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Facets of Ayn Rand (Part 4)

“What was Ayn Rand like as a person?” Two of her dearest friends answer with their memories.

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In 2001, the Ayn Rand Institute Press published Facets of Ayn Rand: Memoirs by Mary Ann Sures and Charles Sures, based on forty-eight hours of interviews conducted by oral historian Scott McConnell from September 1998 to January 1999. Twenty years later, these entertaining and informative personal reminiscences still merit careful study and reflection. New Ideal is proud to present the entire book online in eight installments.

Start with Part 1 here


AYN RAND AS CLIENT

ARI: Charles, you were one of Miss Rand’s attorneys. What was she like as a client?

CHARLES: Her main attorneys were in New York City, but in the early sixties, I handled a few matters for her. When it came to discussing legal matters, her manner was completely professional. Her tone was impersonal, almost as if she were not acquainted with you. Her focus was on the issue at hand and how it affected her.

ARI: We’ve seen in the archives some of your legal correspondence which Miss Rand had reviewed. Was this customary?

CHARLES: When I represented her, she went over letters I wrote. She was a hands‐on client. She didn’t sit back and let her lawyers take over. She wanted to know what legal issues were involved and what were her rights. She wanted to be consulted before action was taken. Not that she wanted to direct every aspect of a case. She knew that her attorneys had legal expertise she didn’t have, and she respected that. But she thought it was her responsibility to know what action was being taken and why.

ARI: Let’s talk about the letters.

CHARLES: The very first letter I wrote for her was to an adversary, and it concerned the misappropriation of the names of characters in her novels. It was a good letter from a legal standpoint; it made all the right points. When I reviewed it with Ayn, she complimented me on the opening sentence, but asked if the next sentence could be changed as to a word or two and the juxtaposition of a clause. It sounded good to me so, of course, I agreed. We made other changes. When I got back to my office in Maryland and dictated the revised letter, I found that the only part of it that remained word for word from the original was the first sentence! Her editorial changes gave the letter a greater clarity and brought the issues into sharper focus.

ARI: What was her manner during the editing process?

CHARLES: Whenever she suggested a revision, she gave reasons for it, no matter how small the change. She was open to discussion; if I disagreed, she listened and we talked it out. She took her time and gave you time to think. I never felt pressured.

Shortly after that, I wrote a couple of lengthy letters on a libel matter. She approved the letters, which resulted in an effective conclusion to the case.

ARI: What case was that?

CHARLES: It was the debacle of the showing of The Fountainhead film in Portland, Oregon. In October 1963, Ayn received an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Lewis and Clark College in Portland. I was not with her, but I was doing some legal work for her at that time.

ARI: What happened?

CHARLES: During the two days of special presentations of her works, in tribute to her as philosopher and writer, The Fountainhead was shown as part of the honors and ceremonies. The rented film had been cut and distorted, contrary to the assurance that the film shown would be the uncut original. Ayn stopped the film when it became apparent that Roark’s speech to the jury had been omitted. She gave an extemporaneous condemnation of the wrong that had been perpetrated.

ARI: What was your involvement?

CHARLES: I did some research on Oregon libel law. Then I wrote to the film company demanding, among other relief, that the uncut version be provided for showing at the college. Lewis and Clark College was innocent of any fault in the matter. The film company advised that although the cuts were made without their knowledge, they would make amends immediately, and they did so. As a result, Ayn wrote to the president of Lewis and Clark College regarding a date for the showing, saying, “I am anxious to have the full film shown at Lewis and Clark College in order to correct the disgraceful impression made by the censored version.”

ARI: You’ve said she was a “hands‐on” client. Did that make it harder or easier to deal with her?

CHARLES: Easier, without a doubt. It was clear she had done considerable thinking before we discussed legal matters — so she saved us time, which was important to both of us.

When Mary Ann had the art reproduction company, I prepared the contracts by which Ayn and Frank gave the company the exclusive rights to reproduce both Ilona’s1 portrait of Ayn and Frank’s painting, Diminishing Returns. Ayn was very experienced with contracts. She was an old pro, you could say. This was apparent in the one modification she requested in her contract — the right to have the portrait reproduced on book jackets and/or in periodicals. Otherwise the contracts were signed as written.

ARI: Did being friends make the process easier?

CHARLES: Being friends never entered into it. She was focused on whether the contracts protected her and Frank’s interests. It was strictly business. That’s what made it a pleasure.

CHAPTER THREE

AYN RAND AS MENTOR

CONVERSATIONS WITH MARY ANN

ARI: Mary Ann, you must have had many conversations with Miss Rand.

MARY ANN: Many. Some long, some short, on a wide range of topics — from current events to psycho‐epistemology to women’s clothing. These conversations came about in different ways. Something I said would lead her to inquire further. Very often, something she had written or lectured about prompted questions from me. Over the years, the same subject was discussed in different contexts — if she had made a new identification or defined a new principle, for example. And there were group discussions, too. So, now — years later — it’s not possible for me to separate the content of most individual conversations from her writings and speeches and other discussions — the knowledge is all integrated. But I do remember highlights of conversations that had special, personal meaning for me, that were focused on my questions and concerns.

ARI: Let’s talk about those. Did you take notes? Is that one of the reasons you remember them?

MARY ANN: No. The first time we had an appointment to discuss an issue, I came with a notebook, prepared to take notes. But she asked me not to.

ARI: What were her reasons?

MARY ANN: That it was not possible for me to follow her train of thought, ask questions, and take notes — at the same time. At first, I was surprised and disappointed, but as the evening progressed I could see that she was right. It took all of my mental energy to focus on her explanations and follow her reasoning. Everything she said was relevant and to the point. Note‐taking would have been a hindrance to understanding.

ARI: Was that always her policy?

MARY ANN: In my experience, yes. Except if she were giving a course, such as the lectures on fiction writing. Then note‐taking was permitted because it was a classroom setup and she was teaching. But, in our private conversations, she wanted my full attention. At the end of a discussion, she would always invite further discussion at a later time if, after reviewing the issues, I had more questions. And during the discussion, she invited questions, too.

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In those early days, as soon as I got home after an evening with her, I made notes of everything I could remember. So that I could think about it, make sure I understood it, and jot down questions if I didn’t.

Our very first conversation after the oral exam had to do with teaching. It was the winter of 1955. At the time, I was giving a medieval art course at NYU, and I personally did not like most of the art — the flatness, the distortions in anatomy, the vacant, staring faces. I asked if it is proper to express my personal likes or dislikes when teaching.

ARI: What did she have to say to that?

MARY ANN: She said she was going to begin by asking me a question. Then she did something that was characteristic of her in any discussion: she got right to the heart of the issue. This is almost verbatim: “Tell me,” she asked, “what were you hired to teach?” She stressed the word “hired.” And I answered that the course was supposed to cover the history and development of subject and style in medieval art. Then she asked me two questions: Was there anything about the subject that required me to express my personal opinions; and did such opinions clarify or add to the understanding of the history of medieval art? Well, of course, the answer was “no” to both. And she said, well, if that’s the case, why do you want to include them?

I didn’t know why and couldn’t say. But I could see that she was right. I wondered out loud why I was ever confused about the issue in the first place. Now, I didn’t expect an answer; to me, that was a rhetorical question. But not to Ayn Rand! She picked up on it immediately, and said that that was a separate question, an issue we could pursue if there was time. But, first, she said, she wanted to state a principle.

ARI: What was that?

MARY ANN: In any endeavor, in order to determine whether an action is appropriate, you have to define your purpose, you have to know what goal you want to achieve. And she gave a few simple examples to make her point. I remember only one — that if your goal is to lose weight, then you should stay away from fattening foods like cake and ice cream. And then she applied the principle to my case. If my goal was to present the history and development of medieval art, my personal reactions were not necessary. But, she said, suppose that part of the teaching assignment was to cover changing estimates of medieval art over time; then it would be appropriate to include mine as an illustration of a certain viewpoint.

ARI: But suppose a student asks for your opinion; can’t you give it?

MARY ANN: She was way ahead of us! She raised and answered that question, too. If a student asks for your estimate and response to medieval art, then it is appropriate for you to give it, if you want to. But only if you want to. It is optional. Here she made another important point.

ARI: Which was?

MARY ANN: That if I did give my personal views on medieval art, then I should indicate the reasons why I held those views. That way, she said, you are communicating the idea that there are reasons for esthetic responses, that they are not causeless emotions. However, she cautioned me to keep those comments to a minimum, and to answer those inquiries after the day’s lesson was finished. To keep my personal views out of the course material.

She frowned on professors who mix their personal views with their presentation of the subject, so that the students have a difficult, if not impossible, time separating the two. She said it put an unnecessary mental burden on the students.

ARI: What was her manner throughout all this?

MARY ANN: Just like she was during the oral exam. Completely focused on the issue and on my understanding of it — stopping to make sure I understood a point before going on to the next one. And something else, too. She was aware not only of what I was thinking, but of what I was feeling. She commented on the change she noticed in my facial expression and posture as the evening progressed. I was tense when we began; I looked troubled; I was sitting up straight. But, as I began to understand the issue, the worried look left my face, and I sat back in a much more relaxed manner. She was aware of all this. Whenever I was with her, I always knew I was being seen and heard.

In fact, some years later, one of our conversations resulted from her noticing my emotional state one evening.

ARI: Talk about that.

MARY ANN: She observed that I looked troubled, and asked me what was wrong. At the time, I was unhappy about a career problem, and I told her what it was. And I added that I was down on myself for feeling as I did. That last comment was what generated the discussion. But first we discussed the career problem, what caused it, and the possible solutions. We concluded that I didn’t have any choice in the matter. She pointed out that I was about to lose a value, and that that was reason enough to be unhappy. So, she asked, why do you hold that against yourself, why are you critical of yourself for feeling as you do? That was what had to be identified. And here she made an eye‐opening point.

ARI: Which was?

MARY ANN: She said that the fact that happiness is the moral purpose of your life doesn’t mean that you must never be unhappy. Or, put another way, unhappiness isn’t necessarily caused by immorality, and one shouldn’t equate the two. Then she elaborated.

ARI: What points did she make?

MARY ANN: Well, first she reviewed the relationship between happiness and values — that the former results from the achievement of the latter. Then she said it was important to realize and accept that we cannot always control the events and circumstances that affect our values. As an example, she gave what she considered the worst possible case — the death of a spouse. Another example she gave was losing a job because of a recession in the economy. Or having a friend go back on his word. We can’t prevent these things, she said, yet they affect us. She gave herself as an example — when The Fountainhead was being rejected by publishers, she was not happy.

She went on. If a person is chronically unhappy and depressed, regardless of the circumstances in his life, then there is something wrong psychologically, and the person should seek professional help. But if the unhappiness results from the loss of a value and the person is not responsible, then there should be no self‐recrimination. Here she made another distinction.

ARI: What was that?

MARY ANN: When things go wrong in your life, you will be unhappy. But the important question at those times is: Are you at peace with yourself? That, she said, is something that is within your control. And when people don’t make this distinction, they suffer unnecessarily.

ARI: Can you elaborate? What does being at peace with yourself come from?

MARY ANN: From the knowledge that you did not betray your values, that you lived up to your standards to the best of your ability. From knowing that whatever mistakes you might have made, they were honest mistakes, they did not come from the refusal to think. That you are free from the nagging thought: if only I had done thus and so, things might be different. That you know you did not let yourself down, that your self‐esteem is intact. That you lived up to the best within you. Then you are at peace with yourself.

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ARI: How did this conversation affect you?

MARY ANN: It made all the difference in the world to me. I still had the career problem, but I could localize it, confine it, see it in perspective. I went there feeling burdened by some kind of great weight. At the end of the evening, I felt free of the unnamed burden. She had named it.

ARI: Was there a time when Miss Rand didn’t welcome questions?

MARY ANN: No, never. If she couldn’t discuss something because of her work and deadlines, she would ask you to be sure and raise the subject again, or call and make an appointment. Whenever I did call and say I had a question or an issue to discuss, she would always ask me to indicate the issue. Then we would make an appointment. Then she would always say, “Take it as far as you can by yourself, before we get together.” She wanted it to be a joint effort.

When we did get together, the sessions could last for hours. If we began at 8:00 p.m., I might not leave until 2:00 in the morning, or even later. And sometimes the discussion would be continued the next day by phone, if she had the time. What I just related were highlights of discussions. In answering any question, she pursued every aspect — every implication, every relevant connection to related issues, every necessary qualification. She questioned you, she gave examples; she posed clarifying alternatives. It was an exhaustive treatment of the issue. But it was not exhausting! Just the opposite. It was invigorating.

ARI: Would you clarify that last statement?

MARY ANN: In order to follow her progression of thought, you had to stay in full focus all the time. She didn’t wander mentally, so you didn’t either. She was like a ray of light moving ahead at a steady pace, and you tried to keep up with that light and see everything it illuminated. You stretched your brain. You tried to rise to her level of mental functioning. As a result, you were a better person for having been with her, for having made that effort.

I lived a few blocks away, but if I were leaving after midnight she always cautioned me not to walk home, but to have the doorman get me a cab. I did, but I really didn’t want to. I loved the times when it was early enough to walk home. I left her feeling exhilarated. It was like being on a mental high. And I didn’t want to come down. My mind had been in motion and I didn’t want to stop the movement. Exploring an issue with Ayn Rand was like climbing a moving escalator, two steps at a time. You reached your goal faster. I wanted to prolong that sensation of moving forward and up — to swing my arms, take longer steps and deeper breaths. That’s what she made possible.

DISCUSSING ART

ARI: Miss Rand had very definite preferences in art. Reading The Romantic Manifesto, I see that she admired Vermeer and disliked Rembrandt. Did she ever discuss your art preferences with you, Mary Ann?

MARY ANN: She had very definite preferences in everything. As far as my own preferences, we did discuss them on a number of occasions. And I always found those discussions valuable. I always learned something — not only about the subject, but about myself, about what I liked and why I liked it. I can give you an example. But first I want to clear up something about Miss Rand and Rembrandt, since you mentioned him.

ARI: What’s that?

MARY ANN: She didn’t admire some of his subjects or his painterly style. She made that clear in her writing and in lectures, and she gave her reasons. But she did acknowledge, to me personally and during question periods publicly, that he was masterful in his use of light and dark, in his way of composing with those elements to achieve arresting and dramatic effects. In her appraisal of him, she made this distinction.

Some people who admired Rembrandt were offended by her remarks. But, I often wonder if they ever discussed with her what they liked about him and why, and explored their responses. The times I discussed art preferences with her, I learned how to approach something critically in a way I hadn’t been able to do before the discussion.

ARI: Give me an example.

MARY ANN: It was a discussion about the movie The African Queen, starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. At the time, it was one of my favorite movies. More than once, I praised it and recommended it to Ayn and Frank, who hadn’t seen it. I knew they liked Hepburn.

ARI: Why did you like it?

MARY ANN: I thought it was a great adventure story about ordinary people who undertake to do something extraordinary. I liked the effect that Hepburn and Bogart had on one another. He was a drunk and a coward, and she encouraged him to be brave and sober. She was a repressed, compliant, and very proper spinster; and with him she became assertive, feminine, and a woman in love. They brought out the best in each other. They were in a terrible situation, had to fight for survival, and they didn’t give up. And, most important, they succeeded.

ARI: So what happened?

MARY ANN: One day — this was after the publication of Atlas — Ayn called me to say that The African Queen was playing on television that evening, and invited me over to watch it with them. I thought they would see the same things in it that I did and would like it, too. Well, very early in the movie, she began to indicate her disapproval, and so did Frank, but not as much as she did. And my heart sank.

ARI: What didn’t she approve of? How did she indicate it?

MARY ANN: The pronounced naturalistic touches in the movie. For example, in the scene where they are having tea, Bogart’s stomach is making growling and gurgling noises. And she thought Hepburn was made to look unnecessarily plain and spinster‐like, and Bogart unnecessarily dirty and unkempt. She indicated her disapproval by saying things like “tch tch” or “oh, no.” I thought, “This is the worst night of my life!” There were commercial interruptions, and I was dying to start talking about her reactions, but she suggested we wait until we had seen the entire movie and could talk without interruption.

ARI: And when it was over?

MARY ANN: The first thing she did was turn to me and say that she could see why I liked it. I was shocked. And I asked her why, because she had disliked so much about the movie. And then she began to give me her analysis of my positive response to the movie.

First, she asked me questions about my reactions to the characters of Bogart and Hepburn, and brought me to understand that I really didn’t consider him a heroic type, that I had overlooked those naturalistic touches (the growling stomach, his crudeness, his dirty clothes), and that my positive response was to Hepburn. I admired a woman who didn’t fold up and give up. In the story, she conceives of a plan to sink an enemy ship, and she is determined that they will do it together. And Ayn pointed this out to me: that I was responding to the abstraction of determination and heroism, and overlooking some of the unsavory concretes. It was selective awareness, on my part. I remember very clearly one thing she said: that this is an example of someone seeing past the bad directorial touches in the movie, seeing past the things that undercut the characters of both Hepburn and Bogart. She was sympathetic about my desire to see something heroic in human behavior, but she pointed out what I had failed to see in the movie — or, more exactly, the aspects I dismissed or glossed over in my appraisal and, consequently, in my response.

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ARI: So, it stopped being one of your favorites?

MARY ANN: No, not ever. But, once I saw and understood the things she was pointing out, I liked it less as a total movie.

ARI: Did you feel you had lost a value?

MARY ANN: I think I did feel that, in the beginning. But it was not because she encouraged me to give it up. There was never any suggestion of that. She was teaching me how to discriminate, how to introspect and understand which aspects of something I responded to. She was encouraging me to try to seek out the reasons for that response. And, of course, it applied to more than one’s response to a movie.

ARI: How did you feel when you saw it again?

MARY ANN: It was a long time before I saw it again — in those days, there weren’t any VCRs or videos to rent, and one had to wait until it came back on TV or to a movie theatre. And when I did see it again, I was much more perceptive about the negative aspects of the movie. But, my response to the abstraction — what I responded to initially — hasn’t changed.

ARI: Tell me about another discussion.

MARY ANN: There was one about a painting I discovered in college. It’s by Cézanne. It’s very simple — it shows a road next to a high wall, and there are tall trees along the road. The first time I saw a picture of it, I liked it immediately. I was curious to hear her reaction. I knew that she didn’t like Cézanne; I didn’t either, not the total of his work. But this painting was an exception for me. And I couldn’t put my finger on why my response to it was so strong. One evening, I took over a slide of it and a projector, showed her the painting, and asked her what she thought about it.

ARI: Why were her response and her thoughts important to you?

MARY ANN: Because when I like something, it’s an added pleasure to know that my friends like it, too. But, also, I knew that I was going to learn something. I didn’t know what, but there never was a discussion with her when I didn’t learn something.

ARI: And what happened?

MARY ANN: She asked me if I could tell her why I liked it. I don’t remember all that I said. I recall talking about two things: the secluded, peaceful setting, and the sharp contrast between sunlight and shade in the painting — what she called “stylized sunlight.” She said she could understand why I was responding to that aspect of it.

ARI: What did you learn?

MARY ANN: It was another example of that same approach she used with The African Queen: try to identify why you like something, and in which respect. Do you like the total? Which aspects appeal to you? What do they mean to you, personally? Ask yourself, is what you like really in the painting, or are you bringing something to it and responding to that?

ARI: Did you learn why you liked it?

MARY ANN: No, not in every respect. I agreed with her analysis of the sunlight and shade, and I did find that attractive. But there was something else I couldn’t name. When I told her this, she suggested that perhaps I was responding to something I was bringing to the painting, something that was triggered by an aspect of the work. I asked her how I could get at this “something” — whatever it was. And then she suggested that I begin by compiling a list of other art works I liked, and then ask myself if they had anything in common. That was the beginning of an odyssey for me that lasted a few years and took me all the way back to early childhood. Finally, I did understand why I loved the painting.

The value of that discussion was her stress on the importance of understanding the reasons behind artistic preferences. Doing so puts you in touch with yourself, and you identify your basic values in the process.

ARI: Did she like the painting?

MARY ANN: She was lukewarm. She liked the strong contrast between sunlight and shade, but she didn’t like the loose, sketchy style. However, in the discussion, she was focused on my responses and the reasons for them, not on hers.

ARI: I heard that you played some of your favorite Frank Sinatra recordings for her.

MARY ANN: This was the spring of 1980, after her husband died.2 On one visit, I took all my favorite Sinatras to play for her, and so did Sue Ludel,3 who was also a Sinatra fan. It was Sue’s idea. Ayn agreed to listen to them and comment.

ARI: Did she like any of them?

MARY ANN: She liked one very much, “Winners” — especially the lyrics; lines like “Here’s to the battle, whatever it’s for, to ask the best of ourselves, and give much more.” She didn’t like the swing arrangement of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” She said that the tempo destroyed the song, which had been written with a Latin beat. I remember verbatim her comment about one of my favorites, “Here’s That Rainy Day.” She said, disapprovingly, “Mary Ann, it has no melody!” I could see her point, but that didn’t change my mind about it. She asked me why I liked it. I said that the arrangement featured the purity of his voice and the clarity of every word he sang. And then she made some very perceptive and positive comments about his phrasing, his enunciation, the way he used his voice to convey the emotional quality of a song. She was not a Sinatra fan and hadn’t listened to his music over the years. But, when she did, she grasped what was unique about him.

ARI: Did she enjoy the session?

MARY ANN: For a while. But after about an hour of it, we had to stop. She said it was giving her a headache! Sue had brought over some gay operetta marches to play as an antidote. They cured the headache.

Continue to Part 5

Copyright © 2001 Mary Ann Sures; Introduction copyright © 2001 Leonard Peikoff; all rights reserved.

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Footnotes

  1. Artist Ilona Royce Smithkin.
  2. Frank O’Connor died in Manhattan on November 7, 1979.
  3. Sue Ludel, then married to Leonard Peikoff
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Mary Ann Sures

Mary Ann Sures (nee Rukavina) (1928-2020) was an art historian, with a BA in history from Wayne State University and an MA in art history from Hunter College. She taught art history at New York University (Washington Square College) and at Hunter College. She also lectured on the application of Objectivist esthetics to the visual arts. Her friendship with Ayn Rand and Frank O'Connor began in 1954. The Sures were married in 1965.

Charles Sures

Charles Sures (1922-2000) practiced law for forty-four years prior to his retirement in 1992. He received LLB and LLM degrees from George Washington University. During World War II, he served in the South Pacific as a landing craft officer in the Navy [Lt. (j.g.)]. He was a pianist, stamp collector, and aerobatic pilot.

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