Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Ayn Rand

Episode Summary

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a best-selling author and developer of Objectivism.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Beautiful Mind is a controversial 20th century writer and philosopher who has had an outsized impact on various American political movements well into the 21st century. Let’s talk about Ayn Rand. 

Alisa Rosenbaum was born on February 2, 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia to an upper-middle class Jewish family. Her father was a prosperous pharmacist.

Alisa, the eldest of three children, was tutored at home as a child and later enrolled in a progressive school where she excelled academically. She had a much harder time socializing with other students, and was fairly isolated. 

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, when the Russian monarchy was overthrown by the communist Bolsheviks, Alisa’s father’s pharmacy was confiscated by communist authorities. The family was deeply affected by this, and Alisa resented this event for the rest of her life.  

Alisa attended Leningrad State University, where she studied history. After graduating in 1924, she started a degree at the State Institute for Cinematography in screenwriting, and got the opportunity to move to the United States. She left under the pretext of learning about the American film industry to bring back that knowledge to the Soviet Union. 

Alisa Rosenbaum arrived in the U.S. in 1926, and immediately changed her name to Ayn Rand. Over the years she gave multiple explanations for why she chose that particular name, none of which are particularly revelatory. 

Ayn lived with cousins in Chicago for her first six months, and then made her way out to Hollywood. Once in L.A., a chance encounter with producer Cecil B. DeMille led to a job as an extra in one of his films. Eventually she turned this into a job as a junior screenwriter. 

While working for DeMille, Ayn met actor Frank O’Connor and the two were married in 1929. Soon after, Ayn was hired to work in the wardrobe department at RKO Radio Pictures. Within the year, she was head of the department. At night, she diligently wrote stories, plays, and film outlines. 

Ayn’s first play, Night of January 16th, was produced in Los Angeles in 1934. It was an ode to individualism in the form of a courtroom drama. After running successfully in L.A., Ayn and her husband moved to New York City to oversee the play’s production on Broadway, where it also had a successful run. 

Ayn’s first novel We The Living was published two years later in 1936. It’s a semi-autobiographical romance focused on how Soviet totalitarianism subjugated the individual and individual interests to those of the state. The combination of overt romance and philosophy combined in a single work of fiction was a winning formula Ayn would use again and again in her novels.

In 1936, Ayn also started work on the first of her two major novels, The Fountainhead. Published seven years later in 1943, The Fountainhead is the story of a genius architect who blows up a public housing project he designed after it was altered against his wishes by government bureaucrats. He is subsequently put on trial, and eventually delivers a lengthy speech in his defense in which he argues for individualism over collectivism and egoism over altruism. The jury acquits him on all charges. 

The Fountainhead received a majority of bad reviews from literary critics, but its popularity spread by word of mouth and it was soon a bestseller. Ayn sold the movie rights to Warner Brothers, and wrote the screenplay herself. The movie was released in 1949. 

In 1945, Ayn began sketching out what is generally considered to be her masterwork, Atlas Shrugged. Based heavily on concepts already discussed in The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged imagines a world on the verge of economic collapse in which collectivists have exploited the most productive and creative citizens to benefit the undeserving and laziest members of society. A band of elite producers, led by “hero” John Galt, essentially go on strike to force the government to recognize their economic freedom and greater value to society. The “heroes” then watch as the national economy and the social system are destroyed because of their absence. 

Ayn called her philosophy, as laid out in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Objectivism. She described it as “in essence…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.”

Atlas Shrugged was an immediate bestseller, though it was thoroughly attacked by critics from across the political spectrum for its perceived immorality, selfishness, and general misanthropy. 

Ayn’s fame grew along with the popularity of her novels, and she spoke at universities and appeared on TV shows like 60 Minutes. As a newfound public intellectual, she began to publish works of non-fiction discussing her philosophy as well. 

Ayn developed a large following, particularly among Libertarians and laissez-faire capitalists, and published newsletters about her beliefs and the tenets of Objectivism. Still, she was constantly frustrated by her inability to gain acceptance from academic philosophers and other serious intellectuals, who mostly dismissed her work as unserious. 

Ayn died in New York City on March 6, 1982 of heart failure. At her funeral, a 6-foot flower arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign was placed near her casket. 

After her death, Ayn’s work continued to have a major impact on society. Many historians and political scientists believe that her works contributed to the increased popularity of libertarianism in the United States during the 1990s and 2000s. Starting in 2009, Ayn also served as a major influence on the Tea Party movement. It is for these political influences that Ayn is mostly remembered today. 

As always, we’ll be backing a break for the weekend so tune in on Monday for the story of another Beautiful Mind

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you on Monday!