Ayn Rand Biography

Ayn Rand’s tenacity can be admired by just about everyone, whether they love her or hate her. At the young age of nine, Rand made up her mind to be a fiction writer, and she proceeded to do just that, becoming in the process both a philosopher and a pop culture icon. Born in Russia, she witnessed the Kerensky and Bolshevik Revolutions before her family moved to Crimea to escape harm. In college, Rand discovered Western films and began studying screenwriting. In 1926, she moved to Hollywood, began working at various film jobs, and soon sold her first screenplay. Rand’s first commercial success, however, came with the novel The Fountainhead in 1943 and was followed by Atlas Shrugged, part literary endeavor and part philosophical treatise, in 1957.

Facts and Trivia

  • Legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille gave Rand her first job as an extra and then a script reader on his movie King of Kings. It was only her second day in Hollywood.
  • The Fountainhead was rejected by twelve publishers before finally being picked up in 1943. It has since sold over six million copies—about 100,000 a year.
  • Rand met her husband, Frank O’Connor, on her second week in Hollywood. They were married for fifty years, right up until his death.
  • Rand’s major philosophy in life was objectivism, which she described as “a philosophy for living on earth” but critics call an extreme, hyper-selfish form of individualism. She spent the latter part of her life and career writing about and lecturing on objectivism.
  • In Atlas Shrugged, her last work of fiction, Rand uses the cigarette as a symbol of human intellect—glowing, burning, bright. A smoker throughout her life, she would eventually lose a lung to cancer before she died in 1982.
  • Rand refused to spay or neuter her cats because “unlike humans, cats cannot choose to go against nature or mold it to their wishes.” A Random House employee who visited her reported that the stench in her apartment was awful.
  • According to the book Letters of Ayn Rand, Ayn should rhyme with "line" when pronounced correctly.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2317

Article abstract: Rand first achieved success as a writer of fiction with strong political and ethical content. She later expanded on the ethical and political theme of Objectivism, along with her idea that self-interest is morally good and altruism is corrupting to the human spirit and ultimately self-defeating.

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Early Life

Ayn Rand, born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 2, 1905, as Alisa (Alice) Rosenbaum, was raised in a middle-class family. She showed an early love of storytelling and decided at the age of nine to become a writer. In school, she showed academic promise, particularly in mathematics. The Revolution of 1917 devastated her family because of the social upheavals brought by the revolution and fighting, and because her father’s pharmacy was confiscated by the Soviets. The family moved to the Crimea to regroup financially and to escape the harshness of life that the revolution had brought to St. Petersburg. The family later returned to Petrograd (the new name given to St. Petersburg by the Soviets), where Rosenbaum was to attend university.

At the University of Petrograd, Rosenbaum concentrated her studies on history, with secondary focuses on philosophy and literature. She was repelled by the dominance of communist ideas and strong-arm tactics, which had the effect of suppressing free inquiry and discussion. As a youth, she objected to the communists’ political program; as an adult, she would become more fully aware of the destructive effects that the revolution had had on Russian society.

Having studied American history and politics at the university, and having long been an admirer of Western plays, music, and films, she came to value American individualism, its vigor, and its optimism, seeing it as the opposite of Russian collectivism, decay, and gloom. Believing that she would not be free under the Soviet system to write the kinds of books she wanted to write, she resolved to leave Russia and go to the United States.

Rosenbaum graduated from the University of Petrograd in 1924. She then enrolled at the State Institute for Cinema Arts to study screenwriting. In 1925, she finally received permission from the Soviet authorities to leave the country to visit relatives in the United States. Officially, her visit was to be brief; however, she had decided not to return to the Soviet Union.

After several stops in Western European cities, Rosenbaum arrived in New York City in February, 1926. She adopted the name Ayn Rand. From New York, she traveled to Chicago, Illinois, where she spent the next six months living with relatives, learning English, and developing ideas for stories and screenplays. She had decided to become a screenwriter, and, having received an extension to her visa, she left for Hollywood, California.

On Rand’s second day in Hollywood, an event occurred that was worthy of her dramatic fiction and had several major effects on her future. She was spotted by Cecil B. deMille, one of Hollywood’s leading directors, while she was standing at the gate of his studio. She had recognized him as he was passing by in his car, and he had noticed her staring at him. He stopped to ask why she was staring, and Rand explained that she had recently arrived from Russia, that she had long been passionate about Hollywood films, and that she dreamed of being a screenwriter. DeMille was then working on The King of Kings (1961); he gave her a ride to the set and signed her on as an extra. During her second week at deMille’s studio, Rand met Frank O’Connor, a young actor also working as an extra. Rand and O’Connor were married in 1929, and they remained married for fifty years, until his death in 1979.

Rand also worked for deMille as a reader of scripts, struggling financially while working on her own writing. She held a variety of nonwriting jobs until, in 1932, she was able to sell her first screenplay, Red Pawn, to Universal Studios. In 1934, her first stage play, Night of January 16th, was produced in Hollywood under the title Woman on Trial; it later appeared on Broadway.

Life’s Work

Rand’s life was often as colorful as those of the heroes in her best-selling novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Rand first made her name as a novelist, publishing We the Living in 1936, The Fountainhead in 1943, and her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged in 1957. These philosophical novels embodied themes she would then develop in nonfiction form in a series of essays and books written in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Rand worked for years on her first significant novel, We the Living, and finished it in 1933. Various publishers rejected it over the course of several years, until in 1936 it was published by Macmillan in the United States and Cassell in England. Rand described We the Living as the most autobiographical of her novels, its theme being the brutality of life under communist rule in Russia. We the Living did not receive a positive reaction from American reviewers and intellectuals. It was published in the 1930’s, sometimes called the “Red Decade,” during which American intellectuals were often pro-Communist and respectful and admiring of the Soviet experiment.

Rand’s next major project was The Fountainhead, on which she had begun to work in 1935. Whereas the theme of We the Living was political, the theme of The Fountainhead was ethical, focusing on individualist themes of independence and integrity. The novel’s hero, architect Howard Roark, is Rand’s first embodiment of her ideal man, one who lives a principled and heroic life.

As with We the Living, Rand had difficulties getting The Fountainhead published. It was rejected by twelve publishers before being accepted by Bobbs-Merrill. Like We the Living, it was not well received by reviewers and intellectuals, but it nevertheless became a best-seller, primarily through word-of-mouth recommendations. The Fountainhead made Rand famous as an exponent of individualist ideas, and its continued sales brought her financial security. Warner Bros. produced a film version of the novel in 1949, starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, for which Rand wrote the screenplay.

In 1946, Rand began work on her most ambitious novel, Atlas Shrugged. At the time, she was working part-time as a screenwriter for producer Hal Wallis. In 1951, she and her husband moved to New York City, where she began to work full-time on Atlas Shrugged. Published by Random House in 1957, it is her most complete expression of her literary and philosophical vision. Dramatized with a strong element of mystery, in the form of the question “Who is John Galt?,” it concerns characters who try to stop the motor of the world. The plot and characters embody the political and ethical themes first developed in We the Living and The Fountainhead, integrating them into a comprehensive philosophy including metaphysics, epistemology, economics, and the psychology of love and sex.

Atlas Shrugged was an immediate best-seller and Rand’s last work of fiction. Her novels had expressed philosophical themes, although Rand considered herself primarily a novelist and only secondarily a philosopher. The creation of plots and characters and the dramatization of achievements and conflicts were her central purposes in writing fiction, rather than presenting an abstract and didactic set of philosophical theses.

The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, however, attracted to Rand many readers who were strongly interested in the philosophical ideas the novels embodied; many readers wished to pursue these ideas further. Among the earliest of these followers who later became prominent were psychologist Nathaniel Branden, philosopher Leonard Peikoff, and economist Alan Greenspan, later chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Her interactions with these and several other key individuals were partly responsible for her turning from fiction to nonfiction writing to develop her philosophy more systematically.

From 1962 until 1976, Rand wrote and lectured on her philosophy, now officially named Objectivism. Her essays during this period appeared primarily in a series of periodicals: The Objectivist, published from 1962 to 1965; the larger periodical The Objectivist, published from 1966 to 1971; and The Ayn Rand Letter, published from 1971 to 1976. The essays written for these periodicals form the core material for a series of nine nonfiction books published during Rand’s lifetime. Those books develop Rand’s philosophy in all its major categories and apply it to cultural issues. Perhaps the most significant of the books are The Virtue of Selfishness, which develops her ethical theory; Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, devoted to political and economic theory; Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, a systematic presentation of her theory of concepts; and The Romantic Manifesto, a theory of aesthetics.

During the 1960’s, Rand’s most significant professional relationship was with Nathaniel Branden. Branden, author of The Psychology of Self-Esteem: A New Concept of Man’s Psychological Nature (1969) and now well known as a leader in the self-esteem movement in psychology, wrote many essays on philosophical and psychological topics that were published in Rand’s books and periodicals. He was the founder and head of the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI), the leading Objectivist institution of the 1960’s. Based in New York City, the NBI published, with Rand’s sanction, numerous Objectivist periodicals and pamphlets. It also presented many series of lectures live in New York, then distributed taped recordings around the United States and the rest of the world. The rapid growth of the NBI and the Objectivist movement came to a halt in 1968, when, for both professional and personal reasons, Rand and Branden parted ways.

Rand continued to write and lecture consistently until she stopped publishing The Ayn Rand Letter in 1976. Thereafter, she wrote and lectured less as her husband’s and her own health declined. Rand died on March 6, 1982, in her New York City apartment.

Influence

The impact of Rand’s ideas has been enormous. All the books she published during her lifetime remained in print for decades, selling more than twenty million copies, and they continued to sell hundreds of thousands of copies each year until the end of the twentieth century. A survey jointly conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club early in the 1990’s, asking readers to name the book that had most influenced their lives, resulted in Atlas Shrugged being named second only to the Bible. Excerpts from Rand’s works are regularly reprinted in college textbooks and anthologies, and several volumes containing her early writings, journals, and letters have been published posthumously.

Those inspired by her ideas have published books in many academic fields and founded several institutes. Noteworthy among these is the Cato Institute, the leading libertarian think tank in the world. Rand, along with Nobel Prize winners Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, was hugely instrumental in attracting generations of individuals to the libertarian movement. Also noteworthy are the Ayn Rand Institute, founded in 1985 by philosopher Leonard Peikoff and based in California, and the Institute for Objectivist Studies, founded in 1990 by philosopher David Kelley and based in New York.

Additional Reading

Binswanger, Harry. The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts. Los Angeles: Ayn Rand Institute Press, 1990. Written by a philosopher, this is a scholarly work focused on the connection between biology and the concepts at the roots of ethics.

Branden, Nathaniel, and Barbara Branden. Who Is Ayn Rand? New York: Random House, 1962. This book contains three essays on Objectivism’s moral philosophy, its connection to psychological theory, and a literary study of Rand’s methods in her fiction. It contains an additional biographical essay, tracing Rand’s life from birth to her mid-fifties.

Britting, Jeff. Ayn Rand. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2005. A readable biography of Rand’s literary and personal life but lacking in scholarly analysis.

Hessen, Robert. In Defense of the Corporation. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1979. Hessen, an economic historian, argues and defends from an Objectivist perspective the moral and legal status of the corporate form of business organization.

Kelley, David. The Evidence of the Senses. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986. Written by a philosopher, this is a scholarly work in epistemology, focusing on the foundational role the senses play in human knowledge.

Mayhew, Robert. Ayn Rand’s Marginalia. New Milford, Conn.: Second Renaissance Books, 1995. This volume contains Rand’s critical comments on more than twenty thinkers, including Friedrich Hayek, C. S. Lewis, and Immanuel Kant. Edited by a philosopher, the volume contains facsimiles of the original texts, with Rand’s comments on facing pages.

Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton, 1991. This is the first comprehensive overview of all aspects of Objectivist philosophy, written by the philosopher who was closest to Rand during her lifetime.

Peikoff, Leonard. The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America. New York: Stein and Day, 1982. A scholarly work in the philosophy of history, arguing Objectivism’s theses about the role of philosophical ideas in history and applying them to explaining the rise of National Socialism (Nazism).

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Evocative, interpretive essays on the life paths and works of twelve women, including Rand, connecting the circumstances of their lives with the shapes, styles, subjects, and situations of their art.

Torres, Louis, and Michelle Marder Kamhi. What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand. Chicago Ill.: Open Court, 2000. An amusing but respectful application of Rand’s definition to the body of twentieth century art.

Reisman, George. Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics. Ottawa, Ill.: Jameson Books, 1996. A scholarly work by an economist, developing capitalist economic theory and connecting it to Objectivist philosophy.

Rasmussen, Douglas, and Douglas Den Uyl, eds. The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984. A collection of scholarly essays by philosophers, defending and criticizing various aspects of Objectivism’s metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics.

Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. Ayn Rand, the Russian Radical. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995. A work in history of philosophy, this book attempts to trace the influence on Rand’s thinking of dialectical approaches to philosophy prevalent in nineteenth century Europe and Russia. Also provides an introduction to and overview of the major branches of Objectivist philosophy.

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