I was a student and friend of Ayn Rand’s for thirty-one years, from 1951—when she was 46 and writing Atlas Shrugged—until her death in 1982, at the age of 77. So, people always ask me: “What was she really like?”
My standard answer is: “Read her novels; she was everything their creator would have to be.” But now I have a follow-up answer: “Read her letters.”
When Michael Berliner handed me the manuscript of this book a month ago, I did not know much about the letters, and I proceeded to read them through. I started out coolly, as an editor, but I was soon hooked; I became emotionally involved and even rapt. I ended in tears.
It is almost eerie to hear her inimitable voice again, so many years after her death, but this book is Ayn Rand, exactly as I knew her. It captures her mind—and also her feelings, her actions, her achievements, her character, her soul. An authorized biography of Ayn Rand will appear in due course. But these letters will remain unique. Through them you can see her thinking and choosing and judging and reacting day by day, across decades, in virtually every aspect of her professional and personal life.
These letters do not merely tell you about Ayn Rand’s life. In effect, they let you watch her live it, as though you were an invisible presence who could follow her around and even read her mind.
The person you will meet in this book has several essential attributes.
The first thing you will see is that Ayn Rand does not merely agree or disagree with the ideas of her fans or associates; if she undertakes to answer someone, she methodically explains her conclusions; she offers a patient—and often brilliant—sentence-by-sentence analysis. She does not merely accept or reject a practical proposal; she works to identify its merits and drawbacks, then weighs them dispassionately. If a friend in trouble solicits her advice, she does not give a glib answer; she identifies the basic problem, often down to its philosophical roots, so that the individual can see for himself how to decide.
Ayn Rand not only says or does—she says why; she always gives her reasons. Like the person I knew, therefore, her letters are the opposite of casual or purposeless. They are focused, deliberate, and bracingly logical. In a word, they display in lifelong practice the quality extolled as the top virtue by her own philosophy of Objectivism: rationality.
As a result of her method of thinking, Ayn Rand knew exactly what ideas and values she endorsed in every field and why. Hence her individualism and her integrity—her refusal to sell out to any establishment, to contradict her own conclusions, or to compromise her work. “I am not brave enough to be a coward,” she once said. “I see the consequences too clearly.” In this respect, she was not like her hero, Howard Roark; on the contrary, he was like her, as these letters make clear. In 1934, for instance, when she was an impoverished beginner, an editor at an important publishing house suggested that she rewrite her first novel (We the Living) with the help of a collaborator. She replied, in part: “If anyone is capable of improving that book—he should have written it himself. I would prefer not only never seeing it in print, but also burning every manuscript of it rather than having William Shakespeare himself add one line to it which was not mine, or cross out one comma.” Was she, then, a prima donna? Here are her next two sentences: “I repeat, I welcome and appreciate all suggestions of changes to improve the book without destroying its theme, and I am quite willing to make them. But these changes will be made by me.”
Because Ayn Rand’s value judgments, like her ideas, were products of her mind, they, too, were absolutes to her. Hence her unique intensity as a person—made of her unbreached commitment to her values, her pride in them, and her consequent complete openness about her feelings. She saw no more reason to repress her emotions than her convictions.
When Ayn Rand liked or disliked something, her friends knew it, as you will know it when, through these magically eloquent letters, you all but re-experience her passions: her enchantment with America; her bitter disappointment over the country’s slow deterioration (which, virtually alone, she saw in the ’30s); the joy and agony of her creative work; her fierce battle against every obstacle, including poverty; her pleasure in her growing success, first as a screenwriter, then as a novelist; her childlike delight at an unexpected gift from a friend; her unforgiving anger at injustice or betrayal; her desperate kisses on paper to her parents and sisters trapped in Russia; her lifelong love for her husband, Frank O’Connor; and the fundamental element conditioning all these emotions: her capacity to make moral judgments, that is, to condemn the evil and, above all, to revere the good, specifically, the greatness possible to man. As to this last: In 1934, she wrote a letter to thank an actor she did not know, whose performance onstage “gave me, for a few hours, a spark of what man could be, but isn’t. …The word heroic does not quite express what I mean. You see, I am an atheist and I have only one religion: the sublime in human nature. There is nothing to approach the sanctity of the highest type of man possible and there is nothing that gives me the same reverent feeling, the feeling when one’s spirit wants to kneel, bareheaded. Do not call it hero worship, because it is more than that. It is a kind of strange and improbable white heat where admiration becomes religion, and religion becomes philosophy, and philosophy—the whole of one’s life.”
If Ayn Rand’s religion (speaking metaphorically) was admiration, then she expressed it in the ultimate fealty: action. Ayn Rand not only thought and valued; she acted accordingly. She was not content merely to desire ideals, to aspire, to dream; she hated the notion that “man’s reach must exceed his grasp.” She struggled ceaselessly to bring her dreams into the world, actually to achieve her values, here and now, on earth. She felt nothing but contempt for the Platonic contempt for this life. She demanded of men something much harder: the integration of mind and body—that is, idea expressed in behavior, theory in practice, ideal in reality.
The letters capture this aspect of Ayn Rand in two main areas: in regard to her own creative work and in regard to politics.
When Ayn Rand finished a play or novel, the new creation was, in effect, the “spiritual” part of her work, but it was not the end of the job; it was the beginning. Thereafter, like the practical idealist she was, she worked diligently to launch her creations into the world and then to watch over them vigilantly, taking responsibility for every “materialistic” detail of their progress, giving every detail her full mind and attention. Among other things, as you will see, she herself devised sales arguments for her agents to use and plans for promotional campaigns; she deliberated over the choice of publishers, the phrasing of contracts, and the conditions of her media appearances; and she weighed permissions requests and (for plays) casting, and even the print styles and colors of book jackets. Needless to say, she also labored on the exact wording of ads and blurbs—always with detailed reasons to the advertising and publicity departments.
As to politics, the letters indicate her many efforts not merely to argue for man’s rights, but also, in action, to advance the pro-capitalist cause. One of the earlier efforts, prominent in these letters, was her attempt to unite and arm the better conservatives—that is, to gather them together into a fighting national organization with a clear-cut individualist credo. As you read about the vicissitudes of this project, you will, perhaps, understand more clearly why Ayn Rand was doomed to fight an unending battle: not only against leftists and moderates, but, worst of all, against “rightists”—in other words, the pitiful compromisers and anti-intellectual temporizers who made up the so-called “free enterprise” segment of the American spectrum. In the end, Ayn Rand decided that such men were not an asset in the fight for freedom, but a liability. She decided that it was too early for political action, that philosophical reeducation of the country had to come first. Her letters indicate by what series of painful shocks she reached this decision.
Despite her many disappointments, Ayn Rand did not make collective judgments; she did not become malevolent about people as such. To the end, she felt goodwill toward newcomers and gave them the benefit of the doubt—for as long as they could prove they deserved it. When, as an ignorant and confused teenager, I met her for the first time, she answered my philosophical questions urgently, for hours, struggling to help me clarify my thinking. To her, ideas were the decisive power in life, and a functioning intelligence, however confused, was of inestimable value. The same generosity is evident in many of her letters—lengthy letters of philosophical explanation and analysis sent to complete strangers who had written her their ideas or asked a question. When Ayn Rand thought that an intellectual letter was honest and intelligent, her attitude, especially in the early years, was “price no object”; in the name of full clarity, she could be extravagant in pouring out on paper her time, her effort, her concentration, her knowledge.
As to the people whom she knew personally and cared for, the sky was the limit, as you will see (and as I was lucky enough to learn firsthand). To her friends, Ayn Rand gave unwavering support, in every form possible—intellectual, emotional, and material—from all-night philosophical sessions to editorial advice to food packages (for friends stranded in postwar Europe) to an apartment she herself furnished and decorated (for her sister Nora) to immigration assistance (for her old nanny) to gifts of money.
In this respect, too, The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark was made in her image: using character Peter Keating’s words, she was the original example of the “kindest egoist” in history. As the letters reveal, she also knew when to stop being kind. She drew the line according to the principle of justice. She would not give someone the unearned; she would help a friend in need, but she turned away the would-be moochers (as soon as she recognized them).
Because Ayn Rand so consistently practiced the rational principles she preached, she experienced and enjoyed the psychological reward: an unbreached self-esteem. She had no doubts about her own mind or value; she knew exactly who and what she was. Anyone who knew her can testify to this, though she rarely spoke about her virtues; the letters reveal the same quality. Here, for instance, is her answer to a fan in the ‘40s: “You asked me why The Fountainhead is a bestseller. Do you want my sincere answer? Because there are more people of intelligence and good taste in the United States than I expected to find. I don’t think of it as ‘I have lived up to the public.’ I think: ‘The public has lived up to me.’”
The letters are a treasure trove of material in regard to this unique woman, including many further aspects, even down to her attitude toward cats (charmingly expressed in an answer to Cat Fancy magazine in 1966: “You ask: ‘We are assuming that you have an interest in cats, or was your subscription strictly objective?’ My subscription,” Ayn Rand replies, “was strictly objective because I have an interest in cats”).
Besides the portrait of Ayn Rand, this book has other values to offer. Intellectually, the letters are, in essence, an introduction to Objectivism, because of their lengthy discussions of a wide range of philosophical, ethical, and political questions (there are many passages that will be illuminating even to adepts in her ideas).
The letters are also a minicourse in creative writing, because Ayn Rand often gave literary advice and analysis to young writers. And the letters are a study in some depth of the plots and characters of her own novels, especially The Fountainhead, about which there is the most correspondence. Finally, they are a provocative cultural commentary on American life from the ’30s on, with striking insights still germane and resonant decades later.
Dr. Berliner has done an excellent, conscientious job of locating and assembling all the documents. He has organized the abundant materials, culled the best passages, provided an explanatory framework, and, where appropriate, edited with a deft and unobtrusive hand. For all this work, fans of Ayn Rand are in his debt.
Here then is Ayn Rand talking privately—to agents and lawyers, to actors and writers, to relatives and columnists, to friends and antagonists, to industrialists and teenagers and philosophers and priests, to her favorite radio announcer, her “boss” Hal Wallis, her first American employer, Cecil B. DeMille—talking to Frank Lloyd Wright and H. L. Mencken and Alexander Kerensky and her long-lost sister and astronaut Michael Collins and Barry Goldwater and Bennett Cerf and Mickey Spillane and many others, some famous, some obscure, some unknown. These last include a legion of fans bursting with provocative questions from all over the country and the world.
Here is Ayn Rand talking about everything under the sun—and now we have the privilege of listening in. I hope you, too, find it inspiring.