The purpose driven life; Ayn Rand's story gets two new tellings
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 10 November 2009)

The followers of Ayn Rand have never been shy about paying tribute to their heroine. Two years ago, when I expressed skepticism about her accomplishments, a reader in Chilliwack, B.C., set me straight with a brisk email. " Atlas Shrugged," he wrote, "is the greatest book that civilization has. It is the culmination of the revolution started by the Renaissance, nurtured by the Enlightenment, tested and hardened during the American Revolution and proven practical during the Industrial Revolution."

That's a flagrant example of the idolatry Rand still inspires, 27 years after her death. She wrote two enormous novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), both of them dedicated to portraying individualism as the greatest human good and government-directed collectivism as its chief enemy. She started a movement, objectivism, to teach that a morally sophisticated individual pursues above all his own self-interest and happiness.

Her life played like an opera, featuring her arias of egotism and choruses of adoration demanded from those around her. She believed in freedom, mainly for herself. People near her learned never to disagree; she didn't like to be annoyed by the contrary opinions of idiots.

This season, the first year of the big-spending Obama administration has breathed new life into her always considerable reputation. American conservatives, hating Obama economics, turn to her for consolation and give each other copies of her books. Rush Limbaugh quotes her. Glenn Beck tells his fans that Atlas Shrugged foretold the 2008 financial collapse. New York, where she lived much of her life, pays its own peculiar tribute: You can now take guided tours of Ayn Rand's Fifth Avenue, Ayn Rand on Broadway, and Skyscrapers of The Fountainhead (buildings illustrating Rand's opinions about architecture).

Two biographies have lately appeared: Ayn Rand and the World She Made (Doubleday), by Anne C. Heller, a magazine writer, and Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford), by Jennifer Burns, a University of Virginia historian. Both biographers, while critical at times, think well of her work and sympathize with her personal failings.

Heller gives a more searching account of her subject's life. Burns delivers a precisely detailed history of who did what to whom among the highly fractious objectivist movement and also tells us that Rand's heirs have bowdlerized the material they've published since her death, eliminating passages that might be offensive, such as pessimistic musing on the degeneration of the white race and dated slang ( "nance" for homosexual).

Heller describes Ayn (rhymes with "pine") as "gallant, driven, brilliant, brash, cruel ... and ultimately self-destructive." She might have added malevolent, perverse, self-deluded and vindictive. Rand's associates testify that she was desperately unhappy, anxiety-prone and given to paranoid fury directed at everyone who criticized her, particularly conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr., who was offended by Rand's adamant atheism. Her dependence on amphetamines gave a jagged edge to her relationships. Her long-time private secretary, having watched Rand humiliate platoons of admirers and employees, came to "look on her as a killer of people."

Rand was born Alice Rosenbaum, the daughter of a prosperous St. Petersburg pharmacist, in 1905, a year of murderous anti-Jewish pogroms and a failed revolution. As a 12-year-old she saw her father robbed of his business and his property by the Bolsheviks. She learned to hate communists, Russians and Russia. She was a bright child, free with her insults, who made few friends. (One, briefly, was Olga Nabokov, sister to Vladimir.) In 1926 her parents sent her to live in the United States with relatives. Later, she fictionalized that transition. "No one helped me, nor did I think it was anyone's duty to help me," she wrote in the 1960s. As Heller demonstrates, many people helped her. But, by the time she wrote those words, she had made self-pity a part of her personal style.

In affairs of the heart her perceptions were, at best, dim. The saddest and the most gossiped-about story in her life began around 1950 when two young Canadians, Barbara and Nathaniel Branden, swam into her circle as acolytes, colleagues and eventually (as she saw it) betrayers. A married couple who came together through a shared interest in Rand's work, they both appealed to her. Rand so much admired Nathaniel that she set up the Nathaniel Branden Institute, devoted to Randian study.

Ayn and Nathan had a flirtatious relationship until the day she summoned him to her apartment. Burns depicts it as a scene from a romantic novel: "Rand became urgent and direct. She and Nathan had fallen in love, yes? Nathan, overwhelmed, flattered, excited, confused, responded in kind. They kissed hesitantly. There would be no turning back." At the time he was 24 years old, she 49.

Eventually their romance left everyone involved shell-shocked. Rand decided they should be honest and open, so they told Barbara Branden and also Rand's husband, Frank. Everything would be civilized. Barbara and Frank appeared to go along but Barbara had panic attacks and Frank notably extended his drinking hours.

When Nathaniel ended the affair, 14 years later, the scandal reverberated through objectivism for years. Burns writes that Rand's anger was boundless. "She would never forgive, never forget." She read him out of the movement, took away his Institute and purged Barbara as well. The lovers wrote separate accounts of their break-up for the readers of their house publication, The Objectivist, omitting the fact that they had been lovers.

Branden went off to California and helped create "self-esteem," a movement as twisted and dubious as anything he had done as an objectivist. In 1986, Barbara Branden wrote The Passion of Ayn Rand, the basis for the 1999 TV movie with Helen Mirren as Rand, Eric Stoltz as Nathaniel, and Peter Fonda as Ayn's husband.

Rand was a champion wielder of furious polemics, but Anne Heller (perhaps blinded by years of immersion in wooden dialogue and tendentious narrative) goes much too far when she claims that Rand, when satirizing cowardice and injustice, should be compared to Charles Dickens. No, a thousand times, no. Call her a prophet of capitalism, call her if you like an unjustly neglected intellectual, but on her best days she never came close to a master like Dickens. Praise lavished so carelessly has already done as much as anything else to make her a figure of fun.

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