Irvine, CA: Ayn Rand Institute Press, 2001
153 pp. $19.95 (paperback)
I read Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged at seventeen, and I was intrigued and inspired by its heroes who ran innovative companies and overcame tremendous difficulties to build the kind of world they envisioned. Hungry for more, I read the rest of Rand’s novels and nonfiction in quick succession, and I was disappointed to learn, when I got to We the Living, that Rand had been decidedly against ever writing an autobiography.1 In the nearly two decades since, I’ve come to better grasp Rand’s achievements in literature and philosophy, and like many fans, I’ve consistently been interested in learning more, not just about her ideas, but about who she was as a person.
Thankfully, Leonard Peikoff’s “My Thirty Years with Ayn Rand” helped to paint a fuller picture of her, as did the publication of Rand’s journals and letters. And, as I learned only recently, Rand’s longtime friends Mary Ann and Charles Sures did their part, too, in capturing for history the character of this unique genius. Their Facets of Ayn Rand came to my attention after Mary Ann passed away on September 2, 2020 (Charles died in 2000, after having spent his last weeks devotedly working on the book). This memoir, a series of interviews conducted by Scott McConnell of the Ayn Rand Archives, paints a heartwarming picture of Rand and her beloved husband, Frank O’Connor.
The Sures recount Rand’s benevolence and generous attention to friends and fans, along with her distaste for the showy aspects of celebrity. They discuss her clarity of thought and resultant certainty, along with her righteous indignation at any and all attacks on her values. They speak of Rand’s playful side and her affection for her cats, along with her no-nonsense demeanor while editing contracts. Readers glimpse Rand doing domestic chores—and finishing Atlas Shrugged; having fun with a fan aboard a city bus—and enjoying the graceful atmosphere of the White House; recovering in the hospital after lung surgery—and joyously celebrating friends’ birthdays. Throughout, whether we see Rand playing Scrabble or attending the Metropolitan Opera, her devotion to life-serving values and the ideas that undergird them is evident. Recalling her first meeting with Rand, Mary Ann says,
That night, I learned two things about her that were true of her all the years I knew her: one, she took ideas seriously, and two, it mattered to her that the listener understood her. Her knowledge was vast, her context was broad, but she could explain complex ideas in a manner that could be understood by someone without that knowledge and context. And when you grasped a point, she was pleased and she showed it. . . . Truth mattered to her, not just intellectually, but emotionally. When she discussed ideas, there was an urgency, an exhilaration in her manner. She was concerned with truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That was a rare attitude. (25)
Mary Ann became a member of the ironically named informal group “The Collective,” which met weekly at Rand’s New York City apartment and discussed philosophy, often into the wee hours of the morning. “She spoke from the premise that philosophy is everyone’s business because it affects everyone’s life; it is not [just] some dry, esoteric subject taught by disillusioned professors” (26). In the fall of 1956, working against a deadline for Random House publishing, Rand hired Mary Ann to type parts of Atlas Shrugged. Working long hours at a small table in Rand’s apartment, just steps away from her office, Mary Ann developed a close friendship with Rand and her husband, Frank. She describes “the spiritual atmosphere of the household” as
sheer, unadulterated, never-ending good will—an atmosphere created by both Ayn and Frank. Here were two unpretentious and considerate people. In that home, there were no meta-messages or hidden agendas or speaking between the lines—there was always complete candor. And no tension hanging in the air. It was, truly, a benevolent universe. (36)
Among this memoir’s often amusing tales is one involving one of Rand’s all-time favorite foods, a hand-made fudge that was sold only at Garfinckel’s department store. Rand joked, “I would sell my soul for that fudge!” (125). Once, Mary Ann sent Leonard Peikoff two boxes of it: a pound with his name on it and another with Rand’s.
Well, apparently, he didn’t see the labels. And when he called to thank us, he thanked us for both pounds. But, by the time he called, most of the fudge had been eaten by Leonard and some friends. So, I phoned [Rand] to report the mishap and to say that I would send her another box. She said something like “Do you mean to tell me that he ate both boxes?” She sounded surprised and somewhat indignant. I said, jokingly, “Ayn, it’s not as if he had just challenged the validity of the Law of Identity!” There was a pause, and then she answered, “Well, it’s not that bad. But it’s close.” (127)
Readers also learn about Rand’s favorite movies (Casablanca, Siegfried, and Gambit), TV shows (Perry Mason, The Untouchables, Charlie’s Angels, Dragnet, and Kojak), and music (Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto; Chopin’s “Butterfly” Étude; Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges; “Lensky’s theme” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin; François Thomé’s Simple Aveu; and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, which “was her choice of music for Halley’s theme”).
One of the book’s highlights is the Sures’ discussion of Rand’s certainty.
Some critics have tried to turn her certainty into a desire on her part to be an authority in the bad sense, and they accuse her of being dogmatic, of demanding unquestioning agreement and blind loyalty. They have tried, but none successfully, to make her into the leader of a cult, and followers of her philosophy into cultists who accept without thinking everything she says. This is a most unjust accusation; it’s really perverse. Unquestioning agreement is precisely what Ayn Rand did not want. She wanted you to think independently, not to accept conclusions because she said so, but because you reached them by using your mind in an independent and firsthand manner. She was adamant about it: your conclusions should result from your observations of reality and your thinking, not hers. Now, she could help you along in that process, and, as we all know, she did. But she never wanted you to substitute her mind for yours. (29)
Facets challenges other similarly critical accounts of Rand while providing a window into the spiritual richness of her life. As Peikoff writes in the book’s introduction, “Admirers of Ayn Rand owe a debt of gratitude to the Sures for their dedicated work in putting this compelling material on record” (vi). Pick it up and revel in stories about one of history’s greatest storytellers.
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1. In the foreword, she wrote: “For those readers who have expressed a personal curiosity about me, I want to say that We the Living is as near to an autobiography as I will ever write. It is not an autobiography in the literal, but only in the intellectual, sense. The plot is invented; the background is not. As a writer of the Romantic school, I would never be willing to transcribe a “real life” story, which would amount to evading the most important and most difficult part of creative writing: the construction of a plot. Besides, it would bore me to death.” See We the Living, centennial edition (New York: Signet, 1996), xvii.