Two biographies of Ayn Rand.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 2 2009 7:01 AM

How Ayn Rand Became an American Icon

The perverse allure of a damaged woman.

Ayn Rand. Click image to expand.
Ayn Rand 

Ayn Rand is one of America's great mysteries. She was an amphetamine-addicted author of sub-Dan Brown potboilers, who in her spare time wrote lavish torrents of praise for serial killers and the Bernie Madoff-style embezzlers of her day. She opposed democracy on the grounds that "the masses"—her readers—were "lice" and "parasites" who scarcely deserved to live. Yet she remains one of the most popular writers in the United States, still selling 800,000 books a year from beyond the grave. She regularly tops any list of books that Americans say have most influenced them. Since the great crash of 2008, her writing has had another Benzedrine rush, as Rush Limbaugh hails her as a prophetess. With her assertions that government is "evil" and selfishness is "the only virtue," she is the patron saint of the tea-partiers and the death panel doomsters. So how did this little Russian bomb of pure immorality in a black wig become an American icon?

Two new biographies of Rand— Goddess of the Market by Jennifer Burns and Ayn Rand and the World She Madeby Anne Heller—try to puzzle out this question, showing how her arguments found an echo in the darkest corners of American political life. * But the books work best, for me, on a level I didn't expect. They are thrilling psychological portraits of a horribly damaged woman who deserves the one thing she spent her life raging against: compassion.

Alisa Rosenbaum (her original name) was born in the icy winter of czarism, not long after the failed 1905 revolution ripped through her home city of St. Petersburg. Her father was a self-made Jewish pharmacist, while her mother was an aristocratic dilettante who loathed her three daughters. She would tell them she never wanted children, and she kept them only out of duty. Alisa became a surly, friendless child. In elementary school, her class was asked to write an essay about why being a child was a joyous thing. She instead wrote "a scathing denunciation of childhood," headed with a quote from Pascal: "I would prefer an intelligent hell to a stupid paradise."

But the Rosenbaums' domestic tensions were dwarfed by the conflicts raging outside. The worst anti-Jewish violence since the Middle Ages was brewing, and the family was terrified of being killed by the mobs—but it was the Bolsheviks who struck at them first. After the 1917 revolutions, her father's pharmacy was seized "in the name of the people." For Alisa, who had grown up surrounded by servants and nannies, the Communists seemed at last to be the face of the masses, a terrifying robbing horde. In a country where 5 million people died of starvation in just two years, the Rosenbaums went hungry. Her father tried to set up another business, but after it too was seized, he declared himself to be "on strike."

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The Rosenbaums knew their angry, outspoken daughter would not survive under the Bolsheviks for long, so they arranged to smuggle her out to their relatives in America. Just before her 21st birthday, she said goodbye to her country and her family for the last time. She was determined to live in the America she had seen in the silent movies—the America of skyscrapers and riches and freedom. She renamed herself Ayn Rand, a name she thought had the hardness and purity of a Hollywood starlet.

She headed for Hollywood, where she set out to write stories that expressed her philosophy—a body of thought she said was the polar opposite of communism. She announced that the world was divided between a small minority of Supermen who are productive and "the naked, twisted, mindless figure of the human Incompetent" who, like the Leninists, try to feed off them. He is "mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned." It is evil to show kindness to these "lice": The "only virtue" is "selfishness."

She meant it. Her diaries from that time, while she worked as a receptionist and an extra, lay out the Nietzschean mentality that underpins all her later writings. The newspapers were filled for months with stories about serial killer called William Hickman, who kidnapped a 12-year-old girl called Marion Parker from her junior high school, raped her, and dismembered her body, which he sent mockingly to the police in pieces. Rand wrote great stretches of praise for him, saying he represented "the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatsoever for all that a society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul. … Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should." She called him "a brilliant, unusual, exceptional boy," shimmering with "immense, explicit egotism." Rand had only one regret: "A strong man can eventually trample society under its feet. That boy [Hickman] was not strong enough."

It's not hard to see this as a kind of political post-traumatic stress disorder. Rand believed the Bolshevik lie that they represented the people, so she wanted to strike back at them—through theft and murder. In a nasty irony, she was copying their tactics. She started to write her first novel, We the Living(1936), and in the early drafts her central character—a crude proxy for Rand herself—says to a Bolshevik: "I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods. If one believes one's right, one shouldn't wait to convince millions of fools, one might just as well force them."

She poured these beliefs into a series of deeply odd novels. She takes the flabby staples of romantic fiction and peppers them with political ravings and rapes for the audience to cheer on. All have the same core message: Anything that pleases the Superman's ego is good; anything that blocks it is bad. In The Fountainhead, published in 1943, a heroic architect called Howard Roark designs a housing project for the poor—not out of compassion but because he wants to build something mighty. When his plans are slightly altered, he blows up the housing project, saying the purity of his vision has been contaminated by evil government bureaucrats. He orders the jury to acquit him, saying: "The only good which men can do to one another and the only statement of their proper relationship is—Hands off!"

For her longest novel, Atlas Shrugged(1957), Rand returned to a moment from her childhood. Just as her father once went on strike to protest against Bolshevism, she imagined the super-rich in America going on strike against progressive taxation—and said the United States would swiftly regress to an apocalyptic hellhole if the Donald Trumps and Ted Turners ceased their toil. The abandoned masses are described variously as "savages," "refuse," "inanimate objects," and "imitations of living beings," picking through rubbish. One of the strikers deliberately causes a train crash, and Rand makes it clear she thinks the murder victims deserved it, describing in horror how they all supported the higher taxes that made the attack necessary.