Anne Heller is the author of Ayn Rand and the World She Made, one of the first full-length biographies of Rand written by anyone outside Rand’s own inner circle.
The book was reviewed at the Atlasphere recently by Kurt Keefner and by Hank and Erika Holzer, each of whom concluded the book provides a balanced treatment of its subject — being frank about Rand's virtues as well as her shortcomings.
Heller's own background is as a journalist and editor at such magazines as Esquire, Redbook and Lear's. Ayn Rand and the World She Made is her first book.
For this interview, Atlasphere columnist Kurt Keefner caught up with Ms. Heller to discuss her inspiration for writing the biography, her own views of Ayn Rand and her novels, and what she would like Rand's fans to take away from this new biography.
The Atlasphere: How did you discover Ayn Rand? You didn’t find her novels as a teenager, like many of her fans.
Anne Heller: No, I didn’t read her novels as a teenager. In high school and college I was interested in Nineteenth Century poets and novelists, such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens. I first read Rand eight years ago and was surprised to discover that, in some respects, she too was a kind of Nineteenth Century literary artist: the author of epic tales of moral and social conflict that cast light on the pivotal issues of the day.
I was editing a trial issue of a new financial magazine at Condé Nast Publications in 2002 when a contributor to the magazine sent me a copy of the famous “Money Speech” from Atlas Shrugged. The speech, given by a young copper baron to an assembled crowd of liberal politicians, argues that money, far from being the root of all evil, as the politicians pretend to think, is really “the root of all good” and “the barometer of a society’s virtue.”
TA: What intrigued you so much about Rand that you would spend years writing this book?
Heller: I was fascinated by her fierce drive, her courage, her anger, and her absolute certainty that she was right. What gave her such moral conviction, I wondered. Also, she almost never spoke about the sources of her ideas and her fiction in her own words, and I was intensely interested in that. I didn't believe that the only thinker to whom she owed a philosophic debt was Aristotle, as she sometimes said.
TA: You seem to have put in an enormous amount of research. What were some of your challenges and triumphs?
Heller: It took me a little over five years to write Ayn Rand and the World She Made. At the time, there were only two other books about her life: a memoir by her former protégé, Nathaniel Branden, and a biography-cum-memoir by Nathaniel’s ex-wife, Barbara Branden. Both had based the biographical parts of their books largely on Rand’s own recollections as she recounted them in the 1950s and 1960s.
I thought Rand deserved a full-scale, impartial, investigative biography by someone who hadn’t known her and had no axe to grind. The fact that a woman whose best-selling books have influenced three generations of Americans, including many of our politicians, hadn’t been written about by anyone outside her circle, was a measure of the lack of seriousness with which she was taken by the publishing world. I wanted to change that.
Rand was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia. To learn about her early years, I found a St. Petersburg-based archival research team to search recently- opened Russian government records and files, and I discovered much new information about her family background, upbringing, and education. To take two small examples, I learned that as a child she and Maxim Gorky were briefly neighbors, and that her father became a pharmacist partly so that, as a Jew, he could move to St. Petersburg from his birthplace in the Russian pale of settlement.
To find out more about her early years in the U.S., I interviewed surviving family members, combed through archival records and oral histories of deceased friends and colleagues in New York and Hollywood, and tracked down caches of unpublished letters, taped reminiscences, and biographical interviews in private collections. I also interviewed scores of aging former colleagues, new and old friends and followers, and as many close associates in the last decade of her life as would talk to me. All revealed elements of a brilliant and complicated woman whose most enduring work celebrates moral integrity and political freedom.
TA: What is your general evaluation of Rand’s novels? What’s your favorite and why?
Heller: The Fountainhead is my favorite. I applaud its theme of individual rights and admire its simple, elegant structure and wonderful characters. We the Living strikes me as an amazingly thoughtful, deeply felt, and well-written account of life and death in the stultifying atmosphere of early Soviet society and is immensely valuable. Atlas Shrugged is undoubtedly a masterpiece of thought and integration, albeit one that’s more polemical and contrived than The Fountainhead.
TA: In your book you refer several times to Rand’s Jewishness. Do you think it made a significant difference in her life, even though she didn’t identify with Jewish religion or culture?
Heller: Yes, I do. For one thing, the anti-Semitism she witnessed in her youth helped to shape her worldview. For example, the Jewish entrepreneurs, industrialists, and capitalists of Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century Europe, including the Russia of her childhood, were punished for their virtues by those less gifted, just as her entrepreneurial heroes would be, and her hatred of altruism and “death-worship” were partly tied to her childhood disgust with the Russian Orthodox idolatry of the cross, of suffering, and of sacrificing the “best” to the worst.
TA: How deep into Rand’s ideas do you think one has to go to understand her as a person? She was a philosopher after all.
Heller: I think you have to understand them thoroughly in order to understand anything about her. She devoted her life to ideas.
Furthermore, what is interesting about the woman is her mind; the reason I wrote the book was to find out to my satisfaction how and why her mind worked the way it did.
That said, I think the other side of the coin — evaluating moral ideas by their effects in the lives of those who try to practice them, particularly their creators — is legitimate and even necessary.
TA: Do you believe that to be a genius — assuming you think Rand was one — one pays a price in other areas of life?
Heller: I’m not able to answer this question, since I have written about only one genius. But Paul Johnson provides an interesting if controversial perspective in his book Intellectuals, in which he analyzes the moral ideas of Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy, and other post-enlightenment intellectuals against the backdrop of their personal integrity, relationships, and habits. His premise is that secular intellectuals have taken over from priests and clerics in telling us how to live.
TA: Do you see an overall trajectory to Rand’s life history?
Heller: This is what I see. From childhood, she valued individual freedom above all things. When she became disheartened by Twentieth Century Americans’ willingness to trade liberty for apparent security, she imagined a utopian social order in which personal independence, integrity, and productivity prevail.
She tried to live in that world; rather than compromise with disappointment, in the end she chose to live alone with her ideas. As she wrote to Isabel Paterson in 1948, even if every person in the world other than she herself became a Christian, a socialist, or any other kind of collectivist altruist, she would still believe in the greatness of man.
TA: Is there another creative person, alive or dead, whom you would say shares some important characteristics with Rand?
Heller: A few reviewers have been offended that, in my introduction, I compare her to Charles Dickens. But both — along with Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example — take on mammoth subjects and excel at spotting and skewering cowardice, injustice, and hypocrisy. Given the extent of her ambition and her single-minded devotion to her mission, I’d say she shares qualities with Freud, Newton, and her nemesis Karl Marx.
TA: Are you an Objectivist?
TA: What influence on American culture do you think Rand has had? Do you think she will continue to have it?
Heller: I think she framed the arguments against blind convention, socialism, state coercion, and phony altruism for now and all time.
TA: What would you like Rand’s fans to take away from your book?
Heller: I hope readers of my book will be driven back to her books, with enhanced appreciation.