Reviews — From the December 2009 issue

One Notion: Individual

Two lives of Ayn Rand

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From earliest childhood, Ayn Rand saw herself as an individual standing bravely against a hostile world. She was born Alisa Zinovievna Rosenbaum in 1905 to an upper-middle-class Jewish family in St. Petersburg. Her father was a pharmacist, and the family employed a retinue of governesses, servants, and cooks. Rand’s mother—a capricious, moody woman who told her three daughters that she had never wanted children—criticized her eldest child for being too serious and intense. The shy young girl retreated from the family, and from the schoolyard social life she found difficult to negotiate, into romantic stories, devouring illustrated adventure novels and falling in love with their swashbuckling heroes. She came to understand fiction as a way to remake the world as it ought to be.

Alisa was there when her father’s shop was seized by Red Guards after the Bolshevik Revolution. Because he refused to work for the Soviets, her mother was forced to support the family as a teacher. In the years following the revolution, while a university student, Alisa read and was greatly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche. Over time, she would adopt his project of a “trans-valuation” of morals, of seeking to turn the Christian ethical system upside down, to celebrate those human attitudes commonly held to be the most despicable. She would become fascinated with the idea of creating and finding her own Superman—hard, brilliant, impervious to weakness. Yet despite this interest in philosophy, her tastes remained decidedly lowbrow. She loved light operettas and Viennese waltzes, which she called her “tiddly-wink” music. She thrilled to the America she saw in movies. And although her novels would seek to develop her “philosophical” system, they would also borrow heavily from Hollywood’s intricate plots, hard-boiled language, glamorous heroines, risqué sex scenes, and—most of all—passionate, courageous heroes.

It was Alisa’s love of the cinema that got her out of the Soviet Union. In 1926, she obtained a visa to go to America to study filmmaking, under the pretext that she would then return to make Communist propaganda. On the ship coming to the United States, she gave herself a new name: Ayn Rand.Both Heller and Burns lay to rest the legend that Rand named herself for the typewriter, pointing out that the Remington Rand typewriter did not enter production until 1927. Rand was likely a shortened version of Rosenbaum; Ayn may have been the name of a Finnish writer she admired.Everything went well at first. Cecil B. DeMille hired her as a writer, and she met her husband-to-be, Frank O’Connor, a handsome young actor, on a trolley car. But when the advent of talkies sank DeMille’s studio, Rand had to scrounge for work, and she fell behind on rent. Yet even as her own situation grew desperate, she became fascinated by newspaper headlines about one William Hickman, a teenage murderer who had killed an eight-year-old girl and boasted about it after being caught. He became one of her first Nietzschean heroes, a modern Raskolnikov. She made him the prototype for a character in a short story, and she wrote about him with feeling in her diary: “If he had any desires and ambitions—what was the way before him? A long, slow, soul-eating, heart-wrecking toil and struggle; the degrading, ignoble road of silent pain and loud compromise.” She herself was determined to escape such a fate: “The secret of life: You must be nothing but will. . . . All will and all control. Send everything else to hell!”

Rand and O’Connor married in 1929 and moved to New York in the 1930s, after she published a semi–autobiographical novel about Soviet Russia, We the Living, and wrote a play about a heroic businessman, The Night of January 16th, which was ultimately produced on Broadway. In New York she began work on The Fountainhead. She also became involved with the community of businessmen and writers committed, even in the depths of the Depression, to fighting FDR’s New Deal. Previously Rand had expressed no strong opinions about American politics, but her engagement with opponents of the New Deal helped to ground her philosophy in a political context. She even became involved with Wendell Willkie’s campaign for the presidency in 1940. After he lost, she crafted “The Individualist Manifesto,” which she hoped would carry the principles of his campaign forward; it ended, “INDIVIDUALISTS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!”

’s Invisible Hands: The Businessman’s Crusade Against the New Deal will be issued in paperback next month by W.W. Norton.

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