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Facets of Ayn Rand (Part 5)

“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


CONVERSATIONS WITH CHARLES

ARI: Charles, let’s turn to your discussions with Miss Rand.

CHARLES: One that comes to mind is a discussion about white lies. It took place in the early morning hours of that January 1, with the four of us — Ayn, Frank, Mary Ann, and me — sitting around the dining room table.

ARI: Who raised it?

CHARLES: I did. I thought white lies were bad, but I couldn’t make a full argument against them. Ayn proceeded to explain. But, first, let me say that I raised the subject on the spur of the moment, thinking that she would reserve a full discussion for a later time. However, she launched right in.

ARI: What did she say?

CHARLES: First she said that a white lie is understood to be a harmless fib told with good motives, usually to protect the listener from bad news. But, she said emphatically, it is not harmless; it is insidious. A white lie is worse than a straight‐out lie because not only is the element of faking reality present, but the person to whom you are telling the lie is thereby deemed by you incapable of facing reality and needs protection from it. That is, the person is deemed insufficiently rational to accept a fact of reality and deal with it.

The example she gave was of the husband who has to have minor surgery and wants to spare his wife the worry. So, instead of telling her the truth, that he is going to the hospital as an outpatient, he tells her he is going to play golf. That is the epitome of a white lie. After his treatment is over and he is fine, he tells his wife about the surgery. A wife who has any self‐respect is justifiably furious when she finds out the truth. She is angry that he considered her insufficiently stable to face up to whatever the present and the future might hold. Ayn said that a terrible consequence of his action is the undermining of her confidence in him to be a truthful partner.

ARI: Did she elaborate?

CHARLES: Yes. She said it puts the wife in the position of not knowing when he is being truthful and when he is shielding her from the facts of reality. This will lead to estrangement and distrust.

ARI: Did she say how this situation can be rectified?

CHARLES: First, by the husband fully understanding the meaning of his action — what it says about him and his evaluation of his wife. He has to be convinced why it is wrong to tell white lies, and this will take some rethinking on his part. The wife has to know that he fully understands the issue and more — how his white lie has affected her. Then, he has to pledge never to do it again, and live up to it.

She explained another possible outcome of the situation. Suppose, she said, something did go wrong during the surgery and the husband died. Not only is the wife left to deal with the catastrophe, but she is also left to wonder, forever, why he was not truthful with her about the incident. And worse, she will wonder how many other times he wasn’t truthful. No matter how deep her love for him, her memory of him will always be marred by these doubts. She will feel let down in a fundamental way.

Ayn added that she did not mean to imply, by using the husband as an example, that wives don’t make the same mistake. But, more often, the husband sees himself in the role of protector and may be motivated to shield his spouse with a white lie.

In a proper marriage, she said, the wife (or husband) will want to know what difficulty has to be dealt with, and how best to deal with it. She will want to be there to aid and comfort her husband. A marriage, Ayn said, is a partnership, an equal partnership. And the vows about “in sickness and in health” are not idle words divorced from meaning or application.

As to the wife who wants to be protected with white lies, who wants her husband to build a buffer between her and reality — Ayn called her “an irresponsible child” and an “evader.”

ARI: How was she during a discussion? Did she tend to dominate, because of her knowledge?

CHARLES: Dominate? Only in the sense that she usually had more to say than anyone else. She would not push or pull or pressure you. She would be quiet while you thought, and quiet while you spoke. She did not interrupt your thoughts. She let you speak it out, even though she was pretty sure where you were going. She let you take all the steps you needed to make your point. You had a sense that whatever you said, you were understood, that you were being listened to. If she saw that you were making a mistake in your reasoning, she let you make that mistake. Then she analyzed the mistake at length, and she showed you what incorrect premises led you to the incorrect conclusion. In almost every discussion, there were two parts: the subject under consideration, and how my mind was working.

ARI: You mean, “Check your premises”?

CHARLES: Yes, that was part of it. If you had a problem checking them, she helped you along.

ARI: Can you speak about another discussion?

CHARLES: There was one about surprise parties and what was wrong with them.

ARI: You raised this question?

CHARLES: Yes. Mary Ann mentioned to me that the Collective had given Ayn a surprise dinner party to celebrate the publication of Atlas Shrugged, and that Ayn was very annoyed and did not enjoy the party. Like most people, I grew up accepting surprise parties as fun events, and I was curious about Ayn’s attitude. So I brought it up one evening when we were there. Mary Ann had had a discussion with her on the issue some years earlier.

ARI: Miss Rand didn’t suggest that you ask Mary Ann?

CHARLES: No, that was not her policy. If a question was asked of her, she was the one to answer it. And she always held my context when explaining something to me.

ARI: What do you mean?

CHARLES: Ayn understood that not everyone integrates knowledge in the same way and at the same rate, and she let my way and rate of understanding the issue be her guide. This put me at mental ease. I knew that there wouldn’t be any tension about keeping up with her. When Ayn explained an issue, she was explaining it to someone.

ARI: What were her objections to surprise parties?

CHARLES: I can give you a summary of what she said, not the progression. She had several objections. First and foremost is that it puts the recipient in the position of having to suddenly switch his context and deal with an unplanned for, unexpected situation. What, she asked, is the value in that? This is what we do in cases of emergency, she said. We shouldn’t be put in the position of doing it for a celebration. She objected to being “put in a position” by someone else, of being deprived of choice in the matter.

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The giver mistakenly thinks that the shock of the surprise will be more appreciated than a planned‐for party. On the contrary, she said. The recipient gets no benefit whatever from the surprise element. It adds no value over and above what would be derived from a planned‐for occasion. Instead, it detracts from the value of the occasion, because the recipient is put in the position of being a guest of honor and a host at the same time. He has to put his shock aside and greet people he had not expected to see (or perhaps not wanted to see), he is expected to be grateful to the party givers who study him for his reactions, he is expected to be gracious and charming when he may feel annoyance, or anger, or overwhelmed by the situation.

ARI: Did she say anything about the motives of the surprise party giver?

CHARLES: She said that the motives were bad if the party giver deliberately made it a surprise affair because he knew the recipient would refuse a party if offered. If the recipient doesn’t want a party, then there shouldn’t be a party.

She made additional points. The giver has no right to be the final unilateral authority on how anyone’s achievement is to be celebrated. And the giver has no right to be the sole arbiter to determine who the guests are. Most important, the giver has no right to be the one who determines how any evening out of the life of the recipient is to be spent. That’s up to the recipient.

Added to all this is that the recipient is deprived of the pleasure of anticipation, which adds greatly to the enjoyment of the celebration.

ARI: But some people enjoy surprise parties, don’t they?

CHARLES: That may be. She couldn’t see any valid reason for them. But that’s something the giver should find out in advance, if the pleasure of the recipient is the first consideration. And, she said, it should be.

HUMOR

ARI: Can you give some examples of lighter moments?

MARY ANN: Sure. In the late fifties, one afternoon Frank and I went to see Lust for Life, the Vincent Van Gogh movie with Kirk Douglas. And, of course, it included the gory episode of Van Gogh mutilating his ear. When we returned home, Ayn wanted to hear about the movie and especially about Frank’s response. “How was it?” she asked. And Frank said, with a smile, “Well, lend me your ear.” And she said, laughing irresistibly, some words to the effect that it was a gruesome remark. But she couldn’t stop laughing.

ARI: She liked his sense of humor?

MARY ANN: She loved his wit. Some of it’s in her novels. His humor was in the form of spontaneous comments, tailored to the situation. Here’s an instance of it: from time to time, Charles and I would call from Maryland just to say hello and see how they were doing. During the years when Ayn and Charles were stamp collecting, the conversation would always turn to stamps, and while they talked about stamps, Frank and I remained on the line as silent listeners. One time, Ayn and Charles talked for about twenty minutes. Finally, Ayn said, “Frank, are you and Mary Ann still on?” His response: “Oh, yes. But, we’re a little older.”

ARI: Did Miss Rand ever tell unphilosophical jokes?

CHARLES: Not to me. But she did tell a very funny story about a man in his hotel room, calling down to the desk to complain about his bags not being sent up. I remember only one line of a long monologue, all of which Ayn had memorized verbatim: “It’s damn seldom what happens to my luggage around here!” And she liked Professor Irwin Corey, the character on television who was advertised as the “world’s foremost authority.” He was the pretentious, befuddled professor‐type, in words and in appearance. He would speak nonsense with great pomposity, such as his admonition, “We must circumvent the periphery!” That always tickled her.

MARY ANN: One night, Ayn, Frank, and I were discussing the difficulties of adults learning to speak a foreign language. I said to her, “I can teach you to speak American Indian in a minute.” And she answered immediately, with a note of challenge in her voice, “How?” I said nothing, I just looked at her and smiled. Frank got it right away and broke up. Then she caught on, laughing in a protesting sort of way. She was interested in the fact that Frank got it immediately, while it took her longer. She commented on the difference in the way each grew up. Humor was never a part of her upbringing; the atmosphere in her home was more formal. But Frank was typically American in his response to humor. She asked me for another example to see if he got it before she did.

ARI: What was it?

MARY ANN: More pseudo‐Indian talk. I asked them to repeat after me, “O wah, tah nah, siam.” And to keep repeating it until they got it.

ARI: O wah, tah nah, siam?

MARY ANN: Yes. After a few repeats, Frank got it and bent over laughing. She had to do it a few more times; she did it in her head and out loud, and then she finally got it. She wanted to know where I learned it, and I explained that it was something I learned in child‐ hood, something to get bullies and mean playmates to repeat. She said she would have to use it the next time she had a conversation with someone impervious to a rational argument!

CHARLES: One of her cats was an attractive mongrel which she named “Ali,” and which I took to be an allusion to Muhammad Ali, the prizefighter whom she admired because he was proud of his ability and made a point of saying so. That may well have been the case, but it was also a joke. I didn’t get it until she said, “Ali cat.”

And there is Frank’s classic comment on the Rockettes, the precision dancers at Radio City Music Hall: “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.”

CHAPTER FOUR

THE CELEBRITY

ARI: Let’s turn to Ayn Rand the celebrity and her attitude toward fans.

MARY ANN: She was a celebrity, but she didn’t act like one.

ARI: How do you mean?

MARY ANN: She didn’t want or need an adoring, protective entourage around her, going with her everywhere she went, fawning over her, flattering her. She frowned on that practice. She had seen a lot of that in Hollywood and considered it phony.

CHARLES: There was an appealing reserve to her. She was gracious about the attention paid to her by fans and the applause she generated at public appearances. But she didn’t go out of her way to call attention to herself.

ARI: Can you give some recollections of Ayn Rand, the public figure?

CHARLES: Whenever she came to Washington, D.C., to answer questions after a lecture had been given on her philosophy, as many as five hundred people attended. Here’s what happened the first time she came: when the lecture was over, she was announced, and she entered from the back of the lecture hall. In order to reach the podium, she had to walk up a rather long center aisle, right through the audience. The minute she entered, there was a crash of applause, and it followed her all the way; people craned their necks to see her; some stood on their chairs for a better look. It was a wonderful response, and she appreciated it — and said so to the audience. But after the question period was over, she took us aside and said that she did not enjoy that long walk. She felt self‐conscious, and said it had the aura of the emperor entering the audience hall. She requested that next time she enter through a side entrance. We did that for her next appearance, and she was much happier with the arrangement. She was not seeking adulation.

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ARI: Was she recognized on the street or other places?

MARY ANN: Only once, in my experience. Writers are not as famous as movie stars; her face wasn’t in the news constantly. But she knew she would be photographed by tourists. She didn’t like it.

ARI: Why?

MARY ANN: In part, vanity. She was not photogenic. She didn’t want unflattering snapshots of her floating around. And she resented the intrusion into her privacy.

ARI: What about the time she was recognized?

MARY ANN: That was in a neighborhood restaurant, near her apartment. It wasn’t a place frequented by celebrities. Ayn, Leonard, Sue, Charles, and I were having lunch. I looked up to see a man pointing a camera at her, and immediately raised my hand to block the shot, and so did Sue. The tourist was surprised. Ayn explained to him that she did not like to be photographed without her permission. He was a fan, and well‐meaning, and their parting was cordial. Of course, at large gatherings, people took snapshots from afar. She couldn’t stop that.

ARI: What about at lectures and other places where people expected to see her?

CHARLES: Always the gracious lady. We accompanied her to Ford Hall Forum in Boston a number of times. Her appearance always generated long lines of people waiting outside for admission to the lecture hall. It was a good walk from the street to the hall entrance, and people always recognized her as she approached. You could hear comments like “there she is” or “there’s Ayn Rand,” and people smiled and waved. And she always smiled and waved back. One time she was speaking to us and didn’t notice them. I said, “They’re waving at you,” and she stopped in the middle of a thought to acknowledge them with a smile and a wave.

ARI: Did they rush up for autographs?

MARY ANN: No, they didn’t want to lose their places in line! It was not unusual for people to wait for hours, sometimes in the rain. The Ford Hall lectures were given in the evening, and one of the Ford Hall officials told her that often the line started in the morning.

ARI: In a word, how did she treat the public and her fans?

MARY ANN: Respectfully. She took them seriously. I was a fan when I met her, and that’s how she treated me.

If you want lots of evidence of this attitude, and of her benevolence, just read her answers to fan letters published in Letters of Ayn Rand.1  In those letters, you see how much time she spent acknowledging their comments and answering their questions. There was nothing “form letter” about her responses. She answered specific questions with specific answers. If the writer’s letter indicated some confusion and misunderstanding about an issue, she took the time to clarify the issue. Just look at the length of some of those letters, and the detailed answers she gave. And, of course, not just to fans, but to friends, acquaintances, relatives, professional associates. And on subjects ranging from technical philosophical issues to her fondness for cats. You can get an education from reading her letters.

ARI: What kind of fans did she want, did she ever say?

CHARLES: Intelligent readers seriously interested in ideas. That is all that mattered to her. She knew that not all fans understood the philosophy or took ideas as seriously as she would have liked. But she was a great one for giving people the benefit of the doubt.

She didn’t need admiration from fans to boost her self‐esteem, she didn’t look to them for confirmation that her ideas were right or that she was a great writer. But she did appreciate the fans who wrote to express their admiration for her and her work. In one of the letters, she writes that she feels “an interested affection” for people interested in ideas. And that names the attitude she projected when dealing with fans.

ARI: Any interesting anecdotes about her meeting up with fans?

MARY ANN: I remember one incident she told us about. This happened in the fifties, I think before Atlas was published, or soon after.

One afternoon, she took a cab to a business meeting uptown. When she was coming home, it was raining and it was rush hour, and she couldn’t get a cab. So she decided to take the bus. As she was sitting down, she noticed that the woman in front of her had a paperback copy of The Fountainhead, an edition that had her picture on the back cover. Now, here’s the charming, playful aspect of Ayn Rand. She tapped the woman on the shoulder, the woman turned around and said, “Yes?” and Ayn pointed to the paperback and told the woman to look on the back cover. When the woman realized that Ayn Rand was sitting behind her on the bus, she was very surprised and excited. She asked Ayn to autograph her book, which Ayn did. Then other people on the bus observed what was happening and inquired about the woman signing autographs, and this led to a few others requesting autographs. Ayn told this story with such delight, and said it was the best bus ride she had ever had.

ARI: Anything from later years?

CHARLES: This was more than an incident. It was an entire afternoon. In April 1977 Ford Hall Forum gave a luncheon in her honor, in recognition of the years she had spoken there and the support she had generated for the Forum. Invitations were sent out to the Forum’s mailing list. The Forum was very surprised by the response — by the number who attended and the distances they came. There were hundreds at the luncheon, from all over the United States and many from foreign countries.

All attendees were seated at round tables in a very large room. There was a raised platform with a long table for the guest of honor and officials from the Forum. It was empty while the attendees were being seated. Then, when we were all assembled, an official from the Forum welcomed everyone, and said that he would announce the guests who were to be seated at the head table. And he asked us to hold our applause until all the guests were seated. Well, you can imagine that no one there was going to follow that instruction! So, he began to introduce the guests by name, and, one by one, they entered and stood at the table. The room was silent. Then, he announced “Miss Ayn Rand.” She entered and walked up to the table. There was a burst of applause — it was deafening. Everyone stood up, clapping and cheering — there were a few whistles, too. She stood there, smiling broadly, eyes shining. Then, he announced “Frank O’Connor,” and Frank walked in — again, the house broke into sustained applause. It was absolutely wonderful.

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MARY ANN: It was announced that she would sign autographs after lunch. When that time came, people crowded around the table with copies of her books. At first, they were three and four deep around the table. So, to make the process faster and easier, a few of us had the guests form lines.

Frank stayed at the table with her, and people wanted his signature, too. Before he signed his name the first time, he practiced it on the table‐ cloth. One guest wanted the tablecloth! The process took over two hours. Many people had more than one book with them. And many didn’t want to leave after receiving their autographs. They stood around, watching. They wanted to be in the room as long as she was in the room. It was tiring for her, but she was determined not to leave anyone out.

CHARLES: Then, we walked with Ayn and Frank to the elevator, and a contingent of people followed, at a respectful distance — and they waited until the elevator doors closed, waving goodbye, saying they would see her at the lecture that evening. She nodded enthusiastically, and waved back.

Here’s another example of Ayn the celebrity: one night the O’Connors took Mary Ann and me to dinner at 21.2 Ayn had been there before for business lunches and was known to some of the personnel. We were taken upstairs to be seated. There were tables in the center of the room where celebrities would be noticed if they were seated there; they would be the center of attention. Ayn requested that we be seated in a quiet area to the side, where we could have some privacy and talk. She never looked for the spotlight.

In the downstairs area, I had noticed some autographed books enclosed in a glass case, some six or seven of them, all from famous authors. I wrote to the restaurant manager telling him that we had been there as guests of Ayn Rand and asked if he would like to have an autographed copy of her novel Atlas Shrugged. He replied immediately that he would very much like to have it on display. I wrote to Ayn advising her of this and offering to supply the book, but she insisted on sending it herself.

ARI: She didn’t mind your not asking her first?

CHARLES: Not at all. She liked the idea and said she was grateful to me for taking the initiative. Ayn did not take this kind of thing for granted. She didn’t act like the all‐important celebrity who accepted such gestures as her due. That was part of her charm. She was not a poseur. In fact, Ayn hated phoniness of any sort and if you were being phony or she thought you were being phony, she said so.

ARI: An example or two?

CHARLES: One night, she and I were playing Scrabble and she made a clever play involving six tiles, using a word I hadn’t heard of. It was impressive. I exclaimed, “Good show!” She looked up at me and said somewhat mockingly, “I didn’t know you were British.” In using the phrase, I didn’t think I was putting on airs. But from her perspective, it looked as if I were. It was typical of her not to let anything be passed over as if it didn’t happen, however seemingly small.

Another example happened when we drove them to the White House in 1976 for a dinner given by President Ford honoring Malcolm Fraser, Prime Minister of Australia. When I stopped the car at the designated entrance, White House personnel came to open all four doors. They helped Ayn and Frank out of the car. I got out to say goodbye to them because I knew I wouldn’t see them again before they left Washington. Usually I would give her a hug and a kiss, but I didn’t want to disturb her hair or makeup, so I leaned over to kiss her hand. She didn’t like it one bit; she whispered that it was too continental a gesture, especially in such an American setting. Whereupon she gave me a big hug and kiss.

ARI: Can you tell us more about this White House visit?

CHARLES: Dinner guests were instructed to drive to a specified gate; Ayn showed their invitations and we were told to drive through and follow a road to a side entrance. The drive took us across the White House grounds. Except for the Swiss Alps and Mont Blanc, I had never known her to be impressed by natural scenery. But the sight impressed her so that she asked me to slow down so we could all take it in. “Absolutely beautiful” is what she said about stately trees casting long shadows on broad, green, sloping lawns, about well‐tended hedges and the touches of color in flower beds. She said it all looked as if nature had been carefully arranged. She commented that it was a marvelous introduction to the home.

ARI: Did she say anything about that evening?

CHARLES: She spoke about the elegance of the occasion. From the moment they entered the White House, there was an aide close by, so they were never left to stand and wonder what to do next. At the time, Shirley Temple Black was Chief of Protocol and she presented the guests in the receiving line to the President and the First Lady. When it came Ayn’s turn, Shirley Temple exclaimed, “Oh, Miss Rand!” in an approving manner. Ayn said they were made to feel at home.

After dinner, guests were standing around and conversing with one another. Ayn felt a hand touch her shoulder, and a man’s voice behind her said to please excuse him, he wanted to get by. She turned around, and was surprised to see that it was the President. There he was, she said, moving casually through his home, mingling with his guests. She liked the atmosphere of gracious informality. She added that she was glad their visits to the White House were during President Ford’s administration.

ARI: So this wasn’t her first visit to the White House?

CHARLES: No. She had met President Ford two years earlier, in 1974, when Alan Greenspan was sworn in as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. He had invited Ayn and Frank to attend the ceremony and had arranged for them to meet President Ford in the Oval Office. She was impressed with that occasion, too. When we met them after‐ ward, the first thing she said was: “We met the President!” She didn’t take it for granted.

MARY ANN: Getting back to the Malcolm Fraser dinner, after exiting the car and saying goodbye to us, Ayn and Frank were escorted to the doorway of the White House. They were happily excited but they didn’t forget that we were there. At the entrance, they stopped and turned around to smile and wave at us. I’ll always remember her wave — it was a quick movement of her hand, like a cross between a wave and a salute.

Continue to Part 6

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

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Footnotes

  1. See Michael S. Berliner (ed.), Letters of Ayn Rand, Penguin Dutton, 1995.
  2. A famous Manhattan restaurant, frequented by celebrities.
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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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