Rand encouraged the young couple to get married and served as the matron of honor at their wedding. But a year later, when Rand was 49 and Nathaniel 24, she decided they would have a part-time affair and called a meeting with Barbara and Frank O’Connor to break the news. The stunned spouses reluctantly agreed. O’Connor began to drink heavily; Barbara became depressed.
“You know what?” she said. “If Ayn and Nathaniel had been really kind, they would have lied their heads off and not told us.”
In his memoir, Mr. Branden, who later became a psychotherapist, author and life coach, wrote at length about the affair, including the time Rand asked him to make love to her on her mink coat. “What’s happening to me?” she asked him. “You’re turning me into an animal.” When he confessed to feeling guilty about the affair, she would yell at him: “How dare you worry about Barbara when you’re with me! This is loathsome!”
I asked him about sex with Ayn Rand. Was it good? “Yes,” he said. “We got on very well.”
I pushed for details. “I ain’t about to answer that,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Brandens recruited Rand disciples and formed what became known, at first humorously, as “The Collective.” One member was Alan Greenspan, whom Rand nicknamed the Undertaker. “How’s the Undertaker?” she would ask the Brandens. “Has he decided he exists yet?”
On Saturday nights, the Collective would meet at Rand’s apartment to read typed and handwritten pages of her masterpiece-in-progress, Atlas Shrugged, then discuss philosophy into the night. Mr. Branden recalled a brunch with Mr. Greenspan in 1999 at the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., where a portrait of Rand hangs on the wall. He asked the then-chairman of the Federal Reserve if those early years with Rand had wrecked them all for a normal social existence, since nothing that followed would ever be as much fun. “Absolutely true,” Mr. Greenspan replied, according to Mr. Branden. “He said, ‘There was a kind of marvelous quality of intellectual passion to those Saturday nights.’”
Rand spent 14 years writing Atlas Shrugged, two of which were devoted to John Galt’s climactic 30,000-word ode to individualism.
Published 55 years ago, the book was an instant best seller, despite reviews that were uniformly negative, even vicious. “Is it a novel or a nightmare?” asked Time magazine. “This book is written out of hate,” claimed The New York Times. Other critics called it “execrable claptrap,” “longer than life and twice as preposterous” and “the worst piece of fiction since The Fountainhead.”
In a letter to a friend, Flannery O’Connor gave her verdict: “The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction.” In National Review, Whitaker Chambers called it “sophomoric” and “remarkably silly.” Quipped Dorothy Parker: “This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
No serious minds took it seriously. “It was her great disappointment,” Mr. Branden recalled. “All of her biggest fans were young people.” To cheer her up, he started the Nathaniel Branden Institute and in 1958 began teaching classes on Objectivism.
A movement was born. After a few years, however, Rand, at the age of 63, decided it was time to resume her sexual affair with Nathaniel, then 38. She was constantly telling him he was her god, her “lifeline to reality,” and that she couldn’t survive without him. He did his best to dodge her. “Is it my age?” she would ask.
It was. In a letter, he told her the difference in their ages “constituted an insuperable barrier, for me, to a romantic relationship.”
Rand went berserk and excommunicated him from the movement; Barbara was given the boot too.
It became known as “the break,” and it was serious business. “We were out of our minds,” Mr. Branden told me. “Obviously, I was in a state of shock that this woman that I’d idolized since I was 14 was really hellbent on my destruction. I’m speaking literally, not poetically. She wanted me dead. She even put a curse on [my] penis, saying, ‘If you have an ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological health, you’ll be impotent for the next 20 years! And if you achieve any potency, you’ll know it’s sign of still worse moral degradation!”
After escaping with his mistress to Los Angeles in 1969, he began writing books on self-esteem. “I felt totally free, unencumbered, out of prison,” he said. Barbara Branden spent two years doing “absolutely nothing” except trying to figure out the past 20 years. In 1986 she published The Passion of Ayn Rand, a fascinating biography that presents her former mentor as a great woman with a flawed personality. It was a national best seller and was made into a movie for Showtime starring Helen Mirren as Rand, Eric Stoltz and Julie Delpy as the Brandens, and Peter Fonda as Frank O’Connor. Nathaniel Branden thought it was “trash,” but it made him laugh.
“It was a horrible book and a horrible movie,” said Dr. Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute. “Dishonest. Corrupt. It’s unjust.”
Ms. Branden dismissed the critique. “They’re absolute fanatics,” she said.