EDITOR’S NOTE: Fans know well Miss King’s take on Ayn Rand–it was the same take Henny Youngman had for his wife. In this 1995 review of Letters of Ayn Rand, Miss King lets loose on the Queen of Objectivism with all her curmudgeonly charm. Atlas may have shrugged, but you won’t after reading this masterpiece.
Of course, Miss King is best known for her majestic “Misanthrope’s Corner” columns that graced the back page of NR for many a year. We have faithfully collected and republished each and every one of these columns in STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002. We are certain that you will want to have it. STET, Damnit is available only from NR, and may/must be ordered (securely!) here.
Letters of Ayn Rand, edited by Michael S. Berliner
(Dutton, 681 pp., $34.95)
If anyone needs a makeover it’s Ayn Rand. After her death in 1982, her one-time proteges, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, both published biographies portraying her as an abusive monster who held facts instead of opinions, drove her husband to drink, and held purge trials in her living room whenever one of her acolytes got philosophically out of line.
The centerpiece of both books is Miss Rand’s affair with Nathaniel, begun when she was 50 and he 24, and continuing until they were 63 and 37. The story goes that she gathered the Brandens together with her husband, Frank O’Connor, announced that she and Nathaniel wanted to have an affair, and then opened the floor to discussion, which she dominated, analyzing the proposed adultery to prove that it was rational according to the principles of Objectivism, her home-cooked contribution to Western thought.
When the inevitable explosion came, Miss Rand publicly repudiated and denounced the Brandens, who soon divorced. Her think tank, largely their work, fell apart, as did many of her emotionally dependent acolytes, some of whom discussed whether it was rational to assassinate Nathaniel.
No hint of any of this appears in Letters of Ayn Rand, a labor of love by Leonard Peikoff, her leading loyalist (and sole heir under her will, according to Barbara Branden), and Michael S. Berliner, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, newly restored to promote Objectivism. They give us a new, improved Ayn Rand.
A 1936 letter to her husband opens “Cubby Sweet!” with a drawing of a lion cub, and closes with “Good night, Tweet! XXXXXXX Your Fluff.”
She is risqué when she sends Mickey Spillane her address, 36 East 36th Street: “A good way to remember it is to think of a perfect 36.”
A dinner guest received a note that sounds like Mrs. Clinton in campaign mode: “Here are the recipes for the Beef Stroganoff and the salad dressing.”
To Barbara Branden’s mother, who praised her work, a gracious AR replied: “I must tell you in return that I am very much impressed with your work–namely, Barbara.”
She was admirably conscientious about answering her fan mail, and one reply is touching: “I was glad to hear that you consider me a desirable relative, but I am sorry to disappoint you, because Rand is only my pen name; so we are not related. We can still be friends, however, and I am glad that you liked Love Letters [AR’s 1945 screenplay].”
She hit it off with Barbara Stanwyck, who wanted to play Dominique in The Fountainhead and left Warner brothers when they refused to give her the part. AR’s letters prove it was Miss Stanwyck who first brought the book to the studio’s attention–not Gary Cooper’s wife, as some sources have claimed. Cooper, who played Roark in the 1949 movie, was AR’s ideal man, but by 1962 she preferred Robert Stack. She wrote Stack that he was “the only one” she wanted for Roark in a TV miniseries of the novel then being discussed.
When her mask slips, we see the old Ayn Rand in full throttle. To a fan who argued for humanitarianism, she wrote pithily, “Please notice that the humanitarians are among the loudest advocates of dictatorship.” But pith isn’t enough. The letter begins to pulsate. As her fury mounts she capitalizes CONTEMPT, italicizes trigger words, and clinches the argument with her favorite scene from The Fountainhead: “Didn’t you understand that it was a housing project which he blew up to hell, where it belonged?”
Professor John Hospers demanded a disclaimer before he would hand over her letters. It says in part: “I am afraid the reader who reads what Ayn wrote to me, and not what I wrote to her, would gather I was a bloody fool.”
He has a point. In one letter she wrote: “Please reread your note and see whether it can be intelligible without the implicit definition which you now repudiate.” Then: “I will refer you to Roark’s speech, specifically to: page 737, paragraph 2–page 738, paragraphs 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9–page 740, paragraphs 2, 3, 6–page 741, paragraphs 1, 2, 3.”
Writing to Barry Goldwater about his book, The Conscience of a Conservative, she upbraids him for saying that conservatism rests on faith instead of on reason. Magnanimously, she absolves Goldwater and blames his ghostwriter for stressing the importance of religion; then, some italics later, she launches a salvo at the magazine she loved to hate.
This leads me to the subject of the NATIONAL REVIEW. I am profoundly opposed to it–not because it is a religious magazine, but because it pretends that it is not. . . . But the fact that the NATIONAL REVIEW poses as a secular political magazine, while following a strictly religious “party line,” can have but one purpose: to slip religious goals by stealth on those who would not accept them openly, to “bore from within,” to tie Conservatism to religion, and thus to take over the American Conservatives.
She castigates NR for running a review of Atlas Shrugged by Whittaker Chambers, “this former Communist spy,” and two defamatory articles about her, one of which “denounced me for advocating capitalism.” Along the same line, she refused a fan permission to name a chapter of YAF after her: “I am opposed to the organization known as Young Americans for Freedom. That organization is controlled by, or shares the policies of, the NATIONAL REVIEW magazine and is my avowed enemy.”
The 1980 election infuriated her. To a television producer who wanted her to appear in a series called Cultural Conservatism she wrote: “This year in particular, I would be ashamed to be connected with the so-called Conservatives in any way. Their anti-abortion stand is outrageous–and so is their mixture of politics with religion.”
In view of all this, one quakes for the fan who asked her to decorate an Easter egg for his collection, but she’s gentle with him–and uncharacteristically arch: “Unfortunately, my schedule is such that this is the first chance I had to answer you, let alone to permit myself the luxury of attempting to paint. Since you needed the egg by March 15, shall I send it back to you undecorated?”
Her most notorious trait emerges in a letter to Archibald Ogden, editor of The Fountainhead, who was to supply an introduction to the 25th-anniversary edition. In his draft he made the mistake of relating the funny things that happened during the editing of the book, and was promptly hit by a Scud missive: “You are entitled to your own views about humor. But you know mine, and you chose to ignore them–and there is no meeting ground.” She cast him out and wrote the introduction herself.
This book reeks of the sycophancy that Miss Rand always inspired, from its terse little editor’s notes to Leonard Peikoff’s grim promise that “an authorized biography of Ayn Rand will appear in due course.” Considering that her birthday is given incorrectly here, it would appear that Peikoff and Berliner aren’t even very good sycophants.