Ayn Rand was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia. She had an immigrant’s appreciation — and indeed passion — not only for America, but for New York City in particular.
A resident of Murray Hill, Rand studied architecture from Art Deco master Ely Jacques Kahn, incorporated what she learned about Grand Central Terminal and other local buildings into her stories, and in one instance in her dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged, wrote a message to Manhattanites about the technologically advanced Atlantis.
She had known since the age of nine that she wanted to be a screenwriter, she told her first biographer, and while still in the Soviet Union she saved every kopek she could to see movies and take notes, sitting through American films twice just for a glimpse of Manhattan’s skyline.
But before she would ever see that wall of skyscrapers for herself, she studied philosophy and history at the University of St. Petersburg, in what is now St. Petersburg, Russia. Years later she recalled how after mouthing off to a Communist student in class she spent a sleepless night waiting for what she was sure would be the secret police banging on her door to take her away.
Fortunately, that knock never came and Rand reached America in 1926, as the story goes, after winning the trust of immigration services by saying she had a fiancé waiting for her in Russia.
Instead, she applied for a job as a junior screenwriter at the Cecil B. DeMille Studio in Hollywood. But to make ends meet she had to wait tables and work as an extra before finding success in her chosen profession.
By 1935 she had written a hit play on Broadway, Night of January 16th, and in 1943 she became a best-selling novelist with the publication of The Fountainhead. So great was her love of Manhattan’s skyscrapers that she made the hero of the novel an architect in homage to the profession’s creative possibilities.
Rand wrote screenplays for Hal Wallis, and adapted The Fountainhead for Warner Bros., in the late 1940s, while working on her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. From her first notes on the book in 1945 to press-time in 1957 twelve years had elapsed.
The central character of the novel is Dagny Taggart, a beautiful, brilliant, 34-year-old woman — and the operating vice-president of the largest railroad company in the country, Taggart Transcontinental.
As part of Rand’s research she arranged with the New York Central Railroad for a tour of the non-public areas of Grand Central Terminal in 1947. She interviewed the company’s real operating vice-president, and not only rode in the cab of the 20th Century Limited, the New York Central’s flagship luxury train, but briefly took over the controls.
In Atlas Shrugged, Grand Central, and to some extent Pennsylvania Station, are depicted as the fictional Taggart Terminal. Grand Central’s sculpture of founder Cornelius Vanderbilt is portrayed as a sculpture of Dagny’s ancestor Nat Taggart, the founder of her fictional railroad. Dagny passes the statue each day in the concourse of the terminal.
The New York Central Building (now the Helmsley Building, at 45th Street and Park Avenue) is depicted in the novel as the Taggart Building, where Dagny works.
In the book Dagny lives in the Murray Hill neighborhood, south of the terminal, where Rand herself also lived, and just a short walk from many New York publishing houses. The G.P. Putnam Building, for instance, is across Madison Avenue from the block of 36 East 36th Street, where she lived from 1951 to 1965. Dagny lives in the area in order to walk to work at the Taggart Building, just behind the terminal.
Across East 36th Street from Rand was the J.P. Morgan Library, which still exists. In Atlas Shrugged, Morgan is depicted as banker “Midas” Mulligan. Rand’s last and longest address was 120 East 34th Street (1965 to 1982). Those and two other Murray Hill addresses of Rand’s have views of the Empire State Building, which Rand loved, calling it “all the buildings of The Fountainhead rolled into one.”
As part of her research for The Fountainhead Rand worked as an unpaid typist and file clerk for Ely Jacques Kahn’s architecture firm at 2 Park Avenue near 32nd Street, a great Art Deco building of Kahn’s own design. Kahn, who is best remembered for designing the Bergdorf Goodman Department Store, was tickled that a novelist was using his office for research.
Kahn was the first architect to use setbacks as terraces. His office was on the 18th floor, and his terrace was the roof of the 17th floor. One can easily imagine Kahn and Rand going out on the setback to look up at the Empire State Building and other nearby skyscrapers, and talking about their construction.
In 1938, while having lunch at a Schrafft’s restaurant near Kahn’s office — possibly the one in the Chrysler Building — Rand was inspired to write the climax of The Fountainhead. Her architect hero would solve a problem pertaining to the low-cost construction of a housing project, and then blow up the building to protest the corrupt politicians who controlled it.
About five years later, as Rand walked from Bellmore Cafeteria, at the northeast corner of Park Avenue South and 28th Street, up the south flank of Murray Hill, she had another epiphany, this time in ethics.
She decided that a scientific, non-religious basis for a moral system is possible if one equates life with good and death with evil. Dr. Douglas Rasmussen, co-editor of The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, calls this idea the reason why Rand, although having no doctorate in philosophy, can be called a “real” philosopher.
In 1958, Rand taught an informal class in fiction writing to some friends in her East 36th Street living room. At the event she boasted she could name the purpose of every word in her novels. A member of the group opened Atlas Shrugged and chose a paragraph at random. Rand analyzed the paragraph on the spot, and later wrote out her explanation. In the text she shows how every word contributes to the novel’s plot, theme and mood, as well as of that particular chapter and scene.
In the scene she analyzed, Dagny looks south from her apartment, high atop a Murray Hill skyscraper, on a foggy evening. She peers down to the tip of Manhattan, which appears to her as the prow of a sinking ship, or a sinking city. “This is how they went,” Dagny muses, “the men of Atlantis,” as the city seems to sink into the fog.
The novel’s mood is a somber one, with the world sinking into chaos, reflecting Rand’s own experiences in World War I, the Russian revolution, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. But Rand remained hopeful about humanity’s bright, technology-driven future. She did not believe that our civilization would disappear like Atlantis.
As one who had known suffering and terror, she never took the little things for granted. Some of her favorite spots we know of for sure include B. Altman’s Department Store, at 365 Fifth Avenue, now used by the City University of New York and the New York Public Library; her favorite record store, The Gramophone Shop, at 47 East 47th Street, the legendary 4th Avenue bookshops, now closed, and Christmastime at Rockefeller Center.
Other places we know she loved that we’re still working to identify their exact location, include a German pastry shop somewhere near Lexington Avenue and 86th Street; Tailor Made Hamburgers on Madison Avenue at 35th Street; Verde’s, a small, specialty grocer on 3rd Avenue near 36th Street; Child’s Cafeterias (including one in the basement of the Paramount Building on Times Square), and pretty much any of the now-shuttered Schrafft’s restaurants.
“I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. The will of man made visible. What other religion do we need?”
Rand died at her East 34th Street home on March 6, 1982.