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GUY RAZ, host:

Now, one of Roosevelt's fiercest intellectual detractors was Ayn Rand. She saw in his New Deal the makings of a totalitarian power grab, or what she called fascism.

Roosevelt's support for collective bargaining agreements and wage and price controls during the Great Depression was eventually parodied in her famous book "Atlas Shrugged." That book, first published in 1957, has sold more than six million copies.

Since our own economic crisis that began more than a year ago, Ayn Rand's work has once again climbed up the bestseller lists. At this summer's tea party rallies, some people held signs with the famous first line from "Atlas Shrugged": Who is John Galt?

Anne Heller has written a new biography of Rand. It's called "Ayn Rand and the World She Made." And Anne Heller joins me from New York.

Welcome to the show.

Ms. ANNE HELLER (Author, "Ayn Rand and the World She Made"): I'm pleased to be here. Thank you.

RAZ: You write about Ayn Rand's philosophical journey. She was born in Russia. She watched her family's fortune expropriated by Russian communists, and that really galvanized her view of the dangers of any type of government interference in the marketplace, right?

Ms. HELLER: Yes. It made her very wary of any authoritarian entity, and it also taught her that anybody who tells you that you should sacrifice to the state, as Lenin certainly did, wants to be the state or already is the state, which was a lesson that carried over into most of her philosophy.

RAZ: Ayn Rand somehow lands in Hollywood shortly after she arrives to the United States. What did she make of the prevailing political atmosphere in Hollywood?

Ms. HELLER: Well, she moved to New York in 1934. And up until that point, she really didn't know what was going on politically. She even voted for FDR in her first American vote. When she came back to Hollywood to write the screenplay for "The Fountainhead," Hollywood was one of the primary places where overt communism thrived. It was very fashionable for actors and screenwriters and others to actually join the Communist Party or front organizations. And when she saw this, she was absolutely horrified because she knew what communism was, and it drove her crazy to hear the romanticization of communism.

RAZ: Ayn Rand eventually goes on to form sort of a circle, kind of a salon of philosophical fellow travelers. She becomes, of course, the leader of this group, and a group that had this cult-like devotion to her. What would explain that?

Ms. HELLER: She must have been quite magnetic. People, young people, especially young men, gathered around her in the late �40s, when she was writing -beginning to write "Atlas Shrugged." And she would read it out loud to them.

RAZ: How did they find out about her? I mean, was she publishing her work elsewhere?

Ms. HELLER: No, these were movie people, for the most part.

RAZ: They just heard about this really smart woman?

Ms. HELLER: Yeah, they met her on the lot. She had an office at Paramount for a number of years. She would invite them to visit her at what she called the ranch, which was about 20 miles from Hollywood, out in the orange groves. They would come. They would have all-night intellectual discussions, and they would be mesmerized...

RAZ: This is a ranch that she owned.

Ms. HELLER: This is the ranch that she and her husband, Frank O'Connor, owned.

RAZ: I'm curious about the way her sort of acolytes interacted with her. She preaches this idea that the individual has absolute freedom, but she had no tolerance for dissent within her own circle.

Ms. HELLER: That's very true. And as she grew older, her demands for loyalty and agreement in every tiny element of living grew stronger. What she would tell you, basically, is that she was right, and you were not thinking properly if you didn't agree with her. Therefore, it had nothing to do with being an individual, it had to do with being smart. It's like any cult.

RAZ: And it was a cult.

Ms. HELLER: It was a cult. The leader becomes less and less reasonable on the question of his own importance.

RAZ: How would you describe her view of government? What role did she think government should play?

Ms. HELLER: She wrote that government should perform three functions: Defend us from foreign enemies, police the nation for crime, and enforce voluntary contracts between free parties and do nothing else.

RAZ: What do you think Ayn Rand would have made of President Obama's stimulus package and the bank bailout, for example?

Ms. HELLER: Oh, she would have been - I mean, it would have made her sick. She actually believed that we wouldn't go through recessions and depressions or any other trauma, economic trauma, except that regulations caused it. If the markets would just be free, it would take care of itself, and government regulation was responsible for everything that was wrong.

RAZ: One of her most famous pupils, of course, was Alan Greenspan.

Ms. HELLER: Yes.

RAZ: Who famously, last year in congressional testimony, seemed to suggest that his earlier view of the way markets work may have been wrong.

Ms. HELLER: It was rather poignant, I thought. He talked about his faith in the honor of businesspeople in language that he'd used 40 years ago. He was, in a sense, for the first time in his life, renouncing Ayn Rand to some degree, and I think that was a turning point for him.

RAZ: Her books, "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead," are once again climbing up the bestseller lists. What do you think explains the appeal now?

Ms. HELLER: It's quite remarkable how the events in "Atlas Shrugged," the taking over of the steel plants, the failing of the railroads, an economy in decay, parallels what we've seen for the last year. And she looks like a bit of a prophet from one point of view at this point.

RAZ: Did you come out of this book liking her?

Ms. HELLER: You know, I went into the book not understanding her at all. She was one of a few people that I could not empathize with. I could not get inside of her head. By the end of the book, I could. And no, I didn't like her at all, but I empathized with her just a little bit.

RAZ: Anne Heller is the author of the new book "Ayn Rand and the World She Made."

Anne Heller, thank you so much.

Ms. HELLER: Thank you very much.

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