Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Book Review: 100 Voices—An Oral History of Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand with husband, Frank O'Connor
Anyone who has read the biographies of Ayn Rand, such as Barbara Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand, or Anne Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made, will find 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand, a wonderful companion.

What we have is a collection of excerpts from interviews with 100 people who dealt with Rand over the years, including friends, relatives, and business associates. And much of the information is refreshingly new and offers new insights into a complex and controversial figure in American history.
There are, however, caveats to consider. Scott McConnell of the Ayn Rand Institute conducts these interviews and they are not entirely free of an agenda. But, for the most part, they seem fairly balanced and individuals are quoted saying things that are not always pleasant. But neither are they always accurate.

These are first person accounts of Rand and all first person accounts tend to be prone to errors and personal agendas. Rand’s sister, Nora, for instance, is particularly bitter and unpleasant. A few other relatives make claims that sound utterly absurd to this reviewer. One insists that the penniless Rand promised to buy them a Rolls Royce if she made good, another seems to believe she promised a mink coat.  Additionally, you will find a few interviewees who seem to insist that Ayn Rand’s career was assured because of them.  Had she failed in her endeavors I’m not sure they would be so quick to claim credit for her efforts.

Another relative recounts a story that she insists is true, where she and Rand were discussing a pen name for Rand—Ayn was born Alyssa Rosenbaum. The relative says that she suggested taking the name from a Remington-Rand typewriter. After rejecting Remington, Rand was supposedly chosen.
However, it has been pointed out that Remington-Rand typewriters did not exist in the year where this was alleged to have happened.  The company was created in 1927 and the incident that is recounted would have happened one year before there was such a thing as a Remington-Rand typewriter. This story was also told to Barbara Branden for the biography she wrote.
The flaws in first person accounts don’t make the book valueless, but it is more valuable when read after one is already familiar with Rand’s life.
One interview that particularly fascinated me was with June Kurisu, who worked for Rand as a secretary in the late 1940s when Rand was living in Chatsworth, California. It became quickly apparent that there was much more to the Kurisu story than I originally knew.  I never knew that June’s parents were in the employ of Rand as well and lived at the house with her.
As I read the interview it seemed that the whole picture came into view. June and her family were Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated in FDR’s concentration camps for Americans for Japanese descent. When the federal government rounded them up, they lost everything. June’s father was a small business who lost his business. After the war these people found it difficult to start all over again as the federal government felt no need to compensate them for the confiscation of their property and their unconstitutional incarceration due entirely to their ethnicity.

Rand hired June’s father to work on the ranch with her husband, Frank O’Connor. June also mentioned that her mother was hired by Rand to be a cook, in spite of her having limited cooking skills. And June, who was a high school student attending a church boarding school, was hired to come to the Ranch on weekends to do typing for Rand. June’s younger brother also lived in Rand’s home. While June never said so, it appeared to me that Rand had hired the entire family, except for a 10-year-old brother, in order to help people who had been unjustly treated. At the same time, June recounts the presence of an elderly Russian woman living at the house as well.

This woman would have been Ayn’s English teacher from Russia who Ayn tracked down after the War. Ayn sponsored bringing the woman to the United States and allowed her to live with Rand for about a year.
Numerous other accounts show the side of Rand that her critics pretend didn’t exist—her benevolence. We read of children who meet Rand and said she was kind to them and would actually stay in touch with them, often calling them to see how they were doing.  Another girl recounts how she lived with Ayn and Frank in a one-bedroom apartment when her parents were having marital problems.  Over and over individuals recount an Ayn Rand who was benevolent and gentle.
There is much to glean from this collection. And beyond the account of Nora the only other interview that seemed bitter was that of Cynthia Peikoff, an ex-wife of Leonard Peikoff, who inherited Rand’s estate. Cynthia’s bitterness is not directed at Ayn but at Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. Leonard has waged a bitter war on the Brandens for decades and Cynthia seems all too happy to continue snipping at them.
What seemed particularly sleazy in that interview is that Cynthia makes accusations against Barbara Branden about an incident where Cynthia was not actually present. She attributes the claims to Eloise Huggins, Rand’s cook. Oddly the interview with Huggins is devoid of these claims. So we have a person, who wasn’t present quoting someone who herself did not make these claims in her interview, and is dead.  It is also questionable whether what Huggins allegedly recounted would have taken place in her presence as well.  But, out of 100 interviews, it is really only this one and Nora’s interview that struck me as bitter, perhaps vindictive.
Taken as a whole, the 100 interviews contribute a great deal to the reader’s understanding of Ayn Rand as a person.  They have to be read critically because of the problems of first person accounts and personal bias. But certainly if they are read along with either the Branden or Heller accounts, if not both, they help flesh out one’s understand of Rand’s life. You will find accounts of incidents that are utterly charming, compassionate, funny or heart moving. I recommend the book strongly, with the caveats expressed here.

Note: The Moorfield Storey Institute has a low-priced book service which discounts books to the public to further education regarding the virtues and values of a free society. All proceeds from sale fund Storey Institute projects. For more information on the books we offer, including those we publish, go to our website.

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