Just how big an impact has Ayn Rand left on our culture?
For quite a number of years, I’ve been conducting guided walking tours of New York City. These include “Revolutionary Manhattan,” a tour of iconic places that figured in the Revolutionary War; visits to “newspaper row” and Union Square; and the one I’m most noted for: “Ayn Rand’s New York,” which explores sites where the late, great novelist and philosopher lived and worked.
A few months ago, I had no takers for my “ Ayn Rand Park Avenue” tour; so, passing through Grand Central Terminal, I thought: “Oh, what the heck—let me just stand here and hold my “ AYN RAND TOUR” sign, and see what happens.”
A man immediately appeared and wanted a tour, right then and there.
Not long after, I tried it again. Within twenty minutes, I had two customers and gave them my tour.
I’ve done this several times now. I stand near the info booth in the middle of the concourse of Grand Central Terminal with my sign. Once every seven minutes, on average, someone young or old, who may be from any part of the world, will walk up to me, ask eager questions about the tour, and take my card. Many tell me that Ayn Rand changed their lives, or they say something like: “Oh! I just LOVE Ayn Rand!”
Or: “Oh, I’ve gotta take this tour!”
Or: “Oh! My son just LOVES Ayn Rand!”
Or: “Oh! My girlfriend is, like, REALLY into Ann Rynd.”
If ten people in seventy minutes take my card, about thirty more give me a curious glance and walk on. And in a group of three, there is always one joker who will make a smartass remark and laugh at his own joke. But some will be willing to pay twenty bucks and take the tour.
One was a tall man in his fifties from Calgary, who said he was a security consultant for the UN. He took the tour and asked many well-informed and thoughtful questions about Rand.
I had been holding my sign for only a few minutes one day when two thirty-ish women stopped and asked me what it was all about. Otherwise unengaged, they took the tour, asked many questions, and were still listening intently after three fun hours. They were both high school English teachers. One said that she had bought The Fountainhead last night. The other was preparing a unit on Anthem for her sophomore class.
A young Indian woman came running up to me. “Could you tell me please how to take an Ayn Rand tour?”
Then there was the British tourist couple, in shorts, with a teenaged son and daughter in tow, who stopped to chat with me on their way to a concert in New Jersey featuring the rock band Rush. The bloke spoke of Rand’s influence on members of the band—and on himself. Pointing to his daughter he said, “We named her ‘Ayn.’ We pronounce it ‘Ann,’ though.” He promised to mention me on his blog.
Canada, America, India, Britain. Hmm, I thought: This is more than a commercial enterprise; it’s turning into a fascinating sociological survey.
A seventy-ish man tells me that a friend had gotten him into the post-lecture party at Rand’s annual Ford Hall Forum appearance one year. He didn’t know much about Rand at that time and had said little to her; but today, he is clearly tickled to tell me of his close encounter.
A man in his forties declares that his father, an NBC producer, had arranged for Ayn Rand to appear on “Meet the Press” for a whole hour in the late 1960s. (New one on me; he may have been confusing that with a different TV interview.)
In another instance of dubious memory, inflated by second-hand gossip, an older man insists that he knew a guy in college whose father was a publisher who printed something of Rand’s. This alleged publisher—according to this man’s alleged college pal—had claimed that Rand had a crush on him and had sent him nude photos of herself. (Maybe he meant Sally Rand.)
A woman asks whether it’s true that Ayn Rand had had an affair with Ely Jacques Kahn, the architect she had worked for while researching The Fountainhead . Another young woman thinks Rand had committed suicide. “Did Rand have children?” yet another asks. An older man: “Is she still alive? I read Atlas Shrugged fifty-five years ago! Was that the one about the architect?” A frail, bespectacled young fellow of about twenty, a serious-thinker type, wonders whether all Objectivists want to nuke Iran.
Obviously, we in the Ayn Rand biography biz have our work cut out for us.
I’ve been giving the Ayn Rand tour for ten years. In all that time, I’ve had hardly any negative reactions: only one howl of derisive laughter in my face, and only one shout of “Fascist!” Much calm acceptance, though, as if it were a John O’Hara tour being offered.
And that’s the astonishing thing. No one is supposed to be neutral about Ayn Rand, right? But I am constantly meeting people who are. Most of those I encounter fail to go ballistic at the sound of her name, as they are supposed to.
A couple hauling luggage rush up to me at Grand Central, fascinated by the prospect of an Ayn Rand tour. They are from Colorado and will be in town only two days. Could I give them my tour tomorrow? They ask questions about Rand. Where did she live? When did she die? They know a young man whose parents named him “Rand,” after Ayn.
Then there’s the mother and teen daughter from New Hampshire, and the college couple from Boston, and the young couple from Sweden, and the whole family from Singapore.
There was the Daily News reporter who stopped to chat, then took my card. The blogger who posted a mention of me, and another who posted a photo.
Is Ayn Rand becoming mainstream?
Between 1958 and 1968, thirty thousand people took entire courses and another seventy thousand took individual lectures from the Nathaniel Branden Institute. That’s a lot of people. Many of them seem to be around still.
But thousands more are reading her every day.
Make yourself a sign, go stand in a public place, and see for yourself.