Culture & Ideas 3/9/98

Fighting over Ayn Rand
A radical individualist's followers can't get along


The drama has all the requisite ingredients of a typical Ayn Rand plot line: epic aspirations, forbidden passions, and intractable rivalries that pit fervent purists against pragmatists who call for measured compromise. But 16 years after Rand's death, that scenario springs not from some just discovered scrap of her fiction but from her own complex and paradoxical legacy.

On the one hand, many of the once radical notions Rand spelled out in her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, not to mention in her philosophy of rational self-interest, appear to have achieved mainstream status. Rand's half-century-old calls for minimal government, unfettered individualism, and the "morality of selfishness" have now become commonplace. The most esteemed and powerful former member of her inner circle, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, holds unparalleled sway over global markets. Rand's books still sell a brisk 300,000 copies a year, and in January, 55 years after its publication, The Fountainhead was named the favorite novel of the freshman class at that onetime bastion of countercultural protest, the University of California--Berkeley. Earlier in the decade, when a survey by Reader's Digest and the Library of Congress asked respondents to rate which books had most influenced them, Atlas Shrugged came in second, right after the Bible. Now, nearly half a century after its last major Rand film--King Vidor's 1949 version of The Fountainhead with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal--Hollywood is jumping on the Rand bandwagon: At least two movie projects are in the works, and a new feature-length documentary, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, has just been nominated for an Academy Award.

But ironically, at a time when Rand's influence has never seemed so pervasive, her followers have never been so fractious. In a development Rand herself might have relished, two rival institutes are locked in a bitter philosophical--and public-relations--battle over which more faithfully conveys her message. The story of that rivalry provides a vivid object lesson in the inherent pitfalls of maintaining any large-scale movement committed to the primacy of individualism.

A sanctioned affair. The internecine feud owes its roots, in part, to Rand's own passions. For more than a decade, she conducted a love affair with her closest collaborator, Nathaniel Branden, a disciple 25 years her junior. At 50, Rand had wrested a benediction for that liaison with the 25-year-old Branden, whom she had met as a University of California--Los Angeles student, from their respective spouses--an achievement that might seem remarkable except that it echoes her own story lines. During the years of their affair, Branden codified the principles of her novels into a strict philosophical system that she dubbed objectivism, complete with an institute in his name and a newsletter with 20,000 subscribers. But in 1968, when he backed out of Rand's bed for another woman, an objectivist disciple herself, Rand excommunicated him with a brutal denunciation that left her movement splintered--her most dedicated acolytes on one side, most of the rest drifting into the mushrooming libertarian movement.

For years, their doctrinal squabbles had been confined to diatribes in obscure publications and, more recently, on the Internet's proliferating objectivist Web sites. But last October, that rivalry surfaced publicly when more than 400 Randians gathered in Washington, D.C., to mark the 40th anniversary of Atlas Shrugged at an event organized under the wing of the Cato Institute, the capital's libertarian think tank. Greeted by the spectacle of a real-life bodybuilder hoisting the globe above a spotlighted pair of pecs, the speakers included ABC-TV personality John Stossel, Wall Street Journal editorial writer John Fund, and Nathaniel Branden himself, now a Beverly Hills psychotherapist frequently hailed as the father of the self-esteem movement. But nowhere in evidence was a single representative from the California-based Ayn Rand Institute, the official guardian of Rand's reputation, which had broken with the gala's organizers years earlier.

Meanwhile, the institute had given its blessing to the Oscar-nominated documentary, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, which opened in New York and Los Angeles February 13 and moves to 15 other cities over the next two months. In that sanctioned portrait, Branden merits only the briefest mention, and the film contains scant reference to their affair, which was finally revealed by his ex-wife, Barbara, after Rand's death. In fact, as one condition of access to the institute's archives, the documentary's producer, Michael Paxton, agreed to not even interview the Brandens. "It's ridiculous nonsense," says Barbara Branden. "They're fanatical true believers, and they've rewritten history totally." For her, there is no doubt that the man responsible for banishing them from the official record is her cousin Leonard Peikoff--whom Branden introduced as a gangly 17-year-old pre-med student to Rand's inner circle nearly four decades ago. But Peikoff, who endured to become Rand's legal heir, is unapologetic about ordering their exclusion. "I haven't the slightest interest in supporting those who disseminate falsehoods about Ayn Rand," he says, "any more than I would ask Hitler to appear in a documentary about George Washington."

Barbara Branden, however, is getting another crack at setting the record straight in a forthcoming cable TV movie based upon her confessional 1986 bestseller, The Passion of Ayn Rand. Currently set to air on Showtime this fall, the film of the same name depicts the unlikely romance between the mature Rand, played by Helen Mirren--whose blond Prime Suspect bob has been slicked for the occasion into Rand's trademark brunet blunt cut--and Branden, played by the boyish Eric Stoltz. Now 68 and a consultant to the film, Barbara Branden watched the recent shooting in Toronto and wept over Mirren's uncanny portrayal of the guru Branden claims she still adores. "I'm trying to present Ayn Rand as a human being," she says, "not as a goddess who had to be infallible." Still, she does not hesitate to brand the movement she helped create a cult. "The signs were all there," she says. "People were afraid to ask searching questions because they didn't want their heads taken off. They were becoming little Ayn Rand parrots."

The fierce infighting among Rand's legatees calls to mind the split between Trotskyites and Stalinists that haunted New York's literary left in the 1930s. It is an analogy that would have infuriated the Russian-born Rand, who spent her life crusading against communism. Landing in New York from St. Petersburg in 1926 at the age of 21, with $50 in her pocket and speaking broken English, Alice Rosenbaum re-created herself with a determination worthy of her own fictional heroines. Borrowing a Finnish writer's first name that aptly rhymed with "mine" and a surname from her cherished typewriter, she set out for Hollywood, where she spent nearly two decades working her way from bit-part actress to screenwriter before earning enough to turn full time to novel writing. When she finally published The Fountainhead in 1943, most major reviewers ignored or savaged it, missing her celebration of individualism entirely. To those who became devotees, that reception seemed to confirm the book's thesis--that professional opinionmongers refuse to recognize the work of solitary geniuses. But favorable word of mouth over the next two years turned it into a bestseller that established Rand as a literary force to be reckoned with. By 1962, The Fountainhead had sold half a million hardcover and a million paperback copies.

Craving respect. Although Rand was gratified by that popular success, her true ambition was to win recognition as the author of a distinctly 20th-century--and American--philosophy: objectivism. According to its central precept, man is a rational being who ought to have no truck with religion or mysticism--in particular the spiritual belief that an individual has any "obligation" to his fellows. Instead, each person must reason his way to a set of ethical values that can be "objectively" known and felt. Under that value system, the noblest human purpose is to pursue enlightened self-interest, and only those who follow that course can emerge as true Randian champions like Howard Roark, the architect-hero of The Fountainhead, and John Galt, the iconoclastic inventor of Atlas Shrugged--the visionary artists and entrepreneurs who become the movers and shakers of a nation. If, along the way, they provide jobs and inspiration for the masses, then the masses should be grateful. But they have no responsibility in any form to the common good; Rand scorned altruism, warning it was a kind of sloppy mass-think that could be perverted into communism or fascism.

Snubbed by Buckley. During her lifetime, Rand's ideas never won the high-ground intellectual acceptance that she--unlike Howard Roark or John Galt--avidly craved. Although she became the toast of TV talk shows with Phil Donahue and Tom Snyder, academics derided objectivism as grasping and simplistic, and to this day Rand followers, like Peikoff, have difficulty landing jobs on university faculties. Even among conservatives, Rand received a chilly reception, largely because of her defiant atheism. When she first met the young William F. Buckley, editor of the conservative National Review and a devout Catholic, she shocked him by demanding how such an intelligent thinker could believe in God. Later, Buckley hired Whittaker Chambers to take on Atlas Shrugged. In that scathing critique, Chambers charged that from every page "a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber--go!' "

During the two years before her 1982 death, Rand might have found vindication in the election of Ronald Reagan, whose administration seemed a tribute to many of her ideals. A handful of her followers, such as domestic-policy director Martin Anderson and senior associate counsel Christopher Cox (now a California representative), had won key jobs on his White House staff, and Reagan himself claimed to have been inspired by her. But compromise--inevitable in politics--was anathema to Rand: Denouncing Reagan's alliance with the Christian right and his opposition to abortion, she refused to vote for him and ended up watching the conservative euphoria of the early 1980s from the sidelines.

The Ayn Rand Institute, repository of orthodox objectivism, exists, ironically, in defiance of Rand's expressed wish. After disbanding the Nathaniel Branden Institute in the late '60s, Rand refused to bless any organization promoting her philosophy. But three years after her death, one of her millionaire supporters, Ed Snider, then the majority owner of the Philadelphia Flyers, was shocked by what he considered leftist claptrap that his two sons were learning in college. After an abortive attempt to set up an objectivist course at the University of Pennsylvania, he persuaded Peikoff to start an educational organization, whose funding he guaranteed. "I felt, after she died," Snider says, "that if there wasn't an organized approach, objectivism would simply fade away." Peikoff, fearing a takeover by hostile forces, insisted on total control. Although he has since withdrawn from everyday operations to become chairman emeritus, he retains veto power on every decision. "I was afraid it would attract crackpots," he explains. "We used a variant of the Pepsi-Cola licensing agreement to permit no deviations."

Now based just south of Los Angeles (its Marina Del Rey address is listed in every Rand paperback sold), the institute is housed in a high-rise so undistinguished that it might well have caused Howard Roark--who dynamites a building rather than see its design altered--to reach for a detonator. Still, the setting seems apt for lionizing a novelist who spent her life exalting the triumph of human ingenuity and grit over the obdurate forces of nature: Beyond the windows, sailboats litter the world's largest man-made small-craft harbor. Inside the lobby, where Rand's photos and letters cover the walls, her forbidding steel-hasped desk has pride of place. According to the institute's executive director, Michael Berliner, a 59-year-old former professor of the philosophy of education, the aim of his current $1.8 million budget is nothing less than "to change the intellectual foundations of the culture."

To that end, Berliner ticks off the evidence of Rand's increasing ubiquity. When she died, she had 11 titles in print. Now, she has 15. After releasing Rand's early short stories, her marginalia, her letters, and, most recently, her journals, the institute is overseeing an anthology, tentatively called An Ayn Rand Sampler, scheduled for publication next year.

Is Schwarzenegger available? Meanwhile, up the coast in Hollywood, Tony-award-winning producer Craig Anderson is currently attempting to recruit Titanic director James Cameron to translate the daunting, and didactic, saga of Atlas Shrugged onto film in time for the millennium. In the process, Anderson has found himself fielding calls from dozens of supplicants, including actress Sharon Stone, who have lobbied to work on a classic they claim shaped their lives.

At the Marine Corps' command and staff college in Quantico, Va., James Robbins, an associate professor of diplomatic history, has made an avocation out of tracking media references to Rand, which he claims are up 30 percent in the past year. Some, from antifeminist Camille Paglia, Baltimore Orioles star Brady Anderson, or high-tech tycoon Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, seem entirely predictable. And few would be surprised that Rush Limbaugh has read lengthy chunks of Rand's tirade against altruism in Atlas Shrugged over the airwaves. But who might have suspected that Hillary Rodham Clinton would confess to a long-ago "Ayn Rand phase"?

Rand disciple. The most highly prized Rand acolyte, but also the most furtive, remains Federal Reserve Chairman Greenspan. With the Brandens, Greenspan once ranked as an ardent member of the Saturday-night salons in Rand's New York apartment that she jokingly dubbed "the collective." Invited to Greenspan's swearing-in as the chairman of Gerald Ford's Council of Economic Advisers in 1974, she praised him as a "disciple"--a tag he has never publicly disclaimed. Peikoff scoffs that a true objectivist would never have taken the post Greenspan now holds as the nation's chief banking czar. Still, friends insist that Greenspan never abandoned his Randian ideals and assert that he finally exposed them in a speech last April when he essentially advocated the abolition of his job and similar regulatory interferences with the economy.

But the principal target of the Ayn Rand Institute has always been adolescent readers, who have demonstrated a striking affinity for Rand's books. "Ayn Rand is speaking to what an adolescent is dealing with: Who am I? What does it mean to be independent?" Berliner says. Since 1986, more than 55,000 high school students have been induced to read and opine on Rand's Anthem or The Fountainhead through two institute essay contests offering up to $10,000 in prize money. Berliner's staff has also promoted objectivist clubs at more than 100 college campuses across the country.

Last April the institute set out to raise its profile with an op-ed article by staff writer David Harriman attacking the volunteer summit hosted in Philadelphia by Colin Powell, Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Jimmy Carter. Titled "Selfishness Made America Great," the article compared Clinton's appeal for volunteerism to the call for citizen service once issued by Adolf Hitler. When conservative columnist Arianna Huffington launched a swift counterattack, Berliner knew he had hit upon a cause tailor made for promoting the author who penned The Virtue of Selfishness. Over the Internet, the institute recruited 40 students to show up in Philadelphia brandishing customized placards protesting, "Clinton Wants Your Life" and "Don't Volunteer Me." The ensuing publicity caused contributions to shoot up 30 percent--a development that would have delighted the philosopher queen of capitalism, who was buried beside a 6-foot floral dollar sign.

Now the institute has launched a $66,000 campaign to capture more space on the nation's op-ed pages with equally provocative stands. But not surprisingly, its newfound notoriety has caused dissent. On a crest high above Beverly Hills, in an imposing white, art-deco palazzo that Howard Roark might have approved, Nathaniel Branden laments the institute's targeting the volunteer summit. "It confirms the worst accusations of her enemies," he says. "I'm appalled."

Another Rand acolyte who has become disenchanted with Peikoff and the Ayn Rand Institute is Ed Snider, its onetime sugar daddy, who discreetly cut his ties nearly seven years ago and now helps fund a second objectivist institute in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. For Snider, the final straw came when Peikoff and board chairman Peter Schwartz excommunicated David Kelley, a former Vassar philosophy professor who had read Rand's favorite poem, Rudyard Kipling's "If," at her funeral. In 1989, Kelley committed what Peikoff and Schwartz considered an act of unpardonable deviationism: He spoke at a New York meeting of the Laissez Faire Supper Club, a gathering of libertarians. If any political philosophy would seem to echo Ayn Rand's beliefs, it would be libertarianism, and indeed, according to Robert Poole, president of the movement's Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, he and a majority of his members claim her as their inspiration. But Rand denounced libertarians as anarchists--enemies of reason who wanted not less government but no government at all. She herself believed a minimalist state was necessary to safeguard individual rights through the courts, the police, and the army. With some libertarians calling for decriminalization of drug laws and openly puffing pot, Rand spurned the lot as "hippies of the right."

For the Ayn Rand Institute, Kelley's decision to consort with such apostates was an act of treason. He was attacked in the institute's newsletter, and his writings were expunged from its catalog. In his own pamphlet of reply, Kelley raged that "This is the behavior of religious zealots." In 1990, he founded the rival Institute for Objectivist Studies in Poughkeepsie, where he attracted Snider and other defectors from the Ayn Rand Institute. Last October, as they joined the libertarians at the Cato Institute to fete Atlas Shrugged, the occasion took on the air of a dissident convention.

What would Rand have made of that tribute? According to Peikoff, she would have deplored it. Holed up in his suburban brick ranch house in Irvine, Calif., a maroon convertible with AYN RAND license plates parked in the driveway, Peikoff remains defiantly unrepentant about his break with Kelley and other infidels, no matter what opportunity for Randian hype and hoopla their Washington celebration offered. "I'm an ideological purist," he says, sounding remarkably like a character who has just stepped off Rand's pages. "I'd rather blow up the whole movement than ally myself with this slime."