Any book review partakes of the perspectives of its writer, and any book review can be objective insofar as it appeals to publically accessible facts and gives reasons for its idiosyncratic value judgments and personal impressions. That said, this review is more personal than most.
I know the author, Anne Heller, principally because she took a course in Objectivism
from me while she was researching this book. I met her and communicated with her on occasions after that. From knowing her and appreciating the serious, independent approach she brought to her subject, I have been on tenterhooks awaiting this biography.
Ayn Rand and The World She Made is biography done right
So I am particularly pleased to be able to say that Ayn Rand and The World She Made
is biography done right: well-rounded, engaged, judicious, thoroughly-researched, occasionally revelatory, and often moving. It is focused on Ayn Rand
as a person. With whom did she have personal relationships? What were the sources of her drive and independent thinking? What were the origins of her story ideas and her aesthetic approach? What was she really like, beneath the mythological view of herself that she presented to readers, fans, and even many friends?
Heller is an intelligent fiction critic, who, encountering Ayn Rand
’s work in mid-life, was able to see its strengths and appreciate its inspirational power. This is rare. Usually becoming culturally literate involves hardening oneself against whatever is not intellectually modish. And Ayn Rand
, though popular, was out-of-step with 20th
century intellectual culture both by inclination and on principle.
Heller points out that Rand brought to her fiction elements as varied as her “nineteenth-century scope, her jaw-dropping integration of unfamiliar ideas into a drumbeat plot, or the Dickensian keenness of her eye for bureaucratic villainy” (p. 282, regarding Atlas Shrugged
in particular). Rand’s writing was characteristically “logical, original, complex, and though sometimes overbearing, beautifully written.” Heller recounts that she tore through Rand’s oeuvre after being introduced to her ideas, and states that she “became a strong admirer, albeit one with many questions and reservations.” (p. xii)
Expositions of Objectivist ideas are laced throughout the book. I don’t know if my course had a hand in that, but it certainly pleased me to see the way Heller took the time to give short, usually dead-on summaries of key Objectivist positions. These do not appear systematically, but rather, biographically. That is, Heller fits them in at times when, in Rand’s life, we could see the ideas germinating. Instead of digressions, they read like integral parts of the narrative. In addition, Heller is sparing with quotations from Rand. She often presents Rand’s thinking in her own words, which closes the distance between critic and subject and increases one’s sense of being immersed in Rand’s life. In any case, a reader of this biography should come away with a good appreciation of the content of Rand’s ideas. (Though, to judge by some the reviews—many of which have blundered in representing what Rand was about—not all readers have been very able in this regard).
Heller summarizes the plot and style of each of Rand’s novels in extended sequences. This was a good decision: a writer’s life is often made up mostly of what he is writing. Also, since Heller lauds Rand’s integration of ideas and plot, these summaries give the reader an appreciation of what she means by that. In doing so, she evokes strongly the power and excitement of Rand’s fiction.
While she didn’t have full access to the Ayn Rand
archives, Heller’s research was remarkably thorough. She engaged research services to dig up new facts about Rand’s youth in Russia. She snagged every emission to come out of the guarded archives. She interviewed or got hold of interviews with numerous people who knew Rand. And she rooted out correspondence and records from third parties that shed light on her subject. For instance, by going through the files that remain from Ann Watkins, Rand’s agent during the 1930s, Heller is able to confirm the terms of Rand’s publishing contracts, royalties, and rights’ sales for this period, about which Rand herself left little and misleading information.
Who Was Ayn Rand?
The early years of Rand’s life in St. Petersburg, Russia are some of the richest and most moving in the book. Heller paints in the details of Rand’s family life as half-mainstreamed Jews pursuing success in the few avenues open to Jews in Czarist Russia. The government then strictly regulated what professions Jews could enter, how many could live in the city, and even where they could study. Rand herself never advertised her Jewish origins once she settled in America, though she never denied them, either. From girlhood she identified with Western, secular gentile models—Cyrus, the fictional hero of her favorite story, or the free-seeming British girls she saw while on vacation in 1914. For her, to take a new name, to find success in ways unrelated to being a Jew, and to marry a handsome, witty American was a dream to be devoutly wished for. When she achieved that new status, she clung to it, disinclined to look back.
Rand’s hatred of the Orthodox Right in Russian politics was reflective of a general attitude among Jews at the time, but it was also crystallized by seeing at first hand the depredations of White Russian armies in the Crimea during the Russian Civil War. Her hatred of the Left was both reflective of the attitudes of many of her circle who had placed their hopes in the moderate democrat Alexander Kerensky, but it was also crystallized by the Communists’ seizure of her father’s pharmacy, her family’s apartment, and the expulsion of “bourgeois” students from her university (Rand herself was expelled and only graduated when a last wave of “tainted” students was given a reprieve and allowed to finish).
The tenor of Rand’s fiction was well-developed even before she left Russia: idea-oriented melodrama modeled after Victor Hugo’s work and popular thrillers, like her favorite The Mysterious Valley
by Maurice Champagne. Movies were another huge influence: Rand watched and methodically studied hundreds. Heller discusses what is known of Rand’s Russian writing, which included notes for a novella (since lost) in which a beautiful American lures talented achievers to leave a collectivizing Europe for the freedom of America. This sounds like nothing so much as the basic plot of Atlas Shrugged
. It also reveals that even as a college student, Rand identified the collectivism of Soviet Russia with Europe as a whole, and she looked to America as a symbol of freedom. Her dreams were set on America, even before she became obsessed with its movies.
Thus Heller gives us a portrait of a girl who escaped from her grim daily life into fiction, escaped from prudent, conventional expectations into a burning ambition to be writer of novels and films, and escaped from Russia to America to make her dreams real. This attitude of idealizing and dramatizing her own life would remain a leitmotif of Rand’s for the rest of her life, according to Heller. Although this is a troubling charge to lay at the feet of a philosopher who championed objectivity, Heller shows that Rand’s will to greatness could ignore inconvenient facts when it had to, insisting that her pleasant, unambitious husband Frank was a heroic titan on the scale of Howard Roark and converting a bright, charismatic follower, Nathaniel Branden, into an epochal genius and then, later, into a moral monster.
Rand’s heroic drive helped her keep her ideal in sight through all her struggles and it doubtless contributed to the independence of mind that resulted in philosophical thought that defied easy categorization. It made her a writer so dedicated that she regularly worked with no thought of rest days or vacations, and she fought against producers, publishers, and even her own agent to defend her work and her radical ideas. But it also showed up in her inability or unwillingness to reflect on her own errors or misdeeds. This attitude, which hardened as she aged, turned friends into enemies needlessly. And it contributed to the authoritarian, cultish aspects of the Objectivist movement that formed around Rand and Branden in the 1960s.
Heller calls Rand narcissistic in several passages (p. 70, e.g.). Yet she also praises Rand’s insightful mind and calls her a “methodical thinker” (p. 280, e.g.). Rand’s “novels and the best of her essays are well worth reading now.” (xiii) She offers testimony from many friends and acquaintances, not all whom were fans—nor intellectually naïve—on the power of Rand’s thinking to challenge assumptions and make people question their premises. She shows how Rand carefully researched the business aspects behind her novels. She offers, in fact, a charming tour through the historical figures Rand lampooned in The Fountainhead
. She shows Rand vindicated in her insistence that her work could sell without selling out. Heller argues that Rand’s anti-communism was vindicated, too by the collapse of the Soviet economic and political system in 1989. Plainly, however much she may have glamorized her descriptions of her own life, Rand was an achiever at root, not a mere fantasist. In the end “the World She Made” (of Heller’s title) was not only a world of fiction and fictionalized reality, but in fact a culture she had impacted and which she continues to influence.
How They Saw Her
Ayn Rand and the World She Made
is in some ways a collective memoir. Once we get to a period in Rand’s life for which testimony has been recorded, the narrative moves in and out, focusing on Rand for a while, then turning the spotlight on a friend or relative of Rand’s. We then read a bit about this friend or relative, before coming in due course to that person’s observations of Rand. In writing biography, there are sources other than memories: correspondence, journals, and news reports all play roles, for example. And Heller doesn’t stint on these. But she returns regularly to Rand’s acquaintances to provide what we must assume are honest and intimate looks at her subject. Two examples of these: Heller sent to Hawaii to get the recollections of octogenarian Thaddeus Ashby, who in 1945 understudied for the part of arch-fan and soul-mate that Nathaniel Branden was later to play. And she gathered the acerbic recollections of the Random House copy-editor who worked with Rand on Atlas Shrugged
These reports reveal aspects of Rand I wasn’t aware of. For instance, I didn’t realize that she was often grubby. But in Heller’s biography, report after report has her ill-kempt, unbathed, with runs in her stockings and flyaway hair, living in an apartment that often stank of cat effluvia. Neither did I realize that she was afraid to go out on her own. But several reports have her visibly upset by a chance encounter on the street, or stressed out over making a speech without her husband, Frank O’Connor by her side. (The reports also enrich the portrait of O’Connor. Rand’s mild, decorative husband emerges as no great achiever, but as a sensitive, witty, artistic man who was loyal to a fault.)
Ayn, the kooky, disagreeable cousin had outshone them all. It had to rankle.
Usually Heller recounts these reports uncritically. This makes for awkward reading when they contain bombshells. One such is the claim that Rand had an abortion in the early 1930s for which Frank O’Connor borrowed money from his family. Maybe this happened. It may even help explain Ayn Rand
’s non-conservative pro-abortion-rights view. But the evidence for it in Heller’s notes hangs on one relative’s recollections of what her mother told her about an event the relative had been too young to know anything about at the time. (pp. 128 and 462) It’s family gossip, really. Yet the abortion is reported, without nuance, as a plain fact in the narrative.
Something similar seems to be going on with the hand-me-down kvetches of Rand’s Chicago relatives. A granddaughter complains that Rand at 21 promised her grandmother a mink coat if Rand ever struck it rich. But one can’t help but wonder if this isn’t grousing that evolved later. Perhaps some envious remarks came up at family get-togethers after Rand swanned through for a visit in the 1940s. She had hit the big time by then and was on her way to Hollywood as a star. She probably wore the mink coat her husband had made her buy with her newfound wealth. The kooky, disagreeable cousin had outshone them all. It had to rankle!
The Chicago clan protest, too, that Rand didn’t lean on them enough to help Rand’s parents and sisters, who were trapped in Russia, and that she didn’t tell them how bad things were there in the ’20s and ’30s. But this insistent hypothetical generosity rather undercuts their complaints that Rand welched on them by not paying them back for their aid to her when she first came to America. Were they generous or not? Rand herself aided several people who were trapped in Europe or who showed promise but needed funds, and generally she didn’t view that aid as a loan to be repaid in cash terms, but rather as an investment in the person’s potential. In that context, the Chicago relatives’ carping gives off a whiff of envy, and I wish Heller had questioned their veracity as much as she questions Rand’s.
Overall, however, the memoir-ish accounts of Rand bring to life her daily round and her manner as they evolved over the years. We get a sense of a Rand who had friends, relatives, and hangers-on, and whose social net was made up not just or even mainly of intellectuals. They show us the Rand we’ve all heard about, who was mesmerizing, warm, and sincerely interested in intelligent strangers. They show us the Rand who was a gracious, even charming, person to deal with about business. They show us her 24/7 dedication to her work. And of course, they show us a bitter, angry woman who came to feel let down by the culture and betrayed by too many close friends.
Who Helped Her
From the 1940s onwards, as she reached the apogee of her fame, Ayn Rand
swept aside questions about her origins. She asked to be judged by her works instead, and she denied having received help in her climb toward literary success. But she did receive some help, most especially in her initial move to America. Rand’s parents were supportive of her ambition and helped stoke it with encouraging letters after she left them. The Chicago relatives were instrumental, providing guarantees she needed for her visa and supporting her for her first six months. In fact, Rand’s parents even sent her money in the 1920s to tide her through a particularly tough period, when their own situation could not have been easy. For her part, Rand sent her mother American novels to translate, cannily selecting those likely to pass ideological muster with the Soviet authorities, thus helping her parents keep their heads above water.
Nick Carter, Rand's gay brother-in-law, is revealed as an important influence.
By and large, however, Rand made her own way. Her Chicago relatives provided her a letter of introduction when she went to Hollywood, but she didn’t use it. Instead, she bumped into Cecile B. DeMille on one of her first days there—Heller muses that maybe the meeting wasn’t an accident: Rand could methodically stalk people she wanted to meet. DeMille gave Rand a job as a junior screenwriter, a break that was typical of her rise to success. After all, despite having limited English, Rand sold a screenplay (Red Pawn) within a few years of arriving in Hollywood. Her first play (Night of January 16th) premiered to a crowd of Hollywood stars and was a decent hit after moving to Broadway (she sold the film rights, too). Her first novel (We the Living) was published by a major house and sold internationally (it was famous enough to be filmed in Italy, and Rand adapted it for an ill-fated Broadway run as The Unconquered).
Rand may have been out of step with the left-ward trend. She may have been socially insensitive. She may have hewed to her principles to a degree that made her hard to fit into the get-along-go-along culture of creating popular movies and plays. She certainly did struggle to realize a new, modern individualist ideal and create an art of modernity in a new key. But if Rand struggled, it is plain her struggle was rewarded at regular intervals by individuals who saw her talent and encouraged it by their own lights.
The Tragedies of Ayn Rand
Rand always wanted to bring her family to America if she could. Once she had broken through as a writer and had sufficient funds (in the mid 1930s), she tried to actually make it happen. At the same time, thanks to We the Living, Rand was giving speeches and interviews around New York denouncing Soviet Communism. (This shows that Rand was engaged in public speaking well before she began campaigning for Wendell Willkie in 1940.) Did Rand’s growing notoriety cause the Soviet authorities to deny her family travel permission? “Whether the result would have been different had Rand kept out of the public spotlight is debatable,” Heller notes, “but her timing didn’t help.” (p. 98) At the height of the Stalin purges, Rand dropped all communication with her family, for fear of endangering them. Rand was later to learn that her parents died not long afterwards. Of her sisters, only one survived (they had a heartbreaking, acrimonious reunion in the 1970s).
One little-remarked influence on Rand’s life was Nick Carter, her brother-in-law. Gay by all accounts, he never was a romantic interest of hers, but he played a unique role in her life, guiding her and his brother Frank O’Connor’s relationship and coaching her. “Like Rand’s later young male protégées, he talked with her about ideas late into the night, while O’Connor dozed in a chair, but he differed from them in important ways. He didn’t flatter her, and he acted as her practical guide in matters of dress and entertaining.” (p. 100) While she was writing The Fountainhead
, she read it aloud to Frank and Nick, and they probably “suggested or corrected her dialogue and pointed out opportunities for humor.” (p. 147) In Heller’s portrait, based mostly on the recollections of his and Frank’s niece, Nick comes across as an important stabilizing force in Rand’s twenties and thirties. He was a kind of ghost-husband, able to deal with her intellectually and to correct her in at least some areas (which the unliterary, submissive Frank never could). Then he died suddenly in 1945. It seems to me that Rand had lost an anchor and her marriage had lost some of its secret sauce.
Nick’s death corresponded closely with the moment Rand became really famous. The Fountainhead
was the sleeper hit of the 1940s, and Rand robbed Jack Warner blind selling the movie rights. Now she could hob-nob with stars. Now Frank Lloyd Wright would meet her. Now she could agitate with business leaders and speak out against collectivism. Her ideas and winning seriousness about life would gain her fans and followers. She would push her thinking deeper into economics, epistemology and metaphysics and would write her bestselling magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged
But she became a more inward-looking, easily-angered, suspicious, and embittered person. She would break with followers and cut off friendship after friendship, until she ended her days surrounded by what could only be called sycophants. She was taking amphetamines from 1942 onwards, and they may have contributed to this slow change, a possibility Heller considers judiciously. In any case, Heller’s account made me wonder if Nick left a void in Rand’s life at the time of her fame. Certainly, not long after he died, she began to host promising young men for intellectual discussions. The most prominent of these were Nathaniel Branden and Leonard Peikoff, who later became, in turn, her anointed philosophical spokesmen.
The brilliant individualist became the center of a culture of repression and conformity.
Heller recounts the period leading up to and after Atlas Shrugged
in detail, and some of the excitement of those years comes through. We become immersed in the “Ayn Rand cult,” (p.244) and are drawn into the excitement of Rand’s forays into public speaking after Atlas
defied the critics to become a titanic bestseller. (Interestingly, Heller finds that Rand herself said her fans were “becoming kind of cult” in a 1945 letter; it was a characterization she would reject in the 1960s.) Heller is both respectful and contemptuous, crediting Nathaniel Branden as “the father of the self-esteem movement and as a significant contributor to the development of cognitive psychology” (p. 227) while liberally quoting both Brandens’ latter-day condemnations of the hierarchical and judgmental culture that surrounded the Nathaniel Branden Institute in New York in the 1960s.
This was the final tragedy of Rand’s life: the brilliant advocate of individualism became the center of a culture of conformism; the writer who had valued her own sense of life above all else became a critic and judge of not just the ideas of others, but their tastes and sensibilities. Rand’s ideas liberated thousands, perhaps millions, empowering them to seek the best within themselves. But, first in her inner circle, “the Collective,” in the 1950s and then in the Objectivist movement that the Brandens built in her honor, repression and conformism were hallmarks.
I’ve never enjoyed reading about Nathaniel Branden’s affair with Ayn Rand
. The deceit involved among all parties betrayed core principles of Objectivism
, with the results one might expect. Heller combines information from the Brandens with information from Rand’s late ‘60s personal journals that was published in the polemical The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics
. The result is a detailed, sympathetic portrait of Rand’s mind in this tragic period. It is heart-wrenching to read along as Rand tries to square the conviction that she and Branden are the greatest human beings on Earth with the web of prevarications that Branden had woven. By the psychological theory of sex they had both preached, desire should have been his response to her greatness. But it wasn’t. Branden lied that he had no desire. Rand tried to counsel him via critique, ignoring her own role in the mess and the degree to which she was demanding that he not merely be loyal to her cause, but also fulfill her deepest fantasy.
This is painful, painful reading for anyone who is a fan of Rand’s art or ideas. It is plain in Heller’s account that who Branden was sexually attracted to was taken as the measure of his greatness of soul. When Rand found out it wasn’t her, or any woman she admired, to whom he was attracted, Rand exploded. Their Objectivist movement shattered, torn apart not by a dispute over facts, but by competing claims for blind loyalty. Rand’s hopes for a generation of new intellectuals to carry on her ideas was seriously diminished—she had never cared much for the popular movement as such. And she was stripped of her most important friendships of the previous two decades. She was left embittered, reduced in interests and powers. It was a sad dénouement to an essentially heroic and inspiring life.
Ayn Rand and the World She Made is composed in a classic biographical style, a steadily moving narrative that draws one in to Rand’s life and times and eloquently evokes the life she lived. The text is unencumbered by citations; the notes are confined to the end of the book, keyed to particularly passages. Reading more closely than most readers will, I found this frustrating. More than once I wondered “where did Heller get that?” only to find no reference in the notes—yet, to be fair, I also found riches of detail in the notes that didn’t make into the main text, and marveled at the ingenious way Heller sussed out original sources that I would never have thought of.
One aspect of attribution troubled me greatly, however. This was the degree to which the account of Rand in the 1950s and ’60s depended on Barbara and Nathaniel Branden as sources. My objection is not that I deprecate their value as witnesses: no one knew Rand better in those years. The problem is that their recollections are often hidden, so for instance a passage that in one part is attributed to Barbara Branden, may also relate the memories of a friend of Rand’s who you will find, if you check the notes, is also Barbara Branden. When Heller can get other sources she does, but this sweeping over of the importance of one source for certain passages is unseemly.
Fair to the Heir?
I also found this biography to be unfair to philosopher Leonard Peikoff, who is Barbara Branden’s cousin and Ayn Rand
’s heir. Heller rightly points out that Peikoff has no evidence for claiming the status of “intellectual heir,” since Rand never described him so. But Heller is very hard on Peikoff, lingering over scenes of him being berated or rejected by Rand, and treating him generally as an unsympathetic nebbish. Peikoff became Rand’s most loyal ally and her right hand man in the 1970s, but in place of a nuanced assessment, Heller deflatingly quotes Rand’s long-time secretary saying “He was a robot at the end”. (p. 400)
“Two decades later,” Heller writes, “he was still pursuing [Rand’s] vendettas, mounting acrimonious attacks on heretics, prosecuting legal threats against outsiders, demanding loyalty oaths from a second generation of Randian disciples.” (p. 400) This is true as far as it goes. I am not a fan. But it was Peikoff’s lectures on “Understanding Objectivism” after Rand’s death that opened Objectivism
up by distinguishing its key ideas from Rand’s tastes and preferences. That wasn’t the action of a robot. And though it has flaws, his survey Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand
, which Heller neglects to mention, is a crucial first attempt to fully synthesize her system by a trained philosopher who worked with her intimately. And his efforts to train Objectivist thinkers have had positive effects across all the wings of today’s Objectivist movement, whatever harm his misjudgments may have caused.
Has Heller explained Rand?
Is Ayn Rand explained by showing her Russian roots, or the impact that Victor Hugo had on her, or by noting that Rand in her early twenties carried Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra with her like a Bible? Without knowing of Rand’s origins and influences, she seems more avatar than human: the little firebrand from nowhere who understood America better than any American did, the savant who could teach philosophy to philosophers. Knowing her roots, though, we can see better how she came about.
And yet, let’s be clear: Rand’s genes, upbringing, and influences did not cause her to write like a demon; they did not force her to reject Left and Right; they did not make her transcend her Nietzschean influences to reach her own, original artistic and ideological synthesis. Narcissists are a dime a dozen; those who drive themselves to succeed beyond all reasonable expectations are rather more rare.
Rand was one of many secular Jewish intellectuals to emerge from Eastern Europe before World War II. And, as Heller notes, her “Collective” were mostly “children of first- or second-generation Russian immigrants whose religion they rejected”. (p. 241) But Rand was the only Jewish writer to create a literary style that mashed up the sweep and drama of a 19th
-century novel of ideas with the visual images of a cinematic treatment. Rand’s philosophical view, Objectivism
, is not one of several similar Neo-Aristotelian, Nietzchean, Anti-Kantian, Jeffersonian philosophical systems to emerge from Eastern Europe in the middle of the last century. It is the only one. More to the point: it can’t really be classed as a form of Existentialism, though her idol Nietzsche’s thought can be. Why not?
Thanks to Anne Heller (and the other researchers she draws upon), we now understand more clearly how Rand’s life story was typical of certain kind of Jewish, Eastern European striver. We see how her background set her up to follow the intellectual and artistic trails she did. Rand’s intransigent commitment to her ideas was typical of Russians, for instance. And we now appreciate better the psychological tics that set her apart from even her sisters and colored her relationships and attitudes.
Still, in the end we must acknowledge that Ayn Rand
was the self-made soul par excellence. She strived from a very young age to make her own visions real, to see through the world-views her culture gave to her. She determined to escape from oppression to freedom, and she did, where no one else in her family did. She grabbed hold of spiritual food from all directions, mastered literary technique in a foreign language, and exploded onto the world stage with something bold, distinctive, valuable, new, and very much her own.
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