Ayn Rand and the World She Made

Ayn 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.

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.

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

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.

Next Page





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.