About Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand, born as Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum (Russian: Алиса Зиновьевна Розенбаум) was a Russian-American philosopher, romanticist, dramatist and screen-writer. She is best known as the author of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged”, and for her influence on the development of a modern philosophy which has had a transformative impact on millions of individuals across the globe, popularly known as Objectivism.
Rosenbaum family photo, circa 1909
Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum (Russian: Алиса Зиновьевна Розенбаум) was born on February 2nd, 1905 in Saint Petersburg during the era of Tsarist Russia. It was during her youth that she witnessed enraged and starving workers/peasants joining the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The period of a constitutional monarchy permitting some freedoms was quickly and violently overthrown, replaced by Communism.
Alisa was born in a Jewish family. She renounced religion by saying that she was born Jewish but that she is in fact an atheist. She was the eldest amongst her sisters, Natasha and Elena. Her father Fronz had owned a chemist shop, while her mother Anna was Alisa’s opposite, an active socialite. “She was by principle and basic style… extremely social… she was much more interested in the social aspect.” Ayn Rand thought such activities to be of little value.
Alisa was a curious child and a fond reader of a French serial about a heroic detective who was in pursuit of a jewel thief. To Alisa, this was a story of a battle between good and evil. This was to be the perspective from which she viewed the world. In her writing, she later transformed the battle between good and evil into a struggle of opposing ideas on a global scale: the good versus evil motif remained.
In the summer of 1914, at the age of 9, Alisa met her hero – a man leaning against a wall with a sword in his hand – a hero known as Cyrus. She had lost all ties to everyday reality while reading about the adventures of Cyrus in a boys’ magazine, a story titled: “The Mysterious Valley”. Ayn Rand characterized her future fictional heroes with many of Cyrus’s qualities.
Portrait of Cyrus in “The Mysterious Valley”
Alisa attended high school in a Soviet society where life’s prospects were increasingly bleak. But her studies included an introduction to the United States of America, the world’s foremost society of individualism.
In college, Alisa majored in history to gain knowledge for her future writing and philosophy, and to help her shape her value system. But as Communists took over the University of Petrograd, her outspoken hostility to their ideas left her in fear for herself and her family.
After graduation, she enrolled in a film school and thought about becoming a Soviet screenwriter, incorporating into her scripts her individualistic ideas. She even went so far as to present a fellow film student, a loyal Communist, with a writing sample along those lines. But the student could tell there was something odd about the story and its theme, and Alisa soon concluded that she had no future in Soviet cinema.
Ayn Rand’s passport photograph, 1925
Around the time Communism gained full power in Russia, Alisa received a letter from her relatives in Chicago to visit them. During fall of 1925, Alisa got her passport and approval to travel to America for a period of 6 months. On February 10, 1926 she boarded the ship De Grasse in Paris and arrived in New York with only $50.00 in her pocket. She soon joined her relatives in Chicago and decided to leave her past life behind. She saw a lot of movies and wrote, using her typewriter. During her six months in Chicago, she settled on a new name for herself: Ayn Rand. She got Ayn from a Finnish writer and Rand from her Remington-Rand typewriter. She never told her parents that she changed her name; she didn’t want her family to be at risk due to her anti-Communist stance.
She had a dream of one day becoming a writer, and now she decided to become a screen writer, so she moved to Los Angeles and looked for a job in Hollywood. Through her Chicago relatives, she got a contact in the film industry to write a letter of introduction for someone in the publicity department of Cecil B. DeMille Studio. She had only $100.00.
She started to work as an extra. At one point, she gathered her courage to present her scripts to DeMille, who forwarded them to the script department. Her scripts were rejected due to lack of “human” emotions (flaws, failings, and fears), with the remark that the characters were too romanticized and that they should be portrayed as people “really are”, with unresolvable problems. Such criticism did not prevent her from being decisive in presenting her heroes in future novels.
“Cleanup Week”, Cecil B. DeMille Studio – Hollywood, 1927
One morning, on her way to work, Rand fell in love with a tall, handsome, blue-eyed actor named Frank O’Connor. He had a smaller role in the same movie that she was working on. She later found out from his brothers that he told them that he had met an interesting Russian girl – and that he could not understand a word she said. However, his days on the set were limited and, afterward, she could not find him anywhere. Eventually, she met Frank once again, this time at a library, in the summer of 1927 and they fell in love. They got married on April 15, 1929 and they were married for more than 50 years, until Frank’s passing.
Ayn Rand with Frank O’Connor
As a fighter for individual rights, she taught her philosophy to young minds from the USA and the rest of the world through books. Rand spent four years writing her first novel, “We the Living”, about the struggle to find liberty in Soviet Russia. Rand finished the book in late 1933. After many rejections, Macmillan agreed to publish it. The company published 3,000 copies in March 1936, but the book went unnoticed for a year. Then it caught the readers’ attention and they began discussing her novel, whose central theme is Man against the State.
Her thoughts about the novel were: “Ideologically, I had said exactly what I wanted, and I had had no difficulty in expressing my ideas. I had wanted to write a novel about Man against the State. I had wanted to show, as the basic theme, the sanctity – the supreme value – of human life, and the immorality of treating men as sacrificial animals and ruling them by physical force. I did so.”
Ayn Rand in Chatsworth, California, 1947
Her dream of living in New York came true when she moved there with Frank, as her play “Penthouse Legend” had its premiere on Broadway in 1934, under the title “Night of January 16th”. The play previously had its premiere in Hollywood under the title “Woman on Trial”.
With her success as a screenwriter, she wanted to keep her promise and get her family to leave Russia and come to the United States. However, they couldn’t get their visas approved, and as war began in 1939, she had lost all contact with her family. Years later, she found out that her parents died during the siege of Leningrad.
Ayn Rand in front of the Grand Central, midtown Manhattan, 1957
When she turned 30, she felt ready to fully explain her philosophy and her vision of an ideal man; she began writing her novel, “The Fountainhead”, with a concept of individualism against collectivism – not in politics, but instead in the human spirit.
She once wrote: “If all philosophers were required to present their ideas in novels, to dramatize the exact meaning and consequences of their philosophies in human life, there would be far fewer philosophers – and far better ones.” For her main protagonist, she chose Howard Roark, an architect. She described Roark as being “in conflict with the world in every possible way – and at complete peace with himself.” In order to portray her thoughts in the best possible way and to do New York’s skyscrapers justice, she began her research on architecture, and even volunteered as an assistant in one architecture firm, where she worked for 6 months.
Original Cover of “The Fountainhead”, 1943
In 1937, while struggling to work out the plot of “The Fountainhead”, Rand wrote a short, lyrical futurist story about an individual versus collectivist tyranny – Anthem. She came up with that storyline while she was living in Russia, and the story was set in a dystopian future, where she emphasized the lack of technology and the oppressive rulers who re-wrote the past to delete all mention of the freedom, prosperity, and advanced technology of the earlier capitalist era. This book offered a bold affirmation of egoism – in Anthem, a man rediscovers the word “I”.
Rand finished “The Fountainhead” on December 31st 1942, and it was published in May 1943. From conception to publication, it had taken her about nine years. By 1948, it sold roughly 400,000 copies. Then came the New American Library paperback edition, and “The Fountainhead” went on to sell over 6 million copies.
Warner Brothers Studio bought the rights from Ayn Rand for a movie adaptation of “The Fountainhead”. She was paid $50,000.00 USD and got to write the script, while Gary Cooper, who Rand saw in the role from the start, got to play Howard Roark. The movie had its premiere in 1949.
On the set of “The Fountainhead” with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, 1948
Meanwhile, Rand wrote her next book, “Atlas Shrugged”, which she worked on for 14 years. The central idea was what would happen if all creative minds went on a strike. Frank urged her to use one of the chapter headings as the book title, and so the title became “Atlas Shrugged. The book was published on October 10, 1957. With “Atlas Shrugged”, Rand had fulfilled her dreams. Sales began to climb, eventually surpassing 4.5 million copies. Today, more than 30 million copies of her novels have been sold worldwide.
On the theme of “Atlas Shrugged”, Ayn Rand said: “The collectivists and the champions of the ‘common man’ have screamed for so long about strikes, about the dependence of the industrialist upon his workers, about the workers supporting him, creating his wealth, making his livelihood possible, and what would happen to him if they walked out. Very well. I will now show who depends on whom, who supports whom, who creates what, who makes whose livelihood possible, and what happens to whom when who walks out.”
Publicity photograph for “Atlas Shrugged”, Random House, 1957
While working on “Atlas Shrugged”, Ayn agreed to meet up with her two admirers, Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Weidman, both students of UCLA at the time. They met in 1950, and soon became Ayn’s closest friends and companions. In 1953, Nathaniel and Barbara got married, with Ayn and Frank their maid of honor and best man. Shortly after, Ayn agreed on having close gatherings with them and other friends and students, a group she called The class of ’43, internally known as The Collective. They discussed the chapters of the yet to be published “Atlas Shrugged”.
The Collective at a wedding, 1955
Meanwhile, Rand turned to non-fiction writing and to speaking in front of packed auditoriums. She edited and published “The Objectivist Newsletter” (1962-1966), “The Objectivist” (1966-1971) and “The Ayn Rand Letter” (1971-1976). With a flair for controversy, she titled one essay collection “The Virtue of Selfishness” (1964). In 1960, Ayn agreed to give her first public lecture at Yale University. It was an enormous success, and she was invited to give lectures at many prestigious American universities.
Ayn Rand always had the inspiration to write, however she never wrote fiction again. In 1961, she published a book called “For the New Intellectual” which contains all the key philosophic chapters of her novels, as well as a new essay which analyzes the development of Western culture. She began to write articles for “The Objectivist Newsletter”, a bulletin which turned into a monthly magazine in 1966.
In 1973, Rand came in contact with her youngest sister Nora, who, in Leningrad, read about her in an article. Ayn arranged for her sister and her husband to come to New York. At that point, she found out about the death of her parents during the siege of Leningrad. The sisters soon came into conflict when they realized that they had differing world views. Her sister and her husband felt uncomfortable while living in New York, which was so different from life in the Soviet Union. After 6 weeks, they decided to go back to Leningrad.
In 1974, after postponing a visit to a doctor, Ayn took her friends’ advice and finally went for a medical analysis; she had been feeling unwell for a long time. She was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent successful surgery. She had been an avid smoker her whole life, but she never smoked again.
Valhalla Cemetery, New York, 1982
She kept more to herself after Frank O’Connor’s death in November 1979; at times, she seemed oblivious to the inspiration her books and ideas provided to millions of people.
Rand’s heart began to give out in December 1981. She hung on for three more months, asking her closest associate, Leonard Peikoff, to complete several projects. She died in her Manhattan apartment on March 6, 1982. She was buried next to Frank O’Connor in Valhalla, New York. She was 77.
She commented on all the hardships throughout her life: “It’s a benevolent universe, and I love it, and any struggle was worth it. Struggle or unhappiness are so enormously unimportant. I don’t regret a minute of my life.”