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Barbara Branden, Love and Friendship Eternal

How does one begin to communicate the pain of loss, especially when that loss is so deep, so personal. On 11 December 2013, I learned of the death of Barbara Branden. I've been stunted for a few days wondering what on earth I could possibly say on Notablog that would do justice to the Barbara I came to know and love, a Barbara who was generous in sharing her own scholarship and time, and who was among the most encouraging and supportive human beings I've ever had the privilege of knowing.

Barbara Branden was Ayn Rand's first biographer, in fact, the only biographer to have ever been authorized by Rand herself during Rand's lifetime to pen the essay that eventually became the title piece of the 1962 book by Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Branden: "Who is Ayn Rand?" Of course, later, Barbara authored the sprawling, controversial 1986 biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, which until recently remained the only extant book-length biography of one of the twentieth-century's most provocative thinkers.

When the Nathaniel Branden Institute dissolved in 1968, I was 8 years old and consequently was much too young to have ever attended the many lectures produced and disseminated by NBI during its heyday. But I slowly collected and listened to many of those NBI courses, including Barbara's wonderful "Principles of Efficient Thinking." All of this was in preparation for my own book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, which contained an important biographical component, fueled by Barbara's discussion of Rand having attended a course on ancient philosophy at Petrograd University taught by the great Russian philosopher, N. O. Lossky. This fact was reported not only in Barbara's 1986 biography, but in the 1962 Rand-authorized title essay for "Who is Ayn Rand?" So much of the biographical information in that essay, and in Passion, was derived from countless hours of interviews with Rand that Barbara and Nathaniel conducted in the early 1960s. (Rand never repudiated any of the Branden works prior to their 1968 disassociation; she considered their work with her, including the biographical essay, "Who is Ayn Rand?", to be part of the Randian canon and emphasized this in the June 1968 issue of The Objectivist.)

Few non-Ayn Rand Institute-affiliated scholars have ever had access to these interviews. Given the restrictive policies of the Ayn Rand Archives, I suspect I will be long dead before those archives are truly thrown open to non-affiliated scholars (Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, provides an interesting insight into the inner workings of the archives; see a PDF of her essay here.) Whatever inaccuracies that may have crept into Barbara's biographical work, we remain immensely fortunate that she was able to use so much of that interview material for her 1986 biography due to an agreement with the Rand estate.

Given one of the theses I was developing for Russian Radical, the fairly innocuous claim that Rand was most likely influenced by her teachers, especially their penchant for developing and applying "the art of context-keeping" (aka "dialectics") in combating false alternatives, I was especially captivated by the passages about Rand's Petrograd University years discussed in Barbara's original 1962 "Who is Ayn Rand?" essay, and largely reproduced in her 1986 biography. I wrote to both Leonard Peikoff, heir to the Rand estate, and to Barbara Branden, in search of further insight into the Rand-Lossky relationship, given that Lossky was among the most dialectical philosophers of his generation.

Peikoff (correspondence dated 27 May 1992) assured me that the estate was compiling information on Rand’s life and that if anything relevant to the Lossky-Rand connection became apparent, he would so advise me. I remained skeptical, however, that anything would come of Peikoff's promise, given the fact that his Ayn Rand Institute had a penchant for noncooperation with those outside their insulated universe. Years later, after Russian Radical was published, and panned viciously by one the ARIan brotherhood (see John Ridpath's "review" here), ARI reported that it had discovered a transcript of Rand's college education. I contacted the Ayn Rand Archives and offered to analyze it with the assistance of a group of scholars who were extremely knowledgeable of the historical period in question. The Ayn Rand Archives refused to share the transcript with me, unless I signed a letter promising that I'd never write on the subject. In essence, I told them with their siege mentality to shove it (see the story here).

By contrast, Barbara was immediately generous in her desire to aid my book research. Our give and take by phone, letter, and email became ever more friendly. By the time I had sent her the first draft of my book, we had become friends. But this didn't stop her from marking up my manuscript from beginning to end, and sending an accompanying five-page letter with constructive criticism, making important suggestions about this or that point and taking me to task on this or that interpretation. As she wrote in that letter (dated 28 June 1993):

Your book is a wonderful achievement, and I hope you are very proud of it. Congratulations! As you know, I could not put the manuscript down. I lost a week of evenings into the mornings --- and I lost Sixty Minutes, David Brinkley, 20-20, Prime Time Live and Bernard Shaw, as well as a couple of friends whom I barked at when they phoned. (But lo and behold! - the world muddled through without me.)

Her letter ended with this statement:

I am delighted that you consider me a friend. I feel the same way. It's a pleasure to know you. I should be in New York sometime in the next millennium, so wear a rose in your teeth so I'll recognize you.

When we finally got together some time later, I met her at the airport ... with a rose in my teeth, as promised.

We laughed, and enjoyed ourselves immensely, taking in some of New York's treasures, and, especially, the delightful beauty of my borough of birth: Brooklyn, New York.

It would not be the last time that she'd visit me; when my life-long health problems had seemingly brought me to death's door, she flew out again just to come to my home and sit with me and my sister and my little dog Blondie, who, despite a reputation for barking up a storm against invaders (i.e., visitors), took to her like glue.

Barbara and I had our disagreements (e.g., over the Iraq war) and we certainly both enjoyed a plethora of personal flaws, but we remained dear friends to the end. [And I take special pride in being a co-editor with Mimi Reisel Gladstein, on the project that became Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, the first book in which both Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Branden appeared together... since their 1962 book Who is Ayn Rand?. -- ed.]

So it angered me to no end when I saw her being routinely pissed on while she was alive.

Being a film fan, I recall a scene from the 2012 Best Picture Oscar winner, "Argo." Lester Siegel, played hilariously by Alan Arkin, has some choice words for a critic [YouTube link]. It's the only appropriate response one can give to those who, now that Barbara is dead, would delight in pissing on her grave.

I choose to celebrate her life, and I will value her generosity, friendship, support, loyalty, and comfort until the day I die. Bless you, dear Barbara. Love and friendship eternal.