara’s master’s degree thesis. The subject was Ayn Rand’s theory of free will as “the choice to think or not to think.”
I was thrilled when I was invited to attend. At that point there was no Objectivism (the name later given to her philosophy) no lectures, no Nathaniel Branden Institute. There was only the “Collective,” Ayn Rand’s friends who met regularly to learn and explore her ideas. They jokingly called themselves “The Collective” as a sardonic reference to the country and the abhorrent system which Ayn Rand had left behind in Soviet Russia. Nathan once related a story, possibly apocryphal. When a very few early communist leaders were planning the Russian revolution, one of them said: Now we are three; we are a world movement. Nathan said that now we were ten; we were a world movement.
I was told that Ayn Rand was to attend the meeting.
Everyone else had arrived when the doorbell rang. They all stood up. A not-very-tall woman wearing a black coat and hat with a turned-down brim entered. She was followed by her husband, Frank—a tall, elegant, handsome gentleman. She paused a moment at the door surveying the room. Her presence was strong. She looked pleased to be there. Yet most remarkable to me was the subtle air of shy reticence she conveyed. It was almost as if she questioned the tribute and was surprised by it. But at the same time she knew she would receive it and that she deserved it. I had only seen the picture of her on the back cover of the paperback edition of the book. I had expected to see someone dominating and severe. She was feminine and warm.
When the reading of Barbara’s thesis was completed, everyone began milling around. Ayn immediately walked over, sat down next to me and said “Now let me talk to our new guest.” I was so surprised, my mind felt frozen, and I blurted out questions about Dominique. At the time I was studying acting and working on one of Dominique’s scenes from The Fountainhead.
She was very kind in that it wasn’t until sometime later that she told me I was not the right type to play Dominique. She explained that Dominique was the repressed type so well represented by Greta Garbo. She saw me as the Anna Magnani type, emotionally expressive and dynamic. Also in the latter category were Kira (We the Living), Dagny (Atlas Shrugged), and Adrienne (Think Twice). Ayn herself was the Magnani type; some friends believed Ayn resembled Magnani.
Nathan had decided he didn’t think I should work as a restaurant hat-check girl which is the work I was doing at the time. Barbara had been typing the manuscript of Atlas Shrugged but she now had a full time job elsewhere. So it was decided I would take over. Since I was far from a proficient typist, I was to be paid 25 cents a page while learning.
Nathan told me they thought it wouldn’t be fair for me to start typing at Chapter 8, with no idea what the story was about. I was told that I could read the manuscript.
And so I began going to her apartment on East 36th Street, sitting in a corner of the sofa and entering the radiant world that Ayn Rand had created.
The manuscript ended at Galt’s speech which Ayn was then working on. I typed for the next several months along with Mary Ann Sures (then Rukavina), a student of art history and friend of Ayn’s. Together, we proofread, reading the pages to each other. Occasionally, we became aware that Ayn was standing listening just outside the study door. She liked to listen to check the rhythmic flow of the writing.
I was also permitted to attend the regular Saturday evening meetings of the Collective at Ayn’s apartment at which they discussed many fascinating issues. One night Alan Greenspan explained in detail the causes of the 1929 depression. On another occasion, Nathan read aloud the recently-completed section of Atlas Shrugged on altruism.
And so I came to know a most extraordinary and great lady. Meeting and knowing Ayn Rand was the unrepeatable experience of my life.