I would prefer that this article was not necessary. I would prefer that any student of Objectivism who reads Barbara Branden’s biography The Passion of Ayn Rand be able to recognize the book’s falsehoods and poor argumentation. Sadly, my experience in discussing the book has shown me that this is not the case.
Does the book distort the facts? Is there faulty argumentation? Consider the following:
On page 109, Barbara Branden, in discussing “The Simplest Thing in the World,” writes that Henry Dorn wants to write “some popular nonsense that would sell—unlike the novel he had spent five years working on, ‘writing as carefully, as scrupulously, as delicately as he knew how,’ and which had not sold.” It is untrue that Henry Dorn’s book had not sold; on the first page of the story, we read of Dorn’s shelf holding a copy of “Triumph by Henry Dorn” that this was the book he spent five years working on, and that what the book suffered was bad reviews and inaccurate ones. Could Branden have missed the import of these passages? But there’s something worse; the sentence that Branden quotes reads in full: “And the things that were there, in his book, the things he had spent five years thinking of and writing, writing as carefully, as scrupulously, as delicately as he knew how—these things Fleurette Lumm had not mentioned at all.” How could Barbara have quoted from the original sentence, and yet not notice the reference to Fleurette Lumm, a name which should have caused Branden to question whether Triumph had been read by a reviewer. I conclude here that Branden did not write carefully or scrupulously, and I was left to wonder how she might have interpreted facts which are not so available to confirmation. (In the fifteen minutes it took me to write this paragraph, it occurred to me that Branden’s sentence might have been construed by her to mean, “…, and which had not sold many copies.” However, if this is true, my criticism remains valid, for she should not have left her sentence in a state which leaves her reader to guess her meaning.)
Was Branden’s reasoning sloppy when she interpreted events which cannot be verified through easily-accessed sources? I’m afraid so. Consider this:
On page 207, Branden quotes Ayn Rand discussing film director King Vidor (who directed The Fountainhead). “He was a naturalist,” said Ayn Rand, “so he had no mind or imagination for the book; he seemed anxious to do right by it, but he was afraid of it.” Fine, but look what Branden makes of this: “Critics do not agree that Vidor was a naturalist. In Coop, a biography of Gary Cooper, Stuart Kaminsky wrote: ‘The Vidor film [of The Fountainhead] is one of the most… antinaturalist films imaginable… . There is almost no attempt in the film to make the dialogue or scenes conform to the prevailing American goal of ‘realism.’ … Symbolism is overt with no apologies.’” In my view, however, Vidor must be regarded as a naturalist. Slice-of-life situations and realistic portrayals are what characterize Vidor’s most highly-regarded films, those being The Big Parade, The Crowd, Street Scene and Our Daily Bread—all of which show the skill of a master director who created some of the most dramatic moments in all of movie history. Granted, Vidor chose to shoot The Fountainhead with peculiar lighting, barren sets and extravagant acting, but this only demonstrates that he was a naturalist behaving like an expressionist. That the symbolism was overt only shows that he did not carry off the charade well. Therefore both Rand’s and Kaminsky’s statements can be true without conflict. Branden’s statement that “Critics do not agree that Vidor was a naturalist” has nothing to do with the rest of her argument and only demonstrates that she was unable to comprehend the statement she quoted. It also shows that she failed to see the delimitations Rand and Kaminsky set in their statements, that both statements might fill in the gaps of the other, and that Branden wrote using pure rationalism. Branden unwittingly provided an example of what blunders occur when rationalism is used as a glue to hold together two undigested thoughts.
Undigested thoughts are glued to one another throughout the book.
On page 88, Branden writes of Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor, “He was not a giant of the intellect, he was not a world-mover. But for Ayn, he had to be a hero.” Branden implies a deficiency or contradiction in Rand’s mind for seeing heroism in a man without the first two traits. Notice the lumping together of “world-mover” with “hero.” (And note the damning conclusion!) Turn to Ayn Rand’s “An Answer to Readers” in the March 1967 issue of The Objectivist for a statement by Ayn Rand that such package-dealing is not applicable to the evaluation of a person’s character. Yet from this first conclusion Branden makes a number of more (damning) conclusions.
On page 135, Barbara Branden cites Ayn Rand’s often-quoted statement that “Dominique [in The Fountainhead] is myself in a bad mood.” Fine. Branden then writes—validly—“Ayn told close friends—although she never stated it publicly—‘The other source of Dominique was Frank.’” Yet Branden attacks Rand on this view, and denies that Frank could have been half of the inspiration for Dominique. “Like Dominique,” Branden argues, “he had withdrawn from the world. Unlike Dominique, he had withdrawn into silence and passivity.” Once again, Branden failed to see the delimitations of the material she was quoting.
Branden quotes Ayn on why she regarded Dominique as being like Frank thusly: “I knew that here was someone stopped by enormous contempt for the world… a withdrawal from the world not out of bad motives or cowardice but out of an unbearable idealism which does not know how to function in journalistic reality as it is.” Yet although Branden has recognized that Frank was only part of the inspiration, she writes, “Bitterness? Contempt? Passion? These were not attributes that had relevance to Frank.” Who said that they did? Ayn Rand had just been quoted as saying that she had two sources for Dominique—Frank, and “herself in a bad mood.” Yet Branden carries on as if every characteristic of Dominique would have to be in Frank in order for Rand’s statement to have any validity.
(PARENTHETICAL SIDEBAR: In logic, the error Branden made regarding Frank as Dominique and regarding Vidor’s overall work (as opposed to merely The Fountainhead) illustrate the misidentification of distributed and undistributed subjects, and from that illicit conversion.)
Does Branden then try to reconcile the “opposing” views of Frank? No. Rather she obfuscates the matter further by discussing the opinions of other people who had heard Ayn discuss her “two sources of Dominique.” Those who knew the O’Connors at the time, Branden writes, were “dumbfounded, at [Ayn’s] lack of objectivity.” This policy of giving weight to the opinions of sideline observers, of not emphasizing the opinion of the person who knew best, runs throughout the book.
But, the reader might ask, wouldn’t Barbara Branden know best, for she was near Rand for 18 years from 1950 to 1968? Yes, she was there. Unfortunately for her and her readers, her memories (if that is what she writes from) conflict with verifiable facts.
In discussing the writing of Atlas Shrugged, Branden says that Rand would not “abandon herself uncritically to the literary inspiration, the free, uncensored flow of thought and feeling that emotions provide a creative artist; the process of inspirational writing was aborted before it could fully begin.” (p. 246) This is not what Ayn Rand said in her lecture course on Fiction Writing which Barbara Branden attended at Ayn Rand’s apartment in 1958. (This lecture series became available to the general public in the summer of 1986, the same period that the biography was published. At this time, it is available on cassette from Second Renaissance Books.) Furthermore, this “aborted inspiration” nonsense is contradicted by Rand’s words as quoted by Nathaniel Branden in the third chapter of Nathaniel and Barbara Branden’s 1962 book Who is Ayn Rand? In that book, a lengthy quotation by Ayn Rand offers her extemporaneous analysis of a paragraph from Atlas Shrugged chosen at random. (See pages 111-114 of the Who is Ayn Rand? paperback.) Rand is quoted as saying: “I did not calculate this by a conscious process of thought while writing the paragraph. I will not attempt here to explain the whole psychological complexity of the process of writing; I will merely indicate its essence: it consists of giving one’s subconscious the right orders in advance, or of setting the right premises. One must hold all the elements of the book’s theme, plot and main characters so firmly in one’s mind that they become automatic and almost ‘instinctual.’ Then, as one approaches the writing of any given scene or paragraph, one has the sense or ‘feel’ of what it has to be by the logic of the context—and one’s subconscious makes the right selections to express it. Later, one checks and improves the result by means of conscious editing.”
Nonetheless, Barbara Branden does not hint to the readers of her new biography that Rand could so much as have contemplated that approach, and writes: “She was rarely solely creator; she was editor as well, during the very act of creation, often devising each paragraph, each sentence, each phrase, sometimes each word, by conscious rational calculation.” (p. 246) Michael Berliner, editor of The Letters of Ayn Rand, has stated that Rand did develop stern editing procedures as a result of the correspondence she exactingly wrote to relatives in the Soviet Union whose mail was censored. However, Branden paints a picture of all of Rand’s writing being composed in this stifling manner even though this characterization does not apply universally.
In 1958, however, Branden was present (during the Fiction Writing course) as Rand counseled students not to take too hard their difficulties and told them, “One day you’ll wake up and have the answer.” (I’m paraphrasing. This passage occurs in the first of the twelve re-edited lectures released by Lectures on Objectivism, approximately 44 minutes into the tape.) In the course, Ayn also spoke of “scenes which write themselves, as if someone else was dictating” (lecture 1, at approximately 54 minutes), and cautioned students not to edit themselves while writing, that they couldn’t justly expect themselves to do so just as “you can’t change horses mid-stream.” (lecture 2, at one minute)1 Again, I would not dispute Barbara Branden were she have to stated that some of Atlas Shrugged was written in emotional detachment—in the Fiction Writing course, Rand says that it was by experience that she learned that she could not write by conscious calculation. Yet Branden makes no remark that Rand may later have improved her method, nor that Rand might have written with less calculation earlier, as when she wrote several hundred pages of her novel The Fountainhead within the single year of 1942.
Here is the problem with the book. The problem is not that it expresses unflattering opinions (to say the least) or that it gives fallacious facts, but that it combines (nearly) uncheckable falsified facts with a wrong view. Branden often ignores the true facts.
Mistakes are everywhere:
(The error that Branden made on page 423 regarding Anthem and For the New Intellectual, which appears within Branden’s list of “Books by Ayn Rand,” is the same error made by Mimi Reisel Gladstein in her book The Ayn Rand Companion. Gladstein also erred on the date of the paperback of Atlas Shrugged, but said “1957” where Branden had more plausible dates.)
One pivotal subject in Ayn Rand’s life—the changing of her name from Alice Rosenbaum to Ayn Rand—is described by a scenario that, point by point, doesn’t square with the facts. In Barbara Branden’s account (pgs. 71-72), recent emigrant Alice was in Chicago when, in the presence of a Remington-Rand typewriter and wanting to preserve her initials in her new name, she rejected “Ayn Remington” and hit upon “Ayn Rand.” Branden continues: “Ayn never told her family in Russia the new name she had chosen.” These remarks are wrong on a number of details:
Unfortunately, it seems not to have mattered to Branden to put events in the correct order. In one paragraph, she jumbles together several events which the Nathaniel Branden Institute people held, but she supplies no dates (except for one event which is dated 1967). She doesn’t mention until near the end the “The Attilas versus The Witch Doctors” baseball games which had already begun by 1963—before other events known by me to have occurred in the middle to late sixties which are discussed earlier in the book. (One of the games was the subject of a “Social Note” written by Barbara Branden which appeared in the October 1963 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter.)
On page 218, we read, “Now, with the release of the movie [The Fountainhead], she was due to return to [producer Hal] Wallis for another six months… she had worked for him three years of the projected five.” Warner’s The Fountainhead was released in July 1949; if Ayn had only worked three years, she would have begun in 1946. Yet she started about July 1944. (Her first script to be produced, Love Letters, finished shooting December 24, 1944.)2 Inasmuch as a count on my fingers reveals that 1945 would be her second year and 1946 her third, I fail to see how she could have left Wallis in 1949 having only been with him three years. Branden mentions that Rand had once received a six-month extension on her annual six-month leave, but this could scarcely account for all of the difference.
This same type of date obfuscation—and disregard for facts—occurs when Branden writes about the proposed production of Rand’s first screenplay, Red Pawn (pg. 107). Sold originally to Universal in 1932, then traded to Paramount (“shortly thereafter” we’re told), Red Pawn was set to be produced by Paramount until the intended director, Josef von Steinberg, chose not to do it—according to the Branden biography. However, the book confuses matters by telling us that Sternberg chose not to direct Red Pawn because he had just finished a Russian-set movie starring Marlene Dietrich (the intended star of Red Pawn) and did not want to do another immediately. This other movie was The Scarlet Empress. This fact might not seem to conflict with Branden’s story until you discover that Scarlet Empress did not go into production until the week of October 23, 1933, did not complete production until January 1934 and was not released until September 14, 1934. Therefore Ayn Rand could not have gone to work on Red Pawn at Paramount until January 1934, despite Branden’s implication that the events followed one another in brisk tempo.
Given Branden’s failure to verify facts, her inability to organize them, and her misreading of their meaning, it doesn’t surprise me that when she chose to supply her interpretations of the value to Ayn Rand of the events in Rand’s life, that she engaged in inaccurate, poorly-reasoned psychologizing. Throughout the book, Branden intrudes into the narrative to offer bizarre contentions. On page 5 for example: “Her father’s seeming indifference to her and her mother’s disapproval had to be sources of anguish to the child, yet as an adult she spoke of them as though they were simple facts of reality of no emotional significance to her then or later. One can only conclude that a policy of self-protective emotional repression, which was so clearly to characterize her adult years, was becoming deeply rooted even as a child.” And on page 9: “[A]t a deeper level, she must have suffered at a mother’s rejection.” Finally, on page 6: “She felt a danger hanging somewhere over her head…, a reaction she was to carry with her all of her life, unadmitted and unrecognized but with a singular motivational effect: the feeling that the physical world held neither safety nor ease for her.”
Statements such as these are made with no suggestion that Rand might have confronted any fears she may have had, nor with any suggestion that she might have had a number of opposite experiences which would counter effect the negative effects of the early memory. Branden would have the reader believe that Rand never returned to her memories to examine why the events had caused her pain—although Rand wrote about such personal soul-searches in articles such as “The Psychology of Psychologizing” and “From ‘My Future File.’”
The book could have you conclude that Rand never dealt with her disappointments by projecting an ideal—although Rand wrote that this was her advice and wrote fiction about heroes and heroines who projected ideals themselves.
Could Mrs. Branden be granted some latitude on the basis that she may not have received helpful advice as to what would and would not constitute justified speculation? Information told me by Branden’s (uncredited) research associate, Terry Diamond, would indicate that Branden was provided constructive criticism which went unheeded. Terry Diamond told me that one particularly unwarranted psychologizing passage was seen by him in an early version of the manuscript, that he argued against its inclusion, and that Branden conceded that he was correct. Diamond watched as Branden punched the keys on her computer keyboard which deleted the offending passage. Branden subsequently restored it, but Diamond did not learn that she had until the book was in print—even though he continued to work for her until the manuscript was completed.
Given what Branden does in recounting these events, we have reason to discount her recollection of a series of events at which Barbara Branden was present: her ostracism from Ayn Rand’s life in 1968.
Barbara claims that her then-husband Nathaniel Branden made special pains not to show any scorn toward Ayn Rand and that he denied that twenty-five years of age difference did not pose a barrier towards a sexual relationship. Yet better acquittance with some facts told me that Barbara gives here an inaccurate picture. In Nathaniel Branden’s article “Self-Esteem,” Part V (The Objectivist, September 1967), Branden discussed the psychology of “a middle-aged woman whose sense of personal value is crucially dependent on the image of herself as a glamorous, youthful beauty—who perceives every wrinkle on her face as a metaphysical threat to her identity—and who, to preserve that identity, plunges into a series of romantic relationships with men more than twenty years her junior,” and who “rationaliz[es] each relationship as a grand passion.” Although this passage does not prove that Nathaniel Branden was trying to reach Ayn Rand through his writing, it is a certainty that she would have read this because it would appear in a magazine on which she was named as co-editor; the existence of the quoted passage disproves Barbara Branden’s assertion than Nathaniel made tremendous efforts to not show any “scorn” Ayn Rand’s age as it related to sexual attraction, for one would have to wonder how that passage could be included in a manuscript for The Objectivist and not be the subject of conversation. (The passage quoted was later included in Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem.)
(Incidentally, in Part IV of “Self-Esteem” (The Objectivist, June 1967), Branden wrote of the person who, “being highly specialized in his interests, … may lack many of the practical skills that most men take for granted, such as, for instance, the knowledge of how to drive an automobile.” This might have been another jab at Rand, who did not drive. Nathaniel Branden, in a memoir titled Judgment Day which he published after The Passion of Ayn Rand, openly admits his scorn and that he derived perverse pleasure from the manipulation of several people.)
Nathaniel’s seedy side is not depicted by Barbara in her book. Instead we are shown a Nathaniel kowtowing to Ayn Rand’s moods, figuratively walking on eggshells to not incur her ire. The Ayn Rand depicted gets angry quickly, striking back at Nathaniel when catching on to his duplicity by slapping his face with her hand with such force that she left three red indentations in his cheek. (Only two indentations were left when this story was recounted in Nathaniel’s memoir. He portrayed himself as having conducted himself in such a manner that the physical contact was not unexpected.)
Barbara writes that when Nathaniel was faced with departing NBI, the prospect would leave him having no money. (p 348) Yet, strangely enough, in Ayn Rand’s “To Whom it May Concern” (written September 1968), Barbara Branden was said to be financially dependent on NBI’s continued operation: “if NBI were to be closed, she would be left in serious financial difficulty” (p 5 of Rand’s article). Barbara Branden in her book claims that NBI was an efficient business that was able to anticipate gross receipts for a given year within two to three percent (p 350). Ayn Rand in her article wrote, “In the past few years, as I was told by its principals, the combined gross income of NBI and its affiliates [‘NBI Book Service, NBI Communications, NBI Press, NBI Theater’] was about $400,000 a year,” from which Ayn Rand received little.
Within a few years of Nathaniel Branden leaving New York City and setting up a new psychology practice in Los Angeles, he owned homes in both Beverly Hills and Lake Arrowhead—two of the most expensive cities in which to buy homes in California. This scarcely gels with Barbara’s contention that she and her estranged husband would be penniless upon ostracism. (In interviews Barbara gave after publication of The Passion of Ayn Rand, she decried that NBI closed before she could be given a long-promised leave from its operation during which Nathaniel was to take over her NBI duties; she was waiting the completion of his book The Psychology of Self-Esteem. She paints herself as being deprived of the opportunity to write full-time as a result of both Nathaniel’s prolonged writing and the closing of NBI which immediately followed. She fails to report that, entitled as she was by her marriage separation agreement to one-third of Nathaniel’s high income, she would not have to work.)
What happened to the profits from $400,000 a year?
Ayn Rand’s fans see many criticisms of her work, life, accomplishments and character. The biography by Barbara Branden is but another instance. Many of the critics reveal more than anything else their own inability to think clearly or deeply. Barbara Branden’s errors show that, at the time she was writing this book, she failed to avoid committing fallacies that did not ensnare her subject.
1. Ayn Rand also spoke on these topics and in the same vein in lecture 5 at 40 minutes, in lecture 7 at 105 minutes, in lecture 8 beginning at 9 minutes and continuing for some time after that.
2. Although You Came Along, co-written by Rand, was released June 1945—two months before
Love Letters—it was the second of her screenplays to be shot, with shooting completed in February 1945.
(This analysis of Barbara Branden’s book was first prepared by me within a month of the publication of that book. It was originally a 30-page letter circulated by me to roughly a dozen friends and acquaintances. After Bruce Battoe, then editor of “Objectively Speaking” magazine, asked me to cut it to under half its length for publication, I did so, and the shortened, reorganized version appeared in the magazine’s December 1988 issue. This online version restores some brief arguments and documentation that I cut from the published article for purposes of space, as well as returns one section. The section debunking the Remington-Rand story was added August 1998. A few other sentences have been added where other previously-unpublished information has become available which further supports statements made herein about inaccuracies in the Branden book.)
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Entire contents © 1986, 1988, 1998-2000, 2008 David P. Hayes