The Birth of Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand was not born in 1905.

February 2nd of that year would be remembered as her birthday, a day in a year marked by bloody revolution as Russia’s starving masses rose to strike at the Czar and his autocracy.  Change was coming; by 1906 the rebellion was sated, and Czar Nicholas appeased the angry hordes by creating a representative body known as the Duma.  It held little power, but represented a step in the right direction toward empowering the disenfranchised population.  It wasn’t enough.  The seeds that would spawn the Bolshevik revolution and the establishment of the Communist Party and Soviet Union were already sown, their roots already shaping the next uprising.  But on February 2nd, 1905 the citizens of St. Petersburg, Russia’s great, western- inspired city of hope, had more immediate concerns, and held their breath as whispers of massacres and death in the countryside wafted through the streets.  And on this day, one chemist and notable shop owner Fronz Rosenbaum and his wife Anna welcomed their first daughter Alice into the struggling world.

In twenty years, Alice would leave the Soviet Union on a visit to the United States from which she would not return; her itinerary was a visit to a relative in New York City, but her vision was an escape to what she would later call “…the greatest country on earth.  No…the only country.”  She would change her name to protect her family from the backlash her words might engender in her home country, and possibly to distance herself from her Jewish roots.  She would become an infamous name in fiction, her work hallmarked by characters hewn from epistemological granite and delineated into marble slabs of individualism and achievement, defiant of forces that would question their motives or reason, and set within a world drawn in contrasting colors of capitalist and collectivist ideologies clashing like chromatic dragons above disintegrating social landscapes. Her supporters would be legion, and her detractors still greater in number.  Her philosophy would birth a major political party, and her extremist axioms would have her labeled both genius and heretic.  She would die at age 77 of lung cancer.  Even to the end she would be resolute in her defense of the habit that killed her: a cigarette to man was “fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips.”  In 1910, however, she was still young Alice Rosenbaum, a mentally precocious and physically awkward little girl, staring mesmerized out the window of an affluent apartment building at the streetcars, lights and bustling energy of St. Petersburg.

From an early age, Alice’s advanced intelligence was apparent, and one of the few character traits that endeared daughter to mother.  Anna made it a habit to show Alice’s intellect off at parties, a memory Alice would recall amid less savory details; “I never wanted children at all!  I look after you because it’s my duty to do so,” her mother told the children once.  By then Alice had two younger sisters, Natasha and Elena (who went by Nora).  In hindsight Alice expressed no anger or dissatisfaction with her mother for this emotional rejection; it seems that she began early to emotionally detach from such disapprobation.  She also found little in common with her sisters or children of her age, who to her seemed childish and uninteresting.

Her father, however, appears to have been a beacon in her early years.  Fronz was of a vanishing type in Russia at the time; he was a self-made man, having seized a rare opportunity as a Jew to receive a university education.  Upon completing his studies in chemistry, he opened his own successful chemist shop and reached a level of mild affluence.  He was a man of few words and high integrity, a rugged individualist unconcerned with the petty frivolities of station and social standing that occupied his wife’s mind.  Though he wouldn’t engage his daughter in political discussion until her teenage years, when their relationship at last became one of intellectual collaborators, her father became her model for the heroic.  Anna’s materialism is immortalized in incarnations such as Lillian Rearden, a weak and despised character Alice would create to castigate the trappings of the callow soul.  But Fronz’s quiet, powerful spirit would permeate the essence of each of her protagonists as she began writing fiction.

Though to her materialism was a vice, the privilege that came with wealth was never an evil to Alice.  In her early years, the family vacationed in a Crimean resort which held, among other attractions, tennis courts on which the children could play.  Though she was clumsy and disliked physical activity, Alice vividly recalls watching an English girl of twelve years named Daisy on the courts.  Tall and blonde, lean and graceful, the image of the girl was etched into Alice’s mind.  “It was a creature out of a different world, my idea of what a woman should be,” she would later recall.  This model would serve as the template for her female characters in her books, most notably Dagny Taggart, heroine of her masterwork Atlas Shrugged.  It’s of note the contrast between herself and Daisy: one awkward, brown-haired and averse to activity, the other fair and lithe, an athlete in motion.  Alice named her ostensible opposite as the peak in female form, and held to this ideal throughout her writing career.

When it became time to enroll in school, Alice’s anticipation was palpable; the idea of school was exciting for her, as she sought ever greater challenges for her mind to overcome.  She excelled in all subjects, and took particular joy in mathematics.  Her only struggles came socially; one of her earliest memories of the first few days of school was a young girl approaching her, suggesting that they become friends.  Alice very much wanted a friend, but found that for some reason she couldn’t make the connection.  “I felt I had failed her in something she wanted, I had no idea what,” she would recall.  After a week the girl stopped talking to her.  The distance she felt with others her age became a theme that followed her throughout school: she was too serious, or too intense, or too shy to make friends.  She never even approached Daisy, whom she held is such regard, preferring to watch from afar.  So instead she turned her attention to reading and writing.

It was the summer of 1914 when she encountered a story that would prove a great milestone for the young writer.  A lover of mystery and adventure, Alice pored over stacks of illustrated French magazines and uncovered “The Mysterious Valley,” a story about British officers captured by a malevolent Indian raja. Cyrus is the story’s hero, a long-legged, tousle-haired statue of a man, defiant and fearless in the face of his tormentor.   “Cyrus was a personal inspiration,” she said, “a concrete of what…a man should be like.  He was a man of action who was totally self-confident.  He helped me to concretize what I called ‘my kind of man’ – that expression, which I carried thereafter, began with that story. Intelligence, independence, courage.  The heroic man.”  Paired with the traits of her father, the template for her iconic male characters, such as Howard Roark, Hank Rearden, and John Galt, was taking form.

It was in this same year that another unique experience shaped her future fictional worldview.  She traveled abroad to Vienna and then Switzerland for a large portion of a summer.  While in Switzerland, she met a young boy, daring and intelligent, and spent much of the summer with outdoors, playing and skinning her knees.  She had never before known joy from physical activity, and she spoke fondly of it and the boy, even to expressing a desire to see him again.  Her experience crystallized into an idyllic but significant summer spent by a young Dagny Taggart and Franciso D’anconia years later in Atlas Shrugged.

An often lonesome childhood would come to a close in 1916 as revolution shook the Czar’s grip on control again, in a stroke that this time would prove fatal to the monarchy.  Names of Vladamir Lenin and Leon Trotsky began to circulate in gatherings throughout St. Petersburg, now re-christened the more Slavic Petrograd, as the Duma took temporary control of the country.  The forces championing democracy in Petrograd were led by Alexander Kerensky, an impassioned young idealist whose speeches caught the ear and eventually the heart of the young Alice.  “My infatuation with Kerensky had a very important influence on me in one respect,” she observed.  “I decided I could never be in love with an ordinary man…I have to have a hero.”  Though his words and appeals were not enough to stall the Bolshevik juggernaut looming on the fringes, it began a pattern for Alice that would serve as a thread throughout her life and work: accept nothing but the idealistic and heroic in any man.

If Alice’s father and Kerensky were her living monuments to man’s great potential, it was Victor Hugo that served as paragon for her pen.  At this time Anna Rosenbaum, determined to improve her daughter’s French skills, gave Alice Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, and another great milestone in the history of the writer was reached.  Alice had little love for the popular Russian writers at the time; though at the age of twelve her eloquence may have not yet been developed enough to encapsulate this, ultimately she would denounce writers such as Chekov and Tolstoy as naturalists.  To her, naturalism embodied a philosophy edifying the banal, the average, and the dark sides of the human soul, primarily concerned with painting the world as it was, in lackluster shades of gray.  “I cannot stand Tolstoy,” she once wrote, “and reading him was the most boring literary duty I ever had to perform, his philosophy and his sense of life are not merely mistaken, but evil.”  She considered Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina the most evil book in serious literature, attacking it for its condemnation of human happiness and its sacrifice to conformity.  It was instead to the romantic element in writing, to the sense of how man should be, to which she became a disciple.  To her, the essence of and purpose of art – literature, music, architecture, or art of any kind – was to serve as a concretization of the abstract, a way in which man could visualize his potential before achieving it.  In Hugo, she found her first taste of this element in literature.

It was not merely the philosophical ideals evidence in Hugo’s writing that stirred her; she would observe that even then, Cyrus still held the highest station to her with regard to an epistemological sense of life.  It was instead Hugo’s writing style that she found uniquely arresting.  After The Man Who Laughs, she turned to Les Misérables, and a new world was opened to her.  “Les Misérables was the big experience.  Everything about it became important to me, holy…the personal inspiration to me was that I wanted to match the grandeur, the heroic scale, the plot inventiveness, and those elegant dramatic touches.”  It was not toward the dynamic but flawed characters of Jean Valjean or Marius, whom she saw as average, that she gravitated.  It was rather the implacable and singular minded Enjorlas, whose passion for liberty and little else would make an indelible mark on Alice. This steadfast leader of the insurrection  and his valiant death on the battlefield would cement in Alice the image of the ideal protagonist: fearless and unfettered in devotion to her purpose, and unquestionably ready to die for it — unable and unwilling to accept any less than the end that drives her.  With Hugo’s influence, the framework on which she would craft her works was taking form, hardening from clay to stone.

As her views on character and style began to solidify, so did her own guarded assurance of her own values and who she was.  Though cherubic as a young child with bright, dark eyes and a mischievous smile, she was growing into the woman she would become: an awkward and seemingly clumsy physique pared with features that were owlish and striking, but not traditionally attractive.  She recalled a children’s story she read of Catherine the Great, whom was considered a sort of ugly duckling as a child; intelligent, but homely and without grace.  In the story, a fortune teller was summoned to read the futures of the young German nobility.  The seer passed over the more favored children and instead saw the mark of not one, but two crowns on young Catherine’s head.   “I thought that I was exactly like Catherine,” she remembered.  “I didn’t fit into their schemes, and they didn’t know that there was a mark on my forehead – and how I wished that someone would see it.”  The dichotomy between how Alice saw herself physically and how she described the ideal female figure is telling of her sense of inferiority in that regard.  So often misunderstood and without friends, with a sense that she was not pretty or fetching, she became rigidly protective of that with which she was confident: her mind.  With these myriad rejections she faced: from her mother, from girls she couldn’t connect with, from a world prizing beauty she didn’t possess, and a country prejudiced against Jews, she learned to hold fast to her own ideas, those things no one could touch.  Ultimately, to disagree with her was a greater affront than any insult one could levy, and she tended to value only those people with whom she found intellectual kinship.

By the fall of 1918, the Bolshevik forces, called the Red Army, were at constant war with the White Army, the nationalist and anti-communist sect.  Petrograd was collapsing under the weight of the fighting, beleaguered by poverty and deserting soldiers who brought violence and looting into the once pristine city.  Anna decided it was time to move the family away from the danger, and in a scene detailed in Alice’s first novel We the Living, the family boarded a rickety train crammed full of starving citizens, comrades, and soldiers bound for the Crimea, heads doused in kerosene to kill disease-carrying lice, and frightened of an uncertain future.

On the second day of this journey, the train rumbled to an unscheduled stop; the tracks had been destroyed in battle or by bandits and the passengers were forced to abandon the train and continue toward the Crimea on foot.  Alice’s family was able to hire a horse drawn cart to take them toward Odessa, but on the road shots rang out and the cart was ordered to a halt.  Men wearing the ragged uniforms of ex-soldiers surrounded them, held them at gun point and took their supplies and money.  They arrived at their destination without many of their possessions, though Fronz had been wise enough to hide most of their money in the straw of the cart.  This terror was only the beginning of what they would face in the city.

At the time they arrived, the Crimea was still held by the Russian white army.  Fronz was able to open a small shop and earn a meager living; but soon the fighting found its way to them again.  The city changed hands four time in three years, the seat of constant fighting which led to crippling poverty.  Scurvy and slow deterioration became harrowing realities for the families that lived there.  “Finally, we began to starve,” she recalled.  “Food was unobtainable.  At last we ate only millet.”  The family began selling any and all valuables that remained; they kept jewelry and other items as long as they could, frightened that if a change of currency came they would be the only thing with exchange value.  At last it was the Red army that took the city, and as the Bolsheviks won more and more victories, it became clear which side would triumph.

If there was a highlight for Alice in her time in the Crimea, it was in her high school classes.  Her favorite subjects were mathematics and logic, so much like her ostensibly greatest character John Galt, who was a student of engineering and philosophy.  She valued these highly, but encountered another entity at this point that would have at least as much impact on her: The Declaration of Independence.  She took classes on American History and for the first time was made aware of a place which prized the greatest potential in man.  “I saw America as the country of individualism, of strong men, of freedom and important purposes.  I thought: This is the kind of government I approve of.”  It was the beginning of her love affair with the United States and all things associated with the west: capitalism, freedom, and individualism.

School was no bastion from the horrors of war and destitution, however.  One day a dress taken from the house of a murdered industrialist was offered to her class during what was known as a “week of  poverty:” houses were ransacked to redistribute what little remained among the poorer elements of the city.  Soldiers had burst into the Rosenbaum’s residence and many other houses taking whatever surplus they determined the family didn’t need.   The dress that was presented to her class that day belonged to one of her classmates.  “I can’t tell you the horror I felt,” she remembered, as the girl saw her own dress being auctioned off in the wake of her father’s death.  No one wanted it; but one “socially minded” girl spoke up, saying she had a right to it because she was poor.  It’s not difficult to imagine Alice’s contempt for this situation; as would be reflected in her fiction and philosophy, her opinion of those who believe themselves entitled to the property of another were amongst the lowest form of life.  It was in the Crimea when she first felt the hand of the Communist party tightening its grip on the throat of the country; it was here that her hatred of political and social ideologies championing collectivism was born.

When at last the revolution of the White army was put down, and the hammer and sickle raised over the Crimea, order returned.   A new currency was established, and all existing money, the “White” rubles, were declared invalid.  Penniless and weary, the Rosenbaums returned to Petrograd to attempt to rebuild their former life under a new regime.  The city was in no better position economically than when they had left; people were forced to stand in long lines daily for food, using ration cards to received whatever stores were carrying.  The only wealth in the city was in the hands of speculators who ran private shops smuggling in food from the countryside or from back-alley deals with party members.  These men were envied and hated by the people; such a man saw incarnation as Leo in Alice’s novel, We the Living.  Forced into such shady speculation, this sympathetic character becomes a scapegoat for the Communist party, his will and spirit ultimately broken by the forces that drove people to crime in order to survive.

Alice enrolled at this time at the University of Petrograd.  Though fascinated by mathematics and philosophy, she chose history as her major, despite her father’s protestations.  History, she felt, would give her the social and political background she would need as a writer.  At the time, Petrograd was split as a campus, pro-communist vs. anti-communist, but as the Communist Party gained footing among the people, so did the University begin to sanction those opposed to it.    Alice witnessed purges at the university regularly, as undesirable elements and non-conformists were summarily expelled, all trace of the non-proletariat element being expunged.   One prominent anti-communist member of the student council sent to a Siberian prison, and one by one the dissenting voices were silenced.  Though Alice narrowly missed expulsion, the fear that gripped her and other students with parents of once high social standing was omnipresent.

It is around this period of time in her life that she would center the story of Kira Argounova, her alter-ego and the young protagonist of Alice’s first full-length novel We the Living.  Alice called this book the closest thing she would ever write to an autobiography.  The details of the character’s lives were different from her own and those she knew, but she insisted that the conditions she described and the tragedies that befell the characters were in strict accordance with life in the newly formed Soviet Union.  She named Kira for her hero of youth, Cyrus, Kira being the female variant of that name in Russian.  Kira refuses to associate with the communist faction at Petrograd, and their rallying cries for the proletariat, though she suffers for her idealism.  She, along with the character Leo, is expelled in a purge targeting children of bourgeois parents.  The scourge Alice witnessed was designed to permanently eradicate the social influence of the bourgeois, which was essentially anyone who owned a business before the revolution.  Few if any of these people retained any wealth or influence; by this time poverty was ubiquitous.  But this backlash against the bourgeois was as much philosophical as social, and slowly but surely even their children were being systematically marginalized.

This war existed as much outside the university as within; owning a store or factory of any kind was prohibited by the new regime, and those who did had their businesses seized by the government.   Kira’s father sees his factory nationalized; Alice experiences not once, but twice the Communist state taking her father’s chemistry shops.  The last time, the circumstances surrounding the nationalization drove Fronz to the brink.  The economy of the nation struggled greatly under Communist rule, and the government found itself unable to provide properly for even basic human needs.  Because it was unlawful for one man to own a store, the government made provision for groups of men to band and open necessary shops.  Fronz and four other former chemists collaborated together to open what quickly became a successful chemist shop.  The Rosenbaum’s experienced a temporary relief from hunger for a year as the shop flourished, but another wave of nationalization began, and all successful businesses opened under this concession were again seized by the government.  “I won’t work for them,” Fronz told his family, in response to have his store taken again.  “Not now, and not ever.  Not if we all starve.” It is clear that both Kira and Alice struggle watching their fathers, men they hold in the highest regard both as parents and as self-made individualists, suffer and wilt under the oppression of a government that takes from them what it wants when it wants it.

It is, however, deep in the main characters themselves that Alice reveals the most. As many of her letters and notebooks have been preserved and published, her sketches of Leo, and especially Kira, give remarkable insight into her frame of thought at the time.  She describes Kira:

Rather cold and indifferent to everything that does not interest her deeply.  Absolutely proof against all influences.  Always alone and, to most people, aloof.  Disliked by women.  No girlfriends.  No “beaux.”  Indifferent to men.  Dimly conscious of her tremendous sexual power- if she wanted to use it.  Misunderstood.  A strong determination and disdainful pride- and sometimes, beneath it an indefinable, charming, feminine weakness and helplessness – something of the frightened child, which she is to a great extent.

In describing this character, Alice offers both her vision for a heroine, and a candid glimpse into who she was at the time, or wanted to be.  Though her characters seldom show their cards, appearing stoic and without vice or Achilles heel, Alice reveals here that this facade masks a vulnerability that is not immediately apparent for any of her archons.  She has taken the traits and circumstances that have shaped her own life, even the ostensibly negative ones which caused her pain, and galvanized them into a suit of armor worn with unflinching pride.  Leo himself, in his very name, represents one of these painful wounds-turned-shields.

Leo was modeled after a young man Alice knew in her university days; his parents were dead, and the one detail she recounts about him was that he opened his home at one point to two political refugees looking to flee the country.  Much like We the Living’s Leo Kovalensky, who makes an attempt early in the book to smuggle himself and Kira into Europe, she describes him as charming and intelligent, capable and fearless.  And Alice fell desperately in love with him.  It was an unrequited love; though he spoke with her at times, she feared the intensity of her feelings for him ultimately pushed him away.  The effects of that unfulfilled longing left its mark on her.  “When it was over, when he stopped asking to see me, that was the most prolonged period of pain in my life,” she said.  “You see, perhaps it’s not easy to understand when one has only known the freedom of America – Leo was, to me, life in the present, and the only life I had there.  The only human being that mattered to me in a personal way.”  She would later express gratitude that things never worked for them; if he would have loved her, she admitted, she never would have left the Soviet Union for the United States.

Though Alice and Leo were not to be, Kira and Leo fall in love, finding each other as disenfranchised members of an already struggling society.  After their expulsion, they are forced to search for any menial task to earn money for food, though because they were not Communist party members, they were thwarted at most every turn.  As Alice managed to find some work tutoring illiterate Soviet soldiers, so did Kira finally find a small administrative job for bread vouchers.  Leo wouldn’t have it though; it wasn’t enough to slave for scraps, bringing home for Kira just enough to live on.  His pride wouldn’t allow it.  He chooses the risky path of the speculator, working behind closed doors with corrupt Communist officials as the only method to fund a successful shop and rise above impoverishment.  The deception ultimately destroys Leo; once a man of the highest integrity, the nature of his illegal business erodes his happiness, leads him to drink, and ultimately to abandon Kira.

Kira’s recourse is that with nothing further tethering her to the country, she must escape.  It is worth noting that unlike the heroes and heroines of her later works, Kira herself remains unable to act, to effect to world, or to live with any measure of autonomy.  In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, and the United States’ captains of industry, the literal movers of the world, fight the powers that would loot them of their physical and intellectual property.  They wage a war of omission, a strike of the great minds, and they win.  But long before that book, We the Living sees its heroes fail, impotent in a cold, barren country, doomed to a fate worse than death in the hands of a government that crushed its country’s great men and women.  Alice sees no victory for her characters, only despair.  Kira sets her mind to a singular purpose: to free herself of this despair.  But for all her intellect and hope, potential and ability, she is murdered at the border by a common soldier.  Though Alice herself would break free of the Soviet Union’s bonds, Kira, like so many others, is forced to pay the highest price for her attempt.  On an epistemological level, to Alice there is no escape from that philosophical cesspool; where collectivism rules, man dies.

Fated to a different destiny, Alice graduated from the University with the highest honors, grandfathered because of her time in service, and allowed to pass on despite her bourgeois background.  She found employment shortly thereafter as a history lecturer and tour guide at the Peter and Paul Fortress in Petrograd.  It was a job she hated, but she took it for survival, not for enjoyment.  It was while she was employed at this position that the most significant event of her life would occur: a letter came to the Rosenbaum residence from the United States.

The letter came from Sarah Lipski, a cousin to Anna, their family having left Russia some forty years before.  They had lost contact during World War I, when the mail was interrupted during the fighting.  Now, the family huddled around the crisp, white envelope with the return address marked from Chicago, Illinois.  Alice was frozen as her mother read the letter, inquiring of their family’s well being and telling of their own circumstances.  Something overwhelming gripped her as the reality of relatives in the U.S. unfolded.   Thoughts and possibilities flooded her mind; she had heard of people being allowed to visit if they were lucky enough to receive a visa.  As the wisps of fancy she’d grasped at congealed into something solid, she reached.  “Write them mother,” she blurted.  “Write and tell them.  I have to go to America. Ask them to help.  Do it today.  Do it now.  I have to go to America.”  Her insistence was unshakable.  Her mother understood, and she agreed.

The correspondence was slow and inconsistent.  They learned that with the proper paperwork and vouchers, travel to the United State from the Soviet Union was possible, though there seemed no way to predict whom would be allowed to go, and whom would be forced to stay.  Randomness seemed the rule.  Undeterred, Alice went about preparing as if it were already a reality: she began taking English lessons from a friend of the family, and enrolled in a small film school to study screen writing.  American films were slowly making their way into the country, and Alice had fallen in love immediately; though in many films the dialogue was gutted and replaced with communist propaganda, she still glimpsed America through the lens: the skyline of New York, the iconic figures and actors, the glamour.  “My real enthusiasm for America, apart from its political principals, was formed then,” she recalled.  “I saw the essence of what Americans could be and ought to be.”  If she wasn’t already obsessed, that was the final catalyst.  She would need a career in America; film would be that career, she decided.

At last, in the fall of 1925, all the documents were in order, and she would have one final, towering hurdle to clear: the American consulate in Latvia.  Because the U.S. did not recognize the Soviet Union as a nation at that time, she would have to visit the consulate in the neighboring country to receive her visa.  She was warned that only one in a hundred visitors was granted a visa, but planned the trip as though she would never return.  And that was her aim; even if her visa expired, she would find a way: live in Canada and reapply until they let her back, or whatever it took.  “I don’t want to stay here illegally,” she would say.  “Someday I will be famous, and it would be discovered.”  And as she attended her farewell party, she knew that it would be the last she would see of her family.  If there was one regret, one last thing that might have kept her, it was Leo.  He was invited to the party, and he made no gesture for her to stay.   He would not be part of her destiny.

Latvia was bitterly cold in January.  Alice reached the consulate carrying a suitcase, an old Remington-Rand typewriter, three hundred dollars the family had managed by selling their last valuables, and her passport.  She was held up at the consulate and nearly denied; her dossier suggested she was engaged to and American, which meant she planned not to return, and the clerk was going to reject her.  “It’s a mistake!  I’m not engaged to an American.  There’s a young man in Russian whom I intend to marry when I return,” she lied.  He looked again; there had been an error, and he apologized.  She would be allowed to leave for the U.S.

Most of her money vanished as she made her way across Europe and through Paris, and finally booked passage in Le Havre to New York.  The eight day voyage left her weakened as seasickness tormented her, leaving her unable to eat until the final day of the journey.  She was able to reach the top deck to witness the ship pulling into the harbor on the Hudson River.  As she entered her new country, the one of her dreams, she did so with a new name: Ayn, a name she found beautiful, taken from a Dutch poet.

Her time in New York was short; within a week she was traveling again to Chicago to meet the family she didn’t know, whom she would be staying with for her six month visa.  They welcomed their cousin from Russia with open arms, and did their best to introduce her to the city.  But Chicago didn’t interest her.  “I disliked Chicago enormously,” she said.  “I felt like I was not yet in an American city.  And after New York, I felt like I had no right to anything – now it’s life or death, I’ve got to sell something.  I’ve got to establish myself.”  And so she did; she kept her new family up nightly until the early hours with the clacking of her typewriter, desperately struggling with English, which she was still months from feeling comfortable with, writing story after story to sell to the film industry.  Film and writing became her life; she was either at the movies or busy writing one.  Her surrogate family found her kind but odd; her germophobia from living in Russia translated into baths that ran for hours, her insistence that the water wasn’t clean until it had run for quite some time.  She was social, but only when someone did what she wanted.  She was singularly focused on what she wanted.

Ayn’s young cousin Fern was quite taken with their new guest; she sat watching Ayn in awe as she crafted screenplays late into the evenings.  Fern herself, inspired by the owlish foreign girl writing at her table, would take up the pen and begin writing stories of her own.  She later would try unsuccessfully to reach out to her famous cousin to share her work, excited for her feedback.  But when Ayn left for California a few months later,  her cousin was gone much as she came.  “One is simply born into a family.  Therefore it was of no significance,” she once observed.  She was appreciative of the Lipskis nonetheless; “They saved my life,” she said.  But her destiny was pulling her to the west coast where she would encounter her favorite director, the famous Cecil B. Demille, and begin work as a writer for his studio.

Ayn wrote them regularly at first; but soon the letters became fewer and father between.

It felt to them that she had forgotten them.  But Fern regarded her cousin fondly, remembering the few short months Ayn was with them wistfully.  “One day, she was sitting at the typewriter and she called me over,” Fern recalled.  “She said, ‘I’m going to be called Ayn.’  ‘That’s pretty,’ I said.  ‘It’s different.  How do you spell it?’  And she wrote it in her slanty foreign handwriting:    A Y N.  ‘But I need a last name,’ she said.  I want it to begin with an R, because that’s my real initial.  She was writing down different possible names, and then she looked at the typewriter — it was a Remington-Rand — and she said, ‘Ayn Remington . . . No that’s wrong.  I know — Ayn Rand!’  And that’s how she got her name.”  Fern, later Fern Brown by marriage, became a well known children’s book author.  And her cousin became Ayn Rand, a name she chose to reinvent herself and shed her troubled past, and to protect her family in the Soviet Union from the books she would publish — books that championed what she saw as the highest values in man: his autonomy, his reason, and his mind.

Works Consulted:

Ayn Rand: In Her Own Words.  Dir. John Little,  Robert Anderson.  Entertainment One, 2010.

Branden, Barbara.  The Passion of Ayn Rand.  New York: Random House, 1987.

Heller, Anne Conover.  Ayn Rand and the World She Made.  New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2009.

Rand, Ayn and Robert Mayhew.  Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A.  New York : New American Library, 2005.

Rand, Ayn, David Harriman, and Leonard Peikoff.  Journals of Ayn Rand.  New York: Plume, 1999.

Rand, Ayn.  Letters of Ayn Rand.  New York: Dutton, 1995.

Rand, Ayn.  The Romantic Manifesto.  New York: Penguin Putnam, 1971.

Rand, Ayn.  We the Living (75th Anniversary).  New York : New American Library, 2009.


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