Childhood & Early Life
Ayn Rand was born as Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum on February 2, 1905 in Saint Petersburg. Her father, Zinovy Zakharovich Rosenbaum, was the owner of a pharmacy. Her mother’s name was Anna Borisovna (née Kaplan). She was eldest of her parents’ three daughters.
Alisa had her initial schooling at the prestigious Stoiunina Gymnasium and started writing from the age of eight. Although her parents tried to shield the girls from the political upheaval that was taking shape at that time, Alisa slowly developed her own views and favored republican type of government over constitutional monarchy.
Therefore, when the February Revolution erupted in Saint Petersburg in 1917, 12-year-old Alisa favored Alexander Kerensky over Tsar Nicholas II. However, as the October Revolution started later in the year, their family life was totally disrupted.
As the Bolsheviks seized power, her father’s business was confiscated and they had to flee to the Crimea, where they tried to start afresh. However, four years later, as Alisa graduated from high school at the age of 16, the family returned to Saint Petersburg, then renamed as Petrograd.
By now higher education had been opened to women. In 1921, she seized this opportunity to enter the department of social pedagogy of Petrograd State University with history as her major. She also took up philosophy and literature as secondary subjects.
But shortly before she could finish her course, she was purged for being a bourgeois. Fortunately, she was re-admitted to the university on the intervention of some foreign scientists and eventually graduated in October 1924.
Subsequently, she entered the State Institute for Cinema Arts to study screenwriting, graduating from there in 1925. Sometime now, she also decided on her pseudonym, Ayn Rand.
By now, she had studied not only the works of various European writers such as Victor Hugo and Walter Scott, but also the works of ancient scholars like Aristotle and Plato. In addition, she had also gone through the American history, which she found very inspiring.
Never an admirer of communism, she became enthusiastic about America's notion of individual freedom. Therefore, when she received invitation from her relatives, settled in America, she decided to move. Officially, her visit was to be brief; but in her mind she knew that she was leaving her homeland forever.
She left Russia on January 17, 1926. After several stops in different western European cities, Rand arrived in New York City on February 19, 1926 and was mesmerized by the Manhattan skyline.
Nonetheless, she then traveled to Chicago and put up with one of her relatives. Since she had already decided to remain permanently in the US and become a screenwriter, she spent the next six months learning English and watching movies to develop ideas.
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In the middle of 1926, Ayn Rand left for Hollywood, where she took up odd jobs to maintain herself. Then one day, as she was standing at the door of a studio, she spotted Cecil B. DeMille, one of Hollywood's leading directors, and kept on staring at him.
Cecil also noticed her and asked her why she had been staring at him. She told him that she was from Soviet Russia and had come here with the hope of becoming a screenwriter. Impressed, he appointed her as an extra in his on-going project, ‘The King of Kings’.
Rand became a permanent US resident in July 1929 and an American citizen on March 3, 1931. Meanwhile she began working first as a script reader and then a junior scriptwriter for DeMille. Success still eluded her and she kept on doing odd jobs to sustain her writing.
Sometime now, she started writing her debut novel, ‘We the Living’. In 1931, while working as the head of the costume department at the RKM Studio, she decided to take a break to write a screenplay.
Titled ‘Red Pawn’, it was the first screenplay that she was able to sell. Although it was purchased by Universal Pictures in 1932, it was never made into film. Sometime after that, she quit RKM Studio in order to finish her novel ‘We the Living’.
In 1933, as the money from the sale of ‘Red Pawn’ began to dwindle, she wrote a stage play, ‘Night of January 16th’. She was more successful this time. Produced by E.E. Clive, it first opened in Hollywood Playhouse on October 22, 1934.
Later it was taken to Broadway by Al Woods, where it opened on Ambassador Theatre on September 16, 1935 and ran successfully for seven months before it closed on April 4, 1936. In all, it had 283 performances.
Meanwhile in 1934, she finished her semi-autobiographical novel ‘We the Living’ but could publish it only in 1936. The initial sale of the books was low and so in America the publisher Macmillan allowed it to run out of print; but it sold better in England.
Many critics believe that the book failed to make its mark mainly because the American intellectuals of 1930s were sympathetic to the communist ideology and found the book overbearingly anti-Soviet. That the book’s 1959 edition sold over three million copies is a pointer to the fact.
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Soon after finishing ‘We the Living’ in 1934, Rand started working on another novel, which would eventually be published as ‘The Fountainhead’ almost a decade later. Before she started on it, she not only had to undergo extensive research, but also took repeated breaks while writing it.
In 1937, while working on ‘The Fountainhead’, she wrote a novella titled ‘Anthem’ published in 1938. In 1940, she wrote the stage adaption for ‘We the Living’ and also joined a campaign for the Republican Presidential candidate Wendell Willkie. She also spent a lot of her time in organizing a conservative intellectual group.
By and by, the funds from her earlier publications ran out and so she was once again forced to take up freelance job of a script reader at different film studios. The book ‘The Fountainhead’ had by that time been rejected by twelve publishers, but she didn’t lose hope.
In 1941, while working as a script reader at Paramount Pictures, she was introduced to editor Archibald Ogden at the Bobbs-Merrill Company, who agreed to publish the book. Finally it was published in May 1943 and reached the bestsellers’ list. Finally Rand became not only famous, but also financially secure.
Also in 1943, Rand sold the film rights of ‘The Fountainheads’ to Warner Brothers and also wrote its screenplay. Subsequently, she was hired by producer Hall Wallis as screenwriter as well as script-doctor.
In 1946, while working with Wallis, she began working on her masterpiece, ‘Atlas Shrugged’. In spite of such busy schedule, she continued with her anti-communist campaign and appeared as a ‘friendly witness’ before the United States House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.
In 1951, she moved to New York and began to work full time on ‘Atlas Shrugged’. Concurrently, she continued with her political activism and gathered a big circle of admirers around her.
The book ‘Atlas Shrugged’ was finally published in 1957 and in spite of many negative reviews immediately became a bestseller. After that, she did not write any more fiction.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Ayn Rand concentrated on developing her philosophy, which she termed ‘Objectivism’. She wrote numerous essays and gave lectures at well-known universities on the subject, influencing many young people.
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Later, these essays and lectures became the basis of her non-fiction works. In 1961, she published her first non-fiction book, ‘For the New Intellectual’ while ‘Philosophy: Who Needs It’, published in 1982, was her last book in this genre.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1927, Ayn Rand met Frank O'Connor, an aspiring actor, on the set of ‘The King of Kings’. They got married on April 15, 1929 and remained together till his death in 1979. The couple did not have any children.
Rand was a heavy smoker, as a result of which, she had lung cancer in the early 1970s. In 1974, she underwent an operation. Yet, she remained an active lecturer till 1981.
She died of heart failure on March 6, 1982, at her home in New York City. However, her legacy still lives on. The Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), a nonprofit think-tank in Irvine, California, continues to promote her philosophy till this day.
Apart from the books that were published in her lifetime, several others, including ‘The Letters of Ayn Rand’ (1995) were published posthumously. They continue to influence readers till now.