The Monster of We : Throughline Are most modern problems caused by selfishness or a lack of it? Ayn Rand, a Russian American philosopher and writer, would say it's the latter — that selfishness is not a vice but a virtue — and that capitalism is the ideal system. Everyone from Donald Trump to Alan Greenspan to Brad Pitt have sung Ayn Rand's praises. The Library of Congress named her novel, Atlas Shrugged, the second most influential book in the U.S. after the Bible. Ayn Rand wasn't politically correct, she was belligerent and liked going against the grain. And although she lived by the doctrine of her own greatness, she was driven by the fear that she would never be good enough.

In this episode, historian Jennifer Burns will guide us through Rand's evolution and how she eventually reshaped American politics, becoming what Burns calls "a gateway drug to life on the right."

The Monster of We

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A lot of people really despise her.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She was a piss-poor writer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A lot of people really love her.

JOHNNY CARSON: I think you'll find her most unusual and most controversial.

PHIL DONAHUE: She may be our most debated philosopher.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh, God, what a horrible person.

DONAHUE: I am pleased to present Ayn Rand.




Whether you're a fan of Ayn Rand, you rolled your eyes when you saw her name in your feed or you don't really know much about her, we got you.

JENNIFER BURNS: Let's see. How would I describe Ayn Rand to a middle-schooler? She is a very powerful and unique lady who had a dream to be a writer and to share her ideas with the world. And she grew up in a society where she felt stifled and held down. She felt like she couldn't be herself. She adopted a new name, and she began writing stories sharing her imaginative inner world with anyone who wanted to go to a different place and hear different ideas.

ABDELFATAH: Ayn Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and immigrated to the U.S. in her early 20s, where she built up a name for herself over the next few decades. She was, in many ways, a walking contradiction. She loved capitalism and hated God. She was a powerful woman who said she'd never vote for a female president. And she was a philosopher obsessed with Hollywood. When she died in 1982, she left a legacy of controversy, a legacy that's maintained to this day. And that's exactly how she wanted it.

BURNS: She was a very provocative writer, and she enjoyed setting herself against the major ideas that other people held. And she wanted to be different, but she also wanted to be loved. And it was hard for her to get both in the end.

ABDELFATAH: This is Jennifer Burns.

BURNS: I'm an associate professor of history at Stanford University, and I'm the author of "Goddess Of The Market: Ayn Rand And The American Right."

ABDELFATAH: Jennifer says Ayn Rand's ideas about freedom, individualism and the benefits of capitalism are a sort of gateway drug to conservative politics because so many of those beliefs overlap with the political ideology of the right.


PAUL RYAN: The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.


That's one of Rand's biggest fans, former Republican Senator Paul Ryan.


RYAN: Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism. And this, to me, is what matters most.

TED CRUZ: Now, let me encourage any of you who have not read "Atlas Shrugged" to go tomorrow, buy "Atlas Shrugged" and read it.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Paul Ryan's love for Rand is shared by fellow Republican Senator Ted Cruz.


CRUZ: Because we are living in the days of Ayn Rand.

BURNS: She kind of played out this dystopian fantasy in the United States to say, OK, what happens if the government keeps on growing in the name of the greater good and the name of all these moral ideas that we think sound good, keeps getting more and more power and interfering more and more in people's lives? What would that look like?

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The thing is, these grand ideas aren't tucked away in political speeches or highbrow scholarly journals, but in romance novels, "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" being her most famous. And Rand's influence goes beyond the political sphere. For decades, many people who read her books, independent of their politics, say they experience a sort of transformation, an awakening, centering themselves in their own story, putting themselves and their desires first - you know, kind of like self-help.

BURNS: It's not just a self-esteem, self-help kind of message. It was also that selfishness is good. Selfishness is a virtue. She's for anyone who's in that moment of life when you're searching.


ABDELFATAH: Is selfishness a bad thing? Ayn Rand didn't think so. In fact, she thought selfishness was the key ingredient to a happy, successful life.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Tell me the value of selfishness.

AYN RAND: Use another word - self-esteem.

ABDELFATAH: The tension between the self and the social good has been at the center of a kind of identity crisis in this country that dates back maybe to the beginning. Do we value the individual or the collective? Do you belong to yourself or to your society? And Ayn Rand was one of the loudest voices in that debate, which is one of the main reasons she was so strongly loved and hated.

BURNS: She's a very black-and-white thinker, so she kind of wanted to divide and create extreme reactions.

ABDELFATAH: And her thinking and ideas have long outlived her. In the '90s, "Atlas Shrugged" was ranked as the second most influential book in the U.S. in a survey by the Library of Congress. First place went to the Bible. It's a type of second that would've really pissed Rand off.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And in 2020, The Washington Post included the book in a short list of 12 novels that changed the way we live, along with Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" and George Orwell's "1984."


RAND: I never changed my convictions. I've never had to change.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Although Ayn Rand claimed she was born with all these ideas already in her head, the truth is she herself had to go through a pretty dramatic transformation over the course of her life to arrive at these convictions, convictions that shaped her polarizing reputation. But today, we're going to meet the person behind that reputation and the unpredictable, tumultuous, at times juicy life that made her who she was and, to some people, who she still is.

BURNS: You can't understand Rand unless you can understand her life in Russia and sort of what she experienced and her deep belief that she was coming from Russia with a message to the United States.


ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: I'm Laine Kaplan-Levenson. And on this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, we experience the transformation of Ayn Rand and her mark on America.


ASHLEY: Hey. This is Ashley (ph) from Atlanta. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Part One - a child of destiny.


OLGA MAMAEVA: (Reading) It's strange. There is your life. You begin it feeling that it's something so fresh and so beautiful, that it's like a sacred treasure. It's a rare gift, you know, to feel a reverence for your own life and to want the best, the greatest, the highest possible, here, now, for your very own, to imagine a heaven and then not to dream it, but to demand it.


ABDELFATAH: In 1905, when Ayn Rand came into the world, she wasn't called Ayn Rand.

BURNS: She was born with the name we would call in English Alisa Rosenbaum to a middle-class Jewish family in St. Petersburg. So her father had a chemistry business, and her mother, you know, raised three daughters and kind of took care of the home. They were a minority as Jews. They were not practicing. They were very much aware of their identity as a Jewish family. But their, really, reference point was, like, high European culture, French culture.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking French).

BURNS: So she had private education, private schools, a governess. They did summer vacations. So she had a really nice life - middle-class, upper-middle-class life.


BURNS: From what we can tell, her father was a very quiet man. He ran his business, and he sort of faded into the background in the family, and the mother was really the dominant figure. And she seems to have been a very strong woman, like her daughter would become, but also, you know, some behavior we would probably even call abusive, had these sort of fits of rage. She broke the legs of Ayn Rand's favorite doll once because she was mad at her.


BURNS: She also loved to entertain. So she would have people over to the house constantly, and she would sort of bring her daughters down. And young Alisa just hated this and was not really comfortable and would be sort of dressed up and paraded around.


BURNS: She described herself as pretty much a child who set herself apart. She would kind of hide in the back of the school room and read books. She said she didn't connect easily with the other children, but she also had this sense - she said, I am a child of destiny. They don't know it, but I'm a child of destiny. I'm going somewhere.


BURNS: That would all change when she was 12, when the Bolsheviks came to power.


MAMAEVA: (Reading) Now it's over, and it does not make any difference to anyone. And it isn't that they're indifferent. It's just that they don't know what it means, that treasure of mine.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: World War I may be hell in the West. It is pure hell 10 times over for the Russians.

ABDELFATAH: In 1917, while the first world war raged across Europe, a violent revolution took hold of Russia. For centuries, Russia had been under the grips of a czar, or emperor. But weakened by too many military conflicts, the empire was decaying.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: At the front, defeat, disorganization and lonely death. At home, starvation and poverty exceeding even previous Russian experiences.

ABDELFATAH: Russia had maintained a feudal system of serfdom up to the mid-1800s, much longer than other countries in Europe, which meant around 23 million people in the Russian Empire had until recently been forced to serve the land-owning nobility. And even after serfdom was abolished, the peasant class remained very poor. Social and political pressure had been mounting for decades, with different groups waiting for the right moment to seize power. And October 1917 was that moment.


CHORALE SOVIETIQUE: (Singing in non-English language).

ABDELFATAH: A group known as the Bolsheviks, led by a Marxist revolutionary named Vladimir Lenin, came out on top.


CHORALE SOVIETIQUE: (Singing in non-English language).

VLADIMIR LENIN: (Non-English language spoken).

ABDELFATAH: For Alisa Rosenbaum, life began to change rapidly.

BURNS: One of the first things the Bolsheviks did was seize privately owned businesses.


BURNS: So what she would have seen first is the soldiers coming to the business. And they put a seal on her father's shop that said this is now the property of the people.


BURNS: And their apartment was right in the center of St. Petersburg. It was about a block or two over from the main avenue where all the political marches went.


LENIN: They imagine that serious political questions are decided by voting. As a matter of fact, they are decided by class war.

BURNS: So she was saturated in this political environment in her early years, and then it had this immediate impact on her family's fortune. So, you know, this wasn't just reading the newspaper or hearing parents talk. This was very much a visceral part of her daily life and her family's daily life.

ABDELFATAH: No more vacations. No more fancy parties. No more elaborate meals. Even their home was no longer their home. In her diary, here's how Alisa describes her family's home after the revolution.

MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) It had no front entrance. It had no electrical connections. The plumbing was out of order. They had to carry water in pails from the floor below. Yellow stains spread over the ceilings, bearing witness to past rains. Rusty nails on the walls showed the places where old paintings had hung.


BURNS: So, I mean, the other thing to say about the Bolsheviks coming to power is what they wanted to do was collectivize the economy.

ABDELFATAH: This new country they'd created, the Soviet Union, was to be the first communist country in the world, where private property would be replaced by collective ownership - economic equality for all.

BURNS: They wanted to give peasants land. So some of this was breaking up larger land holdings and distributing it. Some was just punitive. You know, anyone of a high class or noble background - their property would be taken away. Apartment buildings were divided up. So the family had a large apartment, and it was divided up, and other families moved in with them. The regime basically interfered in every economic relationship or transaction that existed.

ABDELFATAH: Alisa's father was absolutely gutted by these changes. His business, his life's work, was no longer his, and he just sort of gave up.

BURNS: You know, we would - today we would say he became depressed. He just sat at home, depressed. And that, for her, was very influential.

ABDELFATAH: Alisa and her father grew closer, often discussing politics. She would later call him a pro-individualist who believed that this new communist system had only brought pain and hardship.

MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) It was only after we began to be political allies that I really felt a real love for him.

ABDELFATAH: She had witnessed what a small group of people could do to a society and feared it. The way she saw it, her whole world was turned upside down by a small group of communists claiming to be making the world better. They said the way forward was to be unselfish, collectivist. But this pushed her to believe the exact opposite - that selfishness was good.

BURNS: What frustrated her more than anything was hypocrisy. Like, oh, you're all saying, like, you know, we should be unselfish, but really everybody's selfish when you get down to it. So let's take away the hypocrisy and just say, great, we're selfish. Let's be selfish.

ABDELFATAH: And as the hardships increased, she became more convinced that collectivism and all for one, one for all thinking helped no one.

BURNS: You know, peasants were being jerked off their land, forced to work. So there were famines, there was starvation, there was food shortages. So they went very quickly from this world where your concern is, you know, who's coming to our salon and, you know, what type of cookies shall we serve after the meal? - to I hope I can find enough food.

ABDELFATAH: Everything in this new Russia was filtered through the lens of communist ideology, including university curriculum. By the time she graduated, her hometown and her school had been renamed for Vladimir Lenin. There was no escaping it.

BURNS: So she was literally raised up on Leninism - on Marxism-Leninism. And so for her, a book was never just a book because, actually, you had to be very careful what book you assigned in the university because if it was a counterrevolutionary book, like, off you go. And so she saw professors disappear. She saw students disappear. So there was always in the background - even if she herself was not taken to the gulag or a work camp or anything like that, she knew that that threat of violence was there.

ABDELFATAH: But Alisa was able to find an escape in something else, something imported from thousands of miles away - Hollywood movies.


BURNS: She just buys the fantasy completely.

ABDELFATAH: This is how she imagined Hollywood.

MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) People for whom 24 hours is not enough time in a day stream in a constant wave over its boulevards, smooth as marble.

BURNS: She said, everybody's rich.

MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) The noise of automobiles drowns out their voices.

BURNS: Everyone has cars


MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) Shining, elegant Fords and Rolls Royces flying, flickering as if frames of one continuous movie reel.

BURNS: All the women are beautiful.


MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) Every night, an electric glow rises over the city.

BURNS: She was always drawn to glamour and sort of artifice even though she herself was never - you know, she would say - she knew she was not particularly attractive herself. But she always admired people who were physically attractive and always kind of wanted to be around that world.


BURNS: I think she had watched over 200 movies.

ABDELFATAH: And the more movies she watched, the more inspired she was to write, to imagine worlds of her own, to create stories fit for the big screen. Then one day, Alisa's mother received a letter from their relatives in the United States. They had fled Russia before the revolution and now owned a movie theater in Chicago. Alisa got hold of the letter and said...

BURNS: I want to go. Let's figure out how to make it happen. At the same time, Russia is trying to develop their own - the Soviet Union is trying to develop their own movie industry. So she concocts cover story. I'm going to go to the United States temporarily. And I'm going to study their industry. And then I'm going to come back and share everything that I've learned to build up, you know, Mother Russia's great proletariat film industry. The authorities buy it. They say, OK. We'll let you go.

ABDELFATAH: Now she just needed to come up with the money to make the journey.

BURNS: The family scrapes and saves her passage. This is a beautiful detail. Her mother sows a precious stone into her clothes. She's got something she kept from their former life. So she's got some money if she needs it.


AL JOLSON: (Singing) Every morn, my memories stray across the sea, where flying fishes play.

ABDELFATAH: On board the ocean liner that was taking her halfway around the world, across the Atlantic to a new place, Alisa Rosenbaum decided to change her name.

BURNS: We don't know exactly where it came from. The myth is that she named herself after her typewriter, Remington Rand. And, you know, to some degree, the myth has a truth - right? - because the typewriter was her most prized possession and the center of her identity.

ABDELFATAH: But the more likely story...

BURNS: Ayn seems to be some abbreviation of her Russian name that her father used to call her. And she'd been experimenting with different names. She was going to be Lil Rand.

ABDELFATAH: Lil Rand has a certain ring to it but wasn't quite right. After all, this was a big decision. A name isn't just a name. When St. Petersburg became Leningrad, it signaled a revolution, a transformation.

BURNS: The name is the rebirth, right?

ABDELFATAH: Eventually, Alisa landed on the name Ayn Rand.

BURNS: And she picks a name very specifically. You can't tell if Ayn Rand is a man or a woman. And she's regularly sent letters addressed to Mr. Rand. You can't tell what is the ethnicity of Ayn Rand. Maybe it sounds a little Scandinavian, maybe a little Russian, if you know. It does not sound Jewish at all. And it's punchy. It would look great on a marquee.

ABDELFATAH: Alisa Rosenbaum, Russia, communism - those were all pieces of a past she was leaving behind. Her transformation had begun.

BURNS: Once she becomes Ayn Rand, she becomes Ayn Rand. And she doesn't go back.


AL JOLSON: (Singing) To Avalon.

ABDELFATAH: Ayn Rand collides with American reality when we come back.


GAIL OKO: Hi. I'm Gail Oko (ph) from Mystic, Conn. You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Part 2 - Lights, Camera, Fountain.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It was 1926. And after a long trip across the ocean and a train ride to Chicago, Alisa Rosenbaum's relatives finally got a knock on their door. They thought Alisa Rosenbaum had arrived. But what they got was a woman transformed, Ayn Rand.

BURNS: She wasn't a nice houseguest. She didn't chit-chat.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Her family was hoping she would share some news from home. Instead, she went on long-winded rants about the Bolsheviks.

BURNS: She stayed up all night writing.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And wasn't the best houseguest. Her relatives found her unbearable. And she found them stifling.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: When they bought her a ticket to California, Ayn Rand was more than happy to board the train.


MAMAEVA: Shining, elegant Fords and Rolls Royces flying, flickering.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: After days of travel and years of anticipation, Ayn Rand finally arrived in Hollywood. But what she got wasn't what she expected.

BURNS: Hollywood is not American movie city. It's like a cow town. It's like (laughter), you know, sets and dust. She goes to the DeMille Studios right away 'cause she's heard of Cecil B. DeMille.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Her favorite director.

BURNS: The first thing she sees is a director in a car, big open roadster, and she just stops in her tracks, and she stares at him. And he's like, who is this oddball woman staring at me? So he sort of gestures her over. And she says - she has very thick Russian accent - you know, something like, I just came here from Russia, and I've been looking for you.

MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) And I've been looking for you.

BURNS: And he's like, well, get in my car, young lady.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: DeMille couldn't resist a good story, and he was fascinated by Rand. He took her on a tour of Hollywood, pointing out famous people and places from behind the wheel.

BURNS: Hollywood is just developing. Who knew if this strange outsider with a stack of scripts - like, maybe she actually does have something to show.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: By the time they got back to the studio, Rand had a job. She quickly climbed the ranks from a movie extra to someone who vetted scripts. But despite her success, she was plagued by insecurities.

MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) Try to become balanced, indifferent, normal and not enthusiastic, flaming, tense.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: She worried her luck wouldn't last if people saw what she was really feeling - the insecurity, the confusion, the fear.

MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) Learn to be calm, for goodness sake.


RUDY VALLEE: (Singing) Once I built a railroad, made it run, made it race against time. One I built a railroad, now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

BURNS: She eventually moves to New York in the 1930s because one of her scripts is going to go up on Broadway. So this is her big break, you know, in the early years of the Great Depression.


VALLEE: (Singing) Now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: By this time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in office. Rand, like so many others, had voted for him in the 1932 election. She wasn't super plugged into American politics, and Roosevelt seemed to her to be a champion for individual rights.


PRESIDENT FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT: I favor the modification of the Volstead Act just as fast as the law will let us.


BURNS: One of the very concrete promises Roosevelt makes on the campaign trail is, I will end prohibition, which is the - it's a constitutional amendment that makes it illegal to buy, sell or consume alcohol. And so for Rand, this is, you know, unacceptable infringement on liberty. It was a very popular campaign pledge - bring back beer; legalize beer.

MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) This was the capitalist country of the world. And by everything I could observe, leftism or socialism was not an issue.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: While living in New York, Rand finished her first novel, "We The Living."

MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand, reading) I don't want to fight for the people. I don't want to fight against the people. I don't want to hear of the people. I want to be left alone to live.

BURNS: She follows a strong woman, a woman who wants to be an engineer who comes into university and finds herself blocked at every step by the communist culture and encountering a whole range of students who've been swept up to varying degrees in the communist revolt.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The book is pretty autobiographical, drawing on Rand's life back in Russia when she was still Alisa Rosenbaum.

BURNS: It's a portrait of what her family went through.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: But in the book, the protagonist, unlike Rand, never makes it out. She remains stuck, unable to leave, unable to transform.

BURNS: We can think of that as Rand thinking through, what might have happened to me if I hadn't gotten out of the country? And in the end, it all ends very badly.


BURNS: She tries to escape. She's shot by a border guard.

MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand, reading) A moment or an eternity - did it matter? Life, undefeated, existed and could exist. She smiled, her last smile, to so much that had been possible.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Rand published the book in 1936 and started to shop it around to agents.

BURNS: You know, a book she thinks is pretty good...

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: But it's one rejection...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: We're sorry. It's a no.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...After another...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Not the right fit for us.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...After another.


BURNS: She can't get anywhere with it.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: A few years earlier, she'd gotten a letter from her mother, reminding her that she had a rare gift, that she was special. Your gift manifested itself very early in life and long ago, she wrote. Your talent is so clear that, eventually, it will break through and spurt like a fountain.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It was something Rand kept in the back of her mind in her darkest moments. And yet, she still couldn't get over the rejections, especially because the reason they gave was just confusing to her.

BURNS: They say, this isn't realistic. This isn't what's happening in Russia. And she's like, wait. I've actually been there. I'm Russian. I know what's happening. What do they think is happening in Russia? So she starts paying attention.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: As the Great Depression raged in the U.S., reports from Russia painted a very different picture of a kind of Eden with no struggle in sight.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: We're on our way to Moscow, the capital of the largest country in the world. And what a country.

BURNS: When American journalists travel over to Russia to look, they get to see the classic Potemkin village, like a beautiful village of happy Russian villagers.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: Now, we have heard much of the poverty and ignorance of the Russian peasants and workers. But don't believe all you hear. Well, Russia, under their new regime, is going places and doing things.

BURNS: They're getting a very slick propaganda campaign. Everything's great here.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: It has remained a sanctuary of art and beauty under the Soviet government, but now booted peasants occupy royal boxes.

BURNS: And this is a moment when it looks to many intelligent observers as if capitalism has run its course. Unemployment is 25% or higher. You've got bread lines. You've got poverty. There's an agricultural crisis.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: The threat of foreclosure, of losing house and home, spreads.

BURNS: Banks are going under. Farmers are going under.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: And radical talk is boiling into action.

BURNS: And so a lot of people are looking, then - OK, maybe capitalism is not working. What are our alternatives? What about socialism? What about communism? And many intellectuals are actually becoming communists.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This terrified Rand.


ROOSEVELT: As Americans, you have a right, a legal and constitutional right, to call yourselves communists, those of you who do.

BURNS: She begins to believe the president is part of this as well. She doesn't think that he's a communist, but she's very suspicious of his advisers. And his advisers are beginning to put more collectivist programs forward to try to rescue the American economy. And in a couple years, we're going to have our own revolution here.


BURNS: And that's when she shifts from this narrow focus on her career and her success to what is happening in this country and this sense that, I have a mission; I'm the one who needs to tell the truth about Russia because no one else will do it.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Rand began looking to the future with that mission in mind and her mother's words to guide her. Your talent is so clear that eventually...

MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) ...That eventually it will break through and spurt like a fountain.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In 1943, Ayn Rand published a book called "The Fountainhead." It's not exactly a work of literary art.

BURNS: "The Fountainhead" is long. It's overdrawn. It's not subtle.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It's got a sort of pop fiction vibe. All the political and philosophical stuff is hidden within a simple plot of good guys and bad guys. The writing's kind of crude. And of course, there's some steamy, raunchy romance, bordering on creepy, like "50 Shades Of Grey" style.

BURNS: But she wanted to sell a lot of books, you know? She didn't want to make - she didn't want to appeal to a lot of English professors. She wanted to sell a lot of books.

MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) It's time we realize, as the Reds do, that spreading our idea in the form of fiction is a great weapon because it arouses the public to an emotional, as well as intellectual, response to our cause.

BURNS: So she decides to create Howard Roark as her architect, her heroic architect and creative figure, trying to demonstrate through fiction this idea of the sort of ideal man.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Howard Roark is an up-and-coming architect on the cutting edge of his field. His modern, bold designs challenge people to think beyond what they know. Many resist his ideas and try to suppress his entrepreneurial spirit. But he's a builder in every sense, seeking to construct a world where the individual is encouraged to defy social norms. He is the ultimate capitalist.


MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) Throughout the centuries, there were men who took first steps down new roads, armed with nothing but their own vision.

BURNS: His rival in the profession is sort of a nice guy who wants to be popular, Peter Keating. But then she puts, like, a puppeteer behind Peter Keating who is trying to move the whole society to a collectivist system or a communist system so that they can take power.

MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. Anesthesia was considered sinful.

BURNS: She's trying with Howard Roark to say...

MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead.

BURNS: This is a new vision of a good man and a moral man, and it's somebody who doesn't care about the opinions of others and is just - lets their own creative genius flower out.

MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) They fought. They suffered. And they paid. But they won.


BURNS: It resonates both in a moment of collectivism and in a moment of uncertainty.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It was 1943, the thick of World War II. But somehow the bullets and bombs and camps were all white noise to Rand. She was focused on one thing - preserving capitalism.

BURNS: Capitalism as a kind of practical application of this broader philosophy that protects the individual from the collective. And it sells through word of mouth. Somebody reads it, and they say to their friend, you've got to read it. And it exceeds everyone's expectations to the point where she kind of becomes a sensation that nobody knew who she was and nobody expected this to be a big deal, and it was.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: People from all walks of life wrote to her after reading "The Fountainhead," expressing how the book had transformed them, including World War II soldiers on the battlefield.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: (Reading) In Howard Roark, I rediscovered the individual.

BURNS: They've left their individuality behind and put on a uniform and are fighting in a war. And so they actually really love this, like, fantasy land where they don't have to do any of that.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Anti-Roosevelt folks loved it. And for a lot of other people, teens just graduating high school or housewives in a destructive relationship...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: It's like being awake for the first time.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It was a wake-up call, an invitation to transform into a truer version of themselves.

BURNS: She has written this to be an intoxicant, to really reach out and tell the person your individual self is unique. It's special. And it's really the center - it should be the center of your existence in a way that's easy to misunderstand. It doesn't - it didn't mean for her to dominate other people. It's easy to see that. It meant to be fully self-realized and to be driven by your own concerns and desires and not hide yourself to please somebody else. You are fine the way you are. You are beautiful. You are special. You are unique. And so for some people, that is a message they absolutely need to hear.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #3: This is Howard Roark, possessed of a great talent but unwilling to compromise his ideals at any price. Dominique Francon...

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: A couple years after the book was published, Hollywood execs came knocking, asking to make it into a movie. Rand agreed. And with that, she was finally becoming a star. Her ideas about individualism and capitalism were taking off just as the country was transforming into a post-war economic powerhouse. The sky seemed to be the limit for both.


JUDY GARLAND: (As Veronica Fisher, singing) They say I'm crazy, got no sense, but I don't care. They may or may not mean offense, but I don't care

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: When we come back, Ayn Rand becomes an enemy of the right...


GARLAND: (As Veronica Fisher, singing) And my star is on the ascendant.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...And then their hero.


GARLAND: (As Veronica Fisher, singing) I don't care. I don't care what they may think of me. I am happy-go-lucky. They say that I'm plucky, contented and carefree. I don't care. I don't care.

KIERA: Hey, y'all this is Kiera (ph) from Austin, Texas, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Part 3 - Objective Reality.


PATRICIA NEAL: (As Dominique Francon) They hate you for the greatness of your achievement. They hate you for your integrity. They hate you because they know they can neither corrupt you nor rule you. They won't let you survive. Roark, they'll destroy you. But I won't be there to see it happen.


ABDELFATAH: Thanks to Warner Brothers producing "The Fountainhead" into a movie, Rand was back in the land of her dreams, Hollywood, but the years between the release of the book and the movie's debut was a rough time in Hollywood and looking more like Rand's worst nightmare.

BURNS: When she gets back to Hollywood, there's a big wave of labor strikes.

ABDELFATAH: The mid-to-late 1940s were riddled with daily picketing in front of studios that paused productions and caused violent outbreaks between strikers and scabs.

BURNS: And so apparently she's talking to a friend on the phone about the strikes, which, you know, she doesn't support, and she says, well, what if I went on strike?

ABDELFATAH: A question that would inspire her next novel, what would become her magnum opus.

BURNS: So the first version of the novel is called "The Strike," and this goes back to her thinking that, you know, everyone's always talking about the workers and what they need. What if the capitalists go on strike? What would that look like? She comes up with the idea, the plot, that the capitalists will go on strike and I will unspool from there how necessary they are to the world because once they go on strike, things will fall apart.

So she has a basic plot, and then a couple things happen. She's continuing her political contacts with various anti-communist writers and thinkers in Hollywood. But she's also developing her own personal fan base based on these letters that are coming. And so when people write her letters, eventually she'll invite them to her home. She'll start having these salons like the way her mom would back in the day, her mother would back in the day. And so she's kind of creating her own alternate world.

ABDELFATAH: Full of Ayn Rand groupies. What could she love more than that?

BURNS: The other thing that's really important is this is a moment in time when she starts taking Benzedrine, which is a prescription amphetamine.

ABDELFATAH: Benzedrine was a powerful drug; so powerful that it was given to soldiers during World War II to stay alert and fight harder without sleep and in good spirits. When American soldiers landed in North Africa in 1942, Dwight D. Eisenhower, soon-to-be president but still a general at the time, personally ordered half a million Benzedrine tablets so his men would stay awake and aggressive; so powerful that the drugs were hilariously nicknamed Wakey-Wakey pills and eventually used by housewives to treat depression and weight gain.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: So powerful and addictive that Benzedrine was eventually regulated by the FDA but not before it became a central part of Rand's diet.

BURNS: And she becomes extremely slender. She loses a lot of weight. And she originally starts taking this because she's feeling sleepy. And it's prescribed by her doctor. Everyone thinks it's fine. Actually, a lot of writers in the '50s, like, write their - Jack Kerouac writes "On The Road," like, on a speed bender, basically. And so she starts taking this continually. And she will invite the young people to her house, be taking this - the Benzedrine, stay up all night talking and sort of be on this high. Really, it's really exciting.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Sounds like it.

BURNS: But now that she's famous, wealthy and taking Benzedrine on a daily basis, her thinking really starts to change, and it starts to narrow, and it starts to harden.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It hardens into her own distinct philosophy, one she called...

BURNS: Objectivism.


RAND: The basic principle of objectivism is that man must be guided exclusively by reason, that reason is man's only tool of knowledge, his only guide to action and his only guide to the choice of values.

BURNS: And so this speaks, first of all, to her belief there is an objective reality. The way you know it is through your reason, and reason is what distinguishes you as a human being.


RAND: As a consequence of that, man's proper ethics, or morality, is a morality of rational self-interest, which means that every man has a right to exist for his own sake, and he must not sacrifice himself to others or sacrifice others to himself.

ABDELFATAH: These ideas went straight into her book, which she worked on year after year.

MAMAEVA: (Reading) Let me give you a tip on a clue to man's characters. The man who damns money has obtained it dishonorably. The man who respects it has earned it.

ABDELFATAH: Chapter by chapter.

MAMAEVA: (Reading) Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach.

ABDELFATAH: Rand's book would be the vessel for her own distinct ideological offering, objectivism. And when it was finally released in 1957 - one decade and over 1,000 pages later - the book ditched its original title, "The Strike," for the one that stuck, "Atlas Shrugged."

BURNS: So she now wants to present a morality where selfishness is a virtue, rationality is the defining characteristic of humankind, capitalism is the best sociopolitical system. That's the message.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In "Atlas Shrugged," objectivism is sold in the form of a mystery, a mystery set in a dystopian America where business is crippled by increasing regulation. Corporations and factories are going under thanks to antitrust laws, entrepreneurs are suppressed, and an entire nation suffers from being overcontrolled. It's what happens when capitalism isn't laissez faire, which Rand makes clear is catastrophic.

BURNS: "Atlas Shrugged" has a more hectoring tone. It's more preachy. It's more kind of top-down. It's more angry.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The New York Times Book Review said it was, quote, "written out of hate." The reviewer for Time magazine asked, is it a novel? Is it a nightmare? It was her harshest work to date and received the harshest reviews in return, but that elevated controversy over her work only elevated her fame. She wasn't just conservative. She was rebellious.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: In that everybody innately dislikes authority, in that we're all selfish to one degree or another, Ayn Rand's books and general philosophy gave you permission to obey instincts that civilization spends most of its time urging you to restrain.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: "Atlas Shrugged" was a manifesto for conservative thinkers. It was pro-capitalist, pro-individualist, anti-communist, anti-regulation, but it was also anti something else, something that more and more stood in stark contrast with the right wing. It was anti-religion.


UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: Let me start by quoting from a review of this novel, "Atlas Shrugged," that appeared in Newsweek. It said that you are out to destroy almost every edifice in the contemporary American way of life - our Judeo-Christian religion, our modified government-regulated capitalism, our rule by the majority will. Other reviews have said that you scorn churches and the concept of God. Are these accurate criticisms?

RAND: Yes.

ABDELFATAH: Rand was a die-hard atheist. Before the 1950s, she didn't really bother bringing that into her work because she didn't see religion as a political threat. Conservatives didn't bring God into things, and your faith didn't really have anything to do with your vote. But that started to change over the course of her writing "Atlas Shrugged."

BURNS: When this sort of rhetoric of fighting godless communism begins and takes on a very Christian cast, she's really caught by surprise.

ABDELFATAH: Some conservatives started to see religion as the perfect antidote to communism and the perfect balance to capitalism.

BURNS: And they say capitalism is the best system, but capitalism is imperfect because it's actually kind of immoral. It doesn't tell you anything about restraining man's desires or how to be fair. And so we can have capitalism, but we need to be Christians so that we have a moral sense and a moral orientation. So they really blend them together. They say they need to work together.

ABDELFATAH: ...Which makes no sense to Rand.

BURNS: ...Because she thinks you are undermining the case for capitalism by saying your ethical and moral system should be Christianity, which she says is basically teaching you the profit motive is bad. So how can you say we have a system based on the profit motive and, you know, individual enterprise and then turn around and, you know, go to church that says those things are bad and selfishness is bad. And that, to her, is an irreconcilable contradiction.

MAMAEVA: (As Ayn Rand) Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.


JAMES DAY: You've written that the concept of God is morally evil. Why?

RAND: I didn't say it's morally evil, not in those words. I said it's false.

DAY: False.

RAND: I said it's a fantasy. It doesn't exist.

ABDELFATAH: Her staunch atheism put her at odds with conservatives who otherwise agreed with most of her ideas. But the tension didn't end there. Rand made even more enemies on the right when she came out as pro-choice.


RAND: A man who claims to defend rights and objects to the right to have abortion, who wants to dictate to a woman in the most intimate, crucial and tragic issue of that kind - that's no defender of rights and no defender of capitalism.

ABDELFATAH: But that didn't make her a feminist.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: Do you believe that there is going to be a day where there's going to be a female in the White House as president, and how do you feel about that?

RAND: I wouldn't vote for her.

DONAHUE: You would or wouldn't?

RAND: Would not.

DONAHUE: You would not.


DONAHUE: Why not?

RAND: For many reasons.

DONAHUE: You guys.

RAND: It is not to a woman's personal interest to rule man. It puts her in a very unhappy position. I don't believe that any good woman would want that position.

BURNS: It was interesting. She started receiving letters that would say, Dear Mr. Rand, and she would always write back and she would say, I'm a woman, but I'm glad you thought I was a man. She viewed it as a compliment that her writing was considered masculine. And so she had really, you know, internalized a lot of the gendered expectations of her time, even as she subverted them.

All I can hypothesize is that as a woman who didn't fit the gender norms of her time, that was painful and difficult for her, and she didn't know how to navigate it. And she kind of wanted to be feminine, and she didn't want to be weak, which she associated with femininity. It doesn't come out very clean, and it doesn't really make sense. It's just there.

ABDELFATAH: She was a hard person to pinpoint, especially when she said problematic things like this about the genocide against Native Americans. Quote, "Any white person who brings elements of civilization has the right to take over this country."

Her staunch, sometimes bigoted opinions add to people's polarizing views of her, especially when they only know or highlight certain aspects of her ideology.

Do you think in some ways that, like, the complexity, the complications and the nuances of her ideas are maybe - have been flattened?

BURNS: Yeah, I think that was really difficult for her. She was furious when people took her work and used it for something else. So the libertarian movement kind of took her as a totem, and she was furious. She hated libertarians in the 1970s. She called them hippies of the right, you know? She said they don't know what they're doing. And most of that was because there was a strong anarchist streak in that movement, but she didn't like that at all. You know, she said conservatives are terrible. You know, Ronald Reagan is the biggest threat to individual freedom.


RAND: What do I think of President Reagan? The best answer to give would be that I don't think of him. And the more I see, the less I think.

ABDELFATAH: In Rand's last public lecture, delivered in 1981, she skewered Reagan for what she described as his unconstitutional union of religion and politics. She thought Reagan wasn't inspired enough by capitalism and business and was too inspired by TV evangelists and the, quote, "moral majority."


RAND: He is right in thinking that the country needs an inspirational element, but he will not find it in the God, family, tradition swamp.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The God, family, tradition swamp - Reagan's heaven, Rand's hell.

BURNS: She ended up pillorying all the people we would think might be politically aligned with her or support her, you know, economic and social political vision. And so that, I think, has prevented her from sort of seeing how successful she actually was because she wanted to be successful on her own terms, which meant creating objectivists - people who thought exactly like her.


ABDELFATAH: Ayn Rand died in 1982. But as we said at the very top, people still invoke her name when talking about their inspirations, their heroes. And it's a mixed bag. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, was an early attendee of Rand's salons back in the days of her Benzedrine benders. She had a massive influence on how he managed America's finances. And then there's Donald Trump, known to not be much of a reader, who has only publicly praised three novels - one of them being "The Fountainhead."

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: But it goes beyond politicians. Actors Vince Vaughn and Brad Pitt have publicly admired her, as has tennis legend Billie Jean King. Rand wasn't one thing, and neither are her fans.

ABDELFATAH: And although there are many self-proclaimed Rand fanatics out there today, you probably haven't met a lot of self-proclaimed objectivists.

BURNS: She didn't really craft policies. She didn't have a treatise on government. You know, she didn't architect out a legal school of thought. So she kind of hovers around the edges of people who did those things, as an inspiration or as someone who got them started thinking or someone who they just kind of read and absorbed into the bloodstream and kept on moving in a different direction.

ABDELFATAH: I'm really curious to know what you think Rand would make of the present world that we're in because it seems to me at least that, in some ways, the self has become God. You have social media. You have reality TV. A lot of therapy approaches are - really emphasize the individualism of our lives. And I feel like she could be seen as a philosopher of our time, a time of self-care and hyper-individualism.

BURNS: Yeah. I mean, I think there's something to you taking the focus on the self, the self at the center of the falling away of more traditional understandings of identity and community. You know, we're at the end of a process or midpoint in a process that she was calling for and advocating. The thing with Rand, though, is she was - she espoused, like, a liberationist philosophy, but she herself was extremely judgmental and narrow. You know, you could say all the movements towards gay rights and gender rights are an expression of, you know, people finding their authentic selves. Would Ayn Rand be supportive of any of that? Absolutely not.

ABDELFATAH: And it's just interesting because so much of her ideas, so much of her story, so much of her herself, is kind of, like, contradictory. There's just, like, so many things at tension. And yet she did not believe in contradictions (laughter).

BURNS: Yeah. I mean, I think that's, like, sort of the ultimate irony of all. I don't think she was able to perceive how many of her ideas did live on after her or even, you know, were gaining strength in her lifetime because if - it was an all-or-nothing proposition for her. You know, you believed everything she said, or it didn't matter that you just believed some of it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: You have to realize it's not a phenomena, quote, "of the '50s" or, quote, "of the '60s." If you want to understand her, you have to realize that she locked into something much more timeless than that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: And what was that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: A sense of life as potentially a great adventure. The supreme importance of an individual life - that is truly an eternal theme. It's not a fad or a fashion of a decade.


RAND: Don't you understand that when this life is finished, you're not there to say, oh, how terrible that I am a corpse. No, it's finished.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: Well, this is true, then.

RAND: And what I've always thought - that I would enjoy life to the last moment. And when it's the end, I don't have to worry about it. I'm not there. It's too bad that the world will end, and I think a very wonderful world will end with me. But I've had my time. I can't complain.


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.


I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.





MAMAEVA: My name is Olga Mamaeva. I was the voice of Ayn Rand. And I actually grew up in the same city in Russia as her.

ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann, Tamar Charney, Adriana Tapia, Miranda Mazariegos, Deb George and Katya Kumkova.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ARABLOUEI: Special thanks to Andy Huether for mixing this episode.

ABDELFATAH: Also, we want your voice on our show. Send us a voicemail at 872-588-8805 with your name, where you're from and the line, you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR, and we'll get you in there. That's 872-588-8805.

ARABLOUEI: And finally, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at or hit us up on Twitter at @throughlinenpr.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.


ABDELFATAH: Oh, and one last thing.

ARABLOUEI: As an NPR podcast, THROUGHLINE is supported by listeners who donate to public radio stations.

ABDELFATAH: And if you make a year-end donation to your local NPR station, it'll help fund another year of everything you love from public radio, including THROUGHLINE.

ARABLOUEI: It's really easy. Just go to Thank you.

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