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Ayn the Man

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  • Ayn the Man

    “the Evel Knievel of leaping to conclusions”

    October 22, 2009
    Books of The Times
    Twin Biographies of a Singular Woman, Ayn Rand

    Skip to next paragraph AYN RAND AND THE WORLD SHE MADE

    By Anne C. Heller
    Illustrated. 567 pages. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. $35.


    Ayn Rand and the American Right

    By Jennifer Burns
    Illustrated. 369 pages. Oxford University Press. $27.95.

    Ayn Rand poses theatrically in her signature cape and gold dollar-sign pin on the cover of a groundbreaking new biography. Rand also poses theatrically in this same Halloween-ready costume (Rand impersonators have been known to wear it) on the cover of another groundbreaking new biography. The two books are being published a week apart. And both have gray covers that make them look even more interchangeable. Yet Rand, whose Objectivist philosophy is enjoying one of its periodic resurgences, loathed the very idea of grayness. She preferred dichotomies that were strictly black and white.

    So in a Rand universe — like those of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” the doorstop treatise-style novels that have given her such staying power — it would be unacceptable that one of these books would be only moderately better than the other. And the versions of her story should not overlap as vastly as they do.

    But both authors, Anne C. Heller (“Ayn Rand and the World She Made”) and Jennifer Burns (“Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right”) make many of the same points and touch on many of the same biographical details. That repetition is especially surprising since Ms. Burns had access to the supposedly crucial Ayn Rand Papers at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. Ms. Heller did not.

    Still, Ms. Heller’s research is more intensive. It is so thorough, in fact, that it seems to inform Ms. Burns’s parallel but more cursory account of Rand’s personal life. (The Heller manuscript has been in circulation for long enough to be cited in one of Ms. Burns’s footnotes and included in her bibliography.) Ms. Heller has delivered a thoughtful, flesh-and-blood portrait of an extremely complicated and self-contradictory woman, coupling this character study with literary analysis and plumbing the quirkier depths of Rand’s prodigious imagination. Ms. Burns glosses through all this to arrive at her book’s best section, a lengthy coda about Rand’s intellectual and political legacies. Neither book is the work of a slavish Rand devotee.

    Ms. Heller’s book is worth its $35 price, which is not the kind of detail that Rand herself would have been shy about trumpeting. When Russian Bolshevik soldiers commandeered and closed the St. Petersburg pharmacy run by Zinovy Rosenbaum, they made a lifelong capitalist of his 12-year-old daughter, Alissa, who would wind up fusing the subversive power of the Russian political novel with glittering Hollywood-fueled visions of the American dream.

    While Ms. Heller sifts carefully through Rand’s early literary influences (very notably a French boys’ serial adventure story called “The Mysterious Valley,” whose dashing hero, according to Ms. Heller, greatly influenced Rand’s tastes in both real and fictitious men), Ms. Burns gets her out of Russia more hurriedly. Both books take her to California, and to the fishy story of how this young Russian ingénue, on only her second day in Hollywood, was plucked out of obscurity by Cecil B. DeMille, who cast her as an extra in “King of Kings.” Ms. Heller’s book does not let this fable go unquestioned. Ms. Burns doesn’t do more than replay it; her primary interests lie elsewhere.

    So Ms. Heller provides the far more nuanced version of the strange dynamics between Rand and her husband, Frank O’Connor, whom she called “Cubbyhole.” (He gave her the unlikeliest imaginable nickname for such a steel-willed woman: “Fluff.”) Ms. Heller also provides a more evocative, detailed account of the long, duplicitous affair that Rand conducted with Nathaniel Branden, who began as a fan 25 years her junior and spent years as her foremost acolyte and officially anointed intellectual heir.

    Both books characterize Rand’s long relationship with Branden as the most important connection in her life. And both use it to illustrate how drastically Rand’s personal ties could rupture. The amphetamine-addicted, self-styled goddess in both books becomes so moody and volatile that her associates do not simply part ways with her. Some, like Branden and his wife, Barbara, wind up excommunicated. When Rand died, Heller reports, there were bodyguards at her funeral to keep the Brandens away if they tried to attend. Ms. Burns ignores that detail, preferring to cite the dollar-sign-shaped topiary that was part of the funeral décor.

    Crucially, both authors understand the reasons that Rand’s popularity has endured, not only among college students dazzled (and thronged into packs) by her triumphant individualism but also by entrepreneurs. From the young Ted Turner, who rented billboards to promote the “Who is John Galt?” slogan from “Atlas Shrugged,” to the founders of Craigslist and Wikipedia, who have found self-contradictory new ways to mix populism with individual enterprise, it is clear that (in Ms. Burns’s words) “reports of Ayn Rand’s death are greatly exaggerated.”

    Ms. Burns gives a lucid account of how Rand set herself at odds with religious conservatism, how Rand-inspired libertarianism has shape-shifted, and even how Rand disciples of the 1970s adopted a hippie aspect to rival that of Students for a Democratic Society, confounding everyone, Rand included. She referred to libertarian fans as “scum,” “intellectual cranks” and “plagiarists.” Rand also complained, “If such hippies hope to make me their Marcuse, it will not work.”

    That era was one Rand moment. This seems to be another. Both of these books cast light on why Rand’s popularity can be rekindled by economic turmoil, and on how much her real life and reputation diverged. Both capture the temperament of a woman once described as “the Evel Knievel of leaping to conclusions.” But of these two authors, it is Ms. Heller who comes closer to conveying what is missing from most images of Rand: “a personal warmth and charm that Rand most assuredly possessed,” on the evidence of her hypnotic effect on those in her orbit. Rand might have expressed disdain for that charisma, but it was enough to stop DeMille in his tracks. She would have been nowhere without it.

  • #2
    Re: Ayn the Man

    Bleh -never liked her -those books were also on my reading list - and I guess I can safely say- I have moved on.