According to an anecdote
on Wikipedia in Anne Heller’s 2009 book Ayn Rand and the World She Made
when 20-year old Soviet emigre Alisa Rosenbaum arrived in New York harbor in 1925 and first saw the Manhattan skyline, she wept. “Tears of splendor,” is the direct quote. And while there are many things about this woman that I find ridiculous, you can’t really argue with the pure American beauty of an immigrant story like that.
By then Alisa had already adopted Ayn Rand as her pen name and self-identified as a firm atheist rationalist. So let’s call her precocious. But of course she had her reasons to be opinionated — raised in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, 12-year old Alisa saw her father’s business confiscated by the Bolsheviks and her family forced into exile in the Crimea. After completing high school there, Alisa spent the third act of her bildungsroman back in St. Petersburg — now Petrograd — where she lived in the destitution wrought by Soviet rule.
In spite of the poor economic conditions, she attended Petrograd State (Go Grizzlies!) in one of the first co-ed classes admitted. She thrived at school, studying social pedagogy, and then just in case she had any lingering doubts about how much communism sucked, the university helpfully attempted to boot her and the other bourgeois students out just before graduation. It didn’t stick, and she matriculated in 1924 followed by a year of film school in Leningrad during which she was first published. Not long after that she would be going by her nom de plume and crying at the sight of America.
That picture-perfect image of Alisa in transition casts an interpretive shadow over the rest of Rand’s life. Just like a native-born U.S. citizen, she decided to cross a continent and pull herself up by her bootstraps in the most meritocratic of American mileu: Hollywood. There she met her future husband, Frank O’Connor, the man who was the love of her life except for that one time she had a decade-long affair with a younger dude. But both her husband and her lover’s wife knew about that and “consented,” which I’ll feel free to interpret as “went along quietly in fear of the terrible consequences to their social networks and personal lifestyles that would inevitably follow taking a stand.” You know, rational self-interest. Anyway, this is a radical tangent. Where were we?
Rand and Frank became political activists in 1940 when she discovered how much she loved shooting down hecklers at campaign events. Her writing career finally took off in the ’50s on the strength of two successful books, The Fountainhead and the subject of this blog, Atlas Shrugged. Naturally that whole second-love-of-her-life character entered the picture along with the fame and riches.
In the notes she kept while writing Atlas Shrugged, Rand remarks, “I seem to be both a theoretical philosopher and a fiction writer. But it is the last that interests me most; the first is only the means… the fiction story is the end.” And it sure was, in that after the book’s success she stopped writing fiction entirely and focused on her philosophy, codifying it into a dogma called Objectivism, with which she then led a cult of personality complete with unseemly polyamorous intrigue (see above), even claiming in a televised interview with Mike Wallace in 1959 that she was “the most creative thinker alive,” going on to add that she had tiger blood and Adonis DNA, etc.
Rand and her kept man broke up in a real burning bridges kind of way in the mid-60s. She and Frank stayed together until he passed in 1979, so maybe he was cool with the cuckold thing after all. Ayn herself died in ’81, decidedly not from lack of fulfilled ambitions. But I like to imagine that her last words were a muttered “Rosenbaum,” in the style of Charles Foster Kane, as a snow globe tumbled from her hands and images of young, starry-eyed scholar Alisa flashed before her steely grays.