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Pages: 368 | ISBN: 978-0-385-52946-4
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A New York Times Notable Book
A Chicago Tribune Favorite Book of the Year
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year

Ayn Rand’s books have attracted three generations of readers, shaped the Libertarian movement, influenced White House economic policies throughout the Reagan years and beyond, and inspired the Tea Party movement. Yet twenty-eight years after her death, readers know very little about her life.
In this seminal biography, Anne C. Heller traces the controversial author’s life from her childhood in Bolshevik Russia to her years as a Hollywood screenwriter, the publication of her blockbuster novels, and the rise and fall of the cult that worshipped her in the 1950s and 1960s. Based on original research in Russia and scores of interviews with Rand’s acquaintances and former acolytes, Ayn Rand and the World She Made is a comprehensive and eye-opening portrait of one of the most significant and improbable figures of the twentieth century.


chapter 1





If a life can have a theme song, and I believe every worthwhile one has, mine is a religion, an obsession, or a mania or all of these expressed in one word: individualism. I was born with that obsession and have never seen and do not know now a cause more worthy, more misunderstood, more seemingly hopeless and more tragically needed. Call it fate or irony, but I was born, of all countries on earth, in the one least suitable for a fanatic of individualism, Russia.

—“Autobiographical, Sketch,” 1936

When the fierce and extraordinary Ayn Rand was fifty-two years old, about to become world famous, and more than thirty years removed from her birthplace in Russia, she summed up the meaning of her elaborate, invented, cerebral world this way: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” It was a world in which no dictator, no deity, and no well-meaning sense of duty would ever take away the moral right of the gifted individual—Ayn Rand—to live according to her own high-wattage lights.

This was not the world she was born into. Ayn Rand was born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, a Russian Jew, on February, 2, 1905, in St. Petersburg, then the capital city of the most anti-Semitic and politically divided nation on the European continent. Later, she would say that she loathed everything Russian, and while this was not entirely true—she retained her appetite for Russian classical music and Russian sweets until the end of her life—she hated the passivity, brutality, and primitive religiosity of the Russia of her youth.

She had good reason for this. Her birth came barely three weeks after the brief but bloody uprising known as the 1905 Revolution, where, on a bright January Sunday morning, twelve thousand of Czar Nicholas II’s cavalrymen opened fire on thirty thousand factory workers, their wives and children, labor organizers, and students who had walked to the Winter Palace to petition for better working conditions and a role in the czar’s all-powerful government. The protest was led by a Russian Orthodox priest named Father Gapon, and many marchers were said to be praying as they died. The slaughter gave rise to days of rioting throughout the city and set the stage for the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, which would end not in the quick and brutal suppression of the rebellion’s leaders, as this one did, but in a revolutionary coup that would shake the world and mold Ayn Rand’s worldview.

Rand’s parents, who in 1905 were thirty-four and twenty-five and had been married for just nine months, could hear the gunfire from the windows of their new apartment above a pharmacy on Zabalkanskii Prospekt—the street on which, later that evening, the popular writer Maxim Gorky would hold a meeting of the city’s liberal intellectuals and announce, “The Russian Revolution has begun.” Rand’s father, born Zelman Wolf Zakharovich Rosenbaum but known outside the family by the non-Jewish variant of his name, Zinovy, was a pharmaceutical chemist and the manager of the shop downstairs. Her mother, a homely but self- consciously stylish woman named Khana Berkovna Kaplan, known as Anna, had been trained as a dentist but had stopped practicing after her marriage and pregnancy.

By the time Ayn Rand was born, Zabalkanskii Prospekt and the streets around it were calm again. It was an illusory calm: all over Russia and the vast Russian territories to the south and east, massive labor strikes, anti-czarist peasant insurrections, and anti-Jewish violence were erupting. This would continue, in waves, until 1914, when World War I briefly united the nation against the Germans, and would grow yet more explosive from 1915 to 1919, when the country was war torn and starving. Meanwhile, Marxist political organizations, their leaders in and out of exile in Siberia and Europe, gained a following.

In these years, it was dangerous to be a Jew. As the economy deteriorated and the czar grew more repressive, the brunt of popular anger often fell upon Russia’s five million Jews. At Czar Nicholas II’s court, as elsewhere in Europe, Jews had long been identified with the supposedly pagan notions of a money economy, urbanization, industrialization, and capitalism. Given traditional Russian fear of modernity and fierce anti-Semitism, Jews were ready-made scapegoats onto whom the czar, the landowners, and the police could easily shift workers’ and peasants’ resentment for their poverty and powerlessness.

For Jews outside the capital city, this period brought the worst anti- Semitic violence since the Middle Ages. In the fall of 1905 alone, when Rand was not quite a year old, there were 690 anti-Jewish pogroms and three thousand Jewish murders. In one pogrom in Odessa, in the Crimea, where Rand and her family would relocate in 1918, eight hundred Jews were killed and one hundred thousand were made homeless. The czar’s police were said to have supplied the largely illiterate Russian Orthodox rioters with arms and vodka.

St. Petersburg was relatively safe from pogroms, which was one reason the Rosenbaums had migrated there. But it had its own complicated forms of official anti-Semitism. By 1914, the statutes circumscribing Jewish activities ran to nearly one thousand pages, and anything that wasn’t explicitly permitted was a crime. For decades, Jews who didn’t possess a trade or profession useful to the czar were barred from St. Petersburg; in most cases, unqualified Jews couldn’t even visit for a night. By law, Jews made up no more than 2 percent of the city’s population, and residency papers had to be renewed each year. Jews often changed their names to avoid detection. They and their homes were subject to police searches at all times. Rand’s father, who was born in the poor and pogrom-ridden Russian Pale of Settlement—a vast checkerboard of Jewish ghettos encompassing much of Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland—went variously by the names Zelman, Zalman, and Zinovy. He seems to have become a pharmacist, at least in part, because this was one of the professions that permitted Jews to enter the city relatively freely. But the laws were fickle and crafted to give the czar maximum flexibility, and arrest and/or exile were a constant danger.

It was in this volatile and often frightening atmosphere that Rand grew up. She was the eldest of three daughters of this upwardly mobile pharmacist and his religiously observant, socially ambitious wife; Anna would later appear in her daughter’s novels as a series of superficial or spiteful characters. When Rand was two and a half, her sister Natasha was born; when she was five, her youngest and favorite sister Eleanora, called Nora, entered the family.

By the time Nora was born, in 1910, Zinovy had advanced to become the manager of a larger, more centrally located pharmacy. The Zabalkanskii drugstore, along with one a few streets away, in which the young chemist had worked before his marriage, were owned by Anna Rosenbaum’s sister, Dobrulia Kaplan, and her husband, Iezekiil Konheim; the new store, called Aleksandrovskaia, belonged to an affluent and professionally distinguished German Lutheran merchant named Aleksandr Klinge. Klinge’s shop faced Znamenskaya Square on the Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s resplendent main thoroughfare, built extra wide by Peter the Great to accommodate his cavalry and canons against the insurrections of the eighteenth century. Zinovy, now newly established among the Jewish bourgeoisie, moved his wife and daughters into a large, comfortable apartment on the second floor, adjoining the pharmacy. Another one of Anna’s sisters and her husband, a prosperous medical doctor named Isaac Guzarchik, settled with their two daughters on the floor above. There the family lived until they fled the starving city for the Crimea in the wake of the October 1917 Revolution.

Intelligent, self-directed, and solitary from an early age, Rand must have been a difficult child to raise in the first decade of the twentieth century. In spite of the era’s violence and turmoil, the ambience was Victorian: the fashions were for frills, family loyalty, and the feminine arts, all of which went utterly against her grain. Some of her earliest memories were of being unreasonably treated in such matters by her mother, who was the dominating personality in the household and even at times “a tyrant.” In one memory, during the family’s move to the Nevsky Prospekt apartment, Rand and her younger sisters were sent to stay with a neighboring aunt and uncle, perhaps the Konheims. When they returned to Rand’s new home, she asked her mother for a midi blouse like the ones she’d seen her cousins wearing. Anna Rosenbaum refused. She didn’t approve of midi blouses or other fashionable garments for children, Rand recalled fifty years later. Anna was serving tea at the time, and—perhaps as an experiment— Rand asked for a cup of tea. Again her mother refused; children didn’t drink tea. Rand refrained from arguing, although even then the budding logician might have won the argument on points. Instead, she asked herself, Why won’t they let me have what I want? and made a resolution: Someday I will have it. She was four and a half or five years old, although all her life she thought that she had been three. The elaborate and controversial philosophical system she went on to create in her forties and fifties was, at its heart, an answer to this question and a memorialization of this project. Its most famous expression was a phrase that became the title of her second nonfiction book, The Virtue of Selfishness, in 1962.

Rand’s first memory is worth describing here. The future author of Atlas Shrugged, a novel whose pulse is set by the rhythms of a great American railroad, recalled sitting at a window by her father’s side, aged two and a half, gazing at Russia’s first electric streetcars lighting the boulevard below. Her father was explaining the way the streetcars worked, she told a friend in 1960, and she was pleased that she could understand his explanation. Although she did not know it then, the American company Westinghouse had built the streetcar line, in a gesture to the city’s workers from the embattled czar. Such seeming coincidences—this one suggesting that even as a young child she showed an affinity for the bright beacon of American capitalism—abound in Rand’s life, and later became the threads from which she and her followers would spin her legend.

While the czar’s regime grew more unpopular, and the Marxist Mensheviks and Bolsheviks competed for the allegiance of the nation’s workers, the Rosenbaums prospered. In 1912, Rand’s father became the co-owner of Klinge’s pharmacy, a thriving business that employed not only Klinge and Zinovi, but also six assistant pharmacists, three apprentices, and a number of clerks. In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Klinge transferred full ownership of the drugstore to Zinovi, presumably because, as the Russian troops advanced against the German army to the west, anyone bearing a German name was even more at risk than a Jew in the streets and government offices of St. Petersburg. As Zinovi’s income grew, he bought the deed to the building that housed both the store and the family apartment. Anna hired a cook, a maid, a nurse for her daughters, and even a Belgian governess to help the three girls improve their French before they entered school, French being the common language of the Russian educated classes. The girls also took music and drawing lessons.

Rand respected her father and strongly disliked her mother, whom, oddly, she called by the Russian variant of her patronymic, Borisovna. From the beginning, she and Anna Rosenbaum did not get along. The daughter viewed her mother as capricious, nagging, and a social climber, and she was painfully convinced that Anna disapproved of her. Anna considered her eldest daughter to be “difficult,” Rand recalled. It’s easy to imagine that she was. Although formal photographs from the time show a beautifully dressed, long-haired little girl with an arresting composure and huge, dark, intelligent eyes, her face is square and her features are slightly pudgy; when animated, they assume the stubborn, hawkish look of her adulthood. She had few friends and little inclination to make new ones, and she was physically inert in an era of passionate belief in physical exercise. Her mother nagged at her to be nicer to her cousins and more outgoing and athletic (“Make motions, Alice, make motions!” Anna would cry) and was exasperated by her penchant for becoming violently enthusiastic about the things she liked—certain European children’s stories and songs, for example—and immovably indifferent, even hostile, to the things she didn’t. But Anna also articulated many of the values that Rand would later become famous for expressing. In a letter from the 1930s, for example, Anna wrote to Rand, “Every man is an architect of his own fortune” and “Every person is the maker of his own happiness.” Anna liked the idea of America and wanted to visit; she even named the family cats after American states and cities.

Anna came from a more privileged background than Zinovy did. She seems to have been born and raised in St. Petersburg, which was a marked advantage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and this gave her an air of sophistication and social polish that her husband lacked. Anna’s father, Rand’s maternal grandfather, was a prosperous St. Petersburg tailor named Berko (or Boris) Itskovitch Kaplan who owned a factory that made military uniforms for the czar’s guards, an occupation that would have afforded the family some protection in times of trouble. Anna’s mother, Rand’s grandmother, named Rozalia Pavlovna Kaplan, was a pharmacist, just as Zinovy and Anna’s sister Dobrulia’s husband were. All lived within a few streets of one another, including the Konheims, the Guzarchiks, and two of Anna’s brothers, Josel and Moisha, called Mikhail. Since many members of Anna’s extended family also lived nearby, and at least a few of Zinovy’s eight brothers and sisters eventually joined him in St. Petersburg, Rand grew up surrounded by a sizable Jewish clan.

Anna was also more broadly, and proudly, educated than her husband was. She read and spoke English, French, and German, and until the Belgian governess arrived she taught Rand and Natasha to read and write in French. Though Rand made good use of these advantages as she grew older, she viewed her mother as hypocritical and shallow, an opinion not entirely borne out by the evidence. She once characterized Anna as an aspiring member of the St. Petersburg intelligentsia whose main interest in life was giving parties, and she suspected that Anna enjoyed books and plays less than she enjoyed the appearance of talking about them at her frequent gatherings of family and friends. Anna subscribed to foreign magazines, including children’s magazines, which Rand read and was strongly influenced by as she began to write her own early stories. Still, until the 1917 Revolution changed everything, Anna seems to have been an artistic social climber (though a remarkably intelligent and resourceful one, as we shall see) who wanted her daughters to rise in the city’s Jewish social hierarchy—a project for which Ayn Rand was particularly unsuited.

From the Hardcover edition.
Anne Conover Heller

About Anne Conover Heller

Anne Conover Heller - Ayn Rand and the World She Made

Photo © Brennan Cavanaugh

Anne C. Heller has written for such publications as Vogue, Mademoiselle, TriQuarterly, and Esquire. She is the former fiction editor of Esquire and Redbook, and a former executive editor at Conde Nast Publications. She lives in Manhattan.



“Splendid. . . . A cleanly and compellingly written biography of one of the strangest, most controversial and most widely read writers of the 20th century.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“A thoughtful, flesh-and-blood portrait of an extremely complicated and self-contradictory woman, coupling this character study with literary analysis and plumbing the quirkier depths of Rand’s prodigious imagination.” —The New York Times

“Heller does a remarkable job with a subject who was almost cripplingly complex—a real woman starring in her own propaganda film.” —New York magazine
“[An] outstanding biography that reveals much about a figure who to this point has been chronicled only by biased disciples.” —Washington Monthly 
“Dramatic and very timely.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Offer[s] ammunition for fans and skeptics alike.” —The Washington Post
“A thoroughly researched, immensely readable portrait of a sui generis thinker who was fiercely committed to her ideals yet whose life contained fascinating contradictions.” —The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy
“The champion of individuality who insisted on obedience and conformity from her followers (including Alan Greenspan), Rand emerges from Heller’s superbly vivid, enlightening, and affecting biography in all her paradoxical power.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Engrossing and unsparing, an excellent introductory course on Rand written with a shrewd eye.” —New York Post
“The exploits of Ayn Rand—the Sarah Palin of philosophical fiction—are made more gripping by Anne Heller’s refusal to treat her subject as a joke and to accept her as the force she remains in politics (tea partiers) and to each successive generation of selfish undergrads.” —Brad Gooch, author of Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor and frequent contributor to The Daily Beast
“A comprehensive study, in novelistic detail, of Rand’s personal life.” —Time

“One imagines that Rand would have approved of much of what Heller has written: the balanced tone of her book, its reasonableness, its respect for what a struggling Russian refugee accomplished and achieved. And yet having finished the biography, one can almost hear the impossible Rand railing against Heller’s failure to award her the place she always believed she deserved in the pantheon of the most glorious, solitary, and self-made literary giants.” —Bookforum
“A thorough recounting of [Rand’s] life and the forces that shaped her philosophy. . . . Fascinating.” —Dallas Morning News
“Provides important and meaningful insight into the evolution of Rand’s world view.” —Newsweek
“[A] work of historical scholarship that seek[s] to illuminate Rand’s complexities rather than simply to support or condemn her.” —Harper’s Magazine
“Heller takes a dispassionate view of Rand and, in this detailed portrait, seeks to reveal her as a whole person rather than the cardboard cutout swathed in legend created by the great lady herself.” —Bookreporter.com
“Skillful. . . . [A] detailed and engaging portrait of Rand’s interior life.” —The New Republic
“The picture of Rand that emerges from Ms. Heller’s book is all the more damning because the biographer is obviously fair-minded and, indeed, something of an admirer of her subject.” —The New Criterion
“Worthwhile and engrossing.” —City-Journal
“[An] excellent biography. . . . A vivid yet objective portrait of this gifted, brilliant, ultimately monstrous author. . . . Brings to life not only Rand but her circle and their milieu, making the book readable if only for its glimpse into a not-so-distant past where serious literature was widely influential, the television new, the railroad a common mode of travel. It’s strangely quaint to read about a world without computers or cell telephones, a world where typists were a must and people wore hats as a matter of course. Even more extraordinary is [Heller’s] rendition of this wildly divided woman, who could create some of our most unique literature yet remain unable to make that most fundamental of connections: unconditional love for another.” —PopMatters.com

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Anne C. Heller’s brilliant biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made.

About the Guide

Ayn Rand and the World She Made maps the intricate connections between Ayn Rand’s complicated personal life and remarkable literary achievements.
Anne C. Heller begins with the events that would shape Rand’s worldview for the rest of her life: the suffering she and her family endured during and after the Russian Revolution. Rand watched in horror as the Communists seized power, redistributed the wealth of the nation, took over her father’s pharmacy, and began a campaign to destroy the middle class, largely made up of Jews. Rand saw firsthand the destruction of the autonomous, free, creative individual under Soviet collectivism. She devoted the rest of her life—in her novels, essays, and speeches—to reasserting the primacy of the individual, disabusing those in the West who had adopted a romanticized view of communism, and singing the praises of laissez-faire capitalism, loudly and unequivocally. 
Heller recounts Rand’s early struggles in the United States, working as a mostly unsuccessful screenwriter in Hollywood, the enormous time and effort she put into writing her novels, and her unquenchable thirst for fame and critical adulation. She explores in intimate detail Rand’s often stormy friendships, her rather passionless marriage to the actor Frank O’Connor, her long-running affair with a much younger Nathaniel Branden, the enormous popularity of her novels, and the critical disdain they generated.
But most arresting in Heller’s account are the stunning contradictions between Rand’s strident ideals and the messy realities of her personal life. Rand championed individual freedom, and yet as her fame grew and a cult formed around her, she demanded absolute conformity from her followers and instituted humiliating, Stalinist mock trials in which members were summarily cast out. Her ideal man was arrogant, sexually dominant, and a tower of intellectual and creative power, and yet she married a middling actor who was sexually passive, emotionally detached, and not particularly gifted intellectually or creatively. She prized honesty and yet kept her sixteen-year affair secret from her many followers in the Objectivist movement she and Branden had started.
This biography examines the widespread influence of Rand’s ideas, and their role in shaping libertarian ideology and providing intellectual underpinning for modern conservatism. (One of her inner circle, Alan Greenspan, would go on to become chairman of the Federal Reserve.) Heller also shows just what makes Rand’s novels so compelling for so many readers—the narrative drive, the sweeping intellectual scope, the moral seriousness and sexual intensity that would prove an irresistible combination for millions of readers.
A sympathetic portrait that nevertheless casts a sharp light on Rand’s narcissism, explosive temper, and rigid ideology, Heller’s biography brings a new depth and complexity to our understanding of one of the twentieth century’s most popular and controversial writers.

About the Author

 Anne C. Heller is a magazine editor and journalist. She has been the managing editor of The Antioch Review, a fiction editor of Esquire and Redbook, the features editor of Lear's, and the executive editor of the magazine development group at Condé Nast Publications, with a special emphasis on money and finance. It was Ayn Rand's writing about money that first aroused her interest in the author, who is one of the most passionate defenders of capitalism of all time. Heller has written for a number of national magazines.

Discussion Guides

1. What are the most important insights and surprising revelations in Ayn Rand and the World She Made?

2. In what ways does Heller’s biography deepen our understanding of Rand’s major works? What are the most important connections between Rand’s personal life and her writing that emerge from the biography?

3. What are Ayn Rand’s most admirable qualities? What aspects of her temperament and behavior are most difficult?

4. In the “About the Author” section of Atlas Shrugged, which Heller uses as an epigraph to chapter thirteen, Rand writes, “My personal life is a postscript to my novels. It consists of the sentence: ‘And I mean it.’ I have always lived by the philosophy I present in my books—it has worked for me, as it has worked for my characters. The concretes differ, the abstractions are the same” (p. 291). In what ways did Rand live by—or fail to live by—the philosophy she presents in her books? To what extent did it work for her?

5. Why were Rand’s novels so beloved by millions of readers and so often reviled by reviewers? How did Rand react to both the adulation of her readers and the scorn of her critics?

6. In what ways do Rand’s ideas show up in today’s political and ideological debates? What prominent contemporary figures are still guided by Rand’s philosophy?

7. In Atlas Shrugged, Francisco says to Dagny, “Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of [your premises] is wrong” (p. 193). Was Rand herself free from contradictions? In what instances does her behavior seem to contradict her philosophical premises?

8. Heller quotes an old friend of Rand’s who said, “She could be immensely empathetic if she saw things in you that were like her. But if she didn’t see herself in some aspect of you, she didn’t empathize at all. You weren’t real to her” (p. 337). This is almost a clinical definition of narcissism. Was Rand a narcissist? On what occasions does she exhibit a striking lack of empathy?

9. On what grounds did Rand argue that altruism and empathy were misguided and actually harmful rather than helpful? Are her arguments convincing? What aspects of her personal history contributed to her belief that selfishness was a virtue?

10. Rand preached the absolute value of individual freedom and yet she demanded total intellectual conformity from her followers. How can this discrepancy best be explained?

11. How might Rand view the current political situation in America? What would she think of the Obama presidency?

12. What are the most troubling aspects of Rand’s relationship with Nathaniel Branden? Why did so many of Rand’s friendships end so explosively?

13. Rand’s ideal man was Howard Roark, the protagonist of The Fountainhead—morally and creatively uncompromising, sexually dominant, and intellectually superior. Why would she have married Frank O’Connor, who seemed to possess none of these qualities?

14. What effect is Ayn Rand and the World She Made likely to have on Rand’s legacy and on how her work is regarded?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

Suggested Readings

Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand; Nathaniel Branden, My Years with Ayn Rand; Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia; Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra; Tara Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist

  • Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller
  • October 19, 2010
  • Biography & Autobiography - Literary
  • Anchor
  • $18.00
  • 9781400078936

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