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Ayn Rand And The World She Made

by Anne C. Heller
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese
  • Publishing date: 27/10/2009
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780385513999
  • ISBN: 0385513992


A Q&A with Anne C. Heller

Question: Many people discover Ayn Rand’s novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as young adults, but you read her novels and essays in your forties. What, at that time, sparked your interest in Rand? What moved you to write her biography?

Anne C. Heller: It's true that I didn’t read Ayn Rand’s popular novels in high school or college. I read them for the first time seven or eight years ago, while I was editing a trial issue of a new financial magazine at Condé Nast Publications. Suze Orman--the personal-finance author, who was contributing an article to the magazine--sent me a copy of the well-known "money speech" from Atlas Shrugged. In the novel, the speech is delivered by a young copper baron to an assembled crowd of liberal bureaucrats and corporate welfare-statists. He argues that money, far from being the root of all evil, as the liberals in the novel pretend to think, is really "the root of all good," and "the barometer of a society’s virtue." The speech surprised me with its passion and seemingly air-tight logic and aroused my curiosity. So I read the books.

At that time, Rand and her work weren’t in the news, as they are now. Once I had finished Atlas Shrugged for the second time, I looked around to see what had been written about her. Later, I learned that the novels were still selling in the hundreds of thousands of copies every year and that she was influential among libertarians and certain conservatives; yet no full-scale, impartial biography of this extraordinary woman had been written. Only former disciples and detractors had published books about her. The time seemed right to take a fresh approach.

Question: Do you think your experience with her work, philosophy, and life was different from those who read her in their adolescence?

Anne C. Heller: Yes. I appreciated Rand’s insights into the nature of power and her spectacular ability to integrate plot, character, and theme more than I might have when younger. And, I was less susceptible to her romantic celebration of heroic achievement.

Question: Ayn Rand and the World She Made is the first objective, investigative biography of Ayn Rand. What new sources did you use for your research? Did you travel for your research?

Anne C. Heller: The only other biography was written in the 1980s by Barbara Branden, who was Rand’s friend and disciple as well as her young lover’s former wife. The book was partly in the form of a memoir and was also based on limited information; for example, Rand was born and educated in Russia, but at that time the Russian archives were closed. Thus Branden had to take Rand’s word for most of the events of her childhood. I used a Russian research team to gather new details of Rand’s family background, her parents’ professional lives, and her schooling up to and throughout her university studies, some of which contradicted what Rand had said about herself. I used published and unpublished letters and hundreds of hours of taped, unpublished interviews to document many episodes in Rand’s life that she never talked about, including influences she buried and help she later denied.

I traveled all over the United States to work in relevant archives and to conduct interviews with her former friends and followers, many now in their eighties and nineties, who spoke surprisingly candidly about her capacity for cruelty as well as her genius and personal magnetism. I had three lengthy interviews with her long-time lover, Nathaniel Branden, now eighty, and spoke with most members of what used to be called the "inner circle" of her cult following. I also had access to interviews with her elderly Russian sister and with close friends from the 1920s and 1930s, all now deceased.

Question: What surprised you most?

Anne C. Heller: I was surprised by many things--by how deeply her hostility to liberal social programs was rooted in her Russian childhood, by her remarkable insight into the psychology of envy and mediocrity, by her personal courage, and by her unfailing ability to spot a flaw in any opposing argument. I was also surprised to discover that many of her former followers, though personally damaged by her temper and her moral absolutism, remembered her as the most important and beneficent person in their lives. They had been wounded by her and yet loved her and were protective of her memory and legend.

Question: Why does Rand remain a bestseller?

Anne C. Heller: She certainly does remain popular. In a 1991 poll, sponsored by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club, Americans named Atlas Shrugged the book that had most influenced their lives after the Bible. In a separate 1998 poll by Modern Library, readers chose Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead as number one and two on a list of the one hundred greatest novels of the twentieth century, and Rand’s other two novels, Anthem and We the Living, placed seventh and eighth on the list. Combined, more than twelve million copies of her two best-known novels have been sold in the U.S. alone, and sales this year have reached an all-time high.

Like Holden Caulfield and Huckleberry Finn, Rand’s fictional heroes strike each new generation as timelessly American in their self-reliance and revolt against timidity and conformity. And her passionate, brainy arguments on behalf of limited government and unfettered individual rights strike a strong chord, especially in times of economic trouble and increased government activism.

(Photo © Brennan Cavanaugh)

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  • A Book to Read and Re-Read
    From Amazon

    Anne Heller's work, talent, insight and dedication have resulted in a book I could hardly put down. She has tackled a very complex subject. It's been three days since I finished it and realize that it may take months to digest it. The book is so huge I can only write impressions and thoughts. The first thing to pop out at me relates to Frank Lloyd Wright. Early on, Rand used him as and ideal whose outsider life and creativity became the model for Howard Roark. After visiting Taliesin she commented that Wright did not pay his assistants, but did she realize that his "Fellowship" was a collectivist operation? Wright's 3rd wife, Olgivanna, who like Rand was a Russian émigré, developed this cult-like following on his behalf. Wright's fellowship engrossed the full lives and careers of its closest followers who designed buildings, planted crops and did construction and maintenance work for their "Fellowship". Fellowship, The: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship. He and his lifestyle were the antithesis of Howard Roark. The next impressions are about Rand's family. What of Frank O'Connor? Was this love? Friendship? Fear? Awe? Inertia? 50's values? The Chicago relatives are not re-imbursed for their help in Rand's resettlement in the US (neither are those left behind in Russia). Is this a cognitive demonstration of selfishness or a representation of Rand, herself, for which she built an elaborate philosophy to justify? What should be made of the sister from Russia whose comparative contentment with her life essentially mocks Rand's life work? I was surprised at the involvement of Alan Greenspan. I knew his name was associated with Rand, but a lot of people went to the lectures. I didn't know how plugged in he was and how long he stayed with it. Aside from the above associations which may or may not be micro-issues, I'm digesting the person of Rand herself. First, you have to consider her tremendous accomplishments. She wrote and debated in a second language. She achieved fame as an intellectual totally defying entrenched stereotypes of and expectations for both women and immigrants. She developed her following, not as Olgivanna Wright did through her husband nor economic necessity (the Wrights "needed" their followers, Rand, essentially didn't), but on her own independent power. There is the issue of the role of her philosophy in her own life. Did she walk her talk? How did selfishness work out for her? The strength she speaks of was not there when she needed it. She behaved worse than most when her romantic world shattered world and health waned. It makes Bertha Krantz's observation about fear a logical explanation for this person who can't seem to handle even small dissent or criticism. Anne Heller has done a tremendous job with this book. I highly recommend it for anyone with an interest in Ayn Rand.

  • Thought provoking and a spur to read Rand again
    From Amazon

    Anne C. Heller has credentials that suggest she would subscribe to orthodox left-wing thinking as it is practiced in what passes for "journalism" in the United States. She apparently is not a historian or biographer by training, which is not any kind of failing. I mention this because on more than the rare occasion, statements you would not expect from one trained in maintaining an objective, factually based outlook pop up, such as "Rand was Russian by both birth and temperament. Born into a bourgeois Jewish family during the reign of Czar Nicholas II . . ." Jews in Czarist Russia were literally forbidden by law from becoming fully assimilated into Russian society at any level. The statement makes no sense, at least not to me. Heller goes on in the same paragraph to state "I have tried to document how Russian and Jewish culture and history color some of the most interesting features of her character and work". Heller, though she later distinguishes many instances properly later in the book, confuses Russian and Soviet culture, which were quite distinctive particularly in the years Rand spent in Czarist Russia and the formative Soviet Union The word "revolution" is not out of place in describing the night and day differences between the two. Heller acknowledges that she is not an advocate of Rand's ideas and was thus denied access to the papers at the Ayn Rand Institute. This reflects badly on the Ayn Rand Institute, but also shows that Heller's knowledge of Rand as a person suffers for lack of first-hand information. All that said (and more could be said), this is a fascinating biography of a fascinating person. The first think I learned is that I need to go back and read Rand's books. As Heller points out, most people read them when they are young. It has been more than forty years since I read "Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged". I need to go back and read them again - and then read Heller a second time. The person Heller describes is like most of us, but we lack fame and fortune so no one is interested in our little lives. We don't collect famous friends - or enemies. Rand treated some people badly or so they say. She had unique marital and intimate relationships which seemed odd then, but are commonplace today. Ayn Rand would today be described as a "cougar", an older woman involved with younger men, just like some movie stars today. She is on one hand, according to Heller, a person of great insight in some issues - and virtually blind in others. Not that different than many other creative people - and even ordinary people like me and perhaps you. Heller quotes Rand as saying in the late 1940s that Communists were protected by the First Amendment and then goes on to claim ". . . this sensible distinction lost its sharp edge when . . . she publicly testified before HUAC to help police what she believed to be Communist content in some films". I will not attempt to discuss what HUAC attempted (and often failed) to do, but Heller's description is a typical left-wing nostrum and not entirely factual. It also entirely disregards that Communism was very much a threat to the United States at time of Rand's testimony. The book is laden with anecdotes about Rand. Heller acknowledges interviewing many people in their 70s and 80s for the book. One has to wonder how many of these anecdotes were embellished or even invented in the many years since the interviewees would have had any contact with Rand. Interesting reading, yes, but sometimes they just don't feel right - they are more like what you would expect to find in a Kitty Kelly biography. On the whole, this is an interesting book about an undoubtedly interesting person. I think I will appreciate it all the more on my second reading, after I have reacquainted myself with Rand's two major novels which are still selling well. I really think Rand's ideas and philosophies have to be fresh in your mind to filly appreciate Heller's work. Jerry

  • Heller's Essential Flaw.....
    From Amazon

    My overall disinterest in this book stemmed from one comment the author made in her Facebook "Q and A" about her reading of Rand: that because she did not approach Rand in "adolescence", she was thereby immune to the heroic and romantic aspects of Ayn Rand's writings. Meaning what? That an adult who believes that Man can and should aspire to personal nobility, character and an aesthetic view of life is somehow...childish? What nonsense. We are talking about a majesty of spirit for which it takes a high degree of emotional and psychological maturity to attain and appreciate. Speculation is an unseemly business but I have the impression Heller is projecting her own world-weariness or jadedness in saying this. I came to Rand at 29, am re reading her at 39, and her vision is as stunning to me now as it was then. And by the way, I am not an "Objectivist", just an inspired reader. Furthermore, Heller appears to be in disagreement with Rand's views on romantic and sexual love, as exemplified in Francisco D'Anconia's "other" speech in "Atlas Shrugged". I thought that this speech was one of the most beautiful expositions on the spiritual nature of human love I have yet read, and quite frankly, if more individuals practiced what is theorized in that passage, there would be far less rot between the sexes overall.... Next....When is this bickering about Rand's temper going to stop? Heller harps a bit too much on this as well. I mean....Genius is temperamental and always has been; there have been few major thinkers,--writers, philosophers, scientists--whose intellectual powers haven't been marked by strong impatience with lesser minds. Is this really so important? Is focusing on this aspect of Rand to show (over and over and over again) that she was not the cool, reserved aristocrat that her female characters were? All right already. Give the lady a break: She was a lone wolf as a leader in her views, the critics were savage (and often blatantly incorrect) in the assessments and reviews of her work. That has to have added up to enormous frustration on Rand's part from time to time. Let it go. When one considers her overall accomplishments (and in a second language, no less), I think it fair to step back a bit from focusing on the various personal flaws that at times might have marred Rand's image. But more importantly, I do think that getting into Rand's personal life at this level is too murky, for many who knew her said she was always gracious and polite and compassionate in her personal contacts. Really, the best thing to do is to read Rand's "Letters" to estabish your own sense of Rand from the inside out. Lastly, I believe the book makes too much of the Jewish-background-cruel-Czar bit. In her own words, Rand was not so obsessed with her Jewishness and such group-ethnic-religious identification went against her individualistic philosophy overall. I recall her saying, as quoted in the Branden biography, that she referred to herself as "born Jewish". And while she defended Israel and was sensitive to any possibly anti-Semitic comments, I have found that these were overall intellectual (Israel) assessments and just personal revulsion at vulgarity (the comments). Once again---read Rand yourself, and with a fresh, uncorrupted spirit. Be very skeptical of biographers in the first place, but especially those whose authors say they admire their subject, but then do not personally reflect-- in tone, literary emotion and intellectual depth-- the influence of such admiration. Heller sounds/writes too much like a pure product of her age, and with too many of the presumptions of today's cultural outlook blurring her judgment. Writing what others call a "fair treatment" of some chosen biographical subject or an "even-handed" one does not mean having to flatten that subject with "flaws" or bring them down to size--all in the name of what is gruesomely referred to as "humanizing".

  • Courage, Triumph, and Tragedy
    From Amazon

    Much of the information in this book has been revealed previously by Barbara Branden and others, but the author's narrative is quite interesting and there is much here that is new and will keep Rand devotees interested. Rand was a person of great courage, and her achievement cannot be denied, even by those who hate her philosophy. What she accomplished, given the odds resident in her background and the challenges of her immigration to the U.S. is really quite impressive. This book interests me, beyond the discussion of Rand herself, in the enigmatic and tragic figure of Rand's husband, Frank O'Conner. O'Conner, it turns out, was everything Rand's heroes were not. He was an ordinary man with ordinary and not-so-very-elevated ambitions married to a self-absorbed genius who thought so little of her husband as to abort a child he would like to have had. Interesting, too, is Rand's clear faking of reality, according to her own philosophy and outlook, when she declares that Frank O'Conner is her proof that the great heroes of which she writes really do exist. Frank was not that. Not only did Rand fake this reality but she insisted on mis-representing Frank O'Conner to the world. One can only admire Frank O'Conner. He must have been an intensely loyal and courageous person with great integrity. It does seem to me as well that much of his life was probably characterized by a sense of duty - a tendency that Rand herself despised. Rand's story is fascinating and would make a great movie if done well. "The Passion of Ayn Rand," a made for TV film with Helen Mirren and Peter Fonda as Rand and O'Conner, is NOT that film in my opinion.

  • Unreadable
    From Amazon

    I haven't read any of Rand' books and I don't imagine I ever will. This was the most boring book I think I have ever thried to read. I struggled for 70 pages and finally gave up. What a waist of time.

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