“The trouble with socialism,” Oscar Wilde once wrote, “is that it takes too many evenings.” Indeed, the private lives of socialists are highly politicized. They must not be interested in anything — not even their families — other than socialism. The theory must inform every aspect of their lives, which must be a microcosm of a socialist society: there must be no escape from the All-Embracing Theory. Or the All-Embracing State.
The lives of Murray and JoAnn Beatrice Rothbard, who died on October 29, 1999, illustrated the opposite principle. He was the premier anti-socialist of our time. She was his lifetime helpmate, an excellent manager, and a scholar in her own right. Together, their lives were a microcosm of liberty, with interests spanning an extraordinary range and a private life just as rich and varied as what they accomplished together in their public life.
A Rothbardian evening was not like Wilde’s steely-eyed socialist one. They constantly entertained guests from all walks of life, freely talked to any callers curious about libertarian ideas, and spent endless hours with students and friends. They were generous with their time, food, and books, and as anxious to learn from others as others were from them. If the socialist evening served as a fearful look into the sternness and regimentation of a centrally planned society, a Rothbardian evening seemed to suggest the limitless possibilities and hope of freedom.
For them, it wasn’t always about the great political struggle of our time. They also attended concerts, plays, and films, and took classes in German baroque church architecture, the paintings of Caravaggio, early music, and American history. Like many great intellectuals — G.K. Chesterton comes to mind — Murray was somewhat disorganized. JoAnn was the practical partner of the team. She hosted all the parties, cooked all the food, and kept his schedule. She proofed and typed all of Murray’s manuscripts, inspired him in his research and writing, and sponsored a salon in their home that was crucial for the birth of the libertarian movement. Service of this variety is an old- fashioned virtue, not nearly as appreciated as it should be these days.
Once when Murray was discouraged from attending a Messiah sing because he would mistakenly attempt to sing all four parts, Joey began her own sing in their home. It became annual staple for their always large and growing set of friends in New York City. Joey later developed and cultivated an intense interest in opera — more intense that Murray could ever muster — so she would frequently fly to large and important performances that couldn’t be missed, especially those of Wagner.
Murray and Joey got to know each other when he was in graduate school at Columbia and she was at NYU, and they corresponded regularly one summer she spent at home in Virginia. It was not politics which consumed them. They wrote about which baseball teams were best, new and old theories of child rearing, the ups and downs of living in Manhattan, the merits of this or that soap opera. These were two bourgeois students in love with life, and they adored each other.
When Murray got to know novelist Ayn Rand, he was told by one of her devotees that he had a problem: Joey appeared to believe in God, a self-evidently irrational impulse. Joey was given time to listen to a tape series in atheism, and was not convinced. The Randians told Murray that if he wanted to be part of their group, he had to divorce her. Murray took her arm and they walked out, together.
Joey loved to tell stories about Murray: how they were once tossed out of the Columbia University library for laughing, and how she knew how to find him in a dark theater on their first date: by following the laughter. Indeed, to spend even a few minutes with Murray and Joey was to find yourself laughing uproariously. Frequently the laughter concerned politics, but it might also concern anything else. Their joy together was boundless, their intellectual curiosity deep, and their love of life complete.
Murray could not have accomplished what he did without her. He wrote tens of thousands of articles and 25 books, and developed the first, fully integrated science of liberty — with her by his side, providing indispensable encouragement and support. She made his breathtaking level of productivity possible. But even more importantly, they lived good and faithful lives, to each other, to the principles they shared, and to never letting their passion for politics squeeze out the moral obligation to care for others and to embrace life to its fullest.
His unexpected and untimely death in 1995 was a devastating blow to JoAnn. Her health was failing and her main source of joy gone. But she knew what Murray would have her do. She stayed constantly in touch by phone. She threw herself into reading and research, becoming a real expert on the depredations of Lincoln. She gave classes at our student conferences, and lectured about Murray’s thought at the Austrian Scholars Conference.
On the fourth anniversary of Murray’s death, she suffered a terrible stroke, and died months later. We are left with warm memories of their happiness together, and the multitude of ways in which she and he touched our lives. They had their priorities straight, and in their public and private lives, exemplified the spirit of liberty, and changed our world.