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Ayn Rand, Columnist: The LA Times Experiment

Ayn Rand welcomed the challenge of writing a weekly newspaper column on current events but ended it to write for her own periodical.

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In early 1962, the Los Angeles Times offered Ayn Rand an opportunity to write a weekly opinion column. The invitation came during Rand’s ascent to the status of a nationally known public intellectual. In the years since publishing her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, in 1957, she had appeared frequently in national magazines and as a speaker on television, radio and college campuses.

Rand accepted the Times’s offer, delivering Sunday columns for six months, from June through December 1962. What did she hope to get out of this enterprise, how did she fare, and why did she decide to end it so soon?

The Times pursues Ayn Rand

Rand’s transition from fiction to nonfiction was motivated in part by a happy discovery she made while writing her 1961 essay “For the New Intellectual” — she experienced a newfound pleasure in the process of writing nonfiction. This self-discovery helped motivate her decision to launch a monthly newsletter that would apply her philosophy to current events and cultural trends, a project she had contemplated for several years. In January 1962, she and her coeditor, Nathaniel Branden, launched the Objectivist Newsletter, with each editor obligated to fill half of its pages.1

A month later, the Times’s invitation came in the form of a letter from Rex Barley, head since 1951 of the Times-Mirror Syndicate (later known as the Los Angeles Times Syndicate).2 At this time, the syndicate was enjoying success with columns by such high-profile figures as Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. An Ayn Rand column would be another jewel in the syndicate’s crown.

“I write a weekly column for the Los Angeles Sunday Times — and I love being a ‘girl-reporter.’”

In his February 8 letter to Rand, Barley proposed that a weekly column “outlining your views in as strong and as controversial a manner as possible might be highly salable to the larger, more thoughtful papers.”3 He suggested starting with a Sunday column that would run only in the Times, “with its 900,000 circulation daily and close to 1,500,000 on Sunday.” This would serve as a “showcase and as a test market” prior to syndication around the world. Aware of her Objectivist Newsletter project, Barley observed that a Sunday newspaper column would give “wider and more immediate circulation to your views than would be possible through a monthly newsletter.”4

Barley wanted Rand’s column to examine events and trends drawn from the headlines, and he was eager to launch “at the earliest possible moment.” Rand responded enthusiastically, saying that the “idea of commenting on current events appeals to me a great deal” and referring Barley to her agent.5 After four months of negotiation, a deal was struck and the Ayn Rand column was ready for takeoff.

Writing the column

Her contract provided that Rand would supply a column every week, starting June 17, 1962, each to contain a minimum of seven hundred fifty words and a maximum of one thousand words. In payment she would receive fifty dollars per column.

Rand, residing in New York City, was obligated to deliver her column in Los Angeles each Monday morning prior to the next Sunday’s publication. In an era before internet, email or even fax machines, she needed to rapidly deliver physical sheets of paper across the continent. Quaintly, from a twenty-first-century perspective, her editor advised her that using airmail would obviate the need for Western Union telegrams.6

Rand plunged into the project with her typical professionalism, delivering her columns on a timely basis and in publishable shape. In total, she wrote twenty-six columns, all of which are available, just as she submitted them, in The Ayn Rand Column, edited by Peter Schwartz and available for purchase.

  • Six columns examined domestic and economic policy. One dissected the relationship between government handouts and economic growth. Other columns described the mixed economy as a “cold civil war,” explained antitrust law as the enemy of a free press, criticized Republicans in the field of education policy, analyzed results of the midterm congressional elections, and explained why refusing to support one’s enemies is not censorship.
  • Eight columns dealt with foreign policy. She wrote three articles on the Cuban missile crisis, two on Britain’s entry into the Common Market, and single columns on the Berlin crisis, the Soviet Union, and the roots of war as found in statism.7
  • Seven columns were devoted to ideas and philosophy. One discussed President Kennedy’s antipathy to ideology and another decried altruism and socialism as anti-human. One lamented the failure of intellectuals to name the fundamental ideas that influence events, another pointed out why the world needs American principles, and another explained the origins of the term “laissez-faire” to describe defiance of economic regulations. One column, her first, was a short introduction to Objectivism. Another used reader responses to her column as evidence that the general public does think and respond to ideas.
  • Five columns dealt with arts and culture. One featured a condensed version of her introduction to a paperback edition of Victor Hugo’s novel Ninety-Three. Others championed the thriller writer Mickey Spillane and the TV series The Untouchables, while one panned a TV production of Cyrano de Bergerac. One of her most widely remembered columns assessed society’s role in the death of Marilyn Monroe, whose suicide made front-page news in August.8

Rand enjoyed being a columnist. In a September 7 letter to a friend, Rand said: “I write a weekly column for the Los Angeles Sunday Times — and I love being a ‘girl-reporter.’” That same day, she wrote to Barley: “I have found that I enjoy writing the column very much, though it was difficult for me, at first, to get used to the space limit. It is becoming easier now.”9

“I must remind you that the most important provision of our agreement, as far as I am concerned, is the provision relating to alterations of my text.”

Midway through her stint, Barley assessed her performance to date: “Let me assure you that the columns you have been writing for the Times are first class so far as variety of subjects, newspaper writing style and the controversial themes are concerned; we would make no recommendations for changing in these regards.”10 Indeed, the Times had nothing but compliments for the quality of Rand’s output.11

The Times breaches the contract

Early on, both parties made Rand’s editorial control a point of emphasis. Barley told her agent that “no editorial restrictions whatsoever would be imposed upon Miss Rand,” aside from libel and obscenity, and each column should be printed “as submitted by her.” The signed contract stated that “the Column will not be edited without the approval of Rand being first obtained, provided, however, that Times-Mirror reserves the right not to publish any of said columns” (in which event Rand would still be paid).12

Having relied upon this crystal-clear, written understanding, Rand was unpleasantly surprised to discover that her November 25 column on President Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis had been edited without her consent — not by some junior editor but by editor-in-chief Nick B. Williams, who was familiar with the contract’s terms.13

The column, as submitted to the Times by Rand, harshly criticized Kennedy for attending a performance of Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet on November 13, only three weeks after America and Russia had come to the brink of nuclear war in a dispute over nuclear missiles in Cuba. Her column’s second paragraph, as submitted, said:

The Cuban crisis is not over. The conditions laid down in Mr. Kennedy’s declaration of October 22 have not been met; Khrushchev has double-crossed us, as usual; as far as any objective knowledge, evidence or proof is concerned, nuclear missiles are still in Cuba, waiting to be dropped on us from jet bombers. Is this the proper time for the President of the United States to attend the Soviet ballet?14

After Williams finished with his red pencil, the paragraph as published in the Times read:

The Cuban crisis was not over on Nov. 13. Was this the proper time for the President of the United States to attend the Soviet ballet?15

Other edits to the same column removed strong language by Rand pointing out threats to America’s military forces, condemning the United Nations’ role, and rejecting Kennedy’s ideas on inspection to verify removal of hostile weapons from Cuba.16

When Rand complained, Barley responded that Williams had acted “with the honest intention of keeping your column up-to-date with developments which had occurred after the column was written” and “to avoid any possibility that your material would look out of date.” In any event, Barley said, none of the edits “in any way altered the sense or meaning of your column.”17

Rand replied forcefully in a December 5 letter. While accepting that Williams had honest intentions, Rand wrote that “this does not change the fact that he had no right to edit my column without my consent.” She rejected the suggestion that her meaning remained intact after editing. “I have not given you cause to assume that I make statements without reflection,” she wrote, “and therefore, I must repeat that the editing has altered the sense or the meaning of my column. a) Its meaning consisted of the full context in which Mr. Kennedy chose to visit the Soviet Ballet. b) I am the only judge of what I intend to say under my signature.” 18

Rather than argue about whether her column had actually needed updating, Rand pointed out that Williams should have consulted her on how to update it without deleting her opinions. “I must remind you that the most important provision of our agreement, as far as I am concerned, is the provision relating to alterations of my text,” she wrote. “I shall, therefore, expect to be consulted about any proposed changes in the text of my column in the Los Angeles Times, and I reserve the right of final decision on such changes.”

This was the most significant editorial dispute that arose between Rand and the Times.19 It happened just at the time when Barley was delivering grim news about syndication efforts.

Syndication: Hope and disappointment

Starting with the first column in June and continuing as Rand’s column appeared Sunday after Sunday on the editorial pages of the Times, syndication efforts proceeded on a parallel track.

Syndication is the business of selling items such as comic strips, advice columns and opinion columns to newspapers and magazines that desire to fill their pages with reader-pleasing material. Naturally, items of proven popularity command top dollar — think Peanuts or Dear Abby in the 1960s — while new ventures like Rand’s column are often a hard sell.

At the outset, Barley was optimistic but uncertain about the prospects for success. On March 14, he wrote to Rand’s agent that “the column would be an esoteric one, likely to appeal in the main to large papers catering to readers of all shades of opinion, rather than is the case with [gossip columnist Walter] Winchell and Goldwater, whose writings appear in papers of circulation brackets ranging from the highest to the lowest.”20 On April 3, he told Rand’s agent that “we are playing the Ayn Rand column and its potential sale completely by ear since we don’t think there is anything comparable in syndication today.”21

On August 31, however, he told Rand, “I confidently anticipate that we will have sufficient strong reaction to your column” to succeed in syndication, promising to share “the good news as it develops over the next few weeks.”22 The syndicate promoted Rand’s column through its usual sales channels: direct mail, print advertising, and personal sales visits, touting Rand’s fame as author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and noting that “no single weekly column in the newspaper’s history drew such heavy and immediate reader-response.”23

Amid that reader-response, two published letters stand out as exemplifying the power of Rand’s radical ideas to excite strong debate. On June 24, Samuel Ayres Jr., MD, wrote a long letter condemning Rand’s “garbled and perverted semantics and illogical conclusions based on irrational premises” and pointing out that capitalism, her favored social system, had needed correction in the nineteenth century by eradicating poor working conditions and ending slavery. Two weeks later, the Times carried an equally long missive from his son, Samuel Ayres III, MD, who publicly took dead aim at his own father’s opinions: “Those who attack Ayn Rand by bringing out all the tired old cliches about the supposed evils of capitalism in Dickens’ times (child labor, poor working conditions, etc.) and the evils of slavery,” he wrote, are overlooking the important point that those evils were not products of capitalism but remnants from pre-capitalistic societies. Reading these two letters today, one can easily imagine the shouting matches that might have erupted at the Ayres families’ dinner tables.24

By limiting her commitments primarily to the Objectivist Newsletter, Rand maintained complete editorial and production control over her work.

Explaining the syndication effort to Rand, Barley said that her column would be offered for sale on a sliding scale, “from $2.50 per column from the smallest paper to $40 or $50 per column from the largest.”25 The column’s financial success would be measured by the dollar value of commitments to buy it. Contractually, Rand or the syndicate could back out of the agreement if the column failed to gross $300 weekly after six months, $400 after a year, or $500 weekly after eighteen months. Rand was to receive fifty percent of gross revenue.26 So if revenues reached the contractual minimum of $500 weekly, she would earn approximately $15,000 yearly (equivalent to about $132,000 in 2021 dollars).

Alas, significant demand for the Ayn Rand column in syndication failed to materialize. On November 29, after three months of vigorous sales promotion, Barley wrote: “We have four or five small papers signed up prepared to run the column directly [once] we announce a first release date, but for the amount of revenue involved it would be uneconomic for you or for us at this stage.” Still, he held out hope, as a half-dozen “good papers” were being sampled with the column at their request, “and we hope that some or all of them will also sign up at an early date.”27

It was not to be. On December 14 Barley told Rand that syndicating her column would not be feasible. Three months of “intensive selling” had yielded orders from only four papers, three of them very small, for total revenue of $26 per week, less than one-tenth of the contractual minimum for success. “Obviously, it is uneconomic either for you or for us to start distributing your column to this very small list with apparently little hope of it being increased to any considerable extent in the months to come,” Barley wrote.28

Rand’s decision

Despite disappointing results from the syndication campaign, Williams was eager to continue publishing Ayn Rand’s columns in the Times’s Sunday editorial pages at fifty dollars apiece. He had no objections to her strong opinions, noting that “we would not want the column if she did not express opinions in it,” and the editorial dispute over the Cuban crisis had not dampened his enthusiasm.

Nevertheless Rand chose to end the column. In lieu of writing to Barley, she placed a call on December 18 but couldn’t reach him. She must have left a message, however, because the next day he wrote: “I am naturally delighted that there are no hard feelings and certainly none exist at this end — only sincere regret that we were unable to do better.”

What factors weighed in Rand’s decision? She named one of them in the notice of discontinuation that the Times printed at her request on December 23, the Sunday immediately following her last column:

RAND COLUMN DISCONTINUED

The Ayn Rand column which has appeared weekly in these pages has been discontinued by mutual consent. Miss Rand told The Times the pressure of work prevents her from doing adequate research for her columns.

The “pressure of work,” as we know, included her monthly obligations to the Objectivist Newsletter plus the efforts required to meet her other speaking and writing obligations.29 Quantitatively speaking, her commitment to the Times had significantly increased her periodical writing responsibilities. As for the “burden of research,” we know that she tackled complicated subjects drawn from the headlines.

Other factors arguably affected her decision. Without syndication, her column would bring in only fifty dollars per week from the Times. Monetarily, this was equivalent to what any competent freelance writer could make (less than six cents a word), not an attractive sum for a writer of international renown who was reaping considerably greater rewards from royalties and from subscriptions to the Objectivist Newsletter.30 By choosing instead to prioritize her own periodical, she was able to begin stocking a vault from which material for popular and profitable nonfiction anthologies could be drawn.

Moreover, writing a weekly column based on current events carried with it a real risk of more conflicts with editors.31 As previously noted, Rand was obligated to deliver each column on the Monday prior to Sunday publication. Considering the time required for research, analysis and formulating her themes, she had to decide what she would say at least two weeks prior to actually saying it in print. That time lag created a real risk that facts recited in her column could become obsolete with the onrush of events. She had gotten a taste of that danger in her experience with the Cuban crisis column. By limiting her commitments primarily to the Objectivist Newsletter, Rand maintained complete editorial and production control over her work.  

Importantly, by retaining full editorial control, Rand also freed herself from the constraints of a weekly column’s word limits. As she wrote in her very first Times column, summarizing her philosophy: “In the space of a column, I can give only the briefest summary of my position.” But in her own periodical, she could devote as much space as she needed to expose the philosophical causes behind confusing cultural trends.

Although her newsletter’s circulation could not compare to that of the Times, the seven nonfiction anthologies drawn mostly from her periodicals have now sold more than three and one-half million copies.32

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Footnotes

  1. The indispensable guide to the origins of Rand’s periodicals is Shoshana Milgram’s lecture “Fifty Years since the First Objectivist Periodical: Objectivism as a Philosophy for Living on Earth,” delivered at a 2012 Objectivist summer conference and available for purchase at the Ayn Rand Institute eStore.
  2. “Rex E. Barley, Times Syndicate Official, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, June 2, 1971, II-5. The syndicate was a separate company from the Times newspaper, but they were owned by the same parent company, Times-Mirror. (That company also owned New American Library, Rand’s paperback publisher, which had published softcover editions of all four Rand novels plus For the New Intellectual.) Before offering Rand a column, Barley had discussed the idea with Victor Weybright, head of New American Library, and Nick B. Williams, the Times’s editor-in-chief.
  3. Letter dated February 8, 1962, from Rex Barley to Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Papers, 045_11B_018_001.
  4. Barley was of course correct that the Times’s circulation offered a much larger audience than the Objectivist Newsletter, which four years later had an average monthly circulation of approximately 21,000 (renamed and reformatted as The Objectivist). “Statement of Ownership, Management and Circulation,” 5 Objectivist (November 1966): 16.
  5. Letter dated February 21, 1962, from Ayn Rand to Rex Barley, Ayn Rand Papers, 045_11B_017_001.
  6. Letter dated April 3, 1962, from Rex Barley to Alan Collins, Ayn Rand Papers, 045_11B_009_001.
  7. Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, caused the Berlin column to be reprinted in the Congressional Record. Ayn Rand, “Foreign Policy Drains United States of Main Weapon,” Los Angeles Times, September 9, 1962, G-2; Cong. Rec. Apx. A6800 (September 13, 1962). See also Tom Bowden, “Ayn Rand on the Moral Foundations of the Berlin Wall,” New Ideal, November 6, 2019.
  8. Coming in at one thousand ninety-two words, this column was the only one in which Rand exceeded her contractual thousand-word limit.
  9. Letter dated September 7, 1962, from Ayn Rand to Morrie Ryskind, Ayn Rand Papers, 021_04B_012_001; letter dated September 7, 1962, from Ayn Rand to Rex Barley, in Berliner, Letters of Ayn Rand, 600.
  10. Letter dated August 31, 1962, from Rex Barley to Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Papers, 045_11C_006_002.
  11. Barley did make one mild suggestion aimed at improving the chances of attracting newspapers who might lack the abundant space available on the Times’s many editorial pages: “Anything you can do to reduce the length of the column even by a few words without sacrificing content or subject matter” will make it easier to sell. (Letter dated August 31, 1962, from Rex Barley to Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Papers, 045_11C_006_002). Over the course of her contract, Rand’s columns averaged 877 words, exactly midway between the contractual 750-word minimum and the 1,000-word maximum.
  12. Agreement dated June 5, 1962, Ayn Rand Papers, 186_19x_001_001.
  13. Nick B. Williams (1906–1992) started at the Times as a copy editor in 1931, assuming the helm in 1958 and beginning its “transformation from mediocrity to excellence,” according to the Times’s own obituary. Besides expanding staff, opening foreign bureaus and adding sections, Williams doubled the size of the news staff and increased circulation. He also engineered a “repudiation of irresponsible ultraconservatism” in March 1961 with a five-part series on the John Birch Society, including a front-page editorial denouncing the group’s smear tactics. (David Shaw, “Nick B. Williams, Editor of The Times for 13 Years, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, July 2, 1992). On June 13, 1962, Williams had issued an internal memo referring to Rand’s contract, “which stipulates we have the privilege of omitting the columns but not of editing them.” (Los Angeles Times Collection, box 450, folder 1, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California).
  14. Ayn Rand, “How to Demoralize a Nation,” Ayn Rand Papers, 183_ST6_015_001.
  15. Ayn Rand, “Cuba Crisis Not Right Time for Kennedy to Visit Russian Ballet,” Los Angeles Times, November 25, 1962, G-2.
  16. Williams deleted the following passages:

    “The situation has not changed; they [America’s military] are still at their posts, under threat of the enemy’s nuclear fire.”

    What are we to think of the course of our policy in the past two weeks? The Cuban crisis has all but vanished in the quicksands of the U.N. — and if we judge by the queer bubbles popping up on the surface, some fantastic game is being played. The question is: by whom and at whose expense?

    Surely our Navy’s ‘inspection’ of covered crates on the decks of Soviet ships is not intended to be taken as a substitute for on-site inspection, or to be taken seriously at all. For whose benefit is our Navy going through so gruesomely farcical a pretense?

    Ayn Rand Papers, 183_ST6_015_002. All of the deleted passages subsequently appeared — slightly edited by Rand herself — in a column published on December 9. Ayn Rand, “The Munich of World War III?,” Ayn Rand Column, 72.

  17. Letter dated November 29, 1962, from Rex Barley to Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Papers, 045_11A_027_001.
  18. Letter from Ayn Rand to Rex Barley dated December 5, 1962, in Michael S. Berliner, ed., Letters of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1995), 601.
  19. In the Ayn Rand Papers are copies of five printed columns with notations in Rand’s handwriting of typographical errors; however, she never registered a protest. She did, however, vehemently object to a drawing of her that was printed along with her August 12 column. Rand fired off a letter to Barley requesting that the “nasty caricature of myself” be withdrawn and never used again, only the original one. “I do not understand the motive or purpose of that change, and I shall assume that it was accidental.” (Letter dated August 17, 1962, from Ayn Rand to Rex Barley, Ayn Rand Papers, 045_11C_012_001).

    Rand found this drawing acceptable to accompany her columns in the Los Angeles Times.

    Rand objected to this image as an “ugly caricature” and insisted that it not be used.

    Barley responded with an apology and a promise “from here on out to run your column without any picture whatsoever.” (Letter dated August 22, 1962, from Rex Barley to Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Papers, 045_11C_011_001). This prompted Rand to explain that she liked the original drawing and would be happy for it to accompany her column. It was only the second drawing to which she objected as an “ugly caricature and an apparently deliberate distortion. (I am not a movie star, but I never looked like that.)” (Letter dated September 10, 1962, from Ayn Rand to Rex Barley, Ayn Rand Papers, 045_11C_004_001).

    Rand also complained when the Times accidentally dropped a line from a column lauding the TV series The Untouchables. Rand’s original text said that “the appeal of crime stories and Westerns does not lie in the element of violence, but in the element of moral conflict and moral purpose.” (Ayn Rand, “The New Enemies of The Untouchables,” in Schwartz, Ayn Rand Column, 12) The mangled version that appeared in print, however, said that “the appeal of crime stories and Westerns does not lie in the element of moral conflict and moral purpose” (Los Angeles Times, July 8, 1962, G-2). Thus the printed version conveyed the exact opposite of her intended meaning. In a subsequent letter to a reader, Williams sheepishly admitted that “Miss Rand, who reads the Times very carefully, hit the roof.” (Letter from Nick B. Williams to Mary Seibold dated July 17, 1962. Los Angeles Times Collection, box 459, folder 11, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California). A correction was published the next week.

  20. Letter dated March 14, 1962, from Rex Barley to Mrs. Sewell Haggard, Ayn Rand Papers, 045_11B_001_001.
  21. Letter dated April 3, 1962, from Rex Barley to Alan C. Collins, Ayn Rand Papers, 045­_11B_009_002.
  22. Letter dated August 31, 1962, from Rex Barley to Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Papers, 045_11C_006_001.
  23. Undated promotion flyer, Ayn Rand Papers, 028_82X_023_001.
  24. Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1962, C-7; July 7, 1962, III-4. That these two physicians were indeed father and son is affirmed in the Times’s obituary of Ayres pere that appeared on November 17, 1987, at II-1 and II-8.
  25. Letter dated March 14, 1962, from Rex Barley to Mrs. Sewell Haggard, Ayn Rand Papers, 045_11B_001_001.
  26. Agreement dated June 5, 1962, Ayn Rand Papers, 186_19X_001_003, 004.
  27. Letter dated November 29, 1962, from Rex Barley to Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Papers, 045_11A_027_001.
  28. Letter dated December 14, 1962, from Rex Barley to Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Papers, 045_11A_028_001.
  29. To some extent, Rand was able to make her Times columns perform “double duty,” in that she republished six of them in the August and October issues of the Objectivist Newsletter in satisfaction of her editorial obligations there.
  30. Rand received a total of $1,300 for the 22,798 words in her 26 columns, a yield of 5.7 cents per word.
  31. See Tom Bowden, “Taking Ideas Seriously: Ayn Rand’s Editorial Precision,” New Ideal, November 4, 2020.
  32. Those books are: The Virtue of Selfishness (1964); Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966 and 1967); Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (1966 and 1990); The Romantic Manifesto (1969 and 1971); The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (expanded edition Return of the Primitive) (1971 and 1999); Philosophy: Who Needs It (1982); and The Voice of Reason (1989).
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Tom Bowden

Tom Bowden, J.D. and former civil litigator, is a research fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute and web editor of New Ideal.

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