Phallic-Symbol City! Taking Back Streets Of Ayn Rand’s Manhattan
The formula still works: ‘Metaphysics, morality,
politics and sex.’
Not so long ago, Ayn Rand was a visible New York presence. When I first moved to the city in the 1970′s, the Russian-born author of best-selling anticommunist novels-including The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged -still lived, wrote and held court here. Her short, dark, chain-smoking figure, often trailed by an adoring entourage, was a frequent, and divisive, sight on college campuses and local TV talk shows. She died in 1982, and after that her influence seemed to wane-even in the midst of the Reagan “revolution,” which borrowed heavily from her notions.
But her influence never waned for Fred Cookinham. He met the queen of capitalist fiction in 1978 and became a proponent of Objectivism, her system of ethics, which can be summed up by the title of one of her nonfiction books, The Virtue of Selfishness . He began collecting details of her life and work, and now knows more about her than almost anyone who wasn’t a follower or friend. So, four or five times a year, he leads walking tours of the settings that were important to Rand and her “heroic individualist” characters. On Monday, Feb. 2-the 99th anniversary of her birth-he led a special birthday tour.
Having recently reread The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged , I decided to take Fred’s tour, and I joined him and a few other walkers in front of the Waldorf Astoria hotel. As I arrived, Fred was explaining that the 1931 Art Deco landmark apparently served as the real-life model for the Wayne-Falkland Hotel in Atlas Shrugged ; that’s one of the places where the novel’s heroine, an indomitable railroad heiress named Dagny Taggart, conducts a high-minded but unmistakably sadomasochistic affair with a rugged industrialist named Hank Reardon. I was reminded that Rand is famous for her power-driven sex scenes; in The Fountainhead , whose dominating (phallic) symbol is a New York City skyscraper (presumably partially modeled on the 1931 McGraw-Hill Building on West 42nd Street, Fred told us), the architect hero, Howard Roark, courts the heiress heroine, Dominique Francon, by slipping into her weekend house and raping her. (It was “the kind of rapture she had wanted,” the author assures us.) Rand once described her novels as capitalist propaganda and her fictional formula as “metaphysics, morality, economics, politics and sex.” It’s a combination that still works with readers. Everyone on the tour, ranging in age from 15 to 61, agreed that reading her books was a “mind-altering experience,” as an N.Y.U. student, clutching a copy of The Fountainhead , articulated it for the group.
We formed a ragged line behind Fred and followed him east and south on Lexington until we reached the Chrysler Building, where Henry Luce-a model for the tragic character of newspaper mogul Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead -briefly had an office. As we stood and stared, our 15-year-old called out, “Hey, there’s Atlas!” We peered into the dimly lit lobby at a mural of Atlas painted on the ceiling. Fred explained that Atlas was a favorite Art Deco symbol of man’s power to invent, very apropos of Rand.
Fred is a kind of poet and street professor of Randianism, which you might think would still be in decline, given communism’s fall, but is actually on the rise. Altogether, almost 11.5 million copies of her novels have been sold, and in the last few years sales have been heading up again, to an amazing 260,000 copies in 2002. When the Modern Library asked readers to list the 20th century’s 100 greatest novels in 1998, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead showed up as Nos. 1 and 2, trumping everything from 1984 to The Great Gatsby .
Both Objectivism and Libertarianism, another Rand offshoot, are thriving, especially on college campuses. As a case in point, Craig Milem, a 25-year-old stock analyst who walked beside me, said he first encountered Rand at Hunter College. Now he leads an Objectivist study group and recently ran for City Council against Gifford Miller on the Libertarian Party line. His campaign partly focused on repealing the city’s smoking ban, which “unjustifiably interferes with the rights of property owners,” he told me.
As the group moved on to Park Avenue and 42nd Street, we paused to admire the statue of Cornelius Vanderbilt atop Grand Central Terminal; this is considered the inspiration for the bust of heroine Dagny Taggart’s “robber baron” grandfather in Atlas Shrugged . Likewise, explained Fred, Grand Central Oyster Bar may have doubled as the cafeteria where Eddie Willers, Dagny’s loyal assistant, and inventor John Galt, Dagny’s future lover disguised as a lowly railroad worker, met to exchange information about her struggle against the socialist “looters and moochers” who were trying to steal her railroad.
Soon we arrived in Murray Hill, the tour’s holy of holies. Here’s where Rand lived, on and off, for 40 years. Fred showed us three or four apartment houses she inhabited, including the red-brick structure now housing the Kitano New York hotel. Then he led us to 2 Park Avenue, at 32nd Street, where for a few months in the late 1930′s the young novelist worked for that building’s famous architect,ElyJacques Kahn, and pumped him for information about his colleagues; the gossip she gathered appeared, slightly veiled, in The Fountainhead . (Fred has tracked nearly every architect portrayed in that book and can point out most of their buildings, too.) In fact-thrills all around-we were actually standing on the very spot where Rand is said to have made her biggest Objectivist breakthrough.
Fred elaborated. “One day, on her way home from the old Bellmore Cafeteria on 28th Street,” he said, pointing south, “Ayn Rand realized that there is a natural scientific basis for the idea of right and wrong-for a morality that’s not dependent on God or religion,” which she loathed. “And that basis is simply life and death!” We all nodded. Having read Atlas Shrugged , we understood that this is the foundation for her famous moral defense of capitalism: Because capitalism, and its cousin selfishness, enhance the individual citizen’s life, they are good; because communism and “altruism” require people to sacrifice their individual interests to those of others, they are evil.
The tour ended in front of Rand’s last residence, the Murray Park on 34th Street and Lex-a noisy, nondescript corner of the city she loved. The final years of her life were a bit nondescript, too. A one-sided love affair with a younger, married follower ended badly. Her husband of 50 years, a mild-mannered actor named Frank O’Connor, developed Alzheimer’s disease and died. The Objectivist movement she’d founded splintered and seemed to dwindle. In her last few years, according to one follower, she spent a lot of time watching TV, especially Charlie’s Angels . Fred said he thinks that Farrah Fawcett and her sidekicks must have reminded Rand of feisty Dagny Taggart.
The other legs of the tour-from “The Skyscrapers of The Fountainhead ” to “Ayn Rand’s Broadway” (she was a playwright, too)-completed the picture of what inspired Rand. But it was Fred himself who proved how thoroughly Rand inspires others. He first read Atlas Shrugged at age 13 in 1967. “If I had read any other book at that age, I would probably be a liberal Democrat,” he said. “But I didn’t, and I’m not.”