I recently heard a panel discussion by some accomplished professional artists about a variety of topics, ranging from the motivation to paint to the creative process to commercial success. It made me think of parallels between art and business and the role of philosophy and morality in both.
What struck me was the almost disdainful attitude of some of the artists toward the outcome of the creative process: finished paintings. One artist said: “Ours is such product-oriented society; we shouldn’t be attached to the products [of art] but just enjoy the process of creation.”
While this statement was made in the context of advice to an audience of aspiring painters, it contains a big philosophical error: ignoring the fact that we need values from food and shelter to art in order to live and to enjoy life. Creating values is a process to be enjoyed but not an end itself.
In an earlier post (“Productive work and happiness,”) I argued that it is important to choose work that you enjoy. But the enjoyment of work is an integration: enjoying the work itself (with the recognition that challenge is part of it), and enjoying the outcome or the product of the work.
There is no such thing as working for the sake of work itself without caring about the outcome, in any field, whether you are building houses, designing microchips, publishing books, teaching students—or creating paintings.
We work to produce values: houses, microchips, books, education, paintings, either for ourselves or for trading with others. We need values for physical survival, for enjoyment of life, or for both. For most of us, art is a value that enhances our enjoyment of life; for professional artists, it is also a source of livelihood.
Another artist on the panel remarked that he did not much care whether his paintings were selling or not, and that commercial pressures were hampering his enjoyment of creating art. This is another manifestation of the same error, with the addition of a mistaken, second-handed focus on others’ evaluation of one’s work, or “commercial pressures.”
Creation of high quality products, including paintings, must start with a primary focus on reality, not on other people. While it is true that buyers of products, including art, have needs or wants waiting to be fulfilled, the most successful producers and artists are prime movers: they create original, innovative products that create their own demand.
Steve Jobs, and other innovators like him, did not conduct popularity votes among customers (or imitate his competitors) to decide what to produce but focused on creating best personal computers, digital music and mobile media devices, trusting—correctly— that in time there would be buyers for them.
Creating high-quality art, like creating high-quality material values such as personal computers or mobile phones through a business, requires first-handed focus on reality, doing one’s best, and actually producing paintings (or other forms of art). The rest—commercial success—will follow (in which marketing plays a critical role, of course).
When a major movie studio paid a young artist over $17 million for his movie about a slave who planned and led a bloody rebellion, actor, co-writer and director Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation became the talk of Hollywood. Epic, new dramatizations of American historical events are rare and Parker’s movie garnered serious attention, interest and praise.
That the film became controversial after Parker’s past became an issue—he had once been accused of rape and the accuser, it was later disclosed, committed suicide—overshadowed the rare, historical depiction of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion.
History teacher Alexander Marriott, an instructor at Alvin Community College and Wiley College in Texas, recently offered an examination of the facts and the movie in this exclusive new interview about Nat Turner.
Scott Holleran: Is Nat Turner’s rebellion fundamental to the history of American slavery?
Alexander Marriott: That’s been debated by historians. Yes, in the sense that resistance to slavery is a fundamental part of that story and to Nat Turner’s rebellion. In terms of how many people were killed [during the insurrection], according to Thomas Gray, the lawyer who took Turner’s confessions, the death toll among the whites was 55—12 men, 18 women, 25 children—I do not see wide variations in any of the accounts for this figure and the breakdown. As for the number of people killed in the aftermath of the rebellion, this is open to some historical conjecture. According to the most recent monograph on the rebellion by Patrick Breen, the number of blacks killed and/or executed after Nat Turner’s rebellion has been overstated by previous historians. Instead of ranging from 100-200 in the Southampton area, Breen pegs the number of blacks killed without trial in the 30s; [Breen asserts that] 17 were tried and sentenced to death, including [Nat] Turner. Even the most inflationary accounts do not suggest women and children among the enslaved were lynched and hung. Breen makes a compelling case that their status as valuable property impelled authorities to quickly reign in any vengeful impulses of panicked Virginians to protect their slaves from annihilation. Turner’s is also the most spectacular form of rebellion. It’s the only one that came off that does target women, children and babies and, because slaves in Haiti had rebelled in 1790 and word of that had traveled, its nondiscriminatory nature realized the nightmares of American southerners of what a slave rebellion would look like.
Scott Holleran: Has there been a cinematic depiction before Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation?
Alexander Marriott: There could possibly be a French film, but as far as English-language cinema goes, I’m not aware of any dramatic film adaptation, which is too bad. It’s an intensely complicated story. At the time it happened in the early part of the 19th century after the 1790 slave rebellion in Haiti, Nat Turner’s rebellion certainly gave pause to white Southerners who had been speaking openly about white Southern society and how slavery could be integrated in the American South. Could a large population of former slaves live among their former slaveowners? The answer after the Haitian rebellion seemed to be No. Nat Turner’s rebellion did trigger a debate among Virginians about abolition.
Depiction of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion
Scott Holleran: Did Nat Turner’s insurrection ultimately hurt or help the cause for abolition?
Alexander Marriott: If the cause is the immediate end of slavery then Turner’s rebellion probably did not do anything to that cause one way or the other. Turner’s rebellion fits into the failure of the American Revolution to eliminate slavery, which is part of the cause of the Civil War. Slavery was a contradiction to America’s founding. If you take [abolitionist] William Lloyd Garrison when news arrived about Southampton County in Boston, he pointed out that what Nat Turner had done was the inevitable consequence of slavery. It’s dark but illustrative. Among black abolitionists, Turner was not viewed as a villain. I’ve never come across any long remarks that Frederick Douglass produced on Nat Turner. Douglass certainly would not have morally condemned Turner.
Scott Holleran: Was Nat Turner a religious zealot, as the movie portrays?
Alexander Marriott: Everything we have to go on suggests that the answer is Yes, though no more so than other preachers in 1831. There were a lot of [Christian] revivals by both races for evangelism.
Scott Holleran: Is the scene in which slave preacher Nat Turner delivers baptism to a white man accurate?
Alexander Marriott: That did indeed occur and it was a controversial thing—even the most debased white person would not have [typically] come to a slave for baptism but Turner had built up a real reputation. Most whites would have been amused that a scoundrel [as depicted in the film] was being baptized by a slave preacher. The baptism contributed to the sense among Southampton County whites that Turner was not a particular threat. The sense was that he was specially marked. This was known by whites as well as slaves.
Scott Holleran: Is there evidence that rape as depicted in The Birth of a Nation occurred?
Alexander Marriott: Did rape occur under slavery? Yes. Was Nat Turner’s wife, Cherry, raped? No, according to historical records but if she had been there would have been no reason to note it and every reason to avoid noting it—with the exception of Nat Turner himself, who was literate—but Turner’s bible was not burned and he did write things down in the bible. As the rapes are portrayed in the movie, there’s nothing historically wrong with either of those portrayals. The notion that [rape] wasn’t happening all the time is not supported. Rape was not talked about—it was beautifully but horrifically portrayed in 12 Years a Slave that [slave] Patsy was being raped [by the slavemaster] and everyone knew it but didn’t talk about it. Thomas Jefferson’s mistress Sally Hemings is herself the product of Jefferson’s father-in-law. One of the other ways we know it happened is the color dynamics—darker field hands and lighter skinned house slaves—the evidence is everywhere around us.
Scott Holleran: How did his father’s escape from slavery impact Nat Turner and what happened to his father?
Alexander Marriott: We don’t know—we do know that Turner’s father ran away and was successful—and it’s hard to have records. The same is true with 12 Years a Slave author Solomon Northrup.
Scott Holleran: Is Parker’s portrayal of Nat Turner accurate?
Alexander Marriott: I don’t object to it in any formal way—there’s enough ambiguity and gap in the historical record that he can be a lot of things, which is why Nate Parker could make Nat Turner whatever he wanted. My own read on Turner is that Parker could have and should have focused a lot more on black preaching and how African Americans interacted with Christianity and [put more emphasis on the] gathering [of slaves in religious congregation] in the barn. Most of Turner’s [preaching] competition was not well read and Turner cut his teeth by listening to other black exhorters. Religion was not an attempt to repent in church on Sunday. So the black church would have been emotive and demonstrative and you don’t have any of that [in The Birth of a Nation] and [showing the demonstrativeness] would have made a lot more sense. Among themselves, certainly church was a very musical ceremony, which is an important part of blacks’ religious experience.
Scott Holleran: Did Turner’s rebellion target white women, children and babies?
Alexander Marriott: Yes. What makes the Turner rebellion so terrible and catastrophic is that it’s absolutely everything Southerners had always feared—it’s the worst-case scenario—an attack in which women and children were murdered. There’s no question that [Gabriel] Prosser’s [earlier slave rebellion] was a military style rebellion, so there were no attempts to terrorize and there’s no question that Turner was going to go on the Old Testament-style wrath as God’s sword, meaning killing babies and women and children. They killed the [slaveowning] Travis family in their beds and went back to kill the baby. In the movie, the only children seen killed on screen are blacks. But we know that a little [white] boy had his head chopped off while running away from a slave. In the movie, we see Turner himself kill [slavemaster] Sam Turner but [in fact] the only person I’m aware that Turner killed is a small [white] girl who was running away. He bludgeoned the child to death with a fence post.
Scott Holleran: Was Turner rational?
Alexander Marriott: Yes, to the extent that he knew his position in the world and that anyone who turns to evangelism can remain rational. The first date he originally planned for the rebellion was the Fourth of July—Turner became sick with anxiety and couldn’t do it—and that date could not have been randomly selected. His reputation was that he had always been planning things. He was coming up with plans to steal foods—he was the one to go to for plans and he’d established himself as a leader, not as a doer. And, apparently, the rebel slaves did not have a problem with Turner not doing the killing.
Scott Holleran: Was Nat Turner’s attention to detail captured in the movie?
Alexander Marriott: No. In the film, suddenly, there was a meeting in the woods—without Nat Turner vetting anyone who participated in the rebellion. You couldn’t regard The Birth of a Nation as a biopic because it leaves the history behind.
Scott Holleran: Is Nat Turner’s grandmother accurately depicted?
Alexander Marriott: She did exist and she was a direct captive from Africa. But we know so little about these slaves that writers can just create types. During the siege, Turner did skip [attacking] the plantation where [his wife] Cherry lived. Turner literally claimed that the ability to read and write came to him [from God]. After his unusual ability was discovered, he was given formal education though it was not as formal as portrayed in the movie. We know that he could read so he could have read whatever he got his hands on.
Scott Holleran: How do you regard Nat Turner’s confessions?
Alexander Marriott: One of the interesting questions anyone who studies Nat Turner has to grapple with is [historical documents]. In Nat Turner’s case, we get a long confession that gives insight into his thoughts. Thomas Gray was the lawyer [who interviewed Turner and elicited the confession] and he certainly did have an agenda—he could make money from the document or, as a white Southerner, he may have been tempted to downplay that, when asked if [slavemaster] Travis a good master, Nat Turner said Yes. So, if Travis was not a bad master, why [did Nat Turner] not spare him and his family? Not everyone who was killed was bad. So, when you read the confession document, you have to read it carefully. I tend to think [Gray] seems interested in trying to figure out what made Nat Turner tick. The Nat Turner that emerges from the confession document does come off as a possibly delusional, religious madman—does this mean that slavery is not that bad?—and Southerners could get some level of calm out of that. Some skeptical scholars might wonder why Turner doesn’t talk about all the horrors of slavery he’s seen. But the confession document is regarded as potentially useful document when it’s subjected to corroboration, not as a fraud. It’s also regarded as Turner’s confession filtered through a white man in Virginia in 1831. And, of course, Frederick Douglass did talk about these horrors of slavery. Turner would have seen really, really awful things done to him and to others, too. If you read 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup does not beat around the bush about [what happened to] Patsy. But he did it in a way it could be published.
Scott Holleran: Is the theme of The Birth of a Nation and/or Nat Turner’s rebellion that the ends justify the means?
Alexander Marriott: My impression is that Nate Parker thinks that resistance requires direct action, not sitting back and accepting what’s happening. From Nat Turner’s standpoint of the rebellion itself, he must have believed that this was an Old Testament-style [calling] and that he was delivering the wrath that God called for and that the system and deliverance from it required total annihilation, which is why he could [order a baby being killed] and why Turner never expressed remorse for it. Even Gray does not portray Nat Turner as meek or repentant.
Scott Holleran: Is it true that Nat Turner was hung, skinned and beheaded?
Alexander Marriott: Yes. Southerners made sure that no one would be coming to Nat Turner’s grave.
Scott Holleran: Rebel slaves are depicted killing with beheadings, too. Was this common practice?
Alexander Marriott: Remember the French Revolution. Beheading is a visceral way of warning [enemies] that this could happen. In England, it became the method for executing aristocrats. Going to public executions was common.
Scott Holleran: How should one regard slavery?
Alexander Marriott: Slavery is too easy to think of as endless fields of cotton for the South or as unending misery, toil and human squalor for the slaves. In some ways, it was worse and in some ways it was better and it wasn’t just the South—slavery was originally legal everywhere—it explains why the country has the heterogeneous racial quality it does, which is a strength, not a weakness. The United States had to overcome this problem and there’s a point at which Americans did start to get along reasonably well. We’re not all killing each other in the streets. Almost everyone gets that slavery is wrong. If you read Frederick Douglass, he wrote about his enslavement that the worst moments were when he was treated the best.
Scott Holleran: Is Frederick Douglass a good starting point for someone who takes slavery seriously while putting slavery in a proper American historical context?
Alexander Marriott: Yes. You couldn’t do any better. The one caveat to that is that Douglass is fairly unusual—he was not a Deep South slave, so he did not have the worst experiences as a slave. Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs is a good way to get a different perspective from a slave in New Orleans. She writes about her life as an urban slave woman. For a perspective from a Deep South field slave read Solomon Northrup’s account of enslavement on sugar and cotton plantations in Louisiana in 12 Years a Slave. One of the great things about the abolition movement is that abolitionists went out and found people who could write. They left us with a body of literature.
Scott Holleran: What does The Birth of a Nation get wrong?
Alexander Marriott: The [depiction of the] rebellion itself is all wrong, which is sad because the silliest thing was the confrontation in Jerusalem [Virginia] when they end up having the big showdown—nothing like that ever occurred. The U.S. Army did not show up. The movie doesn’t show Turner’s time as a fugitive. It portrays that he gave himself up and that’s completely wrong. He did not surrender. It was happenstance that when he was found he was emaciated. It had been eight weeks. Also, Nat Turner was not beaten up by the townspeople as portrayed.
Scott Holleran: What does The Birth of a Nation get right?
Alexander Marriott: The first bit about Nat Turner [as a boy] with his grandmother and mother and their concern with his African heritage and what the bumps [on Turner’s] body mean—that they [thought the body bumps] meant he was going to be a leader—that was true. The plantation’s houseguest getting a slave to [have sex] with—that’s pretty accurate. And, if anyone comes away from this movie thinking that slavery was unpleasant and harsher than they thought, that’s good.
I urge you to consider this argument for the dissolution of the National Endowment for the Arts.
The United States was founded on the principle of individual rights: life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Everyone has a right to pursue the arts or enjoy them, provided he does so with his own time and money. To force an individual to pay for someone else’s art is a violation of the individual’s right.
I have acted, and I have written and produced plays; nothing would be more shameful to me than to force others to pay for my work whether they valued it or not.
We will never know the great and revolutionary creations in art, science, and all other fields that were aborted by the government’s looting of the creators of wealth in the name of the looters’ idea of creativeness. We will never know what private joys every hard-working individual was forced to forego to finance someone else’s notion of good art.
Confiscating individuals’ hard-earned money to finance the welfare state is bad enough when the money goes for material goods such as food and shelter; but to use the money to subsidize intellectual products is especially destructive of freedom, because it destroys our means of preserving freedom: it destroys the freedom of ideas. Government funding of the arts is as deadly as government funding of religion or the press.
Not by rational persuasion but rather through the physical threat behind the tax collector, the NEA has enforced a nationwide orthodoxy of thought in the arts; and it has suppressed ideas that are not favored by that arm of the government.
A theater company, for example, that is not “endowed” by the NEA is at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace. The “endowed” companies can charge less for tickets, have more elaborate facilities—while bidding up the prices every company must pay—and offer more to its actors. Taxpayers, who are already paying for the “endowed” companies, are less able to pay again for the unendowed. Is this the way to safeguard freedom in the arts?
I have written a play that shows the evil of government funding of art, science, and medicine. Will my work be considered fairly by the NEA, or by theater companies that receive NEA funding; or by producers, who nowadays—to siphon subsidies their way—try to have their projects presented by subsidized theaters before beginning a commercial run?
That individuals today are forced to pay for art they abhor is a moral outrage. It is spiritual rape.
NEA Chairman Jane Alexander recently told Congress, “We are jumpstart money, the only national measure of recognizing excellence. We exist to leverage the other public and private monies, and we do our job well—on average, leveraging $11 for every dollar we award.” (Testimony on April 5, 1995 before the House Appropriations Committee, quoted in Backstage.) Thus, an agency of government force presents itself as the only means available to private funding sources for selecting the best art nationwide. And the NEA’s goal is to “leverage”—that is, to direct, to direct lots of—private money in the direction the NEA chooses. Is this the role of government in a free society?
The introduction of force always has insidious and far-reaching destructive effects too numerous to catalog. The money spent by government on art may seem like a relatively small amount to some, but this “leveraged money” has gone far toward making artistic funding a matter for political edict rather than freedom.
Most people recognize how destructive it would be for the government to “endow” the Catholic Church or some fringe religious group—or The New York Times or some political newsletter. It is just as destructive for government to endow Lincoln Center or some Off-off Broadway troupe.
Advocates for the NEA claim that its opponents are fanatics for censorship. But the NEA, funded through government force, is itself by nature a censor. Any work of art that does not meet the NEA’s criteria—whatever the criteria, stated or implicit—is to an extent censored. Moreover, advocates for the NEA are the most useful—though often unwitting—intellectual allies that any would-be book-burner could have prayed for. The NEA established the premise that government can decide what art is good and will be forcibly supported. It is merely the logical extension of that premise to claim that government can decide what art is bad and will be forcibly shunned. Government propaganda and censorship go hand in hand.
Because it is the only arts ‘advocate’ with the power of force behind it, government thus becomes the only means of recognizing art as good or bad, and the NEA Chairman gets her wish. Advocacy by force is a contradiction in terms. Force preempts advocacy. Government is an arts enforcer.
Art and force do not mix, just as force does not mix with any kind of thought. Art is addressed to the mind; a mind must be free to think, to evaluate, to respond emotionally—or not. An artist can show, persuade, evoke; he cannot force. You cannot hold a gun to someone and command him to enjoy your idea of beauty.
Some ‘artists’ argue that once people are exposed to their work, even if by force, then these people will realize how good the work is. This argument is the rationalization of a rapist: “My victim does not yet realize how desirable I am, and so I will have to take the matter into my own hands, for my victim’s own ultimate good and enjoyment.”
That individuals today are forced to pay for art they abhor is a moral outrage. It is spiritual rape.
It is no wonder that so many of the new works awarded NEA money are expressions of nihilism. Mind-hating motives are consistent with mind-killing means. Government did not cause nihilism in art, but government has helped spread nihilism from the pseudo-intellectual fringes of a few cities to the mainstream of every American community. And government has made it more difficult for real innovators in art to reach an audience. The best artistic minds—the minds that understand and respect the creative potential of every mind when not forced—must struggle even harder, if they stay in their bureaucratized profession at all, or go into the profession in the first place.
Please help save the arts by restoring artistic freedom. Fight for the artist’s freedom by defending freedom as a universal principle, which holds for every individual mind. Speak out for the termination of the NEA and every other means of government force in the arts, including state and local arts agencies, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and government licensing of television and radio stations.
P.S. To anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of individual rights, freedom, and art, I recommend the work of arguably the greatest artist in history: novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand.
The above is a slightly edited version of an open letter written by the author in May, 1995, and was first published on the author’s blog. Ron Pisaturo is a writer and philosopher. He has written a screenplay, The Merchant of Mars and is author of Masculine Power, Feminine Beauty. Visit his blog at ronpisaturo.com.
A bit about my recent illustrations of scenes from The Fountainhead.
I’m sharing the images one by one with their stories attached, and also sharing this in order to explain a bit about the experience of drawing them.
OK so I’ll start describing it all by saying that I’m a big Touching The Art fan. I’ve been following Luc Travers‘s videos and museum tours for a few years now and enjoyed his unique approach to art appreciation.
His presentation at this year’s Objectivist Summer Conference required having 3 scenes from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead illustrated so that he can connect them with other existing artworks that have a similar meaning.
The purpose of the illustrations was therefore to depict the aspects of the scenes in a way that emphasized their connection to another artwork which Luc was presenting. My own personal emphasis in developing these was on capturing the mood, the feelings and the story. One way I achieved that in the illustration of Cameron, for example, was by using bold aggressive lines rather than refined realism. I wanted to capture the inner motion and violence in this moment of stillness. I wanted to make the darkness “move”.
Howard Roark At John Erik Snyte’s Office
I had about 10 work days to develop research and render these 3 scenes. The Fountainhead being one of my absolute favorite books, it was an overwhelming feeling to be illustrating it and trying to create my own vision and understanding of it on paper.
Now that it’s done I can say that, if I am honest, I didn’t fully achieve that to my satisfaction across the board. I feel I’ve succeeded at capturing some aspects of the moods and interactions and less successful at others.
It gave me a chance to practice developing a composition in a short amount of time and that was a very valuable experience. The scenes themselves did not yet suggest how to portray them. One of my favorite things was coming up with a way to describe the body language between the characters such that it would communicate the inner meaning of the story, behind the mere appearance of things.
Roark Meeting Dominique At Holcombe’s Party
For example, the way Dominique is standing while she is facing Roark. It had to be a balance between her overwhelming desire for him and her need to stay composed and appear unaffected. Translating that to body position, I had her pelvis leaning forward while her torso was leaning back, her head bowed down but her eyes looking up at him, but overall her body had to remain straight so that she looks restrained. Roark had to have hints of the same feeling, except, since he is the one in control in this scene, I drew him with his hands in his pockets. His hands in his pockets symbolize the apparent causal meaning of meeting someone at a party and serve as a contrast to the intense emotional reality of their meeting.
I don’t feel I quite captured his expression here though. That’s one regret I had here.
Overall this project involved… storytelling, composition, black and white values, designing characters, researching the right references, perspective, anatomy, gesture drawing and depicting moods and expressions. Let’s just say I have a lot of added respect for book illustrators. It’s a lot to handle, and the result, which seems like a simple picture, requires a lot of thinking that goes on behind the scenes.
Reading parts of the book again, I realized how much I can relate my own life to parts of it, and also how I grew apart from other aspects of it.
Scene from The Fountainhead by Ifat Glassman
I had a hard time fully putting myself inside Roark’s mind, for example, which surprised me. I felt I understood Dominique a lot better this time around, but did not fully get the emotional nature of her relationship with Roark. But boy, what a book. An amazing book. What an honor and an experience to try to illustrate it. I won’t pretend like I’ve achieved it fully and completely. It is a magnum opus and would require a lot of time to do it justice in full. But taking that into account I can say I’m really glad I took this on and that it was a great experience.
Lastly, if anyone wishes to buy prints of these, you can do so at this link.
I haven’t mentioned; these are all done in pencil on Bristol paper. They vary from one another slightly but their size on paper is 9”x12”.
The American city that comes to mind at the mention of Ayn Rand is probably not Chicago, a metropolis one might associate with other bestselling writers and authors, such as Studs Terkel, Carl Sandburg or even the current U.S. president, Barack Obama, whose philosophy is opposite of Rand’s integration of reason, individualism and egoism. One might think instead of New York City, where she lived for years while writing Atlas Shrugged, or Los Angeles, where she lived with her husband on a ranch in the San Fernando Valley and while writing her screenplay for the movie version of her novel The Fountainhead.
But after Rand arrived in New York as a refugee from Soviet Russia in 1926, before she sold her first script in Hollywood and had Alan Greenspan at her Manhattan home for readings from Atlas Shrugged in progress, the literary heroine lived—and wrote—for a time on the south side of Chicago, where as an immigrant named Alice she apparently chose her new first name.
She would return to Chicago after achieving worldwide success to deliver a blistering lecture to a sold-out audience at McCormick Place, where even a bomb threat didn’t stop her from making what would become an enduring and prophetic case against the welfare state for laissez-faire capitalism.
Piecing together facts of her months in Chicago with help from English literature professor Shoshana Milgram, an Ayn Rand scholar and biographer who teaches at Virginia Tech and recently corresponded via electronic mail, what emerges is an early portrait of a passionate intellectual in her youth.
Rand arrived in Chicago from the USSR by way of New York when the 21-year-old was known as Alice Rosenbaum, or Alisa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, according to Milgram, who lectured on Rand at the Smithsonian Institution and is scheduled to discuss Rand’s life in Chicago at the annual Objectivist Conference at the Westin Michigan Avenue Chicago on July 7.
Chicago, by Milgram’s reckoning, was Ayn Rand’s gateway to America.
Rand knew that writing what she wanted to write could get her killed under a dictatorship, Milgram contends, so coming to the U.S. was part of the plan. The family of her mother’s aunt Chava, the Portnoys, had traveled to America and settled in “the city that works”. When they wrote to ask how the Russian family was, Rand suggested to her mother that she should propose a visit. Her Chicago relatives said yes.
One of the Portnoys’ children, Sarah, owned a movie theatre, which made it easier to obtain Communist Party permission to study film in America, as Vladimir Lenin had designated cinema as the most important art. Milgram wrote that Alice Rosenbaum landed in New York on February 19, 1926. Within days, she boarded a train bound for Chicago.
By Milgram’s account, Ayn Rand, in the U.S. on a 6-month visa, probably shuttled back and forth among her relatives with stays at Sarah’s home in the Cooper-Carlton Hotel at 53rd and Hyde Park Boulevard—the first high-rise on Chicago’s south side, later renamed the Del Prado, which still stands—at her Stone relatives’ home at 3155 Wallace Street and next to her Goldberg relatives’ family-owned grocery store in the Albany Park area. Thanks to a movie diary that young Rand kept, it’s clear that she saw many movies at Sarah’s theater, known as the New Lyric in 1926 and located on West 47th Street near South Halsted.
Rand kept a list of the movies she saw, where she saw them, and who the director and stars were, grading each movie, from “not even zero” to “5+”. During her time in Chicago, Ayn Rand—who would write scripts for Love Letters (1945) which won an Oscar for Jennifer Jones as Best Actress and You Came Along with Lizabeth Scott—saw 140 movies at the New Lyric and at the New Terminal and the Metro (both at Lawrence and Spaulding). She also saw motion pictures by Cecil B. DeMille, whom she would meet by chance on a Hollywood studio lot months later, and Ernst Lubitsch at Warner’s Orpheum downtown at the corner of State and Monroe.
She wrote constantly while in Chicago, creating several screenplays and short stories including “The Husband I Bought”; Rand’s first letter to her family back in Soviet Russia was 40 pages long. She also sent American books such as Mantrap by Sinclair Lewis and The Mark of Zorro. She sent postcards with pictures of Chicago’s tall buildings, such as a postcard of the Wrigley Building, which Rand inscribed: “Top of the World.”
When she was able to renew her visa when it expired, Ayn Rand decided that it was time to go to Hollywood and she traveled again by train, carrying in her possession a letter of recommendation to a studio owned by DeMille. It’s in and near Hollywood that Ayn Rand wrote her first movies and novels, including Anthem and We The Living.
She first returned to Chicago 21 years later, a month before she testified to the House committee investigating Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry. Rand arrived in the Windy City in the railroad engineer’s cabin of the Twentieth Century Limited in late 1947, a trip she used as research for Atlas Shrugged. She visited Chicago on other occasions, too, including a stay after she lectured on ethics at a symposium at the University of Wisconsin at Madison before heading home to New York. On her way to accept an honorary degree from Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, Rand returned to Chicago once again, meeting with her extended family and being interviewed for Irv Kupcinet’s long-running radio program, Kup’s Show in September, 1963.
Fursty Studio courtesy of the Ayn Rand Archives
That’s when Ayn Rand spoke to an audience at McCormick Place. The title of her talk was “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business.” She had already delivered the lecture in Boston in 1961 and later at Columbia University—but, in Chicago, it was a huge hit.
“The place was jammed,” recalled Harry Newman, an architect in Los Angeles who had been inspired by Rand’s The Fountainhead and was part of Rand’s entourage at the time with his wife, Ruby, who sold Rand’s books in the lobby. “Earlier, we had all spread out like ninjas in Chicago, putting two-inch yellow posters up prior to the event. On the day she spoke, McCormick Place was packed.”
“She had on her long, black dress—it was like a cape—and she commanded that podium,” Newman recalled. “It was fabulous. We were sitting with her husband, Frank O’Connor, by Ed Nash, who had organized the event.”
Nash, a New York-based marketing executive who had been director of marketing for La Salle Extension University in Chicago, remembers the day well, mostly because he was moved by Rand’s ideas, though he does recall that there was an anonymous phone call warning of physical violence.
“I was informed by McCormick Place that a threat had been made,” he said. “The caller said there was a bomb in the auditorium. Security was more concerned than we were, so they searched the balcony. They didn’t find a bomb and Ayn Rand went on with her talk.”
Looking back, Nash said, he suspects that the caller was someone who became disturbed when Nash refused free admission to Rand’s lecture. Each ticket cost $3.50. “This guy thought he was entitled to be admitted,” Nash said. “So we strongly suspected that he was the one who made the threat.”
“We sold out the auditorium,” Nash remembered, describing himself at the time as a passionate advocate for Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism. “We put posters on all the buses. I never really expected to be sold out—but we were amazed that we were able to fill the place.”
Nash said that people chartered buses from all over the United States. Today, Nash said he remembers Rand’s speech in Chicago as a highlight in what he called an attractive intellectual movement.
“There were college students, and people of all ages, races and occupations,” Nash explained. “People came from all across the country—people who had read her books. They were inspired by what she wrote.”