12 Questions for Anne Heller

How did she discover Ayn Rand? What intrigued her enough to write a biography? What challenges did she encounter in her research? Anne Heller answers these and other questions for Atlasphere readers.
Anne-heller

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.”

He goes on to deliver a virtuoso defense of the profit motive, arguing on behalf of ideas I found unsettling, but with an air-tight logic I couldn’t defeat. So, twenty-five years after most of my peers had read Rand’s books, I dived in.

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.

Anne signing a book at her book launch party in New York City

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?

Heller: No.

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.

8 comments from readers  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
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I read Anne's book and thought it was great.

The Fountainhead is also my favorite of all Ayn Rand's books. Anne Heller has done all of us a great service by being truly objective in her summary of Ayn Rand's life. For someone to devote five years to finding out what makes a great woman "tick" is a commentary in itself.

It reveals the mystery that most people who are not familiar with Ayn's work feel when they hear others claiming her greatness or hearing some condemn her. In either event, the woman Ayn Rand still raises intellectual passions to an all time high.
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Reading this book right now. Almost finished, very well written.

Hats off to Mrs. Heller
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Thank you so much for bringing this great interview to me. I am going to the store to buy the book immediately!
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It is evident that Heller, has created an "objective" biography of Rand. I wish more scholars had the same discipline regardless of their individual beliefs.
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I'd like to thank Anne for her very thoughtful writing AND my daughter for buying the book for me :-)
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I think that Ms. Heller handles these questions with an objectivity and rationality that Ayn Rand would have approved of. I have not read her book, but intend to do so.
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Because Heller is not an Objectivist, she is incapable of going to fundamentals in doing a bio on Ayn Rand, other than some sort of journalistic exposition of simple facts without analysis. But even this would be compromised by the *choice* of facts to focus on.

She doesn't understand that you evaluate moral ideas by their relationship to reality, not "evaluating moral ideas by their effects in the lives of those who try to practice them, particularly their creators." The latter, instead, tells you how well those people are *executing* the moral ideals. Heller's approach is utilitarian. Little wonder she mentions Marx.

She doesn't understand that genius is defined by single-minded focus on the facts of reality, taking those facts (inductively) and extrapolating extensively into generalities and conclusions that are true. Karl Marx was *not* one of those people. Marx worked backwards (deductively) from altruistic intent ("social good") without regard for facts, such as the efficacy of the human mind, the hegemony of individuals, the right to non-initiation of force, etc. To compare Marx to Rand belies a gross misunderstanding of fundamentals and genius.

Why didn't Keefner ask Heller *why* she was not an Objectivist? The answer to that question would give some indication of Heller's own dishonesty in relation to reality and enlighten potential readers of her book of the landmines awaiting.

There is only one way America will honor liberty and only one way to honestly approach any aspect of life, including the writing of books, and that is objectivity: Objectivism.

With that in mind, Heller can only reveal some interesting, heretofore unknown, facts about Rand's life, but certainly not "how and why her mind worked the way it did."

I'd rather hear a small child explain the theory of relativity.
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The final question I would have loved to read Anne's answer to is why she didn't end up becoming an objectivist, after all her research and reading, and interest in Ayn Rand in the first place. I'm curious about that.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.