Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Passion of Ayn Rand

I don’t often read biographies, but I’ve wanted a look at this one for some time. While I don’t either support or damn Ayn Rand’s philosophy, I like two of her novels and thought it might be interesting to read the story behind them.

But The Passion of Ayn Rand, by Barbara Branden, is much more than that. It’s the riches-to-rags-to-riches recounting of an unforgettable life, a story that is both sensitive and brutally honest. I’m very glad I read it.

The future Ayn Rand was born Alice Rosenbaum, the oldest daughter in a middle-class family living a comfortable life in St Petersburg. From the start, Rand was a grimly serious child who preferred intellectual pursuits, but soon a series of events began that would start her on the tumultous journey that would bring her to fame and infamy. The Revolution began, and her father’s shop was nationalized. The family was left in poverty, which turned into slow starvation.

They ate handfuls of peas and millet (now I know where those endless mentions of Kira and Leo eating fried millet in her first novel came from). Rand nevertheless enrolled in college, where she was assigned a student ration card, and studied history despite her father’s objections. She was always strong-willed and single-minded.

At that point, though, cousins who had migrated to the States offered her a chance to visit them. She applied for a passport and then traveled to Latvia to get a visa, aware that at every step of the way she could be refused, aware too that if she left she would never return. When she arrived in the States, she was no longer Alice. She had a new name – Ayn – and a dream, to be a writer.

Her struggle hadn’t stopped, not by any means.

After a chance meeting with cinema legend Cecil B. DeMille, she worked in Hollywood, wrote screenplays and began the first of her novels. She also married an actor called Frank O’Connor.

Branden’s description of Rand’s eventually morganatic marriage is both balanced and sad. Rand cared deeply for her husband – many of the lines in her novels came from him, and one book is dedicated to him. They were married for fifty years. Yet his star declined as hers rose, to the point where he couldn’t leave her no matter what she did, and although he wanted children they didn’t fit into her plans.

Rand’s next challenge was rejection. Her first novel, We the Living (original title: Air Tight) sank after it was released without advertising. Next came The Fountainhead (original title: Second-Hand Lives), which was rejected by twelve editors – one of whom said it had no commercial value. Archibald Ogden, a new editor at Boggs-Merrill, was the thirteenth, and when the head office declined the book he placed his job on the line for it.

The book has since sold over five million copies.

Sales were slow at first, but the book’s increasing popularity freed Rand from the burden of grinding poverty. In 1943, she insisted on fifty thousand dollars for the movie rights – and got it, so after learning the good news, she and Frank went out to eat and happily selected the sixty-five cent meals instead of the forty-five cent ones. But her intransigent personality only strengthened, evident in demands such as an insistence that Roark’s courtroom speech be filmed in its entirety*.

And many of the reviews were negative. The book still achieved a grassroots popularity that resulted in good sales, though, and the royalties enabled Rand to work on her masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged (original title: The Strike).

There was as much drama in her personal life as in her professional one. Rand’s brilliance and charisma couldn’t always compensate for her “hair-trigger temper” and a curious lack of emotional intelligence. When she discovered her youngest sister Nora was the sole surviving member of her family - her parents and other sister died in the siege of Leningrad - she did everything she could to bring Nora to the States for a “visit”.

Yet Nora, unlike Rand, had no intention of staying. She was accustomed to life in Soviet Russia and eventually returned, after many bitter arguments with her older sister on the subject. Rand couldn’t tolerate a difference of opinion when it came to Communism.

But even that pales beside Rand’s affair with Branden’s husband. Nathaniel Branden was a psychologist twenty-five years Rand’s junior, who met Barbara through their mutual admiration for Rand’s work. He became Rand’s “intellectual heir” and they finally held a meeting with their respective spouses to discuss their attraction.

Rand explained that since she and Nathaniel were so well-matched intellectually, it only made sense for them to be together. So Barbara Branden and Frank O’Connor agreed to give them an afternoon a week for a meeting of the minds (and bodies).

Rational and civilized though this agreement may have been, the affair did not end happily, and it culminated in Rand’s discovery that Nathaniel was having another affair with a younger woman. The account of it in Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things makes it sound like farce, but Barbara Branden spells it out in much more painful detail, not sparing either herself or Rand. That was the beginning of the end for Rand’s personal life, if not her professional one.

I loved reading this book, partly because I could identify with a writer who wasn’t accepted by her family and who fled her native land to live in a First World country. But also because it’s a meticulous and deeply insightful study of a famous (or infamous) life. And Barbara Branden’s discussion is always balanced. As she put it, those who hold Rand in either adoration or abhorrence overlook her humanity… which is sometimes what Rand did for people who disagreed with her values.

Ultimately, this is the story of the triumph and the tragedy of Ayn Rand. I recommend it.

*Granted, it’s shorter than John Galt’s, but that’s not saying much.


Mary Witzl said...

I love biographies and memoirs, but if I hadn't read your review, I'd have skipped this one -- I'm really not a fan of Ayn Rand. But now that I've read your review, I HAVE GOT to read this book -- seriously. I had no idea Ayn Rand came from such a background. And how amazing that her editor went to bat for her and won. For that story alone, I'd want to read this.

Marian Perera said...

Mary - If the biography had been written by a staunch Objectivist, I probably wouldn't have read it. But since its author is a woman who was persuaded to allow her husband an extramarital affair with Rand (and who later regretted that), I picked it up.

Her background, her struggle to escape Russia, the rejections and dismissals her writing garnered before it became famous... it's all riveting. And more importantly, it's honest. Barbara Branden doesn't put Rand on either a pedestal or a stake. Glad you liked the review - you'll enjoy the book too.

gypsyscarlett said...

Sounds like a fascinating bio. I've read a couple of her works. Agree with some of her ideas, and totally disagree on others. From what I've read about Rand herself, she seems to have been such an utterly black and white kind of person. Uncapable of seeing any shades of gray.

I imagine she wouldn't be the easiest of people to live with.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for providing a link to this; I was happy to read it. It echoes a lot of what I was hearing about the book when it first came out, and you can't deny the unusual perspective of a biography written by a woman whose husband slept with the subject. No hero worship, and yet no smearing either. Interesting.

I'm still not much inclined to read the book itself, since I already know so much about Rand's life (well out of proportion to my affinity for her, I might add; people assume that just because I'm a libertarian I want to hear all about Rand). But I was happy to read this review, and I'm glad you liked the book.


Marian Perera said...

Tasha - you're right, it was either her way or the highway. I don't think she was easy to live with at all.

Now I really want to see the film based on her life. The doomed four-way affair would probably be very interesting to watch unfold.

Peacewish - Thanks, and this definitely isn't a book for everyone so I didn't send the link hoping you'd read it. :) I just wanted to show you the review (and hopefully if I got anything wrong you'd notice!).

JH said...

"But even that pales beside Rand’s affair with Branden’s husband."

Seems like this might be a typo, unless things back then were much more socially liberal than now. ;)

Marian Perera said...

It was Barbara Branden's husband. Since I referred to Ayn Rand as "Rand", I referred to Barbara Branden as "Branden", but I can see how that might be confusing. :)

JH said...

now it is i who looks foolish

the tables indeed have turned