To many people, the name Ayn Rand is a punch line, an occasion for a little eye-rolling, a superior cackle or a dismissive tweet (crazy Russian bag lady/right-wing hypocrite/home-wrecking lunatic, etc.). When Rand was alive—a small, feisty woman who chain-smoked and spoke in a thick Russian accent—she was condemned by intellectuals across the spectrum. To the left, she was a reactionary, a fascist, a capitalist pig who advocated for a complete separation between government and economics, limitless individualism and the virtue of selfishness.
To the right, she was an atheist; to moderates, an absolutist. Her books were often dismissed as over-the-top, Nietzschean romance novels for alienated adolescents, and her philosophy, Objectivism—which Rand described as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”—is ridiculed to this day.
Not that any of it made a dent in her legacy. Before her death in 1982, she declared, “I will not die, it’s the world that will end.” Turns out she was onto something. Unlike a great many of her contemporaries (e.g., James Gould Cozzens), who scarcely register today, Rand is still selling books—more than 800,000 a year, on average, for a total exceeding 25 million.
A surprising number of people will tell you “Ayn Rand changed my life.” Parents name their kids after her fictional characters. Ronald Reagan, who filled his administration with Rand devotees, claimed he was a fan, as have Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Clarence Thomas, Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Ted Turner, Barry Goldwater, Melanie Griffith, Frank Lloyd Wright, Sandra Bullock, Simon Le Bon, Madonna, Rob Lowe, Rush Limbaugh, Sharon Stone, Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Billy Beane, Christina Ricci, Kurt Russell, Jim Carrey, Cal Ripken Jr., Marc Cuban, Eva Mendes, Hugh Hefner and numerous Playboy centerfolds.
Jerry Lewis once said that he carries a copy of The Fountainhead everywhere he goes. Steven Spielberg loves the 1949 movie version starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. The Canadian rock band Rush based a concept album on Rand’s novel Anthem.
Hillary Clinton said she went through “an Ayn Rand phase,” as did Lesley Stahl, Ron Paul, Rand Paul and Hunter S. Thompson. Alan Greenspan was a member of Rand’s inner circle.
According to a nationwide poll by the Library of Congress, the 1,168-page Atlas Shrugged is the second most influential book in the country, after the Bible.
Every few years it’s announced that Ayn Rand is “having a moment.” In the 1990s, Newsweek declared “she’s everywhere,” a documentary about her life was nominated for an Academy Award, and the U.S. Postal Service came out with a stamp commemorating the “controversial but respected author.”
Between the centenary of her birth (2005) and the 50th anniversary of Atlas Shrugged (2007), the moments have turned into more of a boom. The Libertarian Party owes her a major debt. Silicon Valley loves her. CEOs take refuge in her pro-capitalist ideas. Starting with the bailouts and TARP, book sales went through the roof, and since Obama took office, over 1.5 million copies of Atlas Shrugged have been sold.
For decades there has been talk about a movie version of the novel; Godfather producer Al Ruddy, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway are among those who have failed to pull it off. In 2006, there was speculation that Angelina Jolie might play the beautiful, brainy, powerful railroad executive Dagny Taggart, and that Brad Pitt was circling the role of John Galt. The deal fell through, but on April 15, 2011, investor John Aglialoro (who had optioned the novel in 1992) released Atlas Shrugged: Part 1. Despite efforts by Tea Party groups and Fox News personalities to promote it, the movie was a flop. Nonetheless, a sequel, starring Samantha Mathis as Taggart and D.B. Sweeney as Galt, is being prepped for release in time for the 2012 election.
The timing is auspicious. In the run-up to next year’s 70th anniversary of the publication of The Fountainhead, another Rand revival appears to be underway, recently goosed by Mitt Romney’s selection of Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. In a 2005 speech to the Atlas Society, Mr. Ryan said he grew up reading Rand’s work, “and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.” He added, “There is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism than through [her] writings and works.” He also confessed that he got involved in public service because of her, and that Atlas Shrugged still informs his views on monetary policy.
Mr. Ryan began backpedaling in April. Rand, after all, was an athiest who considered abortion a “moral right.” The congressman recently told Fox News’s Brit Hume that he was no Ayn Rand disciple, and that although he’d “really enjoyed” her novels, he “completely” disagrees with her atheistic philosophy. “She came from Communism,” he continued. “She showed how the pitfalls of socialism can hurt the economy, can hurt people, families and individuals.”
The transformation of Ayn Rand from a novelist into the founder of a philosophical movement was the work of Nathaniel Branden, the “most significant last living link” to the author, as he put it. Mr. Branden probably knew Rand as well as anyone. “I think she was a very troubled woman, who had incredible virtues and incredible vices,” he said. “I admired her beyond words,” he added. “Jesus, it was a great adventure. We became soul mates. Or so I thought.”
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.”
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.
WHATEVER THE DIFFERENCES between her former acolytes, there’s little doubt that Rand has found a new relevance today. David Kelley, who ran the Objectivist Center in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and is now the founder and chief intellectual officer at the Atlas Society, pointed out that the bank bailout of 2008 had eerie similarities to the plot of Atlas Shrugged. “Both the late Bush and early Obama administrations reacted to the crisis with the mix of panic, pragmatism and power-lust that Rand captured so well 50 years ago,” he said. “The government bailouts of banks and homeowners took funds from prudent, competent, responsible people to rescue those whose plight was often the result of imprudence, incompetence and irresponsibility.” That sparked what he called a “revolt of the producers.”
The term, he said, reflects a conceptual shift from “haves vs. have-nots” to “makers vs. takers,” adding, “It’s the distinction that Rand hammers home in Atlas. And that spirit seems to me the core of the Tea Party rallies.”
As for today’s leading politicians, Mr. Kelley figures Rand would have “credited Ryan for at least trying to frame political issues in terms of principles, but would have seen a contradiction between his religious views and his desire to promote individualism in politics—especially his pro-life stance.” As for President Obama, she “would have recognized Obama as a deep-dyed collectivist.” What would she have thought of Mr. Romney? She would have disapproved of his “pragmatism,” he said—“the absence of a clear and principled political philosophy.”
“He’s a middle-of-the road Republican who’s neither here nor there,” Dr. Brook agreed. “I think he’s from the pragmatic wing of the Republican party who will move where the wind blows him.”
Although Dr. Brook noted that he is not allowed to endorse candidates (ARI is a nonprofit), he added, “I can say I hate Obama. I think Obama’s the most anti-American—in terms of American principles, what America was founded on—president in history.”
While he thought Rand might have liked Paul Ryan, he was quick to point out that “he’s not an Objectivist.” Compared with Rand, he said, Ryan is moderate. “But the fact that he respects her and the fact that she had a positive influence on him, I think those are wonderful.”
DURING THE LAST DECADE of her life, Ayn Rand continued to lecture and appear on Donahue and Tom Snyder’s Late Late Show, but she spent most of her time in her Manhattan apartment. She worked on her stamp collection, read Agatha Christie novels, and watched Kojak and Charlie’s Angels. She wanted Farrah Fawcett to star in an Atlas Shrugged miniseries, but it never went into production.
Barbara Branden had one last visit with her, in 1981. “I was amazed,” she says. “It seemed to me then that she must have missed me. I think I was the one close woman friend she’d ever had. I walked in, and we both put our hands out and held each other’s hands. And then she twirled around and said, ‘Look at how thin I am? I weigh what I weighed when I came from Russia!’”
Ayn Rand died of heart failure less than a year later. At her funeral at Frank E. Campbell’s on Madison Avenue, a six-foot neon dollar sign stood next to her coffin.