THE PASSION OF AYN RAND: A BIOGRAPHY by Barbara Branden (Doubleday: $19.95; 442 pp.)

"While most eighteen-year-olds were groping helplessly in the world of ideas, seeking intellectual moorings it might take them years to find, the small, ferociously intense young Alice Rosenbaum was engaged in a determined effort to name, to prove, to systematize and integrate the separate philosophical ideas she had been grappling with since the beginning of adolescence. When formed, those ideas were never to alter in any of their essentials; they would be honed and clarified and expanded; but what she believed at eighteen, she believed undeviatingly, without a backward glance or hesitation or doubt, for the rest of her life. In later years, she would say: "I have held the same philosophy I now hold, for as far back as I can remember. I have learned a great deal through the years and expanded my knowledge of details, of specific issues, of definitions, of applications--and I intend to continue expanding it--but I have never had to change any of my fundamentals. My philosophy, in esssence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

--"The Passion of Ayn Rand"

Ayn Rand's real name was Alice Rosenbaum; she was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905, enough before the revolution to retain idealized memories of czarist times. A wildly rebellious child, she grew up equally contemptuous of what she thought of as the "hazy mysticism" of the great Russian novelists, the grim vision of communism (which she perceived as catering to the lowest common denominator in human society), and overwhelmingly scornful of every member of her own sex: "I regarded men as a superior value." All these strong opinions, coupled with a strong attraction for certain kinds of trashy fiction, left her with the makings of her own, handmade philosophy--a system of thought which bulged out from the polarities of Christianity/atheism or capitalism/communism, and defined a third point that was neither and none of these former.

She was a plain, stubby little intellectual in Communist Russia who idolized skyscrapers and Gary Cooper, who detested altruism and religion, and didn't like her relatives either. She plotted and schemed to come to America and then made her way to Hollywood; she met Cecil B. DeMille and found a man who looked just like Gary Cooper to marry her. She changed her name to Ayn (rhyming with mine), and took as a last name, her typewriter's moniker--Rand.

Rand would write "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged." She would invent an entire school of philosophy called objectivism. Her novels would sell into the millions, and thousands of young people would join Ayn Rand clubs on college campuses all across the nation. While the academic establishment would scorn her, her influence would defy that establishment and, in a sense, surpass it. Her biographer, in the last 20 or so pages of this book, lists all the Americans in very high places who owe their accomplishments to an early reading of Rand's novels and an allegiance to her system of thought.

Who is Rand's biographer? Barbara Branden, first wife of Nathaniel Branden, whose Nathaniel Branden Institute (or NBI) was for years the non-literary conduit of Rand's ideas into the mainstream of American thought. It is because of these connections that "The Passion of Ayn Rand" changes on Page 256 from a carefully researched, thoughtfully written, very interesting biography into a piece of work that you cannot put down for the next 200 pages--the kind of work that holds you with a horrid fascination, makes you snicker out loud, and wake up the person sleeping next to you in the dead of night. Because the story of Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden (born Nathan Blumenthal) and all his wives and ladyfriends, including Rand herself, is guaranteed to make 99% of the readers of this bizarre volume pat themselves on the back and issue themselves Hero Medals for Clean Living. Those who have been taught that stability is necessary for a productive artistic or financial life may have another think coming after reading this volume. For close to 20 years, Rand and her husband and Nathaniel and Barbara, and another young lady, raised emotional instability to the level of inspired farce and far, far beyond.

Barbara Branden keeps an iron grip on her prose style and her material. She mentions once or twice that Rand had no sense of humor, and Branden herself deals with these events with respect and solemnity. (More than that, Branden's research on the early literary works and the two major novels is solid and reasonable.) The author--a mark of her truly iron character--never allows herself to editorialize on the lunacy of Rand's and Nathaniel Branden's behavior. She says only that for years, she was sworn to secrecy, but that by now, she doesn't consider herself bound by that vow.

The simplified version of the story is this. In 1950, Branden and his then-fiancee, Barbara, were undergraduates at UCLA. They finagled a series of visits to the brilliant author of "The Fountainhead" who, at that time, lived with her decent, passive husband in the San Fernando Valley. Rand took the young couple on as proteges. When she and her husband moved to New York, Barbara and Nathan followed. And about a year into Barbara and Nathan's marriage (according to Barbara), Nathan and Ayn fell in love, told their respective spouses, and demanded one afternoon and evening a week to spend alone together to pursue their romance. No matter that Ayn had been married to her husband Frank for more than 20 years; no matter that Barbara Branden was blond and lovely and far more beautiful than Ayn; no matter that Ayn was 25 years older than Nathaniel. What Ayn wanted, she got.

Except it had to be a secret. And Rand's husband had to leave when Nathaniel came over to the house. And through all this, the Nathaniel Branden Institute was beginning to thrive--and its charter members spent a great deal of time quizzing each other on "immoral" behavior, but generally that meant a sneaking love of janitors and other aberrant forms of altruism--while all the time the material unspoken, the facts not known, far outweighed the subjects discussed. If Rand had not been such an atheist, she might have read somewhere in the Good Book that you reap what you sow, that self-interest only works for the person practicing it. Fourteen years later, Rand was (again, according to this account) composing psychological papers to persuade Nathaniel to sleep with her again. He--so much for honesty!--was pleading that he had a headache, while in fact he was carrying on another (so-called secret) affair with a pretty young thing who hadn't a philosophical thought in her head. And Barbara was stuck in the middle, unwilling confidante of both Ayn and Nathaniel. . . .

There was hell to pay from all of this, and it's profoundly fascinating to see it all unfold: Beyond any personal or specific details, what Barbara Branden does in the second half of this biography is to examine the incessant American urge to form any kind of utopia. Then she treats us to a look at the almost always inevitable carnage that follows, when a theory--however seductive--is allowed to obliterate the fundamental realities of human behavior.

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