The deserving poor

Stephen Bates

In 1926, less than a year after arriving in the United States from her native Russia, 21-year-old Ayn Rand did what many young Americans longed to do: She headed for Hollywood. She appeared as an extra in Cecil B. De Mille’s King of Kings, landed a job as a junior screenwriter for silent films, and took a $10-a-week room at the Hollywood Studio Club. For the two and a half years she lived at the Studio Club, the woman who would later write The Virtue of Selfishness was an object of charity.

As film historian Anthony Slide recounts in Hollywood Unknowns (University Press of Mississippi), the Studio Club provided subsidized lodging for some 80 women, all under 30, who were struggling to get by. Donors included such Hollywood luminaries as Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. After Rand lost her job in 1927, she found only intermittent, low-paying work. She fell behind on her rent, according to biographer Jennifer Burns. When the Studio Club received a $50 donation to be given to its neediest resident, director Marjorie Williams picked Rand.

Rand didn’t forget the generosity. In 1936, she sent Williams a copy of her newly published first novel, We the Living, along with a letter expressing her gratitude. When Williams asked permission to show the letter to prospective donors, Rand responded with lengthier and more effusive praise, which Williams quoted in fundraising materials.

“The Studio Club,” Rand wrote, “is the only organization I know of personally that carries on, quietly and modestly, this great work which is needed so badly — help for young talent. It not only provides human, decent living accommodations which a poor beginner could not afford elsewhere, but it provides that other great necessity of life: Understanding.”

A paean to altruism? Not exactly. In the letter, Rand also declared that it was time to stop favoring “crippled children, old people, blind people and all kinds of disabled unfortunates” over “the able, the fit, the talented.” She continued, “Who is more worthy of help — the sub-normal or the above normal? Who is more valuable to humanity?” Aiding “the disabled” was fine, she said, but nurturing “potential talent” represented “a much higher type of charity.”

The Studio Club archives at Smith College don’t include any fundraising documents. Still, it’s a safe bet that when Williams composed this appeal to potential donors, Rand’s priorities for Hollywood almsgivers didn’t make the final cut.


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