Ayn Rand: goddess of the market, gateway to the American right
Two new biographies of Ayn Rand tell the remarkable story of an author whose creed of radical individualism drew legions of devoted young followers, many of whom would become leaders of the American Right.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Ayn Rand and the World She Made'
by Anne C. Heller
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 592 pp., $35
'Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right'
by Jennifer Burns
Oxford University Press, 362 pp., $27.95
Two biographies are being published this fall of Ayn Rand. Both are remarkably evenhanded, given that opinions about the author of "The Fountainhead" (1943) and "Atlas Shrugged" (1957) rarely run lukewarm. Critics hated her rejection of the duty to be one's brother's keeper and the unabashed heroism of her fiction. Legions of readers come away from her books feeling awakened and transformed. Those who knew her said they never met anyone so brilliant, or so intellectually aggressive.
Rand lived a life a biographer should love: a life of opposition and conflict. But in the 27 years since her death, she has been the subject of only one major work, "The Passion of Ayn Rand" (1986). Its author, Barbara Branden, wrote a fascinating account, but she had been a Rand acolyte and her husband was Rand's secret sexual partner. Rand's story needed a more neutral biographer.
Now there are two. Anne Heller is a former fiction editor at Esquire and Redbook who first read Rand in her 40s. Jennifer Burns teaches history at the University of Virginia and first researched Rand for a Ph.D. thesis. Neither accepts Rand's philosophy of radical individualism. Burns was given access to Rand's papers and Heller was not, though Heller had many other sources.
Heller's is the better biography of Rand the writer. It is 45 percent longer. It has more about Rand's life in Russia, where she was born into a Jewish family whose business was seized by the Communists; how she came to America in 1926, and her early struggles as a writer in Hollywood. Heller shows how Rand's early life and work influenced her later books.
Heller focuses also on Rand's powerful sexuality, telling the story of how Rand stalked the man she married, Frank O'Connor, on a Hollywood movie set, and seduced her most prominent follower, Nathaniel Branden, when he was 25 and she 50. About this Heller pulls no punches. Of Branden she writes, "He made an ideal mistress, even as Frank had become an ideal wife."
Burns' biography, subtitled "Ayn Rand and the American Right," is the better book on Rand's influence.
Burns writes that Rand's philosophy offered readers "the idea that things made sense, that the world was rational, logical and could be understood." In an age of moral relativism, Rand was "an unabashed moralist, an ideologue, and an idealist." In a century when critics expected angst and alienation, she offered heroes. She celebrated the ego and told readers their lives belonged to them — a message that appealed to the young.
Rand's influence was also political. "For over half a century Rand has been the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right," Burns writes, and it is true, not that conservatives always welcomed her. She was an atheist, and in 1950 she said to William F. Buckley in her Russian accent, "You arrh too eentelligent to bihleef in Gott!" Buckley, a Catholic, went on believing in God and Rand went on believing in herself.
Heller's book is copy-edited better than Burns', which has more than a dozen small errors, such as misstating when Republican leader Wendell Willkie's book was published and misspelling the name of his mistress.
In the end Rand believed too much in herself, which is clear from the last half of both biographies. Believing she had the truth, she broke with almost everyone close to her — Isabel Paterson, her mentor in American political culture; John Hospers, her fan in academia; Bennett Cerf, her publisher; and Nora, her Russian sister who didn't like her books.
Many don't. "Almost everything she wrote was unfashionable," writes Heller, and the statement holds true today. But Americans have bought 13 million of her books and are buying them still. She had a remarkable life, which makes both of these biographies worth reading.
Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.