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Ayn Rand | Biography

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Early Life

Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, who would later take the pen name Ayn Rand, was born on February 2, 1905, in St. Petersburg, Russia. She had a comfortable childhood until her father's successful pharmacy was seized during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, forcing the family into exile and poverty in the Crimea, a Russian peninsula on the northern coast of the Black Sea. The revolution, which marked the end of the Russian monarchy and led to the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), would shape Rand's adult views on government and the rights of individuals.

Rand received her college education at state institutions in Russia, graduating from Petrograd State University in 1924 with a focus on history, philosophy, and literature before studying screenwriting at the State Institute for Cinema Arts. After visiting relatives in Chicago in 1926, Rand moved to the United States permanently, heading to Hollywood to pursue screenwriting. A chance interaction with renowned director Cecil B. DeMille provided Rand's entry into the Hollywood film scene.

Literary Life

In 1929 Rand married Frank O'Connor, an actor she met while she was an extra on one of DeMille's films. Two years later she became an American citizen. While working as a screenwriter, Rand completed her first novel, We the Living, which deals with the struggle of the individual against Soviet totalitarianism. Published in 1936, We the Living was not well received by critics or the public. Because it came out before the Cold War—the period of political hostility between the Soviets and the West that lasted from 1945 to 1991—most Americans were not yet strongly opposed to communism or the USSR. Anthem, a novella Rand published in 1938, explores Rand's dystopian vision of a collectivist future. Rand identified personally and morally with the individualism at the heart of American culture, which she found superior to the collectivism that overtook Russia with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Rand's next major work, The Fountainhead, was rejected 12 times before its publication in 1943; like We the Living, it was not met with critical acclaim upon its release. However, the book became a bestseller as word spread among an enthusiastic public, and the book's success brought Rand financial security. The Fountainhead tells the story of Howard Roark, an architect who struggles to realize his innovative vision in the face of traditional norms and expectations.

Rand began sketching Atlas Shrugged in 1945 while she was still working as a screenwriter. After moving to New York City, she began working on the book full time, and it was published in 1957. The novel got some scathing reviews but became an immediate best seller. Rand described it as the definitive treatise on her philosophy of "rational individualism," which she called Objectivism. As Rand noted in her Appendix to Atlas Shrugged, Objectivism is "the concept of man as a heroic being." Man's moral purpose is "his own happiness," his most admirable activity is "productive achievement," and reason is "his only absolute."

Political Life

In 1947, when America was caught up in the anticommunist "red scare" and Senator Joseph McCarthy was leading his famous "witch hunts" to identify communists within and without the U.S. government, Rand testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) regarding the infiltration of communist and anticapitalist ideas into Hollywood. That same year the influential Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals hired Rand to write a guide for filmmakers looking to stop communism's march into the film industry. The group that hired her was composed of such movers and shakers as Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan.

By 1950 a group of intellectuals calling themselves the Collective had formed around Rand, holding regular meetings at her apartment to discuss her philosophy and her literary works. Future Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan was a prominent member of this group. Rand's foremost disciple was Nathan Blumenthal, a young married man who became Rand's longtime lover and heir to her ideas. Rand suggested Blumenthal change his name to Nathaniel Branden, and in 1958 he started the Nathaniel Branden Institute with the goal of disseminating Rand's Objectivism to the public. Atlas Shrugged was Rand's last work of fiction; after its completion she wrote only essays and pieces for her newsletter, The Objectivist Newsletter, which began in 1962.

Throughout her later years, Rand continued to write and publish, and she traveled often to give lectures. She died in New York City on March 6, 1982, of heart failure.

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