Ayn Rand and the World She Made

by Diane Leach

8 Nov 2009


The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
Born in St. Petersburg in 1905, Alyssa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, later Ayn Rand, belonged to a family of medical Jews: pharmacists, dentists, doctors. But Judaism in turn-of-the-century Russia was a great misfortune, one author Anne C. Heller builds on in her excellent biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made.

Heller, amazingly, didn’t come to Rand’s work until her 40s, while working at a business magazine. Suze Orman, of all people, introduced Heller to Rand’s work. Perhaps it was Heller’s late discovery, along with the Ayn Rand Institute’s refusal to allow her into the archives, that allowed her to write such a vivid yet objective portrait of this gifted, brilliant, ultimately monstrous author. Heller is to be commended for deftly sidestepping her difficult subject.

cover art

Ayn Rand and the World She Made

Anne C. Heller

(Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)
US: Oct 2009

In her preface, Heller notes “Because most readers encounter her (Rand) in their formative years, she has had a potent influence in three generations of Americans.” I was 15 when a friend lent me The Fountainhead (he let me keep the book, a Signet paperback costing $3.50). I liked the novel, but was mystified by Dominique and Roark’s relationship. Though impressed by Anthem and We the Living, it was Atlas Shrugged that knocked me sideways. Like millions of female readers, I wanted to be Dagny Taggart, with her slanted hat brim, slender body, and long legs, terminating in painless high heels. Dagny Taggart was the antithesis of both her creator and this admirer, both of us hopelessly brown-haired, short, stumpy Russian Jews.

Not for elegant Dagny Taggart the indignity of menstrual cramps or shreds of food in the teeth. Hell, the woman barely ate. Instead, she expertly ran the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, her energy boundless, her emotional indifference lending her a Terminator-like indestructibility. For her efforts Taggart was rewarded with a series of brilliant, handsome lovers whose lovemaking, if a bit rough, offered exactly the domination this otherwise steely woman—and her creator—secretly craved. But her creator was not so fortunate.

Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, which still carries weight today amongst serious economists—Allan Greenspan, until recent the financial crash, was a confidante and lifelong devotee of Rand’s brand of free-market Capitalist—never entirely jibed for me. I’m no economist, but I’ve spent 25 years wondering why Atlas’s Eddie Willers, loyal and hardworking to the bitter end, was left to wander New York’s darkened streets, his sole offense insufficient brilliance. An average man, what Rand’s nervous followers later dubbed a “second-hander“, Willers’s dedication, coupled with his average intellect, was insufficient currency for admission into Galt’s Gulch. And what of the truly needy—the ill, the developmentally disabled, children, the elderly? Is giving these people economic support a morally reprehensible act? 

Rand certainly thought so: lesser mortals did not fit her vision, which was simultaneously luminous and stifling. One could, she preached, create himself (and her lexicon was definitively slanted toward men) achieving his highest ends via logical thought. Such a notion is certainly intoxicating, if not always realistic. But Rand set out to remake reality as if it were an ill-fitting dress: by sheer will, she tried to fashion a Balenciaga gown from a housedress. 

Though ultimately outwardly successful—Rand’s books remain widely read, appearing regularly atop “best of” and “most important” lists—she was a miserably unhappy person whose cruelty, selfishness, and indifference was breathtaking. 

Alyssa Rosenbaum’s fierce intelligence displayed itself early. She was headstrong, read and wrote much, and evinced a lifelong disinterest in physical activity. She often clashed bitterly with her mother, Anna, who left dentistry to pursue a socially mobile lifestyle. Alyssa’s adored father, Zinovy, was a well-to-do pharmacist until Russia’s government began destabilizing. As attacks on Jews became commonplace, many of Zinovy’s relatives fell to pogroms. In St. Petersburg, the Rosenbaum family’s economic fortunes suffered under tottering governmental rule. At one point, 12-year-old Alyssa watched as Zinovy’s pharmacy was looted by Leninist thugs, leaving a searing impression of Communist rule.

Alyssa’s intelligence afforded her entry into a private girl’s school, where she made one friend: the older Olga Nabakov, who had a brother named Vladimir. But as the political regime became increasingly brutal, the Nabakovs fled. Alyssa never saw Olga again. Zinovy lost his job, forcing Anna to take up teaching.  Alyssa derided Anna’s efforts, dismissing her mother’s work as consorting with the enemy. That consorting put food on the table.

By age 17, Alyssa had carefully mapped her escape. Anna had relatives in Chicago willing to take Alyssa in, but her antisocial behaviors soon bewildered them. She stayed up all night, heedless of her sleeping relatives, running endless hot baths. She adored the movies so much that a relative in the business contrived to get her free tickets. Then there was her name: instead of the Americanized Alice, she insisted on “Ayn”.

Explanations of her re-naming are legendary; Heller writes that “Ayn” may be variant of Zinovy’s nickname for his daughter: “Ayinotchka”—a Hebrew diminutive for “Ayin”, or “bright eyes”. How she arrived at “Rand” remains unknown, for the myth of naming herself after the typewriter is just that: Rand was not manufacturing models at the time of Alyssa Rosenbaum’s rebirth.

Ayn Rand and Frank O'Connor

Ayn Rand and Frank O’Connor

The bright-eyed girl was unimpressed with Chicago and soon moved to Hollywood, set on writing for the movies. Given her stilted English and heavy accent, she was remarkably lucky. Like her name, any number of stories surround how she met Cecil B. DeMille, who hired her to work at DeMille Studios. There she met her husband, Frank O’Connor, who was working as an extra. 

Rand was besotted, literally tripping O’Connor to initiate a conversation. Nine months later she ran into him at the public library. They began dating and were soon lovers. Their 50-year marriage was one of the greatest mismatches in history.

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