From 1950 until the end of their association in 1968, psychologist Nathaniel Branden was the foremost spokesman for Ayn Rand and her philosophy, Objectivism. Founder of the Nathaniel Branden Institute and the organized Objectivist movement, a prolific and best-selling author, and a brilliant public speaker, Dr. Branden is also known as "the father of the self-esteem movement" in psychology. The following are excerpts from a recent exclusive interview with The Atlas Society's Robert Bidinotto, which originally appeared in the newsletter of The Atlas Society.
The Atlas Society (TAS): Do you know if there were any real-life inspirations for any of Ayn Rand's fiction heroes?
Nathaniel Branden (NB): There wasn't, in any important sense.
TAS: How about composites of people—or actors and actresses whose faces she liked?
NB: No, I never heard a word from her to suggest that… Possibly Zorro—who was a fictional character, not a real person—possibly Zorro, in a very general, abstract way, played a small role in Ayn's concept of Francisco [d'Anconia, a hero in Atlas Shrugged]. I remember her talking about Zorro. Francisco is almost like a classic figure in literature of a certain kind. The Scarlet Pimpernel, that's another variation of the same idea: the man who pretends to be a fop, but who's really involved in a grimly serious mission. Zorro was obviously that.
TAS: Did the appearance of any of her heroes draw upon anyone—her husband Frank, for instance?
NB: All of her heroes grew from Cyrus, the hero of that children's story she loved about the British soldier in India [The Mysterious Valley]. That was the imprint. And Frank was of that same physical type. Gary Cooper was. And Wallace Reed, an earlier actor. But that was set was she was nine years old.
TAS: I've thought that there seems to have been two stylistic types of hero in Rand's fiction: the classical type—reserved, somewhat stoic, less expressive, like Galt or Roark—and the more expressive, flamboyant, romantic type: Francisco, Midas Mulligan. She seems to go back and forth between the Rearden and the Francisco type. Do you think that is true?
NB: I don't see that. No, she used to say that she loved Viennese operettas. And Francisco for her was tied up with the gaiety of those operettas, and came out of that music. She said she wanted to create a character who would embody the spirit of that music. It was a spirit that she wanted to capture. I can't say that I see any deep stylistic difference. I can't join you with that. But perhaps "style" isn't the word you mean?
Ayn Rand adored Greta Garbo.
TAS: As far as actors and actresses whom she liked…
NB: Well, she adored Greta Garbo, and she would have loved for Greta Garbo to play Dominique [in the film version of The Fountainhead]. According to what Ayn told me, Greta Garbo declined, and for what to me was the most odd reason I ever heard: she didn't think that Gary Cooper [who played Howard Roark] would have been a suitable lover for her. I gather Garbo wasn't a fan of Gary Cooper. But that's merely what Ayn was told by somebody; I have no knowledge as to whether that was true.
TAS: How about for Dagny?
NB: Well, she used to say, "the young Katherine Hepburn in physical appearance"—that's how she saw Dagny.
TAS: She said that once at a Ford Hall Forum I once attended.
NB: I know she wanted Gary Cooper for Roark, even though he was really too old for the part. He was clearly her physical ideal.
TAS: Any other actors that she was partial to?
NB: I can no longer remember. I know she said that [in any movie version of Atlas Shrugged), Galt needed to be played by an unknown—someone with no other associations with any other movie. That makes sense dramatically.
TAS: Were there other people whom she was impressed by?
NB: Well, he was not a public person, but she very much liked the businessman William Mullendore. There were not that many people whom she really liked or admired, as I'm sure you know. Isabel Patterson—until everything went wrong. Ludwig von Mises.
TAS: Figures in history? What about Victor Hugo?
NB: Well, I'm sure she would have loved to have met him. I'll tell you a great Ayn Rand story about Victor Hugo.
I remember coming to her apartment one day, and I was raving about a Hugo novel—I think it was The Man Who Laughs. She asked me to bring down the book; she wanted to check the translation. She read a page or two and said, "Oh, oh, you don't know what you are missing. This is not a good translation. You cannot know from this what a great writer Victor Hugo was."
She went into her office and she got a notepad and she translated the first page or two of Hugo's novel. And it was like a whole new world opened up. It was dazzling, beyond my ability to communicate, because here was a great writer translating a great writer. See, you had to be an extraordinarily gifted writer to do the kind of translation that Hugo warranted. And it was a thrilling moment—I'll never forget it—because it was like I was in a murky room, and somebody turned all the lights on.
TAS: Do you recall having ever attended movies or plays that ever moved her?
NB: Yes. The English playwright Terence Rattigan wrote a script called Breaking Through the Sound Barrier, which was a fictional account of how the sound barrier was broken by a British aviation company. I didn't realize what a strange movie it was, because when I later learned how that actually happened in America, I couldn't imagine how a person could justify inventing a totally fictional portrayal that bore no relation to historical reality. Just the same, the movie was brilliant in its own terms. I saw it and raved about it, and I took Ayn and Frank to see it, and they were very enthusiastic.
Later, Frank had a birthday, and as kind of a birthday present, Barbara and I took Ayn and Frank to see My Fair Lady. I can't say that she was deeply moved, but again, they were very enthusiastic—"That was beautifully well done," etc.
We loved The Untouchables on TV, especially the first two seasons. Then it began to fall apart. But we all watched that religiously.
She rarely, rarely went to the theater, and I can never remember her coming home with a positive reaction.
TAS: Did she like musicals?
NB: No, not American ones. She liked 19th century Viennese operettas, but she didn't like musicals in general—not the American ones.
The level of intellectual excitement of those evenings is almost indescribable.
TAS: When she was dealing with [producer] Al Ruddy to do a screen version of Atlas Shrugged [in the 1970's], did she see The Godfather?
NB: She didn't know Al Ruddy. So as kind of a self-introduction, he asked her to come and see his production of The Godfather. And that sold her on him, and she entrusted him with the project. What happened later on was that she wanted final cut approval—which [they] cannot give. That means they could spend $80 million on a movie, and if she didn't like something they wouldn't agree to, she could have kept it from being released. So the deal foundered over that.
TAS: Is there anything you'd like to add about those evenings you and your friends spent at her apartment reading Atlas Shrugged and discussing her ideas?
NB: The level of intellectual excitement of those evenings is almost indescribable. There was such a passion for ideas, there was such enthusiasm, there was such intensity of interest. It kind of ruined me for social life after that part of my life came to an end. Nothing that happened later quite equaled it.
A week ago I was in Washington, D. C., and Devers (my ex-wife and best and closest friend) and I had brunch with Alan Greenspan, and he was saying the same thing—that it was just a unique experience that nothing later in life quite touched.