Never mind the evildoers’ anniversary just commemorated on September 11. I have a personal, happy anniversary to commemorate on September 12. No, it’s not my wedding anniversary.
Exactly thirty years ago, on September 12, 1978, I met Ayn Rand for the first and only time.
I was about to start college at New York University as a seventeen-year-old freshman. My mother and I had to go to New York to do paperwork or pay tuition or something. But I had seen in my father’s copy of The Village Voice, which he rarely picked up, an advertisement that said “Ayn Rand in person!” in big black letters.
Only five years earlier, my brother had shown me the fresh copy of The Fountainhead he had purchased when it was a book he chose from a high school elective reading list. (Thank you, Mr. Lamdanski). He said, “Read the Introduction.” I was only 12. Still, I liked the Introduction. But I was not about to read such a long book.
When I was 13 and 14, I started looking for Ayn Rand books in the library. I mainly just wanted to know what her philosophy was, in her words rather than my brother’s, without having to read over 700 pages of fiction to get to it. I would get to the fiction later.
I read a library copy of For The New Intellectual. (Thank you, Asbury Park Public Library). This was the “Eureka!” moment. I knew she was saying the truth, and that I had observed much of it myself. I knew she was my kind of person.
So on September 12, 1978, I talked my mother into letting me see Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand was to assist Leonard Peikoff in a Q & A after his first lecture (of a series) on the philosophy of Objectivism. Visitors were permitted at the first lecture even if not planning to attend the rest of the lectures.
My mother did not intend to pay for a ticket for herself, so she waited outside the doors and I entered. I listened to Leonard Peikoff as he spoke, and watched him cover the bright light bulb over his notes (and under his face) when people complained that it was distracting. I paid close attention as it was my first time hearing such a systematic presentation of the philosophy.
When it was time for Q & A, Ayn Rand and Frank O’Connor entered from the rear doors and walked down the aisle to a standing ovation. I knew they had just walked past my mother, who had remained outside the room, listening.
Leonard and Ayn took turns answering questions, including my own, which people had handed in from the audience. Ayn Rand herself answered all of my questions, which was thrilling and I tried to take accurate notes to review later when I could think more clearly.
When Leonard answered, Ayn would sit and scan the audience with her enormous eyes. It was as if she wished to look into the deepest souls of each one of us, in a benevolent way. I saw her doing this as a sign of her wanting to know who her fans were, since they were her kind of people. She wanted to see and know the people who loved and understood her work. It gave her pleasure. This is, of course, just conjecture on my part.
No photography was permitted. But someone in the front row took photo after photo of Ayn Rand. She asked him (or her?) for the 35mm camera. She opened the back of it, and dramatically unrolled the entire roll of film, exposing it to the bright light in the room. She held onto the camera, saying he could have it after the event was over.
When it was over, I took my partially-read copy of Atlas Shrugged and stood on line to obtain Ayn Rand’s autograph. She asked me my name and how to spell it. Then she showed me the page where she had written, “To Greg Zeigerson.” I nervously said, “You didn’t sign it.” She said, “I know, but did I spell your name correctly?” I said yes. (I wanted to slap myself). She signed her name, exactly as her signature appeared on “The Ayn Rand Letter” to which I had subscribed.
I asked, “Are you happy with the movie version of The Fountainhead?” She said, “I wrote the screenplay, you know.” I said, “Yes, but are you satisfied with the final version?” She said, “They did the best they could.” Earlier she had announced that she was writing the teleplay of an Atlas Shrugged miniseries. I was a teenager about to start film school at NYU. I said to her, “I wanted to direct the movie of Atlas Shrugged!” (with the obvious meaning, I would be too late since the miniseries was already going to be made). She said, “Maybe you will. The remake.” This unexpectedly positive response was a moment I treasured. I nodded with seriousness, imagining with great hope that it actually was possible. She said, “You’ll get the rights from my children.” I pondered this, since I was unaware of any children, but I probably nodded again. She said, with humor, “But I have no children!”
I suspect she was thinking at that time about who would inherit the rights; perhaps it had not been settled yet. And her words may have just reflected that the topic was on her mind. This is pure conjecture, again.
Another fan told her he knew of a version of “Night of January 16th” being produced without her permission, with many changes in the plot and dialogue. She told him to call the producers the most obscene names he could think of, and “Tell them I said it.”
My mother met me outside the doors. I saw Leonard Peikoff there and asked if I could take his picture. He said, “You want my picture? Sure.” He seemed to think no one would want his picture. I still have that Polaroid photo.
(My mother decided that since Ayn Rand spoke against Ronald Reagan for opposing the right to an abortion, that Ayn Rand must be in favor of “free love.” It didn’t help that the cover of my copy of “We The Living” had a picture of two men and a woman, implying a love triangle, but which she interpreted as a “threesome” — “like in Cabaret, said my mother).
I will never forget meeting Ayn Rand, exactly thirty years ago tonight.