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Rand-y for capitalism 

A new biography of Ayn Rand examines her intellectual legacy

Down on Peachtree Street, just south of the High Museum, are the offices of Roark Capital Group. On its website, the private equity firm explains that it specializes in acquiring family businesses and managing franchises such as Seattle’s Best Coffee, Schlotzsky’s and Cinnabon. The website also offers an explanation of the name Roark, which refers to the character Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Distilling Rand’s philosophy in a few choice lines, it says, “Integrity ... is commitment to one's own thinking and one's own mind. ... Howard Roark's life exemplified the true nature of this independence and integrity.” After reading that, I drove right down to Lenox Square to pick up a Cinnabon, but was disappointed when I didn’t taste much integrity or independence. That empty flavor has more than the name Roark in common with Ayn Rand.

Rand is experiencing a sort of renaissance these days. Atlas Shrugged sold more copies in 2008 than in any year since 1957 and will probably break that record again this year. Charlize Theron has signed up to star in an epic film adaptation of the 1,400-page novel. Glenn Beck can’t stop talking about the author. Perfectly timed to intersect with this capitalist feeding frenzy are the first two biographies to be written about Rand by authors other than her closest acolytes. Out of the two biographers, only Jennifer Burns had access to Rand’s journals, letters and private papers. She’s put that access to good use in Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, a vivid, intellectual portrait of the woman born as Alisa Rosenbaum in 1905.

Much has already been written about the impact of Soviet Russia on young Rand. Burns revisits these scenes — her father’s state-confiscated business, the famine-starved family dinners — but quickly moves on to the bright lights of Hollywood. Rand immigrated to the U.S. in 1926, carrying 17 scenarios for films. She wanted nothing more than to be a Hollywood screenwriter and quickly became a junior writer in Cecil B. DeMille’s studio. When that studio closed, Rand began writing the stageplays and, eventually, the novels for which she’s known today. Burns charts Rand’s development as an artist, but it’s simply setup for the pages she lavishes on Rand’s evolution and legacy as a political thinker.

It’s not a huge surprise that Rand lives on through stockbrokers and equity firms like Roark. This is, after all, a woman who would put on a cape and gold dollar sign lapel pin and walk around like some superhero-style mascot for capitalism. What’s strange, though, is her enduring popularity with the freedom lovers who’ve bought into her rhetoric of individualism. Those libertarians, including Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, Phish fans, and Ron Paul supporters, champion her commitment to entrepreneurial spirit and personal freedom. While the stockbrokers might be willingly blinded by stacks of green cash, the rest may have been impaired by a different kind of green.

As Rand’s opinions are fleshed out in the latter half of the book, freedom starts to take some unusual shapes. Her theory of “man worship” suggests “a woman should look up to her man’s superior masculinity.” She opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act (you know, the one that ended segregation at places like public schools and water fountains), though Burns insists Rand wasn’t “truly prejudiced.” Burns even includes a cute picture of Rand volunteering to testify at the House Un-American Activities Committee, doing her part to root out Hollywood’s freedom-haters.

The accounts of the Nathaniel Branden Institute, which instructed young Objectivist scholars, get downright creepy. One student recalls the strict rules: “There was also a right kind of music, a right kind of art, a right kind of interior design, a right kind of dancing. There were wrong books which we could not buy, and right ones we should.” Another former student, playwright Sky Gilbert (The Postman Rings Once), recalls the way he tried to argue himself out of homosexuality to get in line with Rand’s belief that it was a “disgusting aberration.” Even Burns is led to conclude, “Her followers could find themselves locked into the system she had created.”

Those Cinnabons don’t taste like freedom to me.

Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns. Oxford University Press. $27.95. 384 pp.

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