William Thomas interviews Anne Conover Heller on the writing of her acclaimed biography Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Heller is a former executive editor at Condé Nast Publications and the former fiction editor for Esquire and Redbook.
TNI: How long did the writing take you from developing a proposal to handing in the final revisions?
Anne Heller: I spent about six months writing a fifty-page proposal. During that period I read Rand’s less popular works, took a survey of what had been written about her, and investigated the sources that would be available to me—important, since at that time the Ayn Rand Archives were closed to all but a handful of academic outsiders. I signed a contract with the Nan Talese imprint at Doubleday in April, 2004, and turned in a completed manuscript in February, 2009. Those five years seemed like one hundred years to me, except when I made a discovery or finished a particularly difficult chapter.
TNI: Did you work on it continuously over this period, or did you have various other projects?
Heller: I left a magazine job to write the proposal in the fall of 2003, but continued to work on various projects under a half-time consulting contract during the first two years of researching and writing the book. I had a few other writing and editing projects I was obliged to complete. Luckily, I was able to work on the book full time for the last three years; that’s when I did most of my traveling to libraries and archives and to interview people who knew Rand in the 1940s-1970s.
TNI: Which parts of the book went fastest for you, and which went slower?
"Atlas Shrugged is a dot-by-dot four-color prophecy of the economic disaster and individual-liberties threats we see today."
Heller: My more experienced friends tell me that the middle of a biography—the middle of the journey, to cite Lionel Trilling—is always hard going. The details threaten to overwhelm the story and thematic threads. For this reason, I often found writing about Rand’s 1940s Hollywood experiences slow going. I thought it was important to describe the screenplays she worked on and correct some errors of fact and timing she set in motion, in spite of the fact that it was her literary and intellectual life that captivated me. But the last two chapters were by far the hardest. They took place after the great accomplishments of Rand’s life, when the drama and struggle of achievement had diminished and unpleasant traits of character had come to the fore. I didn’t like writing them. I loved writing about We the Living and The Fountainhead, and those sections seemed to go quickly.
TNI: You had to cut a number of quotations from the book at your publisher’s lawyer’s urgings, right? Did that affect the way you relate Rand’s thoughts and ideas?
Heller: You know, Rand said everything better than anyone else, and it was painful to have to paraphrase—although, as you pointed out in your review of my book, restating her ideas did cement my understanding of them. I argued with Doubleday’s lawyers about fair use—that is, about when and how much you can quote from copyrighted material without permission—until my ears turned red. Many previous unauthorized books and articles had quoted at length from her novels, essays, and published letters, and I worried that I couldn’t adequately summarize particular passages from her letters and from Atlas Shrugged. But I was constrained to try, and readers haven’t complained. Kathy Trager, a veteran lawyer at Doubleday, had handled Barbara Branden’s book, also published by Doubleday, in 1986, when Barbara was sued by Leonard Peikoff over her use of biographical tapes that she herself had recorded. So Trager and her colleagues knew that the estate of Ayn Rand could be litigious and were extra careful as a result.
TNI: The section on Rand’s family in Russia before World War One is really vivid. What did you do to get the details you needed and connect with that time and place?
"I found and hired a small archival research firm based in St. Petersburg, Russia."
Heller: Through a recommendation by the Hoover Institution and a professor of Russian history at Harvard, I found and hired a small archival research firm based in St. Petersburg. I asked the researchers to find out where Rand’s parents were born and raised, the professions of their parents, where they had worked and were educated, etc. As the researchers came back with answers extracted from directories and files, I added questions. The process took two years. It was thrilling—finding Rand’s high-school records from the Crimean town of Yevpetoria and thus learning of her first encounter with American history, for example; discovering that her father had traveled from Brest to attend the University of Warsaw at the age of 29, before arriving in St. Petersburg, and extrapolating from that fact and others that his marriage to Anna Kaplan may have been arranged—for me these things were like discovering Priam’s Treasure. I attended or asked former Columbia graduate students to attend and take notes at lectures given by members of the Ayn Rand Institute that promised to reveal new details, such as the texts of the many letters that Rand received in America from her parents in Russia, and examined footnotes with a magnifying glass. The result was a pretty accurate portrait of Rand’s youth.
TNI: One of your most noted revelations in the book was that Ayn Rand probably had an abortion when she was in her twenties. Can summarize the evidence that lead you to this conclusion?
Heller: Marna Wolf, Frank O’Connor’s niece who was not yet a teenager in the 1930s, was the first person to mention that Rand had had an abortion in that decade; she recalled it as a sidelight while describing her father A.M. Papurt’s relationship with Rand and Frank. Papurt, Frank’s brother-in-law, had loaned Frank the money to pay for the abortion. As with almost every assertion in the book, I checked this with multiple sources. Mimi Sutton, Marna’s sister, who was old enough to remember both the loan and abortion, independently described the event in a taped interview from 1983. Connie Papurt, whom I interviewed, recalled hearing the story from her mother, Frank’s sister. When I asked Barbara Branden about it, she told me that Rand had mentioned the abortion to her, in an intimate setting; that's when I decided to put it in the book.
For the record, I did not print unsubstantiated gossip. If only one source—particularly one who hadn’t already proved reliable—told me something that was out of the ordinary, I didn’t print it.
TNI: You used large number of recorded interviews as sources. Did you like some sources better than others? Are there any in particular you’d care to remark on?
Heller: Some living sources were old, with faulty memories, and others had a discernible prejudice of one kind or another. But most—both those I heard on tape and those I interviewed myself—confirmed or reflected information I had gathered.
"Rand's mother encouraged her to work hard and look to herself for subsistence and success."
Let me explain the sources of interviews that I did not conduct myself. In 1998 Barbara Branden sold at auction much of the research material she used for The Passion of Ayn Rand. This included letters, legal documents, and taped interviews with people who had since died. I looked long and hard for the purchaser of this material, but the unnamed bidder had moved overseas and couldn’t be found. Then, by chance, a couple of years ago he turned up and identified himself on an Objectivist website. He was living in Toronto. I made a trip there and catalogued his holdings; in turn, he let me copy documents and listen to taped interviews with a score of people, including Minnie Goldberg, the Kaplan relative with whom Rand stayed in 1926; two elderly actresses with whom she had lived in the Studio Club and befriended in Hollywood and New York; Mimi Sutton, Frank’s niece, whom Rand doted on; Random House copy editor Bertha Krantz; Rand secretary Barbara Weiss, and others. The bulk of these interviews hadn’t been used by Branden. They were especially valuable in casting light on periods and aspects of Rand’s life that she herself had not fully commented on. For example, Studio Club and New York friend Millicent Patton, who died in the 1980s, described the early years of Rand’s marriage to Frank. Minnie Goldberg confirmed information I had heard elsewhere about Rand’s later relations with her Chicago relatives.
Another batch of interviews I obtained and transcribed but didn’t often quote from came from Jeff Walker, who turned over to me most of his research materials from his 1992 CBC radio documentary on Rand and from his book The Ayn Rand Cult. There were scores of hours of taped interviews, including with Kay Nolte Smith, a Rand follower who died in 1993, but most of his interviewees were still alive at the time I was writing; those I interviewed myself. Many people he talked to were at that time angry and vituperative. Still, some had stories to tell that I had not heard. I double-checked these—and everything else—with news sources, archives, and third parties. I found some inconsistencies and reported those in my book or didn’t reference the material at all. In general, I didn’t report anything for which I didn’t have multiple or verifiable sources.
I also heard many though not all of the biographical interviews that Barbara Branden conducted in 1960-61.
TNI: Are there some threads you wished you had been able to investigate further? Or interesting material that couldn’t make it into the book?
Heller: And I cut a good deal from my analysis of Atlas Shrugged in favor of publishing details that I discovered in Bennett Cerf’s oral history at Columbia University and in other archives and that seemed historically important. Most of all, I wish I had been able to follow the trail of unpublished letters, notes, journals, calendars, clippings, and photographs housed in the Ayn Rand Archives, but I was not given access to these. I have heard from knowledgeable sources that in the future there may be fewer restrictions .
TNI: Oh! Are there any interesting left-out Russian tidbits you would care to share?
Heller: I had a lot more Russian material than I could squeeze in.
For example, I discovered a good deal about Rand's parents' lives after she emigrated to America. In the middle and late 1920s, for example, her father, Zinovi, became a member of the cooperative State Institute for Medical Knowledge, whose purpose was to educate physicians and conduct medical research. At that point, he was working as a physician-bacteriologist rather than as a pharmacist. After 1929, his title changed simply to physician. He was listed as an active member until 1934. I was curious to know what light his role as a teacher or research physician cast on Rand's description—to Barbara Branden and others—of Zinovi's having been "on strike" in the 1920s and refusing to work in cooperation with the Communist regime. She may not have known. But I did not have the space in the book to follow this line of inquiry.
On a more personal note, for a time Rand's mother positively thrived on her desire to make money and support her family. Not only was she a teacher of foreign languages and a translator of new American books into Russian, but she worked as a tour guide on weekends and wrote many letters encouraging Rand to work hard and look to herself for subsistence and success.
Of course, both Rand's parents died just before or during the siege of Leningrad.
TNI: As to Atlas Shrugged , are there key elements of your analysis that you would still like to get into print?
Heller: Yes. I made a detailed outline of the ways in which Atlas referred to both recent American history—primarily the New Deal—and early 1920s Russian history. It would be fun to publish it, perhaps on my blog www.annecheller.com.
TNI: How did you think of the relation between your book and Barbara Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand while you were writing? Your research fact-checked the memoir-ish aspects of Branden’s book, but Branden’s recollections were also an important source for you.
Heller: The Passion of Ayn Rand began as a terrific guide to questions I wanted to answer, leads, and sources. I based many of my original lines of inquiry on what it didn’t seem to cover—especially Rand’s early history—as well as what it did.
"Rand said everything better than anyone else."
When I first proposed my book to editors, I made the argument that a new biography was needed for a number of reasons: Russian archives had opened (and were still opening) to researchers in the decades following both Brandens’ books; Rand’s letters and journals had been published in the 1990s, containing material Barbara could not have seen; the manuscripts and galleys of Rand’s novels had been placed for scholarly use in the Library of Congress in 1992, long after the publication of The Passion of Ayn Rand; and Barbara and Nathaniel had inherited or adopted some of Rand’s philosophical prejudices and modes of expression that (I felt) limited their ability to be objectively descriptive. Plus, they necessarily had an axe to grind, try as they might to examine both sides of their friendship with Rand. I also thought that the debate about collectivism vs. capitalism had finally been settled—I was wrong!—and that capitalism had decisively won; so I Rand, I thought, could be evaluated in new, less divisive terms and given her just due.
I fact-checked much of the material in The Passion of Ayn Rand as a matter of course, and also interviewed Barbara many times; her work proved to be factually accurate in all but minor instances, except where Rand herself misremembered or misled Barbara. I ended up disagreeing with some of both Brandens’ interpretations of Rand’s character and importance, but that was to be expected.
TNI: You’ve got new website and Rand-related blog. How did that come about?
Heller: I hired a bright young former medical student whose specialty is web-based book marketing. He created Facebook and Twitter accounts for the book, promoted it to websites and blogs around the globe, and advised me to have a website. We worked together on a design and content that would provide a strong sense of the book. A version of Rand's favorite color appears on every page! Many technically inexpert authors have launched sites, including my friends Michael Goldfarb and T.J. Stiles. The blog page proved simple. As you probably know but I didn't, there is something called Wordpress that makes it easy to write, post, comment, and track reader numbers. The problem—always the problem!—is writing the stuff that gets posted.
TNI: More generally, how has it been publicizing a prominently-addressed book? Any amusing anecdotes?
Heller: It's a little bit like promoting a book about Jane Austen: the core readership is abnormally knowledgeable if not intransigent. That makes the process satisfying but hazardous. I recently gave a talk for the benefit of the Broward County, Florida, Public Library. The room was filled with people I assumed were library patrons, but when the question-and-answer period came a third of the hands shot up. The questions I get often concern Ayn Rand's view of selfishness vs. greed, Howard Roark and Frank Lloyd Wright, and her powers of persuasion.
TNI: What did you think of the big uptick in interest in Rand in 2009? Were you surprised to find her to be such a hot topic?
Heller: I was very surprised—happily surprised. When I started working on the book in 2004, the long debate over capitalism vs. socialism seemed to have been decided and laid to rest. Sales of Rand's books were burbling along like an underground stream, as they always do, but no one was talking about Rand. By mid-2009, sales of Atlas, in particular, were going through the roof, and Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh were broadcasting their fandom.
There are a number of reasons why a revival has been taking place: the accusations of corporate socialism against Obama, the huge federal deficit and increase in government spending, the attempt to federalize health care, which Rand particularly warned about, and even the popularity of 2008 presidential candidate Ron Paul, who once studied at NBI [Nathaniel Branden Institute]. The main reason, however, has to be that from one perspective, at least, Atlas Shrugged is a dot-by-dot four-color prophecy of the economic disaster and individual-liberties threats we see today and that Rand wrote about so brilliantly fifty years ago. Plus, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are very satisfying books to read.