Writers often bristle at autobiographical interpretations of their work, particularly that pertaining to some of the most objectionable content. One doesn’t need to be a serial killer to write of one convincingly, after all. And as to unpleasant characters that may be based on actual people, there is always the convenient escape hatch that, ‘hey, it’s fiction.’ Yet to at least some extent fiction is always informed by real life. The effect of this is strange in Rand’s case because she explicitly set out to deny “the world as it is” and trumpet “the world as it should be,” most especially so with Atlas Shrugged. Try as she might, though, Rand could not completely banish reality, particularly that of her sordid personal life, which crept into her writing in particularly interesting ways.
By the time work on Atlas Shrugged had commenced, Rand had made the acquaintance of a young couple, Nathaniel Blumenthal and Barbara Weidman, both devoted readers of The Fountainhead who became close friends of Rand and her husband Frank O’Connor. All were saddened when Nathaniel and Barbara left Los Angeles for New York, but after the film of The Fountainhead had finished, Rand saw little reason to remain in L.A. The O’Connors returned to New York as well, to the great chagrin of Frank, who had cultivated a lush garden on their California property and had a thriving gardening business. After reconnecting with the Blumenthals—Rand had encouraged and attended their wedding—Rand and Nathaniel discovered their deep friendship was actually love. Not wanting to be dishonest they received “permission” from their spouses to carry on a clandestine relationship, with twice-weekly consummation in Rand’s (and Frank’s) apartment.
This was kind of a big deal. Rand, who took everything way too seriously, did not lightly undertake such an arrangement. As she wrote in an afterward to Atlas Shrugged, she considered Nathaniel—whom she had rechristened Nathaniel Branden—the expression of her highest value, the kind of Howard Roarkian-John Galtian figure she had been writing to and about:
My other acknowledgement is on the dedication page of this novel. I knew what values of character that I wanted to find in a man. I met such a man -- and we have been married for twenty-eight years. His name is Frank O'Connor. When I wrote The Fountainhead, I was addressing myself to an ideal reader -- to as rational and independent a mind as I could conceive of. I found such a reader -- through a fan letter he wrote me about The Fountainhead when he was nineteen years old. He is my intellectual heir. His name is Nathaniel Branden.
The dedication was taken out of subsequent reprintings and placed in the memory hole after the explosive ending of Rand and Branden’s tryst in 1968. However, Rand’s worship of Nathaniel’s putative heroic qualities survives in Atlas’s narrative, where he serves as the namesake of the founding father of Taggart Transcontinental:
Dominating the concourse, but ignored by the travelers as a habitual sight, stood a statue of Nathaniel Taggart, the founder of the railroad. Dagny was the only one who remained aware of it and had never been able to take it for granted. To look at that statue whenever she crossed the concourse, was the only form of prayer she knew.
Nathaniel Taggart had been a penniless adventurer who had come from somewhere in New England and built a railroad across a continent, in the days of the first steel rails. His railroad still stood; his battle to build it had dissolved into a legend, because people preferred not to understand it or to believe it possible.
He was a man who had never accepted the creed that others had a right to stop him. He set his goal and moved toward it, his way as straight as one of his rails. He never sought any loans, bonds, subsidies, land grants or legislative favors from the government…
In her childhood, his statue had been Dagny’s first concept of the exalted. When she was sent to church or school, and heard people using that word, she thought that she knew what they meant: she thought of the statue.
It’s entirely possible that the selection of ‘Nathaniel’ as a name is incidental and has nothing to do with Rand’s lover. Still, the holiness she ascribes to her creation are well in line with her estimation of the real person, as is this (emphasis mine):
It was said that Nat Taggart had staked his life on his railroad many times: but once, he staked more than his life. Desperate for funds, with the construction of his line suspended, he threw down three flights of stairs a distinguished gentleman who offered him a loan from the government. Then he pledged his wife as security for a loan from a millionaire who hated him and admired her beauty. He repaid the loan on time and did not have to surrender his pledge. The deal had been made with his wife’s consent. She was a great beauty from the noblest family of a southern state, and she had been disinherited by her family because she eloped with Nat Taggart when he was only a ragged young adventurer.
Considering that by the time Atlas Shrugged was published Branden’s own wife had “consented” to a similarly extreme marital gambit, it’s hard to believe Rand wasn’t obliquely referencing him, if perhaps unwittingly. Yet it may well be a chicken-and-egg matter, too; that she should find this kind of behavior heroic and acceptable would make her more likely to cultivate it.
Granting Branden’s presence in the book’s pages we must then ask where in the text Frank O’Connor should appear. Page two hundred of over a thousand may be too early to say, but at this point I think a strong indicator of Rand’s feelings about her own marriage may be found in the descriptions of Hank Rearden’s petty, ungrateful, nagging family, the book’s most grindingly awful characters.
This would not have been obvious to the casual observer. To their friends Rand always spoke of Frank in the most effusive, heroic terms. His movie-star good looks were what had attracted her to him in the first place, and no doubt also his earlier creative trade as an actor. But, as often, the ideal was far from the reality. Where Rand was a bold, selfish intellectual, or at least considered herself so, Frank was withdrawn, considerate, and unschooled though possessed of an innate wit (he once entitled a letter to a friend, “The Fountain Pen, by Frank O’Connor”). Rand had always been the money-maker in their household, and after the move to New York Frank’s productivity ceased entirely. The best he could muster was a latent talent in painting. Of his lack of work Rand would say, in keeping with the theme of Atlas, that he was “on strike.”
Yet the tension between what she claimed she thought of Frank and what he was (and perhaps what she actually thought of him) was palpable to observers, who wondered how two individuals so dissimilar ever came and remained together. The latter matter Rand might herself have wondered. Starting around the time of the production of the Fountainhead film, their relationship had begun to strain. From The Passion of Ayn Rand:
This period, some of their friends recognized, marked the beginning of something in Frank that was to grow and intensify as time passed: an impatience with Ayn, totally at variance with his usual personality, split-second bursts of furious, seemingly motiveless anger at her that were gone almost before they could be noticed…. He shouted at her because she was late in dressing for an appointment, or had forgotten her keys, or wore stockings with runs in them, or nagged him to wear a warm sweater on a balmy day. He had repressed too much of his emotional life over too many years: it could not forever remain underground. Now his inevitable resentment of Ayn—perhaps his resentment of his own failed life—burst out at unpredictable times and for unpredictable reasons. Ayn was bewildered by it. Her fantasy view of herself, of Frank, and their relationship, did not permit her to understand the motivation she might have understood in someone else. Through the rest of their life together, as his outbursts of anger grew more frequent and more intense, it remained unintelligible to her.
This ‘unintelligible’ behavior—an unsuccessful person resenting an accomplished and wholly self-absorbed individualist—is the template for every member of the Rearden household. For instance, this gripe about Rearden’s leeching mother recalls aspects of the O’Connor marriage:
Rearden bore patiently a conversation with his mother and two ladies whom she wished him to entertain with stories of his youth and his struggle. He complied, telling himself that she was proud of him in her own way. But he felt as if something in her manner kept suggesting that she had nursed him through his struggle and she was the source of his success.
The reason Rand stayed with Frank, in spite of all marital tensions, was because she did in fact need him; as an emotional support, someone with whom she could be frivolous and girlish. She could never travel without him without feeling the greatest unease. This contradicts everything she believed about individualism and self-reliance, however, and grinded against the support she gave him in turn. The irritation with this is hinted at in this passage, describing Rearden’s deadbeat brother Phillip:
Rearden had never known what his brother was doing or wished to do. He had sent Philip through college, but Philip had not been able to decide on any specific ambition. There was something wrong, by Rearden’s standards, with a man who did not seek any gainful employment, but he would not impose his standards on Philip; he could afford to support his brother and never notice the expense. Let him take it easy, Rearden had thought for years, let him have a chance to choose his career without the strain of struggling for a livelihood.
For the key marital issue—sex—the passive-aggression of wife Lillian could just as easily be Rand’s perception of Frank, who made a timid lover:
[Lillian] had never objected [to sex]; she had never refused him anything; she submitted whenever he wished. She submitted in the manner of complying with the rule that it was, at times, her duty to become an inanimate object turned over to her husband’s use.
She did not censure him. She made it clear that she took it for granted that men had degrading instincts which constituted the secret, ugly part of marriage. She was condescendingly tolerant. She smiled, in amused distaste, at the intensity of what he experienced. “It’s the most undignified pastime I know of,” she said to him once, “but I have never entertained the illusion that men are superior to animals.”
Ayn Rand considered art to be “a recreation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” Accordingly, she quite deliberately created characters that embodied her ideals of actualized man. Yet no person can be entirely rational, entirely deliberate; Rand's life was a testament to how the grossest expressions of the subconscious will manifest themselves in those who most deny them. Thus does Rand's carefully sculpted recreation of reality as she wanted it, also bear the cracks where the messy details of actual reality threatened to intrude. She sought to shine a light on man with fiction, without ever considering that where there is light there are shadows.