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.