“This book is a way of concretizing the story of Ayn Rand’s life,” said Michael S. Berliner, coauthor (with Anu Seppala) of the newly published Russia to America: A Guide to Ayn Rand Homes and Sites. “She came from the horrors of Soviet Russia and lived in near poverty in Hollywood, yet only eighteen years later she could purchase a home designed by Richard Neutra. Ayn Rand truly lived a life more compelling than fiction, to borrow a tagline from the documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life.”
Writing the book was a labor of love for Berliner and Seppala. He was the Ayn Rand Institute’s first CEO and executive director (1985–2000), and she was ARI’s director of cultural affairs (2003–2022).
The idea for the book germinated in the years following Rand’s death in 1982. Berliner came into possession of more than four hundred personal letters sent to Rand from her family in Russia. Although translating those letters from the original Russian became a task for later years (accomplished by the late Dina Schein Federman), the addresses on the envelopes fascinated Mike and his late wife, Judy, who made a project out of visiting those addresses.
They started with Rand’s Los Angeles abodes, making a list and driving around town to photograph the sites, actually gaining access to some of the apartment interiors. “The excitement of turning those envelope addresses into reality was the underlying foundation of Russia to America,” said Berliner. It occurred to him that a book collecting all this information would be welcomed by Rand’s admirers.
A highlight of the Berliners’ initial explorations was visiting the DeMille Studios in Culver City, a short distance from their home. “We stood on the actual spot where Rand met Cecil B. DeMille,” Berliner recalled. “DeMille soon hired her as an extra in The King of Kings, which he was then shooting nearby. That’s where she met Frank O’Connor, who would become her husband. In some sense, what we were seeing was where it all began.”
Soon thereafter, Berliner was conducting tours for Ayn Rand Institute employees and visitors. These tours often included stops at Frank Lloyd Wright houses and old Hollywood restaurants, like The Musso & Frank Grill. Meanwhile, the two coauthors began assembling material for a book.
Seppala and Harry Binswanger, who became Rand’s friend in her later years, visited her known New York City addresses. In 2003 and 2004, when Seppala traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, she met with local researchers who had already located sites from Rand’s early years in that country. In the meantime, Dina Federman was translating those family letters, making it possible to track Rand’s locations more accurately.
Other highlights for the Berliners came when visiting European sites, including the Paris hotel where Rand’s family vacationed in 1914, just as World War I was breaking out, and the Berlin address where Rand stayed with her cousin Vera in 1926, on her way to America.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the authors set out to finish the project. “Deciding the content to be covered, digging up appropriate photos, tracking down addresses, writing captions, getting permissions — all of that took a lot of time,” said Berliner. The finished book, designed by ARI’s Simon Federman, is loaded with more than 150 images, most of them in color, and furnishes ample material for readers to design their own driving or walking tours.
“Mike and I have both very much enjoyed working on this project together,” said Seppala. “It’s truly been one of the brightest spots in my time at ARI.”
Russia to America can be purchased on Amazon and will soon be available in a Kindle edition.