I met with Ayn Rand three times in the 1980s before she passed away. While I will forever reject her philosophy, I fully appreciate her influence on our world today. She was an uncannily prescient woman.
I am the founder of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) and I would like to share my personal memories of Ayn Rand and the effect she and her work had on my life, which provide interesting sidelights on the legendary founder of Objectivism.
It took me two months to read all 1069 pages of Atlas Shrugged in 1967, as a 14-year-old. Rand’s famous novel was sent to me by my grandfather, Lowell B. Mason, who was Ayn’s friend and advisor. Reading it was what made me want to be an entrepreneur.
Featuring an inspirational hero who was independent and could get things done, Atlas Shrugged was the first work of fiction I had ever read that talked positively about entrepreneurs and the wealth they created. It eventually motivated me — as a 9th grader in Flint, Michigan — to move to New York and start a business.
So here is my story. I met with Ayn Rand three times, beginning on Memorial Day of 1980, and our correspondence continued through mid-January of 1982, two months before she passed away, on March 6th. Our last meeting was right before her trip to New Orleans, in the fall of 1981, where she spoke at my friend Jim Blanchard’s convention on investments. Jim was the top expert in the world on gold investment, and he got Ayn to be the featured speaker by arranging for a private train car for her trip.
My appointment on Memorial Day in 1980 was at 11 in the morning. I was overdressed for the weather, and sweat streamed down my face as I walked around the block at 34th Street and Lexington Avenue, putting off the meeting with my role model. Despite her well-known inaccessibility, Ayn Rand had agreed to meet me, a 26-year-old entrepreneur, through a connection with my grandfather, a famous libertarian lawyer who had worked with Clarence Darrow in the Depression.
Now, procrastinating, I could barely breathe. I was exhilarated and terribly nervous. She was a great hero of mine; I had memorized large parts of Atlas Shrugged. However, I would find out that the Ayn Rand I had fantasized about was not the Ayn Rand I was about to meet.
I finally went into the lobby of the Tudor-style building at 128 East 34th Street, and rang the bell for apartment 6D. (The name on the directory was O’Connor — Frank O’Connor, her husband, had recently passed away.)
“I never agree to meet with anyone,” were her first words. And then: “You’re right on time. That tells me something about you. Your grandfather Lowell has been my close friend since I started writing The Fountainhead. He gave me good advice on some legal issues. His Language of Dissent was brilliant,” she continued, pointing to the copy on a bookshelf. “Otherwise I would never have agreed to see you. I am old and do not have the energy.”
She wore a black dress that came to just below her knees, and her hair was pulled back and up. She made a point of standing beneath a topless portrait of herself painted 40 years before, when she was in her thirties.
She examined me intently, wearing the same sly smile she had in the portrait. She was beautiful and, standing directly below the picture, she seemed to be saying: “And I am still this sexy?” She was. With her high cheekbones, full bosom and bright green eyes, she looked like an earthly goddess who had stepped out of one of her novels. I called her “Dominique,” and then “Dagney,” and she smiled and touched my arm. She knew I meant it when I told her how beautiful I thought she was, and laughed a loud, Russian laugh.” I was in love.
She showed me around the apartment — everything but the bedroom; she said it was too untidy for me to see. She showed me the massive drafting table on which she’d written every page of Atlas Shrugged by hand. She mentioned how she’d outlined various thoughts and ideas from Part Three of Atlas Shrugged: “A is A” — on the table in ink. When I asked where she had outlined parts One and Two, she laughed and said she would tell me later. (She never did.)
It was amazing to think that she had laid out the handwritten pages of her masterwork on this very table every night. She showed me some handwritten pages of an unpublished article about the impact of Atlas Shrugged, as well as ten or so pages from a draft of the manuscript of Part One of Atlas Shrugged, “Non-Contradiction.”
We talked for about an hour in her apartment — over the noise of a maid, who was cleaning. Then we headed out for lunch. The maid, a soft-spoken African-American woman, said: “Ms. Rand, please do not be long, and absolutely no smoking.” (I didn’t know at the time that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer.) As we walked down Lexington Avenue, I quoted my favorite passages from both her novels, and also from the Objectivist Newsletter.
At the corner of 33rd and Lex, I happened to mention King Vidor being the director of King of Kings. It was Cecil B. DeMille. Ayn said: “Now that you’ve gotten one wrong, can you be quiet and let me talk?” Of course I had been rattling on, as we walked from her apartment to the restaurant. I wanted to impress upon her just how significant she had been to me growing up, and that I knew she had met her husband on the set of King of Kings, in 1927. But, because of that one slip, I had to pretty much suppress my urge to talk further and, over the next four hours, let her have the lion’s share of the conversation.
The restaurant was closed because of the holiday. As we walked on, looping back around towards her apartment, I remember thinking, “This is going to be a short meeting; we are going to end up back at her front door and that will be it. She won’t invite me up because the maid is cleaning.”
Luckily we found a diner a block further on, back on 34th Street, and settled in. Ayn ordered cereal and I got a hamburger. She lit a cigarette and didn’t stop smoking and blowing smoke in my face for the next four hours. She did not eat at all. When it was apparent that I was uncomfortable with her smoking, Ayn shrugged and said, “I can’t do this in front of my housekeeper because it’s bad for my health. Do not be such a complainer.”
The time went by in an instant. We talked about philosophy and economics and her work and career, and the love of her life, Frank O’Connor. In our time together I understood how she could have created a worldwide movement against totalitarianism just through force of will. But, sadly, she was also an adherent of atheism, a point of view I so strongly disagreed with that I could not keep silent about it, and the debate was on. In her words, I was a “mystic fool,” but I pushed back with Pascal’s argument that this world is so complex that some higher power must have created it.
She was fearless and said exactly what she thought, in short, perfectly formed sentences. She was extremely judgmental, and every remark was dissected and commented upon. But earlier in my life I had faced off with Madelyn Murray O’Hare, the famous American atheist, and I too was fearless, at least on this subject.
But she also spoke about her childhood, her father the pharmacist, growing up in and then leaving Russia, and about her sister, who came to live with her in the 1960’s. Throughout the conversation she would laugh often — loudly and joyously. I listened intensely to her every word, sensing that being with this beautiful woman would impact my life forever.
As our visit was coming to an end, she said, “You listen and talk well but too much sometimes. You would make a good teacher. I’ve been taking math lessons in arithmetic; can you show me how to do this problem?”
It was a simple procedure of dividing fractions and I showed her how to do it, feeling the pleasure of knowing something she did not. (Years later, in one of life’s great coincidences, I was in the same class with her math teacher.)
I paid the check, we walked back to her apartment building, and said goodbye. I told her: “You are a great teacher, Ms. Rand.” She walked into her building and that was the end of our first meeting.
A few days later, I sent her a book about Hollywood that she was mentioned in, along with a hand-written thank-you note. She didn’t reply, so a few weeks later I sent another gift — Russian candy — meant humorously, with another note.
She sent them back. The returned gifts were accompanied by a letter from Ayn’s secretary, saying that Ms Rand had only seen me out of courtesy to my grandfather. I was devastated. This incident cut me deeply. I was so scarred by the rejection that I couldn’t even tell anyone about it for 15 years.
Ayn had been so nice to me during those smoke-filled hours, which made the letter from her secretary all the more distressing. (I promised myself never to treat anyone like that, and I never have.) I felt then what others had told me: my idol was nothing more than an egotistical, self-absorbed recluse, and just as flawed as anyone else.
Fifteen months later, in September of 1981, we both got another chance. Again my grandfather had intervened, calling Ayn and apologizing on my behalf. To me, he said: “You were too intellectually aggressive.” I was shocked, and didn’t say anything about my virtual silence for those four hours in the restaurant.
My grandfather continued: “Because she hurt your feelings last year, she will see you one last time — for fifteen minutes. Don’t mess it up this time. She is a genius and you can learn a great deal from her. Do not talk or take issue with anything at all.”
I met her in the lobby of her building in the early fall of 1981. I had been so shaken by her letter and the return of my gifts that I must have looked like a stunned little kid — beyond chagrined. She said, “Don’t be so weak. Weakness sickens me. Do not make me feel pity.” I knew she was quoting from The Fountainhead; I then quoted the preceding and following sentences. She laughed, and said, “OK, you’re forgiven.” She looked even more beautiful to me this year. Her intelligence shone from a face that was now over 76-years-old.
We went back to the restaurant on 33rd and Lexington that had been closed the previous Memorial Day. I gave her a bracelet my mother had given me when I left Flint. She put it on over a green shirt that was covered by an old blue sweater, with an elegant gold brooch pinned to the sweater. Her outfit was completed by a pair of baggy black pants.
We sat at her favorite table by the door, exactly on the corner. She knew all the waiters, who were very respectful to her. I excused myself and went to the bathroom. On the way, I asked one of the waiters: “Do you know who that is?” “Of course,” he replied, “she’s a writer, right?”
This time Ayn and I talked for at least five hours. She was still grieving over her husband Frank’s death. She smoked continuously, and said: “No one knows how sad I am. And this pain from Frank is killing me.” She blew a cloud of smoke in my face and said, “You should come to my funeral.” I laughed when she added: “And I mean it” — the four words that had guided her life.
She told me in detail how she met Frank O’Connor on the set of King of Kings on a bus for the extras. She then did not see him for several months, until running across him by chance at the studio library, where he was reading about art history. She told me with a breaking voice what he was wearing on his tall frame. She had kidded him about his baggy pants and he had laughed at her accent. They both liked the poem “IF,” and she recited it to him from memory. For her, it was love at first sight. She told me many anecdotes about Frank and related how he had had a stroke before he died, which interfered with his ability to talk but not his ability to hear.
Then she started to cry. I was shocked — everyone had told me she never cried, except once at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), a think tank for the ideas of Henry David Thoreau, when Ludwig von Mises — the legendary free market economist — had yelled at her. Von Mises told her that she was a stupid ignorant Russian peasant woman, and she broke down.
When I mentioned this story, she got upset. She said Von Mises, always a gentleman, would never have said such a thing, that he had a deep respect for her. As she tells it, William F. Buckley had made up the story to hurt her.
To change the subject, I brought up God and spirituality. We had spent a good deal of time at our first meeting arguing about spirituality — my belief in God and her hatred of the concept. “You will see Frank again in a spiritual sense,” I said, “there is just too much energy for it all to disappear. There are over two billion calculations a second for the body to function. That is so incredible, someone had to create that. And if that is so, then anything is possible.”
She nodded, half-sobbing, her face heavy with tears. “I hope so” she said. “I would do anything to see him one more time.” She showed me notes he had written to her after the stroke. They were in large letters in what looked like a third-grader’s printing.
“I hope you are right, maybe you are. I think about it all the time. I do not know. I just do not know,” she said. After a long pause, she added: “I will find out soon enough.” “Let me know,” I said, and we both laughed.
I pointed out her use of “God” on Phil Donohue (whom she adored). “You did say God bless America,” I teased. She laughed that wonderful laugh again — she was so charismatic. I said: “You should let the public know that, that you have doubts. So many people follow you.” She waved her hand dismissively: “So what. Let them find their own way, I cannot help them.”
I told her about my interest in politics and my desire to help maximize people’s personal and professional freedom — particularly for poor children. (I had recently been mugged and was thinking about making a career change to work with the type of children that had humiliated me.) She agreed that that was laudable, “Provided they have a good philosophy of reason and that they are objective and face reality,” she added — in what sounded like a harbinger of the didacticism that would come soon after her death, and scar Objectivism for decades.
“You should be a teacher. You have a knack for it,” she said, repeating her comment of fifteen months before. “If you could teach people that are born poor to create value and be capitalists, that would be good. Look at what I was able to do with nothing — I had no money or skills, just a vision of what I could become. I wanted to be a writer and philosopher.” Little did I know how those words would guide me in the very near future.
I gave her copies of three papers I had written on economics. One of them has since become famous as the first statistical test of the Austrian Trade Cycle Theory; another was my attempt to bring a unity to the different methodologies of economics, a paper F.A Hayek — a Nobel Prize winner — had loved when I had studied with him in 1977. She promised to read them.
In passing, I told her of my activism for gay rights, thinking she would be pleased. She was not pleased, and also made it clear that she hated Murray Rothbard who, along with Charles Koch and I, had just co-wrote the Libertarian Party Platform. “We made him leave our study group,” she said, referring to Rothbard’s excommunication from the Collective, a discussion group of intellectuals that met weekly in her apartment.
When we left the restaurant, having let her do almost all the talking, I said nothing — but gave her a hug. We walked back to her building, just as the housekeeper was coming out: “Ms. Rand, I was just coming to find you.” A colleague of hers had come out too, and began yelling at me that I had kept Ayn out too long and that I was boring her. I think perhaps he felt threatened by her being with me.
Ayn turned and said, “You made me feel better.” I laughed and replied, “I thought people were not supposed to feel.” She gave me a quick one-finger handshake and said: “One more meeting and that is it — I am tired.” She added: “Do not count on me for any more visits.” I answered: “OK, but you did say we could have coffee; I love being with a beautiful woman. Can I get a picture with you, please?” I handed my camera to the housekeeper, at the same time calming her colleague down.
“No, absolutely not, I am too old! If I am alive next year, perhaps,” she said laughing. “If not, come to my funeral.” Over her objections, the housekeeper took a picture (which unfortunately I lost 20 years later). Ayn and I both laughed, and she went inside the building with her companions.
This time I waited a month to call her and sent no notes or gifts. When I got her on the phone, she said, “I am too tired now,” and then: “I can see you for a cup of coffee, perhaps, but only for twenty minutes. You wear me out.”
I was pleased and promised not to talk at all. I met her at the same restaurant, but she was grumpy, irritable, and tired. We left after twenty minutes.
I had absentmindedly left my jacket at the restaurant and her housekeeper called to say that I could come over to the apartment and get it from the doorman, that I could say hello to Ms. Rand for a minute, then leave. My visit got postponed several times. The last time I called, Ayn got on the phone and we spoke for a minute, but she sounded tired. I never picked up the jacket.
After her return from the trip to New Orleans, where she had spoken on the topic of Morality and Capitalism, I received a letter from out of the blue: “I had seen you out of respect for your grandfather. You turned out to be a terrible disappointment. The fact that you support the immoral acts of homosexuals shows me you are a second-hander who likes his heroes with clay feet. Do not call me again or contact me in any way. Here is the bracelet — I do not want it. I am burning your papers.” It was like someone had taken a hot knife to my stomach.
But the letter so contradicted how our last encounter had played out, that I was unsure if it was even written by Ayn herself. She had made a point to “cc” this letter to several individuals, including Leonard Peikoff.
And that was that.
This final communication hurt so much that I have never talked about it until now.
In my opinion, based on our last conversation, Ayn Rand died a deist or an agnostic, not an atheist.
Sadly, her intense dislike of gays and the gay liberation movement led to our falling out, during that last meeting in January of 1982. I felt that she had replicated the world she had grown up in, where the Tsar — then Lenin — would ostracize (or worse) anyone who disagreed with official attitudes.
I will forever reject Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, because it denigrates the importance of spirituality. It also overlooks the limits of a market economy in solving a variety of serious problems caused by the economics of externalities and public goods.
I fully appreciate Ayn Rand’s influence in stopping the worldwide rise of totalitarianism, in encouraging the feminist movement, stimulating discussion of the legalization of victimless crimes, and the jump-starting of libertarian politics .
And she was uncannily prescient. Inspired by her, I subsequently spent 30 years teaching at-risk youth and, in 1987, I founded NFTE, where I still teach.
Sadly, many of the events she wrote about in Atlas Shrugged are coming to pass.