Joan Kennedy Taylor: An Appreciation

The late writer and editor was also great mentor and friend.


Joan Kennedy Taylor died last Saturday at the age of 78, ending a life of extraordinary intellectual achievement. Inspired by her parents (her mother was an actress and her father was composer Deems Taylor), she began her career in the theatre. She soon turned to the written word, however, and it was as an editor at Knopf that she saw an unpublished manuscript entitled Atlas Shrugged. She wrote a fan letter to its author, and so began a decade-long association with Ayn Rand's circle. In the late 1960s she launched the libertarian magazine Persuasion, and subsequently became a member of the editorial staffs of Libertarian Review and The Freeman. From the 1980s onward, she increasingly devoted her efforts to advancing an individualist vision of feminism, serving as national coordinator of the Association of Libertarian Feminists and helping to found Feminists for Free Expression. Her prolific writings included the books Reclaiming the Mainstream: Individualist Feminism Rediscovered (1992) and Sexual Harassment: A Non-Adversarial Approach (2001). Charles Murray remembers a mentor and friend:

Many years after our friendship began, I saw a photograph of Joan Kennedy Taylor as a young woman. The shock of recognition was instantaneous. Dagny Taggart. I was looking at the cleanly defined planes, gravity, intensity, and radiant beauty that had been in my mind's eye since I had first read Atlas Shrugged as a teenager.

Joan was not Dagny. She laughed too much, for one thing, and was a devoted mother for another. But otherwise she was a Randian heroine.

Many people visit the world of ideas during their workday. Joan inhabited that world continuously. If she was your houseguest, you had better be prepared to talk about von Mises before the coffee was ready, and then to keep on talking about serious thinkers (embarrassingly many of whom you had never heard of) and about serious ideas for the rest of the day. I count myself as one of the people Joan cared about, but the last time I saw her—our first meeting in more than a year, and we both knew it would be our last—any catching-up had to wait. I had sent her the manuscript of my new book, and as we sat down, her first words—I'm not exaggerating here—after "Hello, so good to see you," were, "Now, in chapter one…" Caring about her friends meant caring about their work. There was nothing impersonal in this. She would get around to asking about the family later and be absorbed in the answers (for years, she sent our children Christmas presents). But ideas came first.

In the battle for liberty, Joan fought in the trenches. She had a public side to her work through her books and her years as a commentator for the Cato Institute's syndicated radio program Byline for ten years. Her book Reclaiming the Mainstream was a superb statement of what feminism should be about. But much of what she accomplished, especially when she was directing publications at the Manhattan Institute and later at the Foundation for Economic Education, was to find others a place to stand—a place from which, with a little luck, they could nudge the world.

I do not know how many places she found for others. I do know that it was her phone call to me in the late summer of 1982, asking if I wanted to make a book out of an article I had written, that led to my book Losing Ground. Bill Hammett, then president of the fledgling Manhattan Institute, scraped up money to let me pay the rent while Joan found a publisher in Basic Books and gave me editorial feedback as she saw chunks of the draft. She never pushed me to come up with the conclusions she preferred; she scrupulously avoided anything that smacked of intellectual pressure. But I will never forget the day I first saw her after she had read the draft chapters of Part IV, the ones that argued for scrapping the welfare state. I cannot remember her exact words. I do remember that her face was glowing and that she said something like "This is what I knew you could do." I also know that no praise has ever meant more to me.

William Dean Howells once said of Mark Twain that, good as Twain's written work might be, Twain's conversation over the dinner table was more brilliant yet. In the same way, Joan's greatest genius was expressed not in her written work, but in the way she lived her life. Joan was a part of Ayn Rand's circle for years. I do not know what specific aspects of Objectivism she retained and which she modified in her own beliefs, but she lived the essence of Rand's concept of happiness as the moral purpose of life, productive achievement as life's noblest activity, and reason as her absolute.

Up to the end. We concluded that last visit by going out to dinner—Joan, her son Michael, my wife Catherine, and me—at a chic Chelsea restaurant. Joan had barely eaten in weeks. She had just gotten out of the hospital, where she had been given nourishment intravenously. But she was looking good in a little black dress, and was still in full conversational flight about the new book as we sat down. When I told the waiter I wanted a martini, straight up, with a twist, the words were barely out of my mouth before Joan said, "I'll have the same." She drank every drop, and followed it up by eating every bite of every course. Joan did not go quietly into that good night. She did not rage against it either. As life's end approached, she worked on a new project and then went out and had a good time. When our hour comes, may all of us who say the right things about the meaning of life affirm them so buoyantly.