LIKE MR. RYAN and millions of others, I fell under the spell of Ayn Rand, briefly, during my sophomore year of college, when my friend Kris Gottschalk, having failed to interest me in Tom Robbins, gave me her paperback copy of The Fountainhead. The first sentence (“Howard Roark laughed”) was intriguing. Ten pages later I was hooked or, some might say, infected. By page 50, I was burning with so much ambition I tossed the book aside and never picked it up again. Why bother? I’d already been transformed into a maverick clearly destined for greatness.
A decade and a half later, I was having lunch with the executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. I’d come in hopes of understanding the enduring mystique of the eccentric novelist and philosopher and asked why she was still around.
Looking up from his plate of Mexican food, Dr. Yaron Brook fixed me with a serious, bespectacled gaze. “I think she’s one of the greatest people of all time,” he said. “Ultimately, in philosophy, she’s going to be one of the giants. I mean, she’ll be up there with Plato and Aristotle.”
Dr. Brook then went on to demolish such vaunted minds as Kant (“bad,” “corrupt,” “evil”), Hegel (“nonsensical”), Nietzsche, Marx, Sartre (“I mean, Jean-Paul Sartre?”) and Wittgenstein (“garbage”).
Mankind, he told me, is at a crossroads. “Unless Ayn Rand changes the direction of the world, we are doomed to suffer another dark ages.” If that happened, he said, “the next renaissance will begin when her books are rediscovered after 1,000 years of darkness.”
Dr. Brook was a socialist until age 16, when a friend lent him a copy of Atlas Shrugged, which “challenged every idea that I had,” he said.
After a stint in the Israeli army, he attended the University of Texas, then taught finance while organizing Ayn Rand conferences around the world. In 2000, he was tapped to take over the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), which was formed in 1985 to help preserve Rand’s legacy and spread the gospel of enlightened self-interest.
He’s done a good job. “Her presence grows,” one ARI employee told me. “It has always been there; it’s been subterranean. But it’s coming out all over the place, from high and low. Sometimes trickling, sometimes exploding and sometimes all of a sudden you’re surrounded.”
AYN RAND (née Alice Rosenbaum) was born in Russia in 1905 and raised in an upper-middle-class St. Petersburg household. Shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Rosenbaums moved to Crimea. In high school there, Alice read about American history, and when she was 16 she saw her first film, which included a shot of a skyscraper, an image she never forgot.
Alice graduated from the University of Petrograd and then went to film school, where she fell in love with Hollywood. After obtaining permission to leave Russia by saying she was going to visit relatives in America to learn the film business, she left in 1925 with no intention of returning.
She spent six months in Chicago, where she changed her name to Ayn Rand, then moved to Los Angeles. On her second day there, she bumped into her favorite director, Cecil B. DeMille, who hired her as a script reader and cast her as an extra in a movie about Jesus Christ. On the set, she met an elegant young actor named Frank O’Connor. In 1929, they were married.
Rand sold her first screenplay, Red Pawn, in 1932. Her first play was produced on Broadway in 1935. The next year, We the Living, her first novel, about man’s struggle against the state, came out. H.L. Mencken called it “a really excellent piece of work.”
Rand spent the next seven years writing The Fountainhead, which was rejected by 12 publishers before being published by the Bobbs-Merrill Company. Nobody took much notice, but the Times gave it a rave, saying Rand wrote “brilliantly, beautifully, and bitterly” and assuring readers that “you will not be able to read this masterful book without thinking through some of the basic concepts of our time.” There were many more dismissive reviews. “Anyone who is taken in by it deserves a stern lecture on paper rationing,” Diana Trilling wrote. But after two years of slow, steady word of mouth, it really started selling. Soon, Ayn Rand was famous, and to celebrate she bought herself a mink coat.
At the time, Nathaniel Branden (né Blumenthal) was a 14-year-old atheist living outside Toronto. He read the novel numerous times before leaving home to study psychology at UCLA. In 1950, he wrote his hero a few letters. To his surprise, she called one night and invited him to her ranch outside Los Angeles. He arrived at 8 p.m. and they talked philosophy until dawn. A week later, he brought along his girlfriend, Barbara Weidman, who was also a big fan. Rand and her husband liked the brainy youngsters right away and kept inviting them back. “The first period was simply magic,” Barbara told me.
“We were learning so much. We’d stay all night and talk, go to our classes straight from Ayn’s, and fall asleep during class. How we ever passed I don’t know! But it was just magical.”