Barbara Branden, Biographer of Ayn Rand, Dies at 84

Barbara Branden, who helped popularize Ayn Rand’s philosophy of self-interest in the 1960s but caused a schism among Ms. Rand’s followers with an unauthorized biography she wrote after the theorist’s death, died on Dec. 11 in West Hollywood, Calif. She was 84.

The cause was a lung infection, said Jonathan Hirschfeld, a nephew.

Ms. Branden and her former husband, Nathaniel Branden, were at the center of Ms. Rand’s inner circle during its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, a following that included future scholars and economists, most notably Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, who went on to shape the conservative Republican and libertarian movements.

They disseminated Ms. Rand’s ideas in newsletters and journals, organized her lecture tours, gave lectures themselves and helped establish organizations for the study of Objectivism, the philosophy of rational self-interest and unregulated entrepreneurialism that Ms. Rand developed in her best-selling novel-manifestoes, “The Fountainhead” (1943) and “Atlas Shrugged” (1957).

Ms. Branden’s biography, “The Passion of Ayn Rand,” published in 1986, four years after Ms. Rand’s death at 77, was a generally admiring portrait. Baring details of a famously guarded émigré’s life, it recounted Ms. Rand’s affluent childhood in Russia, her family’s penury after the Bolshevik Revolution, her self-assurance from an early age about her own greatness, and one revelation that was a bombshell.

Beginning in 1953, when Ms. Rand was nearly 50, Ms. Branden wrote, the intellectual mother of principled self-interest had ardently pursued an interest in Ms. Branden’s husband, Nathaniel. Though 25 years apart in age, they had an affair for about 15 years.

Ms. Branden knew about it because Ms. Rand had insisted from the start that both spouses — Ms. Branden and Ms. Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor — give their consent.

Ms. Branden revealed the story, she said, partly to set the record straight about Ms. Rand’s sudden banishment of the Brandens from her circle in 1968. She had denounced them in a widely circulated essay, claiming they had exploited her financially. The couple denied the accusation.

In fact, Ms. Branden wrote, Ms. Rand expelled them because she had learned that Nathaniel Branden was involved with a third woman. She faulted Ms. Branden for not telling her about that other woman. The Brandens divorced soon afterward.

The revelation led to a rift among Ms. Rand’s acolytes. Philosophical differences underlay the dispute, but by most accounts, opinion about Ms. Branden’s book became the stand-in for the disagreements. Ultimately the Ayn Rand Institute, established in 1985 by the Rand estate to promote her ideas, split in two.

On one side were followers who rejected the book as heresy (though not as a lie, since private letters in Ms. Rand’s estate confirmed the story). Others, who saw the book as an important chronicle of movement history, formed the Institute for Objectivist Studies in 1990 (later renamed the Atlas Society). In their view, Ms. Branden’s book paid tribute to Objectivism, which at its root defines reality as a set of objective, absolute (rather than relative) observable truths. And the story Ms. Branden told was the objective truth, they said.

Ms. Branden was born Barbara Joan Weidman in Winnipeg, Canada, on May 14, 1929. Her parents, Rebecca and John Weidman, owned a wholesale restaurant supply business. She attended the University of Manitoba and transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles, where she received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1951. There she met Mr. Branden, a fellow Canadian, who shared her enthusiasm for Rand.

At the time, Ms. Rand and her husband were also living in Southern California, having moved there from New York during the making of the film version of “The Fountainhead,” a 1949 release starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. Learning that Ms. Rand was nearby, Ms. Weidman and Mr. Branden sought her out and befriended her.

Ms. Rand and her husband returned to New York in 1951, the same year Ms. Weidman and Mr. Branden moved there to begin postgraduate studies at New York University. They soon joined Ms. Rand’s inner circle, a group Ms. Rand referred to — with the facetiousness of a hardened anti-Communist — as the Collective.

During this time Ms. Branden and her husband — they married in 1953 — wrote a series of essays authorized by Ms. Rand and published them in 1962 as a book, “Who Is Ayn Rand?”

Besides Mr. Hirschfeld, Ms. Branden is survived by four other nephews and two nieces.

“The Passion of Ayn Rand” received positive reviews. Critics called it an evenhanded treatment of Ms. Rand’s life story and ideas. The sociologist Peter L. Berger, writing in The New York Times Book Review, cited “a certain moving quality” to Ms. Branden’s “evident effort to be fair to a woman about whom she has very mixed feelings.”

The book was made into a television movie in 1999 for Showtime. Helen Mirren won an Emmy for her portrayal of Ms. Rand; Julie Delpy played Ms. Branden.

Ms. Branden continued lecturing on Objectivism for years. In 1991, she published a quasi-memoir about her life in Ms. Rand’s orbit, titling it “Ayn Rand and Her Movement: An Interview With Barbara Branden, Rand’s Close Colleague and Administrator of Her Movement.”

In a 2008 interview with the biographical resource Contemporary Authors Online, Ms. Branden said she had no regrets about any aspect of her relationship with Ms. Rand. Though they were “often terribly painful and difficult,” she said, “I would not have missed those years.”

“The years of research and writing ‘The Passion of Ayn Rand’ were the happiest period of my life,” she added. “Perhaps there is something more to ask of life. But I don’t know what it might be.”

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