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A New York Times Notable Book
A Chicago Tribune Favorite Book of the Year
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year
Ayn Rand’s books have attracted three generations of readers, shaped the Libertarian movement, influenced White House economic policies throughout the Reagan years and beyond, and inspired the Tea Party movement. Yet twenty-eight years after her death, readers know very little about her life.
In this seminal biography, Anne C. Heller traces the controversial author’s life from her childhood in Bolshevik Russia to her years as a Hollywood screenwriter, the publication of her blockbuster novels, and the rise and fall of the cult that worshipped her in the 1950s and 1960s. Based on original research in Russia and scores of interviews with Rand’s acquaintances and former acolytes, Ayn Rand and the World She Made is a comprehensive and eye-opening portrait of one of the most significant and improbable figures of the twentieth century.
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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