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Facets of Ayn Rand (Part 6)

“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



ARI: I’ve heard that Miss Rand was not shy about expressing her evaluation in public of something that displeased her. Did either of you ever witness this?

MARY ANN: Along with a few friends, I attended a piano recital at Carnegie Hall with Ayn and Frank. The artist was Witold Malcuzynski, and the program was predominantly Romantic music. We were seated in the front row, directly beneath the pianist. At the end of each Romantic piece, Ayn expressed her approval by smiling broadly and holding her hands up as she applauded. Then, he played a modern piece; I don’t remember what it was, but it was awful. At the end of that piece, some people in the audience stood up and applauded. Ayn — without taking her eyes off the pianist — remained seated. She raised her arms slowly, then lowered them and sat on her hands.

ARI: Did he see it?

MARY ANN: Oh, yes. I was watching him watch her. He saw her disapproval. She said later that sitting on one’s hands was a common practice in Europe and that he would know what the gesture meant.

CHARLES: I had a similar experience, although in this case she was vocal. In the late seventies, Ayn, Frank, Sue, Leonard, Mary Ann, and I went to the Metropolitan Opera for a performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, an opera that Ayn knew and liked. She was seated between Frank and me, and seemed to be enjoying the performance. However, during the ballroom scene, she got very annoyed. I heard her take a deep breath, she nudged my arm and said, “Oh!” and words to the effect that it was terrible. She did the same with Frank. She expressed her disapproval loudly enough to be heard by those seated around us. When Frank and I whispered that she was disturbing people, she stopped. But she had made her point.

ARI: What did she object to?

CHARLES: The scene was romantic: the music was beautiful, the setting was elegant. Suddenly, members of the female chorus broke out into something like a can‐can dance. They turned their backs to the audience, raised their filmy skirts, and pushed out their behinds and wiggled them at the audience. It was ugly and shockingly out of context — a deliberate undercutting of the romantic values of the scene. Ayn made her disapproval known. When the opera was over, she vowed never to go to the Metropolitan Opera again. She said that it had to have been done by conscious intention, a deliberate slap in the face at a Romantic work of art. She said she couldn’t sit there and be silent, not when values were being attacked. That was a vintage Ayn Rand incident.

ARI: Is it true that she expressed disapproval during question periods after lectures?

MARY ANN: Yes, but her critics have made too much of those incidents, especially about their frequency in public; they’ve magnified it out of all proportion.

No one should forget that she defined a philosophy which has improved countless lives. She has inspired readers, by telling them that their minds are capable of understanding reality, and by giving them a morality of life. She has given them the incentive to achieve goals and move forward; she has created works of art in which man is an exalted being. Who else is doing that today in literature? Now, there were times when she did get angry in public, during question periods after a lecture. But to focus on those occasions is misleading. You have to ask: What is important about Ayn Rand? That she wrote Atlas Shrugged and defined a philosophy one can live by, or that, at times, she was capable of getting very angry? They are not equivalents.

ARI: You saw this anger yourself, during the question periods?

MARY ANN: Yes, but certainly not at every question period. And it’s important to understand that she was not angry at anyone personally. She did not know the people involved; she was speaking to strangers. And many of the questions she answered were written questions — neither she nor the audience knew who had asked the questions; only the questioners knew. What’s relevant here is that she expressed anger and indignation, not so much at the person asking a question but at the ideas expressed, or ideas she thought were implicit in the question asked. That was the focus of her anger.

ARI: Can one of you elaborate on this point?

CHARLES: Ayn was perceptive. She could see what assumptions were behind certain questions; she could detect the hidden agendas, the unnamed ideas. She knew when someone was, for example, really questioning the validity of reason or advocating altruism — without saying it openly. And she knew what those ideas would lead to if put into effect; she knew the practical consequences of those ideas. She understood that man’s survival was at stake. Ayn was always the defender of man’s life and values, and when she saw them being attacked, in any form, she responded forcefully. She was not a “tolerant” person. If what you said was evil or seriously wrong, she let you know it and she let you know what she thought and felt about it. (There were other reasons for her anger, as well — see Leonard Peikoff’s memoir mentioned above.)

ARI: Were there any kinds of questions she especially disliked?

MARY ANN: She didn’t like questions that began with: “Miss Rand, I understand what you said about so‐and‐so, but don’t you think . . . ?” — followed by the questioner presenting a different point of view. That form of the question implied that Ayn was saying one thing while thinking something else, that she was being hypocritical. Often her response was, “No, if I had thought so, I would have said so.” It was said in a very matter‐of‐fact tone of voice. But sometimes she answered with anger. One night, I heard her explain to an audience just why that form of the question was offensive and improper, what it implied, and why she was indignant. Everyone benefited from hearing her analysis.

ARI: Can you give a specific example of when she responded angrily to a question?

MARY ANN: Someone asked her for her views on immigration, if she thought it was a good thing. And she got indignant immediately at the very idea that anyone might be opposed to immigration, that a country might not let immigrants in. One of the things she said in her answer was, “Where would I be today if America closed its doors to immigrants?” That really hit home; I’m sure everyone there realized that she would not have survived in Soviet Russia, that a person with her ideas would have died in prison, somewhere in Siberia. In her answer, she was defending people who were seeking freedom and a better life. And I think she was assuming that immigrants would be like she was — ready and able to make their own way, accepting help if voluntarily given by individuals but not expecting government handouts. But it was clear that she was angry at the idea, not at the person asking the question.

I heard people saying things like “I had no idea what I was really advocating.” Ayn was teaching the students the importance of analyzing their ideas, of understanding what was implicit in what they had been taught to believe and why it was wrong and often evil.

CHARLES: I’d like to add two points here. One is that her expressions of anger were the exception, not the rule. Two, they were often followed by applause from the audience — because the listeners were inspired by hearing someone speaking up for and defending what was right and good. They had heard, over and over again, mealy‐mouthed speakers afraid to take a position — or suggesting that there are always two sides to a question — or that nothing is black and white. To have been subjected to those attitudes from childhood on up, and then to hear Ayn Rand take a firm position and defend it with conviction — this was a cause for cheering. The audience response was not only to the content of her ideas, but to her manner of expressing them. She was medicine for the soul.

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MARY ANN: All those adults who taught us never to get angry, or if we did, not to express it, to hide our emotions when we were offended or felt we were being treated unjustly, to remain calm, to maintain an even keel, for God’s sake, don’t blow up, no matter what — these people didn’t do us any favors by urging us to suppress, to live like glazed, non‐reacting creatures.

ARI: Did she ever get angry during philosophical discussions when people were slow to get her point?

MARY ANN: I wouldn’t call the response “anger” — it was more exasperation bordering on impatience. The best example of this I can remember was a group discussion, before Atlas was published. Some of the Collective, myself included, were having difficulty demonstrating that life is the standard of morality. So, the issue was explained again, and we were asked to write an essay on the subject and bring it back the following Saturday night. A few of us did, and she was surprised to learn that only Leonard was able to do it correctly. The rest of us made errors or left out steps in the argument. I remember her looking puzzled by it, for the issue had been discussed in detail and we had all read that section of Galt’s speech over and over. But she did get very annoyed when someone, I think Nathan, suggested that maybe that section needed more explication.

ARI: What did she say?

MARY ANN: She said that she couldn’t make that section of the speech any clearer than she had. But what really interested her was how our minds were working, how we were processing the information, what we were doing mentally, what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong in our thinking.

I’ve never forgotten that evening, because it opened up a subject new to me — introspecting to analyze one’s thinking processes. I had the same experience with her some years later when I was revising my lectures on esthetics. I hadn’t given sufficient thought to a certain issue of style, and I couldn’t explain my reasons for introducing it in the way I did. I could see her growing impatience, and I remember clearly her frowning and saying, “What’s happened to your epistemology, Mary Ann?” So, we spent the rest of the evening discussing that. She wanted to get at the reasons for my muddled thinking, to identify why, as she put it, my mental wires were crossed. That was typically Ayn. If she saw you floundering and having difficulty thinking clearly, she wanted to help you, to get you back on track.

ARI: Any final thoughts on the subject?

CHARLES: Just this: her expressions of anger were not the outbursts of someone run by wild and uncontrolled emotions. She didn’t use anger to intimidate people, as bullies do. When she got angry, it was precisely because she was a thinker and an evaluator who was certain of her convictions. She judged something as right or wrong, good or evil — and she responded accordingly. She didn’t simmer and stew; she came to an immediate boil. Her thinking was not hampered and slowed down by chronic doubt, and her emotions were not suppressed or muted by it, either. Moreover, her emotions never clouded or distorted her thinking. And the anger didn’t last. It was over almost as soon as it began.

MARY ANN: At some point, you are going to ask me what I miss about her. One of the things I miss most is what we’ve been talking about — her anger and righteous indignation, and what it came from. I miss knowing that there is someone in the world who always speaks out, unequivocally, against irrationality and injustice, and who not only denounces evil but who defends the good. She was mankind’s intellectual guardian, a soldier in the battle of ideas. Her banner was always flying high.

When she died, someone made the following comment: now anger has gone out of the world. And I thought, it’s true, and it’s the world’s loss, and mine.

CHARLES: And mine.



ARI: Knowing the O’Connors for as long as you did and spending so much time with them, what impressed you about their relationship?

CHARLES: Ayn’s Introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition of The Fountainhead says it all. It was written in May 1968. I don’t want to dilute the strength of her statements by paraphrasing them, so let me read some excerpts:

“. . . it would be impossible for me to discuss The Fountainhead without mentioning the man who made it possible for me to write it: my husband, Frank O’Connor.

“In a play I wrote in my early thirties, Ideal, the heroine, a screen star, speaks for me when she says: ‘I want to see, real, living, and in the hours of my own days, that glory I create as an illusion. I want it real. I want to know that there is someone, somewhere, who wants it, too. Or else what is the use of seeing it, and working, and burning oneself for an impossible vision? A spirit, too, needs fuel. It can run dry.’

“Frank was the fuel. He gave me, in the hours of my own days, the reality of that sense of life which created The Fountainhead and he helped me to maintain it over a long span of years when there was nothing around us but a gray desert of people and events that evoked nothing but contempt and revulsion. The essence of the bond between us is the fact that neither of us has ever wanted or been tempted to settle for anything less than the world presented in The Fountainhead. We never will.”

Frank O’Connor 1966
© Leonard Peikoff (Ayn Rand Archives)

Ayn also writes in the Introduction about an evening when she felt profound discouragement about “things as they are.” She says, “. . . it seemed as if I would never regain the energy to move one step farther toward ‘things as they ought to be.’ Frank talked to me for hours, that night. He convinced me of why one cannot give up the world to those one despises. By the time he finished, my discouragement was gone; it never came back in so intense a form.”

That night, she told him she would dedicate The Fountainhead to him “because he had saved it.”

What does this say about their relationship? This is a tribute written by a woman who is deeply in love with her husband, and about a husband who is deeply in love with his wife. You see, Frank understood Ayn. He knew what she valued, he knew what to say to help her restore her view of life and give her the motivation — the fuel — to move forward. And he didn’t give up; he spoke for hours until he convinced her. And equally important, she respected his understanding of her — she knew she could turn to him for that encouragement. Is there anything more important in a marriage than understanding each other’s values and encouraging each other to pursue them; than helping each other maintain that basic outlook on life that they hold in common? I don’t think so. They were a devoted couple until the end of their days.

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ARI: What signs of that did you observe in their daily life?

CHARLES: There were so many signs. For one thing, they were demonstrative about their affection. When they sat together or walked down the street together, they held hands. They kissed “hello” and “goodbye.” Whenever Ayn and I were out at an all‐day stamp show, she always wondered aloud what Frank was doing. She always called him her “top value.” He was a constant in her life, in her awareness. Let me tell you about an incident that exemplifies this.

ARI: What is that?

CHARLES: I’ve spoken about the birthday party Mary Ann gave me when I turned fifty. She made me and my interests the theme of the party. The paper plates, cups, and napkins were red, white, and blue, which related to my patriotism. She designed a fifty‐cent red, white, and blue stamp to commemorate the date, naming it “Charles Sures Semicentennial Celebration, 1922–1972.” In fact, she designed a companion stamp, one with errors in the printing — everything in red was printed upside down! An artist drew them on cardboard and they were placed over two birthday cakes. Mary Ann had ordered food that I especially enjoyed. And the group birthday gift was the stamps Ayn had selected. The point of all this is that during the evening, Ayn turned to me and said that she envied Mary Ann because Mary Ann was having the pleasure of making me, her husband, the center, the focus of the evening in a very personal way. Ayn said she was inspired to do something like that for Frank.

MARY ANN: And the same was true of Frank: Ayn was always a focus in his life. If we were roaming through a department store, he would point out items of women’s apparel and comment: “That would look good on Ayn.” Or, “Ayn loves that color.” Or, “I wonder if Ayn could use that scarf.” In a museum he would comment about a painting: “I have to bring Ayn to see that.” If we were coming back from an outing later than we had anticipated, he knew Ayn would worry, and so he called her to say we would be late.

In 1956, at Christmas time, when Ayn was nearing the end of the writing of Atlas Shrugged, Frank commented on how hard she had been working and said he needed to do something special for her. He wanted to buy her some luxury items and asked me where he could find beautiful and unusual lingerie. I told him about a shop on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, which specialized in handmade items in fine silk and satin. He visited it and bought several lovely things for her.

And Ayn always wanted Frank near her. At functions like the Ford Hall Forum, at the conclusion of the evening she wanted Frank to be by her side while she was saying goodnight to the officials. He was her protector, physically and spiritually.

When Ayn was hospitalized for lung surgery, I stayed with Frank. He said it was important to keep up her spirits.

ARI: How did he do that?

MARY ANN: First, by visiting daily. We went in the afternoon, and made it a point to get there at approximately the same time each day. He wanted Ayn to know when to expect us. And he always looked marvelous — impeccably groomed in a suit, usually a white shirt, and a specially selected tie. He always wore ties with cheerful, bright colors — or with amusing designs. There was one she especially liked — it had kittens in the pattern. She never failed to notice his ties. She knew he was wearing them to add a cheerful touch to the rather drab room.

ARI: What did they talk about?

MARY ANN: She wanted to know what we had done during the day, if we had taken a walk, what we had seen, what we had for lunch, what we would have for dinner. She wanted all the details. She said that hearing them helped her to restore the context of normal living. He sat by the bed and they held hands. And when he went to sit by the window to watch the lights come on in buildings and on bridges, she didn’t take her eyes off of him. She whispered to me that she loved looking at his profile framed by the window.

A major example of her devotion was her interest in his painting and the way she encouraged him in that venture.

ARI: Let’s talk about that. Was he painting when you met him in 1954?

MARY ANN: No, he was working with a florist, and doing floral arrangements for lobbies of buildings. He had a business card billing him as “Francisco, the Lobbyist.” That’s an example of his sense of humor. I don’t think it was full‐time work.

ARI: How did he get into painting?

MARY ANN: It all began in the mid‐fifties. During a Collective discussion about art and talent, Joan said that artistic talent was not innate, that anyone could learn to draw, given an interest and the incentive to learn. To illustrate her point, she offered to give lessons. A few of us joined the class, including Frank. Of everyone there, he was the only one who showed any promise or serious interest in art.

ARI: What were the signs of that?

MARY ANN: From the very beginning, Frank’s drawing showed a developed sense of style. He had an individual way of doing things —  whether he was drawing an egg or a human face. You could always tell if something was drawn by Frank. His work was bold; it had a quality of self‐assurance, in spite of the flaws of a beginner. When the class ended, for Frank it was the beginning of a career.

ARI: How did his interest develop?

MARY ANN: He kept up his drawing, on his own. And he began to work on cityscapes in pastel. They were his first finished works in color, and they showed his inventiveness and love of dramatic and unusual arrangements.

ARI: Did he talk to you about his goals as an artist?

MARY ANN: Not very often. But here’s an example of how he approached art. One summer, some of the Collective spent a day in the country. Frank and I took a stroll, and we saw a number of people sketching the scenery; they were all facing the same view of the countryside. It looked like a class of some sort. Frank volunteered that that was not his way of coming at things. He wanted to invent his scenes.

In that discussion, he did agree that one could learn by sketching from nature, and he wasn’t opposed to that. He did a few sketches of rocks and trees that day. But he was opposed to having his subjects ready‐made. He didn’t want to paint the given in nature or anything else. He wanted his art to come from his imagination. He wanted to select and arrange his subject in his own way.

ARI: But he did go to art school?

MARY ANN: Yes, and that’s where Ayn was involved. She encouraged him to seek instruction in art, so that he could develop his talent. She said his talent was too great to be left without professional guidance. She suggested that he might prefer private instruction to that of a school, if he could find a suitable teacher. Frank agreed, and one Saturday he and I visited art galleries, looking for an artist whose work he admired and who might give him private lessons. That wasn’t successful. Ayn then asked me to help Frank investigate art schools. I had catalogs and brochures sent to him from about ten schools. Ayn studied them with Frank. He selected the Art Students League, which had an excellent reputation, fine instructors, and good facilities.

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ARI: Did he enjoy being a student?

MARY ANN: Very much. Frank was a serious, dedicated, and conscientious student. He attended regularly, taking courses in life drawing and painting, anatomy, composition. When he wasn’t studying at the League, he was working at home. Robert Brackman, a well‐known painter, was one of his teachers. He told Ayn that Frank was an unusual student in the sense of coming to painting with fully developed ideas of what he wanted to accomplish.

Frank knew the end he wanted to achieve; he had to learn the means, he had to learn technique. That’s what he got from the Art Students League.

ARI: How did Miss Rand react to this new direction in his life?

MARY ANN: Oh, she was so happy and so very proud of him. I was there a few times when he brought work home, such as an unfinished painting. He would explain to her how he reached that stage of the painting and what the next stage would be. I saw her listening intently. She would break into a smile and comment on how marvelously Frank was doing.

Privately, she said Frank’s pursuit of this career was important to her because he was giving visual expression to what she called his “exalted sense of life.” She said that after they left California and the ranch he managed, Frank didn’t find a vocation or work in New York that was a full‐time, all‐consuming endeavor. But with painting, he was a man totally involved and totally committed, and he was thoroughly enjoying himself. Ayn continued to encourage him to expand his technical knowledge.

ARI: Anything in particular?

MARY ANN: She saw that he was having trouble with perspective. She knew that it was an important discipline for an artist, and encouraged him to increase his knowledge, to add to what he learned at the League by studying on his own. She knew that not having a firm grounding in perspective would hold him back. That no matter how creative his ideas for a painting might be, he needed technical knowledge to give expression to those ideas. She asked me to locate a good book on perspective. She thought that an older book, one written earlier in the century, would have better explanations and examples than the more recently written works. I did find one or two older books. I know that Ayn and Frank went over them together. She took his career seriously.

ARI: Did you ever watch him paint? What was he like?

MARY ANN: I sat for Frank a number of times. When he was at the easel, his concentration was total. It was as if the universe were narrowed down to a few elements: Frank, easel, palette, brushes, model. As if nothing else existed or mattered. He was completely absorbed. He even forgot to give me breaks during the afternoon. I or Ayn had to remind him.

ARI: Miss Rand came in when he was working?

MARY ANN: When he was painting in their apartment living room, she visited regularly. Once she came in, not just to see the progress of the painting, but to watch him at work. He was unaware of her; she watched for a few minutes, smiled at me, and then left. Later, she said, “Did you see the look on his face?” She said it was beautiful — the face of a man self‐confidently in focus.

A few times, she offered advice about a painting in progress. This was a source of a little bit of friction between them.

ARI: Tell me about that.

MARY ANN: Frank painted in a style which Ayn personally liked — a style of clarity and precision, but not one of dry details. She would say things like “Make that edge a little sharper, darling,” or “The colors are running together,” or “It’s a little blurry in this part.” Now, Ayn was very enthusiastic about what Frank was doing, and I don’t think she made these comments as criticisms. She was calling things to his attention, things she thought he would want to be aware of. He listened, but didn’t say anything. She would return to her desk, and he would resume painting. Once he said to me, “If she wants to paint, let her get her own canvas and paints and do it her way.” This was followed by some of Frank’s good‐natured laughter.

The point is that Frank was as independent about his painting as he was about everything else. He had definite ideas, he knew what he wanted to achieve, and he proceeded to do it his way. He allowed nothing to get in his way. If, after her suggestions, he did make a change, it was because he thought it was right, not because she had suggested it. And I know that she admired that aspect of him — his independence and self‐assertiveness as an artist. Once she said, approvingly, “He is a tiger at the easel.” And Frank’s response, good‐natured as always, was, “Well, just don’t grab me by the tail.”

ARI: Did they ever quarrel?

CHARLES: I never witnessed a quarrel between them. This is not to say they didn’t quarrel in private. But as I said earlier, they respected their privacy. One of the things they didn’t do was quarrel and bicker in public. They had some very nice, old‐fashioned civil ways of behavior.

MARY ANN: I came in once during what appeared to be a mild quarrel, and they stopped immediately. It was none of my business — I knew it and they knew it, too.

ARI: Did you ever see Miss Rand cry?

CHARLES: Twice, in all the years I knew her. Once, when one of her cats had died. We visited her a few days later, and when she told us about it her eyes brimmed with tears. The other time was at Frank’s grave, which we visited with her in the spring following his death. She and Mary Ann hugged each other and had a few tears.

ARI: Do you have anything to add here?

MARY ANN: She cried briefly as we left the funeral home. In this context, I want to tell you about a beautiful thing Frank said about Ayn once. One evening, the three of us were talking about Ayn’s first days in this country. I said I had heard that when her ship reached the pier, tears ran down her face as she looked up to the skyline of New York. I asked what those tears were for. Frank answered, “They were tears of splendor.” And Ayn nodded in agreement.

CHARLES: I can add a sequel to our visit to Frank’s grave, which shows Ayn’s benevolence. We took a train home from the cemetery (the car I had rented broke down). I sat by the window, dozing off; Mary Ann was next to me and Ayn was sitting across the aisle from her. It had been a tiring, bittersweet trip. None of us felt like talking. As we approached New York City, the train entered the underground tunnels. Suddenly, both Ayn and Mary Ann stood up and I heard Mary Ann say, “Ayn, it’s just what you described in Atlas.” They were watching the tunnels and train tracks going off in a number of directions, and the red and green lights in semi‐darkness suspended over the tracks. I watched, too. Ayn was grinning at the sight. It all lasted less than a minute, but we all felt different after it. We felt energized and eager. And Ayn did not let the episode pass without identifying what had happened. She said, “Our world has been restored.”

Continue to Part 7

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


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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.

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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