I’ve seen some smears of Ayn Rand in my day, but this one reaches interplanetary heights.
The April 1, 2010 issue of Forbes Magazine included a review of Anne C. Heller’s biography Ayn Rand and the World She Made, titled “Booked Bio: Who Is Ayn Rand?” The reviewer, Hannah Elliott, lists many reasons to dislike Rand. Some of them are even true, or at least reported by eyewitnesses. But she manages to give the unsuspecting reader a far darker picture of Rand than Heller intended in her biography.
Elliott writes of Rand that she “believed in UFOs.” No more than those short words does she give us on the subject. So here is the rest of the story.
In the fall of 2007, Anne Heller asked me “Did you know that Rand saw a UFO?” Already we’re down from Elliott’s indefinite number of UFOs to just one, and the epistemology is very different than casual readers might conclude: Rand did not “believe” in UFOs; she merely reported seeing something in the sky that she could not identify.
I predicted to Heller that on her book tour, at every stop there would be some clown asking about that silly UFO story. So far, I have been dead wrong about that — thank goodness. My prediction was prompted, in part, by a TV debate among the dozen-or-so Democratic presidential contenders that fall. Moderator Tim Russert asked Dennis Kucinich about a report that he had spotted a UFO hovering over the home of Shirley MacLaine ... as if there’s anything unusual about that.
The source of Rand’s UFO story is Ruth Beebe Hill, a California friend of Rand’s circa 1950 and later the author of Hanta Yo, a novel about the Dakota Indians. Ruth told Heller that Ayn had pointed out her bedroom window one day and matter-of-factly said, “A UFO came by there last night.” Ayn had seen it at night, above a line of juniper trees across the lawn. It was round and its outer edges were lighted. It made no sound. It hovered, then flew in slow motion. By the time she had awakened Frank, it had moved out of sight.
First of all, remember that Hill is recalling the incident some sixty-five years after it happened. Second, if you see something at night, in the dark, surrounded by rim lights — you may be seeing just the lights, and merely inferring something solid in their midst.
The moral that Heller draws from this story is that Rand,
true to her philosophy, was relying on the evidence of her senses.
My lesson is different. Rand, like myself, was a very literal-minded person. When she first learned the expression “UFO” — if Hill is even correct in recalling that that was the term Rand used — she probably took it to mean what I take it to mean: unidentified flying object.
But my wife often reminds me that other people are not so literal-minded as I am. To most people, “UFO” means only one thing: a spacecraft from another planet, filled with little green men with antennae.
I would guess that to Rand, much as to me, if you see something in the sky and you don’t know what it is, then — to you — it is a UFO. The guy standing next to you may know what it is, and so to him it is not a UFO. People who habitually gaze at the sky see UFOs all the time: pilots, air traffic controllers, birdwatchers, astronomers, meteorologists, Grand Canyon tourists and so on. If they are trained observers, they don’t jump to conclusions about what they saw.
More recently I found a big coffee-table book on the work of Richard Neutra, the architect who designed the house in Chatsworth, at the far northwestern corner of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, where Ayn and Frank lived from 1944 to 1951. He had designed it in 1935 for Marlene Dietrich and Joseph von Sternberg. It was all steel, painted light blue, and was almost as long as a destroyer, and was surrounded by miles of orange and lemon groves; so military pilot trainees used it at that time as a mock bombing and strafing target. I read that and said, “Aha! That would explain Ayn’s UFO!”
If a formation of planes is flying straight at you from fifty miles away, and it is dark, then in the dry, clear, desert air of Southern California, you will see the lights of the planes for a long time, and those lights will not be moving across your field of vision, but holding steady in a formation that will appear to hover over the tree line until they either zoom over your head or veer off to one side and disappear from your window view.
I’m guessing that if Ayn had said she saw the lights come down in front of the line of junipers, Ruth would have remembered that, because since the junipers were only twelve feet high, we would be talking about a landing, not just an aerial sighting.
It would have been great for the sales of Heller’s book if she could reveal an abduction of Ayn Rand by aliens, but alas....
Jonathan Hirschfeld, a Paris sculptor who also happens to be Nathaniel Branden’s nephew, had the wisest comment on the UFO: If Ayn Rand had been abducted by aliens, then we would merely see Objectivism flowering on some other planet.
Live long and prosper. And check your premises.
Frederick Cookinham gives New York City walking tours, available through In Depth Walking Tours — including four on the subject of Ayn Rand and six of Revolutionary War sites. He was interviewed at the Atlasphere in 2005. He is the author of the book The Age of Rand: Imagining an Objectivist Future World and has also written articles for The New Individualist, Nomos, Full Context, and The Pragmatist.