Ayn Rand, Live from Los Angeles
By Amelia PollardApril 22, 2021
AYN RAND SAT BEFORE three microphones at the infamous United States House Committee on Un-American Affairs in 1947 sporting a futuristic suit and hat. The novelist and conservative powerhouse had come to excoriate the communist menace in Hollywood. Her eyes darted from one side of the committee members to the other as she responded to their questions, somehow managing to project an air of both mousiness and authority. She had experienced collectivist ideology firsthand in Soviet Russia, and she was on Capitol Hill that October to testify as a “friendly witness.”
During her testimony, she was primarily asked to respond to the 1944 film Song of Russia, which depicted a happy-go-lucky Soviet Union. She denounced it as communist propaganda. Having lived in Soviet Russia, Rand was tapped by the committee to testify as an expert witness on life under Stalin. “It is almost impossible to convey to a free people what it is like to live in a totalitarian dictatorship,” she told J. Parnell Thomas, a Republican congressman from New Jersey. “They try to live a human life, but you understand it is totally inhuman.”
Before Rand died in 1982, she told Tom Snyder in a televised interview: “I will not die; it is the world that will end.” At her funeral at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel on Madison Avenue, her open casket was laid beside a six-foot-tall floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign, her favorite symbol, as if to proclaim how few people have championed unfettered capitalism to the extent of Rand.
In many ways, her prophecy came true: she hasn’t died. Her ideological legacy, which reveres selfishness as the highest virtue, has triumphantly lived on through her novels, like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, profoundly shaping American conservatism. And most Angelenos don’t know the ways in which the city shaped the conservative superstar, or how she shaped Los Angeles.
Over the course of her prolific and contentious career, Rand lived in Los Angeles twice, for a total of 16 years. First, when she was trying to make it in Hollywood in her 20s, and again, years later, as a wildly successful novelist. By lampooning Hollywood stars with communist ties and bringing her individualist ideology to the Los Angeles Times as a columnist, Rand was a central force in Los Angeles’s conservative life. Her spirit lingers here.
Her disdain for communism was already ripe when she first arrived in the States at 21, and this largely shaped the ideas that propelled her career. After arriving in New York during a frigid winter in 1926, Rand spent her stopover watching silent films in palatial movie theaters. But her time in New York City was brief, and she soon boarded a train for her true destination: Hollywood. Like many people who arrived at Union Station, she was determined to become famous.
Although she loved cinema, Rand’s desire to work in Hollywood was part passion, part necessity. Anne Heller, author of Ayn Rand and the World She Made, said that Rand was initially drawn to films because they were silent. Rand’s English was rudimentary, but silent films didn’t care. “Her primary goal was always to be a world-famous novelist,” Heller said in a phone interview. “Writing film scenarios was secondary.”
Yet before writing the ideological novels that launched her to fame, Rand couldn’t get enough of movies. During the 1920s, she kept a meticulous journal chronicling every film she watched, rating the movies from one to five, underlining the actors and actresses she admired most, and double- or triple-underlining the ones that blew her away (two-time Academy Award winner Gary Cooper, who later starred in The Fountainhead film, received three underlines on several occasions).
Heller’s biography describes a famous story of Rand’s second day in Los Angeles, when she met one of her idols, film impresario Cecil B. DeMille. After being rejected by his studio, Rand was contemplating her next move when DeMille pulled up in a lavish touring car. After a brief exchange, he told her to get in. He drove her to the set of the biblical epic The King of Kings in Culver City. She worked as an extra on the film and lived in the YWCA-sponsored Hollywood Studio Club, a residence for aspiring actresses and other young women in Los Angeles. (She also met her soon-to-be husband on set, Frank O’Connor, whom she flirtatiously tripped during filming.)
While her creative impulses formed and hardened in the midst of the movies, Los Angeles was also having an explosive moment. Jeff Britting, an archivist at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, described the city in the Roaring Twenties as “a small community, barely out of the 19th century, but already chockablock full of people from all over the world.”
Her time as a Hollywood striver inspired The Fountainhead, as well as its main character, the ideal man and individualist Howard Roark. Rand came to loathe the pretensions of “selflessness” proclaimed by some of her colleagues. They saw it as a virtue; she saw it as a weakness. Her next-door neighbor, Marcella Bannert, displayed the virtuous persona that Rand disdained. According to Britting, this chance acquaintance largely inspired the annoying Peter Keating character in the novel.
Before the outbreak of World War II, Rand took a break from Hollywood. She and her husband, the middling actor O’Connor, moved to New York in 1934. Despite royalties from Rand’s debut Broadway play, The Night of January 16th, the newlyweds were broke. (According to Heller’s biography, the couple opted for the 45-cent side of the menu instead of the well-to-do 65-cent side at their local diner.) But she eventually finished her mammoth draft of The Fountainhead and secured a poverty-ending $50,000 film contract with Warner Bros.
Nine years later, with money and prestige, Rand returned to Hollywood with a considerable lacquer of success. She owned a mink coat and a house in Chatsworth designed by the celebrated architect Richard Neutra. The home embodied Rand’s austere and combative ideology: from some angles, it resembled a militarized swan. It was also encircled by a moat.
Neutra’s son, Raymond, noted that his parents didn’t have any contact with Rand after she purchased the house. “My parents were not enchanted with the image of the architect-artist of The Fountainhead,” he wrote in an email. Rand and O’Connor were generally happy tucked into the north end of the San Fernando Valley. Frank lovingly tended to the property’s expansive gardens while Rand worked at her desk on the home’s second floor. In a letter to a friend, Rand confessed that Hollywood was being “unexpectedly and unbelievably good” to her.
National political currents were also breaking in her favor. Hollywood had become prone to bouts of conspicuous anticommunism, and Rand positioned herself as a super-patriot manning the battlements of capitalism and freedom. She formed a group of conservative friends in Los Angeles, including Leonard Read, the manager of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. It was with these friends, who included prominent figures like Walt Disney and Sam Wood, that she organized against left-leaning Hollywood, helping to establish the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization committed to thwarting back the “rising tide” of communists in film. By 1947, her anticommunist activism brought her before the House Committee on Un-American Affairs. A sizable photo of Rand testifying ran on page A3 of The New York Times, where the reporter described her as the “recent best-seller of The Fountainhead.”
Before the committee, Rand cryptically compared Hollywood’s communist propaganda to what she saw firsthand under Soviet dictatorship, painting a dismal picture of life under Stalin. The world saw the great female novelist from Soviet Russia who heatedly warned of communism’s dangers and proudly embodied the virtues of individualism. She was the foil to the collective.
In a letter to a close friend, she wrote: “Let a real, loud, concerted protest be made just once — and Hollywood will be safe for conservatives for a long, long time.” Much like the construction of her ideal man, Howard Roark, in The Fountainhead, Rand was determined to rebuild an ideal Hollywood teeming with self-interest. Rand spread her philosophy in lectures and interviews across the country. Altruism is “the destroyer,” she wrote in her debut as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a position she held for only one year in 1962. Although Rand wasn’t a fan of the John Birch Society’s cult-like tendencies, they shared common goals. Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial win in 1967 signaled that conservatism was there to stay.
After Warner Bros. released the film adaptation of The Fountainhead in 1949, Rand had decided to give up on California residence for good. She and O’Connor settled in an apartment on East 36th Street in Manhattan with a view of the Empire State Building out their windows. She spent the rest of her life in the city, hosting a regular salon of acolytes who hung on her words. “I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline,” she said.
Variety columnist Army Archerd included Rand in a series about how Los Angeles had shaped notable people’s lives. Rand’s response was on brand: dismissive at best, pejorative at worst. She retorted that the city “did not influence my life at all.” However untrue, the snub was classic Rand. Los Angeles had given her love, fame, and political ammunition, but in the end, as any critic would expect, she refused to recognize its lasting impression. But it’s no coincidence that Los Angeles’s conservative tide — culminating with the election of reactionary Mayor Sam Yorty in 1961 — dovetailed with Rand’s career rise. Her friends in Los Angeles encouraged her ideological pursuit of economic liberty and connected her to friends in high places. Those friends, and the international launch to fame that Hollywood’s Red Scare crusade gifted her, in many ways birthed the Rand whom her followers venerate today.
Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan gave copies of Atlas Shrugged to his staff at Christmas. And in an odd annual rite, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas watches the 1949 film adaptation of The Fountainhead with his four new law clerks every summer. The Ayn Rand Institute hosts an annual Objectivist Conference where Rand’s devotees flock each summer to extol her ideas.
The success that Rand found in the Los Angeles area propelled her to this national fame. But she also reveled in Hollywood’s luxuries. In 1943, she wrote to her editor for The Fountainhead, Archie Ogden, that she was basking in the life of a Hollywood writer. “The grandeur and the glamour and the pomp and circumstance are simply wonderful,” she said. “Of course, I love it — for the moment.”
But she didn’t stop there. Just as her ideology is at times laden with hypocrisy, so are her feelings toward Southern California. “I hate Hollywood as a place, just as I did before,” she went on to write. “It’s overcrowded, vulgar, cheap and sad in a hopeless sort of way.” In short, she loved it only when it could help her.
Amelia Pollard is a writer based in New York. She was previously an associate editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books and is currently an intern at The American Prospect.
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