Ayn Rand: The Object of his affection Leonard Peikoff won't shrug off the impact of his mentor

It often happens in the last days of youth, when a Herculean mix of hormones, idealism, and rebellion unite — those days when worn copies of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” rest on night stands, when pulp philosophy is addictive, when a red-haired architect named Howard Roark becomes God.

The Ayn Rand phase. Rush Limbaugh, Margaret Thatcher, Sharon Stone and Hillary Rodham Clinton all say they went through it. And 16 years after Rand’s death, a whole new generation of Americans is brooding over her radical ideas.

But for some, Ayn (rhymes with mine) Rand is more than a college thing. To a cultish group of followers, her philosophy heralding individuality, selfishness, reason and capitalism is the One Way, the Only Truth.

If anyone leads this flock of purists (one scholar calls them “Randroids”), it’s Leonard Peikoff — a youthful 64-year-old philosopher from Irvine with bulging eyes and short, jet-black hair. Rand’s “intellectual heir” has written introductions to all of her books, and he writes, lectures and hosts a radio show about Objectivism, her philosophy.

In the spirit of his mentor, Peikoff wants to incite a “philosophic revolution” that would reverse 2,000 years of intellectual thought. Peikoff, though, admits that Rand’s radical message is a hard sell, particularly in a country where community service is lauded, where religion is prevalent and where philosophy rarely emerges in everyday discourse.

“The conservatives denounce you because you’re an atheist,” Peikoff said during a recent interview in Orange County. “The liberals denounce you because you’re pro-capitalist. The moderates denounce you because you’re extremist. Wherever you go, you’re in hostile territory. You have to have a lot of strength and conviction to be able to say they’re all wrong, they represent a corrupt trend in history and you’re going to fight them all.”

It has been Peikoff’s battle call for 54 years, since the day he met the unforgettable woman with a thick Russian accent and dark, probing eyes.

“My personal life,” Rand once wrote, “is a postscript to my novels; it consists of the sentence: ‘And I mean it.’ ”

She was like a heroine from her novels, Peikoff says — “indomitable, strong, very intelligent, very passionate. She could be extremely warm, she could get really angry. You always knew what she was feeling and thinking.”

Born Alisa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Rand left for the United States in 1926, just before her 21st birthday, to escape the rise of communism.

She ended up in Hollywood, working as a waitress, movie extra, seamstress, screenwriter — anything to get by — as she ferociously wrote notes for novels.

Rand was determined to reveal the truth about communist Russia, to shed light on the horrors of collectivism.

Her first book, “We the Living,” was published a decade after she arrived here. Six years later, Rand finished “The Fountainhead” — the controversial and compelling tale of Howard Roark, an architect who refused to compromise his principles for anyone.

Roark became a hero for Peikoff, then a budding medical student in Winnipeg, Canada.

And soon enough, so too did Roark’s creator.

Peikoff’s cousin introduced him to Rand one night in 1951 at the author-philosopher’s ranch house in Chatsworth, near Los Angeles.

“She was unbelievable,” Peikoff recalled. “I went in with a couple of questions about ‘The Fountainhead,’ and she gave fantastic detail, brilliant answers. I was intelligent but knew nothing about philosophy. She blew me away completely.”

The lanky 17-year-old had planned to become a doctor, but that night changed everything. Mesmerized by Rand, he left Canada two years later to study philosophy at New York University, living just blocks from Rand’s apartment there.

On Saturday nights in Manhattan during those years, Peikoff and an eclectic group of “disciples,” including Alan Greenspan (now chairman of the Federal Reserve), would gather in Rand’s living room, reading and discussing her novel-in-progress, “Atlas Shrugged,” as she pounded page after page out of her typewriter.

The group, fervently opposed to communism, jokingly called themselves “The Collective.

Rand finished “Atlas Shrugged,” which she considered her greatest work, in 1957. Like “The Fountainhead,” it was, at 1,100 pages, a long story of epic proportions, with infallible heroes, sinister foes, and a healthy dose of philosophy.

In the years to follow, Rand concentrated on nonfiction, spelling out her philosophy and how it applied to everyday life.

Objectivism, Rand wrote, “is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” Accordingly, she called altruism evil, religion evil, public service evil, welfare evil, charity evil. An individual, she said, is an end in himself, and should be motivated only by rational self-interest.

Peikoff, meanwhile, studied philosophy at New York University for a total of 12 years, eventually earning a doctorate degree. He then taught philosophy at Hunter College, Long Island University and, finally, his alma mater — all the while staying in touch with Rand and learning more about Objectivism from its creator.

“Dr. Peikoff has a superlative knowledge of the philosophy of Objectivism, and is able to communicate it expertly,” Rand wrote in a letter of recommendation for a professorship for Peikoff in 1980. He “is an outstanding teacher.”

During Rand’s last days, the three years after her husband’s death, Peikoff and Rand talked almost every day. In the end, she left Peikoff everything she had — her money, her possessions and her ideas.

These days, Rand’s heir has become a minor celebrity, appearing earlier this year on “Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher” and ranking among the top 100 most important radio show hosts in a national survey by Talkers magazine, a trade publication serving the talk radio industry.

(His show, “Philosophy: Who Needs It,” is available in seven markets, but not San Diego. The live broadcast can be heard from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays via http://www.broadcast.com.)

She’s everywhere

By all indications, Rand’s views are more prevalent today than ever.

* “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” continue to sell about 300,000 copies a year. In a national survey conducted several years ago by the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club, respondents ranked “Atlas Shrugged” the second most influential book they had read, following only the Bible.

* A recent full-length documentary, “Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life,” was nominated this spring for an Academy Award, and a couple of movie adaptations of her novels are reportedly in the works. (A black-and-white version of “The Fountainhead,” starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, made it to the big screen in 1949.)

* More than 100 colleges and universities nationwide have Objectivist clubs, although there aren’t any in the San Diego area.

* And a flood of books about the radical Russian immigrant — biographies, journals, letters, previously unpublished stories — continues to flow into bookstores.

Peikoff, though, is skeptical of many people who claim Rand changed their lives.

“I doubt in many of those cases that there was any substantial influence,” Peikoff said. “There was a moment of infatuation, a moment of idealism, a moment where they had the perspective that the whole world is wrong. But then they couldn’t sustain that, they couldn’t live with that fact, and so they gave up.”

For Objectivists, it’s an all-or-nothing deal. You can’t advocate Rand’s position on only a couple of issues and not the rest. You have to buy her entire philosophy. If you don’t, Rand said, not only are you wrong, but you guilty of evasion — not thinking.

And because ideas are a matter of life and death to Objectivists, people who don’t think, they say, are essentially zombies, totally devoid of what Rand called “a sense of life.”

Peikoff says most Americans are in that state of virtual death.

“A great majority of people settle into their life, their marriages, their kids, and they just don’t think anymore.”

But there is hope, he says, in the young.

Engine of change

Housed in a waterfront office building south of Los Angeles, the Marina Del Rey-based Ayn Rand Institute works to introduce students to Rand, and influence them before they settle into what Peikoff calls “mental stagnation.”

Inside the fourth-floor office, Rand mementos speckle the walls — photos, letters, handwritten notes, paintings and book promotion posters. At the entrance sits an antique wooden desk.

“This,” the institute’s communications director proudly declared, “is where Miss Rand wrote ‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ It’s our crown jewel.

Established in 1985 by Peikoff and a wealthy patron, the institute (http://www.aynrand.org) has grown to have an annual budget of more than $1.5 million.

The institute sponsors essay contests for high school students, funds college Objectivist clubs, maintains an archive of Rand memorabilia, runs the Objectivist Graduate Center and sponsors radio’s “Philosophy: Who Needs It.”

Basically, the institute is the muscle behind Peikoff’s goal to change the world into an Objectivist utopia.

But not all Objectivists are pleased with the institute.

Along with her radical ideas, Ayn Rand Ayn Rand’s legacy included a philosophical and personal fight that continues today. It started with an open, 14-year extramarital affair between Rand and a disciple 25 years her junior.

Nathaniel Branden was 25 and married to Leonard Peikoff’s cousin, Barbara Branden, when the affair began.

In 1968 Rand discovered that Branden, now a Beverly Hills psychologist, was sleeping with one of his students at an Objectivist institute she named for him. She denounced both Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, casting them out of her life and closing down the Branden institute.

Peikoff continues the feud. As a condition of access to the Ayn Rand Institute’s archives, producers of “Ayn Rand: A Sense Of Life” could not interview the Brandens for the documentary.

When asked during the recent interview about Barbara Branden (who introduced him to Rand) and her ex-husband, Peikoff said “I have no comment. I’m not going to give my enemies publicity.”

Peikoff and the Ayn Rand Institute are most often criticized for their apparent refusal to acknowledge that Rand had flaws, that she was anything less than saintly.

“They have altered the historical record of her life,” said Chris Sciabarra, whose book “Ayn Rand: Russian Radical,” was called “reckless” and “destructive” by a trustee of the ARI.

“When I published my book, so many people sent letters thanking me for having approached Rand in such an — dare I use the word — objective way.”

(Sciabarra, a visiting scholar at New York University, coined the term “Randroid.”)

Peikoff shoots back:

“What difference does it make? I don’t go around spreading her virtues or her vices. But the people involved here want you to come out and attack her now that she’s dead.”

“I think,” Peikoff later said, “she was a 100 percent moral woman, who had no moral flaws.”

If all of this makes Peikoff seem dogmatic, like a staunch protector of Rand’s image, so be it, he says. It’s because he belives in what he preaches, Peikoff says, and because he still admires the woman he knew for more than 30 years.

“Because of the power of her mind and the purity of her soul,” Peikoff said in a 1987 speech, “she gave me what her novels give me: a sense of life as exaltation, the sense of living in a clean, uplifted, benevolent world, in which the good has every chance of winning, and the evil does not have to be taken seriously.

“I often felt, greeting her, as though . . . the human ideal is not merely an elusive projection to be reached somehow, but is real, alive, seated across the room, smiling delightedly, eager to talk philosophy with me, eyes huge, brilliant, penetrating.

“That is the Ayn Rand I knew,” Peikoff said. “And that is why I loved her.”