Reason as the Leading Motive

Meeting Ayn Rand

Posted by Jerry on August 27, 2007

Dr. George Reisman wrote Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, which is available as a free PDF for browsing and downloading (not printing, though) from his website. Reisman’s book was extolled by James Buchanan, a Nobel laureate in Economics, as an “exposure of modern mercantilist fallacies takes its place alongside that of Adam Smith.” Basically, the book is a tremendously important and comprehensive work on Capitalism, and since it’s available for free on the internet, everyone should take advantage of the resource and read as much it as they can online.

In the Preface to his book, Reisman recounts the history of his intellectual growth and the influence of his mentors on his philosophical views. Early in his career, he was heavily influenced by Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard–accepting their views of utilitarianism in ethics, subjectivism in values, and anarchism in politics. However, after meeting Ayn Rand one evening in New York, Reisman remembers that his most fundamental views were heavily shaken to the core. Over time, he came to completely reject utilitarianism, subjectivism, and anarchism, even culminating to the point in his personal life when he broke ties with anarchist-libertarian Murray Rothbard.

This is an excerpt from Reisman’s account of his meeting with Ayn Rand:

At one of our gatherings, in the summer of 1954, over three years before the publication of Atlas Shrugged, [Murray] Rothbard brought up the name Ayn Rand, whom I had not previously heard of. He described her as an extremely interesting person and, when he observed the curiosity of our whole group, asked if we would be interested in meeting her. Everyone in the group was very much interested. He then proceeded to arrange a meeting for the second Saturday night in July, at her apartment in midtown Manhattan.

That meeting, and the next one a week later, had an unforgettable effect on me. In the year or more before I entered Ayn Rand’s apartment, I held three explicitly formulated leading intellectual values: liberalism (in the sense in which [Ludwig von] Mises used the term, and which actually meant capitalism); utilitarianism, which was my philosophy of ethics and which I had learned largely from Mises (though not entirely, inasmuch as I had already come to the conclusion on my own that everything a person does is selfish insofar as it seeks to achieve his ends); and “McCarthyism,” which I was enthusiastically for, because I believed that the country was heavily infested with communists and socialists, whom I detested, and to whom Senator McCarthy was causing a major amount of upset. By the time I left Ayn Rand’s apartment, even after the first meeting, I was seriously shaken in my attachment to utilitarianism.

Both meetings began at about 8:30 in the evening and lasted until about five o’clock the following morning. When I was introduced to her, I had no real idea of her intellectual caliber. I quickly began to learn her estimate of herself, however, when I offered her two tickets to an upcoming dinner in honor of Roy Cohn, Senator McCarthy’s chief aide, at which Senator McCarthy would be present. (I was scheduled to make a brief speech at the event, and when I mentioned to one of the event’s organizers that I was going to meet Ayn Rand, she asked me to extend the invitation.) Miss Rand declined the invitation on the grounds that to get involved as she would need to get involved, she would have to drop her present project (which was the writing of Atlas Shrugged) and do for McCarthy what Zola had done for Dreyfus. I had seen the Paul Muni movie Zola, and so had a good idea of Zola’s stature. I don’t quite remember how I experienced the comparison, but it was probably something comparable to the expression of a silent whistle. (After I came to appreciate the nature of Ayn Rand’s accomplishments, a comparison to Zola would seem several orders of magnitude too modest.)

At both meetings, most of the time was taken up with my arguing with Ayn Rand about whether values were subjective or objective, while Rothbard, as he himself later described it, looked on with amusement, watching me raise all the same questions and objections he had raised on some previous occasion, equally to no avail.

I had a sense of amazement at both meetings. I was amazed that I was involved in an argument that in the beginning seemed absolutely open and shut to me, and yet that I could not win. I was amazed that my opponent was expressing views that I found both utterly naïve and at the same time was incapable of answering without being driven to support positions that I did not want to support, and that I was repeatedly being driven into supporting such positions.

Neither of the evenings was very pleasant. At one point–I don’t know how we got to the subject, nor whether it occurred at our first or second meeting–I expressed the conviction that a void must exist. Otherwise, I did not see how the existence of motion was possible, since two objects could not occupy the same place at the same time. Ayn Rand’s reply to my expression of my conviction was that “it was worse than anything a communist could have said.” (In retrospect, recognizing that the starting point of her philosophy is that “existence exists,” I realize she took my statement to mean that I upheld the existence of “nonexistence” and was thus maintaining the worst possible contradiction.)

Because of such unpleasantness, I did not desire to see her again until after I read Atlas Shrugged. However, I could not forget our meetings and could not help wondering if somehow she might be right that values really were objective after all.

I obtained a very early copy [of Atlas Shrugged] and began to read it almost immediately. Once I started it, I could not put it down, except for such necessary things as eating and sleeping. I was simply pulled along by what I have thought of ever since as the most exciting plot-novel ever written. Every two hundred pages or so, the story reached a new level of intensity, making it even more demanding of resolution than it was before. I stopped only when I finally finished the book, four days after I had started it. When I finished, the only thing I could find to say in criticism, tongue in cheek, was that the book was too short and the villains were not black enough.

Very soon thereafter, the whole Circle Bastiat, myself included, met again with Ayn Rand. We were all tremendously enthusiastic over Atlas. Rothbard wrote Ayn Rand a letter, in which, I believe, he compared her to the sun, which one cannot approach too closely. I truly thought that Atlas Shrugged would convert the country — in about six weeks; I could not understand how anyone could read it without being either convinced by what it had to say or else hospitalized by a mental breakdown.

The following winter, Rothbard, Raico, and I, and, I think, Bob Hessen, all enrolled in the very first lecture course ever delivered on Objectivism. This was before Objectivism even had the name “Objectivism” and was still described simply as “the philosophy of Ayn Rand.” Nevertheless, by the summer of that same year, 1958, tensions had begun to develop between Rothbard and Ayn Rand, which led to a shattering of relationships, including my friendship with him.

Shortly after that break, I took Rothbard’s place in making a presentation in Ayn Rand’s living room of the case for “competing governments,” i.e., the purchase and sale evenof such government services as police, courts, and military in a free market. As the result of Ayn Rand’s criticisms, I came to the conclusion that the case was untenable. […]

The influence of her philosophy extolling individual rights and the value of human life and reason appears repeatedly in this [Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics] book and sets its intellectual tone…. I have found her treatment of the concepts of individual rights and freedom to be far superior to that of anyone else.”

Another account of meeting personally with Ayn Rand is provided by Bennett Cerf, the founder of Random House, the first publishers of Atlas Shrugged. In his account, Cerf describes Ayn Rand as a “very simple and modest woman”! Quite strange, one would like to think, for a woman who developed a philosophy that championed egoism and self-interest.

[D]uring the four years [Hiram Hadyn] was at Random House he brought us a number of authors we were very happy to have and who remained with us after he left.

The first of these was Ayn Rand, whose The Fountainhead had been published by Bobbs-Merrill while Hiram was there. I had never met Ayn Rand, but I had heard of her philosophy, which I found absolutely horrifying. The Fountainhead is an absorbing story, nonetheless. She was very dubious about coming to Random House, she told Hiram, because her sycophants had told her that we were way over on the left and that she didn’t belong with us. But this rather intrigued her — being published by a liberal house rather than one where she would ordinarily be expected to go. Furthermore, she had heard about me — one of the extra dividends you get from being known. She had lunch with Hiram, Donald and me at the Ambassador Hotel, now unfortunately torn down, and asked us a lot of questions. I found myself liking her, though I had not expected to.

She has piercing eyes that seem to look right through you and a wonderful way of pinning you to the wall. You can’t make any loose statements to Ayn Rand; she hops on you and says, “Let us examine your premises.” […] She asked me an infinite number of questions. Later on, after she came to Random House, she showed me a chart she had kept. She had visited about fifteen publishers, and when she got home she rated them on all the things they had said. I didn’t realize, of course, that I was being examined this way, but I came out very high because I had been absolutely honest with her. I had said, “I find your political philosophy abhorrent.” Nobody else had dared tell her this. […]

At any rate, Ayn and I became good friends. What I loved to do was trot her out for people who sneered at us for publishing her. She would invariably charm them. For instance, Clifton Fadiman, who had snorted at the idea of our publishing Ayn Rand, sat talking with her until about three in the morning. George Axelrod, author of The Seven Year Itch, toward the end of a long, long evening at Ayn’s, disappeared with her into another room and we couldn’t get him to go home. Later he said, “She knows me better after five hours than my analyst does after five years.”

Ayn is a remarkable woman, but in my opinion, she was not helped by her sycophants. She’s like a movie queen with her retinue, or a prize-fight champion who’s followed by a bunch of hangers-on, or a big crooner and his worshipers. They all come to need this adulation. These people tell her she’s a genius and agree with everything she says, and she grows more and more opinionated as she goes along. You can’t argue with Ayn Rand. She’s so clever at it, she makes a fool out of you. Any time I started arguing with her, she’d trick me into making some crazy statement and then demolish me. […]

A very peculiar thing happened early in our relationship — the first time Phyllis [Cerf’s wife] met her, Ayn came to our house and said to Phyllis for openers, “We have met before.” Phyllis said, “Oh, Miss Rand, you must be mistaken.” Ayn Rand said, “We have met before.” Phyllis said, “It’s impossible. I would certainly remember you if I had met you.” Ayn said, “No. You wouldn’t. Do you remember when you were a baby starlet at RKO in the movies?” Phyllis said, “Yes.” Ayn said, “I was working in the costume department there at twenty-five dollars a week, and I handed you several of your costumes.” Incredible, but true.

Ayn’s a very simple and modest woman. We were on our way to lunch in Radio City once, and as we passed one of those junk shops with all kinds of statues and knickknacks, she saw a little blue bracelet in the window, and like a twelve-year-old girl, Ayn said, “Isn’t that a beautiful bracelet!” So I went in and bought it for her. It cost exactly one dollar, but she was as happy as a child. […]

I thought she was one of the most interesting authors we’ve ever had. Many people who disapproved of a lot of the books we published worshipped Ayn Rand; and wherever I go lecturing, somebody is sure to pop up and say, with adoration, “Tell me about Ayn Rand.” When she gave a talk at Harvard, the hall was full of students who came to hoot but stayed to applaud. They weren’t convinced by her but they were impressed by her sincerity. This is a brilliant woman.

And just as a bonus addition, below is a picture of the house in California that Rand and her husband Frank O’Conner lived in; the house was designed by the architect Richard Neutra.



5 Responses to “Meeting Ayn Rand”

  1. Avadhut said

    truly thought that Atlas Shrugged would convert the country — in about six weeks; I could not understand how anyone could read it without being either convinced by what it had to say or else hospitalized by a mental breakdown.


  2. Ergo said

    Yea. crazy, no? Reisman apparently finished reading that tome in FOUR days! Gawd. It took me almost a year to complete it.

  3. mahendrap said

    Thanks for sharing these wonderful gems! Any real-life descriptions of Rand herself are not easy to come by and should be cherished as jewels.

    I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say “I finished reading Atlas Shrugged”. To me, it seems more like an ongoing process that will never be “finished” in my lifetime!

  4. Myrhaf said

    The most interesting question these excerpts raise is: Was Ayn Rand ill served by her “sycophants”? Was Cerf’s observation accurate? We do know now that several of her followers were not always honest with her.

  5. Ergo said

    Hey Myrhaf,

    I do believe Rand was unfortunately ill-served by some of the people around her and those involved in the early Objectivist movement. The most tragic part of this all–and of which I feel like I have personally experienced a tremendous loss–is how Rand’s most precious years were considerably wasted in having to deal with the issues surrounding the Brandens instead of being spent on producing more revolutionary works in fiction or non-fiction philosophy. Imagine what indescribable pleasure it would be to have another Ayn Rand novel to experience. I believe she had barely begun writing a new novel whose theme was the personal, intimate, and romantic areas of man’s life.

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