Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged at Me


On a recent flight to Boston to research a magazine article on Ayn Rand, I had a daydream: Miss Rand, who is to make her sole public speech of the year at the Ford Hall Forum, is deboarding her bus from New York. I am waiting for her at the bus terminal. With confidence (the dream continues), I belly my way up to her and say, "Miss Rand, I'm the writer from Chicago who was refused an interview with you, and I have some questions to ask." Stunned, Miss Rand smiles at my brashness and says yes, she would love to talk to me, and invites me to share her cab.

My questions are good, a fact Miss Rand recognizes, and we have a warm revealing discussion in which philosophical points are clarified and heretofore unreported tidbits of information are passed on for my exclusive use. Too quickly, we arrive at the hotel. I cannot thank her enough. As I step from the cab, I hear Miss Rand call to me sharply, "Wait a minute! What about your share of the fare?"

Of course, a pipe dream is always the delusion of a desperate man. Miss Rand has been my hero since I was 16 years old, when I read (but comprehended little of) ATLAS SHRUGGED. Eventually I devoured all of Miss Rand's novels: THE FOUNTAINHEAD (a nontechnical introduction to Miss Rand's philosophy of Objectivism); ANTHEM (a search for the word "I"); WE THE LIVING (her first novel); and three collections of essays—FOR THE NEW INTELLECTUAL, THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS, and CAPITALISM: THE UNKNOWN IDEAL. I subscribed to THE OBJECTIVIST, the journal which she founded, contributes to, and edits; and I even came to an understanding of Objectivism, the tenets of which I can now recite: reality is an objective absolute; reason is man's means of perceiving it and his only means of survival; individual men should live for their own sakes; laissez faire capitalism is the only political-economic system that corresponds to man's nature.

In short, I was hooked. Still am. This trip represented the closest I might ever come to meeting the woman who so influenced my life. I thought of the experience of Nora Ephron, the free lance writer assigned by the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW to analyze the appeal of THE FOUNTAINHEAD—then in its 25th year and 2.5 millionth copy. Refused an interview, Miss Ephron based the article on her schoolgirl disillusionment with FOUNTAINHEAD and subsequent rejection of Miss Rand's philosophy. In a trivial conclusion that has become standard for such pieces ("Objectivists occasionally smoke cigarettes with dollar signs on them" and "Miss Rand is said to wear a gold dollar-sign brooch" are examples), Miss Ephron writes:

One would have liked to ask Miss Rand about that brooch, but she does not give interviews to non-sympathizers. One would have liked to ask a number of other questions: how she feels about THE FOUNTAINHEAD's continuing success, how she reacts when she thinks of the people in publishing who said it would never sell, what she does when she opens her royalty checks. Presumably, Ayn Rand laughs.

I tried a different tack—a number of them actually—and hoped that one would succeed. Miss Rand's only mailing address is 201 East 34th Street, headquarters of THE OBJECTIVIST. In a two-page letter to Miss Rand, I requested a personal interview, listed my qualifications, indicated my familiarity with Objectivism, and posited three lines of questioning I wished to pursue.

"Is your analysis of male/female roles at variance with some Objectivist principles," I wrote, "particularly your reference to 'woman qua woman' and your statement that 'the essence of femininity is hero-worship' in 'An Answer to Readers (About a Woman President),' from the December 1968 issue of THE OBJECTIVIST?"

(In an interview published in the March 1964 issue of PLAYBOY magazine, Miss Rand says: "I believe that women are human beings. What is proper for a man is proper for a woman. The basic principles are the same." In 1968, she wrote that no rational woman would want to be President.)

I continued, "I would like you to explain your concluding paragraph in your essay 'Apollo 11' (September 1969, THE OBJECTIVIST) which reads (in part):

If the United States is to commit suicide, let it not be for the sake and support of the worst human elements, the parasites-on-principle, at home and abroad. Let it not be its only epitaph that it died paying its enemies for its own destruction. Let some of its lifeblood go to the support of achievement and the progress of science. The American flag on the moon—or on Mars, or on Jupiter—will, at least, be a worthy monument to what had once been a great country.

How does this jibe with your statement in the essay 'Collectivized Ethics' in THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS:

Science is a value only because it expands, enriches and protects man's life…A 'progress' extended into infinity, which brings no benefit to anyone, is a monstrous absurdity. And so is the 'conquest of space' by some men, when and if it is accomplished by expropriating the labor of other men who are left without means to acquire a pair of shoes.?"

Finally, "I would also like to question your endorsement of Richard Nixon for President and your seeming support for his administration…" On all answers, I promised a fair treatment and no hatchet job.

Miss Rand's answer—or rather her secretary's answer—was cryptic, no-nonsense, and standard:

Miss Rand has asked me to acknowledge your letter of October 15. Except in very special circumstances, it is Miss Rand's policy not to grant interviews.

There was one chance left. I had also requested an interview with Judge Reuben Lurie, long-time moderator of the Forum and associate justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court. This was not only to accumulate background on Miss Rand but to enlist the judge's aid in arranging a meeting with her. His answer was encouraging:

I was greatly interested by your description of your projected article about Miss Ayn Rand. There can be no question about the size of the audiences which, in the past ten years, have come to Ford Hall Forum to hear Miss Rand…It is true that people have come to the Forum from very great distances to hear Miss Rand. I am not sure as to what I can tell you but it would give me great pleasure to meet and to talk.

I arrived in Boston on the Saturday before the speech and spent that night rereading articles about Miss Rand and passages from her books. The clippings revealed a general animosity which spreads across the political spectrum. Even the analogies are similar. "Such manifestos as Ayn Rand's, however, reveal not only their neurotic motives but also their intellectual poverty," writes Peter Michelsen in a NEW REPUBLIC review of THE ROMANTIC MANIFESTO, one of Miss Rand's later books. Michelsen writes that Ayn Rand's heroes show "how precariously close we are to the Ubermensch as an ethical ideal." Moving to the right, there is Whittaker Chambers' classic conservative attack on ATLAS SHRUGGED in NATIONAL REVIEW:

From almost any page of ATLAS SHRUGGED a voice can be heard from painful necessity, commanding: "To the gas chamber—go!"

(One almost forgets that Miss Rand is a native Russian, not German…)

What redeemed the evening were the passages from Miss Rand's novels and from John Galt's speech in particular. Galt is the hero of SHRUGGED, and the climax of the book is a 57-page speech to the nation in which Galt sums up in one philosophical framework all the particulars on the preceding pages.

Whoever you are—you who are alone with my words in this moment, with nothing but your honesty to help you understand—the choice is still open to be a human being, but the price is to start from scratch, to stand naked in the face of reality and, reversing a costly historical error, to declare: "I am, therefore I'll think."

(Daydream: Miss Rand had been speaking to me for an hour in the privacy of her hotel room; she has been eloquent and illuminating. My eyes are transfixed on this anomaly—a voice and figure of rationality in the midst of an unthinking horde. There is a pause, and it is my turn to interject. "Miss Rand," I say, "the person who complains about the way the ball bounces is usually the one who dropped it." "Interesting," she says, jotting in her notebook.)

One wonders what Galt would have said about the Ford Hall Forum, in light of his (and Miss Rand's) atheism. Ford Hall—which no longer exists—was originally built in the early 1900s as a place for Christian businessmen and their employees to meet and settle grievances. David Sharp Ford, a Boston businessman who provided the original grant for the hall, wanted to offset the belief that Christianity and capitalism were incompatible (they are, says Miss Rand) and to encourage an acceptance of Jesus' teachings ("torture," says Rand). When the hall remained unused, George Coleman, late mayor of Boston and president of the Baptist Social Union, pleaded for a change: turn the building into a forum for various, provocative speakers, he argued. After a struggle, he won. The Forum is the oldest such institution in the United States, now 64 years old. During its time, it has been a platform for Louis Brandeis, Lincoln Steffens, Sidney Hillman, William DuBois, Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, and Robert Welsh.

All this I learn from Judge Lurie on the following day. The meeting with him goes smoothly. Lurie, I discover, has been moderator of the Forum for 30 years and an officer for 50. He is diminutive, slight, and baldish, and he talks slowly as he plods about his very colonial home in Brookline, a suburb of Boston. While making a point, he picks up books for reference—all of which are stacked neatly along the many shelves on the wall. His breathing is encumbered, and saliva forms at the corners of his mouth while he talks, but he is not doddering. Here is an old man of reason.

Yet, at least when talking about Ayn Rand, he is also a man of caution. None of the reportorial tricks—for example, rephrasing questions—will break down the judge's resistance. After listening to a history of the Forum, I try to lead him around to his impressions of or conversations with Miss Rand. Why does she patronize the Forum? What does she do or talk about before her speeches? What is her husband like? Lurie is guarded. He, too, is intrigued by Miss Rand, and he is also trepidatious. "I've always wanted to ask her what she would have done about thalidomide," he says wistfully. Lurie has been personally invited to visit Miss Rand in New York. And, although he has traveled there since, he does not call on her. He will reveal nothing about Miss Rand except one incident: Months earlier, when Miss Rand had somehow discovered that the Forum's long-time secretary had been hospitalized, she sent a "magnificent" bouquet of flowers to the hospital room. "You can talk all you want against altruism, but there is a warm heart there," Lurie says.

The rest of the conversation is not helpful. The judge is careful and declines to answer many questions, although in the meantime we strike up a friendship. With nothing to lose, I half-joked, "Are you this cautious about all your speakers or is there something about Miss Rand that makes you more cautious?" Lurie is unruffled. No, he says, he is judiciously impartial about all the Forum's speakers. Then, without my asking the judge throws me a lifeline: he promises to introduce me to Miss Rand before her speech, provided I arrive at the lecture hall early enough. "You can ask her your questions there," he says. All is not lost.

By 7 p.m., one hour before the speech, there are three lines at the Forum entrance, each extending about one-half block. There is much confusion and noise. The lines began forming at 3 p.m., and Forum officials have had to tell hundreds to go home because of the sellout crowd. I meet Judge Lurie in the lobby (he is obviously excited by the turnout) and he leads me to the "Green Room." This is a room one floor above and to the right of the stage. It is the waiting and autograph-signing area for all speakers. Here Robert Frost used to sit alone, glaring at anyone who dared disturb his pre-speech concentration. And here Max Lerner, for many years a regular speaker at the Forum, would glance at his manuscript—which consisted of one sentence per page. The room is now empty. "I will bring Miss Rand back here," Lurie says matter-of-factly. "I will introduce you, and the rest is up to her." Wouldn't he prefer that I wait someplace else until he secures Miss Rand's approval for such a tete-a-tete, I ask nervously? No, he says, not necessary. He leaves, and I am alone.

Will it work? My immediate concern is keeping occupied until they arrive. I scribble notes on possible questions, I look for interesting items in the room, (a wall mirror, two chairs, one table). Several times, I hear voices—all invariably female—sounding with Russian accents. I daydream—Lurie: "Miss Rand, this is Mr. Chase." I, barely audibly: "Uh, hello." Miss Rand: "Vaht?" Finally, after what seems like an interminable wait but must have been only minutes, I hear Lurie's voice, Ayn Rand's voice (I think), then Lurie; they enter the room, and I stand to face her.

Miss Rand is not an imposing figure. Unlike her heroes, she is neither tall nor gaunt. Unlike John Galt, her archetypical hero, the shape of her mouth is not pride, nor is it "pride in being proud." I saw no looks of "serene determination and of certainty," nor any of "ruthless innocence which would not seek forgiveness or grant it." What transpired in the following minutes was quite un-Galtlike.

"Miss Rand," Lurie says, "I want you to meet a young man who has traveled all the way from Chicago to see you." I smile and may have said "hello." Short, bespeckled, unsmiling, Miss Rand looks at me with a perturbed glare. Quickly, she looks to her left (for others?) and moves to the wall mirror. She finally talks, all the while adjusting her hair.

"You are not the one who wrote me earlier?" she asks.


"I thought we answered you," she says sternly, hand still adjusting hair (later, in answer to an unrelated question from the audience, she would say that her hairdresser had failed to keep her hair in place).

An opening. "You did," I say, "but Judge Lurie said you might be willing to answer some questions before your speech." (A thought: maybe I am shifting blame…)

"No, no," she says, looking down at her papers, "I've been through this too many times."

Please, I hear my mind shouting, not this close—and then to fail…

But what can I do? Picking up my notebook, I mumble, "All right," and start for the door. Lurie motions to guide me out, and then it happens.

Suddenly, Miss Rand is talking to me. "In answer to your questions, read them in context!" she orders.

I stare at her. She remembered! "There is no inconsistency," she says. My thoughts are racing. I know what she means, but there are more important questions, and this may be my only chance. I hear myself saying, "What about your statement that the essence of femininity is hero-worship? On what do you base this?" "On the rape scene in THE FOUNTAINHEAD," she says quickly. "If you will read the passages in context, you will see." I smile and promise to read the passage, and Miss Rand turns away. The interview (?) is over. Lurie motions to me, then he leads me out. "I'm sorry, but we tried," he says.

And that was it. Actually, I have reason to believe that Lurie tried even harder than that. Miss Rand's speech—called "The Anti-Industrial Revolution"—was a dismissal of ecology and contained all the standard Randisms, e.g., "Anyone over 30, give a silent thank-you to the nearest, grimiest, sootiest smokestack you can find." She came out foursquare for technology and against statism, questioning even the motives of those who disagree ("If concern with poverty and human suffering were the collectivists' motive, they would have become champions of capitalism long ago."). Following the question-and-answer period, Judge Lurie did something that I believe was motivated by sympathy for a disheartened writer, namely me. On stage, he asked Miss Rand if she would mind explaining why she speaks at the Forum every year and nowhere else. Miss Rand said that the Forum is "the only intellectual organization of its kind in the whole country." Privately, I thanked the judge and used the answer in my story. It alleviated the grief, but not by much.

There have since been some consolations. I later learned that Miss Rand's ideas are having an impact, the evidence being a growing student "libertarian" movement in which Miss Rand is designated the "key philosopher." In addition, I did write a pretty good article on Miss Rand. I did see her and speak to her, and not too many writers can say that (I suspect very few want to). She still remains an island of integrity in an ocean of mush. And, after all, at least her snubbing of me was consistent. I realized this on the flight home. Leafing through a copy of ATLAS SHRUGGED, I suddenly remembered the passage that made the whole incident clear. I quickly turned to the key dialogue. Yes, I thought, rereading it, that is it, that is it exactly:

"If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling, but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders—what would you tell him to do?"

"I…don't know. What…could he do? What would you tell him?"

"To shrug."