She knew how to make an entrance. Her dark hair cut in a severe pageboy, Ayn Rand would sweep into a room with a long black cape, a dollar-sign pin on her lapel and an ever present cigarette in an ivory holder. Melodramatic, yes, but Rand didn't have time to be subtle. She had millions of people to convert to objectivism, her philosophy of radical individualism, limited government and avoidance of altruism and religion. Her adoring followers--some called them a cult--revered her as the high priestess of laissez-faire capitalism until her death in 1982 at age 77.
The bad economy has been good news for Rand's legacy. Her fierce denunciations of government regulation have sent sales of her two best-known novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, soaring. Yet her me-first brand of capitalism has been excoriated for fomenting the recent financial crisis. And her most famous former acolyte--onetime Fed chairman Alan Greenspan--has been blamed for inflating the housing bubble by refusing to intervene in the market.
In the midst of the newly rekindled debate, two excellent biographies have just been published: Ayn Rand and the World She Made, by Anne C. Heller (Doubleday; 592 pages), is a comprehensive study, in novelistic detail, of Rand's personal life, and Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns (Oxford; 369 pages), leans more heavily on Rand's theories and politics.
From her earliest years, Rand was a woman on a mission. Born Alisa Rosenbaum in 1905 to a bourgeois Jewish family in St. Petersburg, Rand was 12 when the Bolshevik Revolution took place. Her family, suddenly poor, was forced to flee, and Rand's hatred of communism and any sort of collectivism would guide her life. Arriving in the U.S. in 1926 with a new name, Ayn (rhymes with fine) made her way to Hollywood, where she had modest success as a screenwriter and married an aspiring actor, Frank O'Connor. Her politicization came when she and her husband worked on Republican Wendell Willkie's losing presidential campaign in 1940. According to Burns, "Before Willkie she had been pro-capitalist yet pessimistic, writing 'The capitalist world is low, unprincipled, and corrupt.' Now she celebrated capitalism as the 'noblest, cleanest and most idealistic system of all.' "
The Fountainhead, an epic novel chronicling the struggles of an architect named Howard Roark against conventional values, was her breakout work. In her race to get the sprawling 700-page book to press, she began taking the amphetamine Benzedrine to fuel her efforts. "Rand used it to power her last months of work on the novel, including several 24-hour sessions correcting page proofs," writes Burns. The book brought Rand financial security and fame.
Among the most enthusiastic readers of Rand's work were small-business owners. Writes Burns: "Although Rand spoke in the coded language of individualism, her business audience immediately sensed the political import of her ideas. Many correctly assumed that her defense of individualism was an implicit argument against expanded government and New Deal reforms." It's the same argument current objectivists have against the government's virtual takeover of the banks and the auto industry. As Burns notes, "Her novels touted anew by Rush Limbaugh, Rand was once more a foundation of the right-wing worldview."