Joan Kennedy Taylor, a major libertarian intellectual and a staunch advocate of individualist feminism, died on Saturday, October 29, 2005 in New York City. She had suffered in recent years from cancer and in recent weeks from related kidney failure. Joan was born in Manhattan on December 21, 1926, the daughter of composer, music critic, and radio personality Deems Taylor and Mary Kennedy, an actress and poet. Unsurprisingly, given such parents, she conceived an early interest in spending her own life in the theatre — and leading the footloose, bohemian lifestyle that choice often entailed. This desire was only intensified when, in 1939, at the age of 12, she spent two weeks in Hollywood with her father, who was there to film his scenes as the tuxedoed master of ceremonies and narrator of Walt Disney's Fantasia.
Joan completed her first eight grades of school on eight different campuses in settings as diverse as New York City; Ellsworth, Maine; Paris; and Peking. For high school, though, she settled down for at least a few years at St. Timothy's, a strict boarding school in suburban Baltimore. Later, during the 1940s, her father's biographer, James Pegolotti, tells us, "Joan […] completed four years at Barnard College on Manhattan's Upper West Side, across Broadway from Columbia University. While at Barnard, through her father's connections, she gained a role or two in radio dramas, advancing her interest in making acting a lifetime career. At the same time she began dating Donald Cook, a psychology major at Columbia, and during her senior year, in fall 1947, they became engaged." (308)
A year after that, "in September 1948 at a Unitarian church in Manhattan," they said their wedding vows. Another year later, "[i]n January 1950 Michael Cook was born and the couple rented an apartment near Columbia. Donald now had become a part-time instructor there while continuing graduate studies, and Joan gained some supporting roles on live television series, such as I Remember Mama […]." (309)
The marriage did not endure. The Cooks were separated by 1952, divorced by 1953. And though Joan had won some roles in radio and TV dramas and done some stage work as well, she had begun to wonder, well before her 30th birthday, late in 1956, whether acting was her true vocation, her true calling, after all. Like her mother, she had a talent not only for acting, but also for writing. And beginning in 1955 with a job in the publicity department of Alfred A. Knopf, she turned her attention increasingly to the world of writing and publishing.
Knopf, which had opened its doors in 1915 as an independent publishing firm, had long since been developing a kind of dependence on the much larger Random House, the company owned by Alfred Knopf's longtime personal friend Bennett Cerf. In 1960 the two firms would merge, and the Knopf imprint would become a subsidiary of Random House. But close cooperation between the two houses had been nothing unusual for several years before the merger became official.
And so it was that "[a]s a publicity assistant at Knopf, Joan read an advance copy of [Ayn] Rand's Atlas Shrugged [published by Random House in September 1957] and found the book fascinating. She wrote a letter of appreciation to the author, who responded by inviting her to lunch. The two women established a friendship, partly because of Joan's deep interest in Rand's […] u2018Objectivism.' For Joan, Rand blended literary aptitude and economic philosophy into an attractive package." (317318)
Joan introduced her new friend to her father, and the two quickly became fast friends themselves, getting together for evenings spent "[s]itting and listening to recordings of his works." According to Pegolotti, Rand asked Deems Taylor "to consider writing an opera based on her short science-fiction novel Anthem. The plot looked to a distant future when u2018I' is lost from the language and only u2018We' is used. The hero is the one who rediscovers u2018I.' Rand suggested a Schoenberg-type modernist music for the u2018non-I' portion, and then a change to romantic melodies of a Rachmaninoff-type when u2018I' is rediscovered. But Taylor declined." (318)
Early in 1958, the psychologist Nathaniel Branden founded a new organization called Nathaniel Branden Lectures (it would change its name three years later to the Nathaniel Branden Institute – NBI) and began offering a course in the ‘Basic Principles of Objectivism.’ Joan Kennedy Taylor was among the first students to sign up. Another was a ‘talented writer and jack-of-all-trades’ (319) named David Dawson, whom Joan had known since the early 1950s, and who had often helped to care for little Michael when his parents were busy with their careers. Joan and David tied the knot later in 1958 and remained happily married for more than twenty years until Dawson’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1979.
During the five years Joan spent between husbands, 19531958, she was not without male companionship. Her parents' many contacts in the literary world and her own close relations with Columbia University (the campus across the street from her own alma mater, the campus where she had met her first husband, the father of her child) brought her into contact with several of the most famous of the Beat Generation writers just before and just after they had made their first big splash as literary figures. She dated novelist Jack Kerouac a few times during the summer of 1957 and is said to have stayed up all night with him on the eve of the publication of On the Road, waiting for the first reviews. She told me on one occasion about a double date she had gone on with Kerouac and his friend Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg, she said, was trying to become heterosexual on the advice of his psychiatrist. He later made advances to her, she said, asking her to initiate him into heterosexual sex. She declined.
Meanwhile, as a result of the contacts she had made among students of Ayn Rand's philosophy, she had begun paying more attention than she ever had before to the world of politics. During the presidential campaign of 1964, in which she favored the Republican candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, she helped to found the Metropolitan Young Republican Club of New York and served as editor of the group's newsletter. The following year, she introduced various radical changes to the newsletter and transformed it into the independent libertarian political magazine Persuasion, which she published on a monthly basis, with the assistance of David Dawson and Avis Brick, for the next three years. Later that year, Persuasion became the first and only political magazine ever personally endorsed and recommended by Ayn Rand. In the December 1965 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter, Rand wrote that Persuasion "does a remarkable educational job in tying current political events to wider principles, evaluating specific events in a rational frame-of-reference, and maintaining a high degree of consistency. It is of particular interest and value to all those who are eager to fight on the level of practical politics, but flounder hopelessly for lack of proper material."
When Joan closed Persuasion in 1968, it was not because her interest in writing about political ideas and issues had waned in the slightest, but rather because she wanted to devote more time to her newest passion: the writing of musical plays. Working with the composer George Broderick, she created a musical version of the Oscar Wilde short story "The Canterville Ghost," as well as another musical, North Star, based on the underground railroad that transported escaped slaves to freedom during the years before the U.S. Civil War. Neither of these musicals has been produced to date.
In 1977, Joan returned to political writing, taking a position as an associate editor on another monthly, The Libertarian Review. Over the next few years, she would follow this publication, and its eccentric, gifted editor-in-chief, Roy A. Childs, Jr., across the country and back, from New York to San Francisco and from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. When The Libertarian Review ceased publication at the end of 1981, she embarked on a career as an editor and freelance writer which occupied her for the rest of her life.
As publications director at the Manhattan Institute in the early 1980s, she shepherded a new book on welfare policy by a virtually unknown writer she had discovered named Charles Murray — a book called Losing Ground — from manuscript to the national bestseller lists. At the Foundation for Economic Education in the mid-1980s, she served as editorial director of the book publishing program and as an editor of the foundation's venerable monthly magazine, The Freeman. Throughout the 1980s, she was heard, along with such luminaries as Nat Hentoff, Nicholas Von Hoffman, Michael Kinsley, Julian Bond, and Senator William Proxmire, as a regular commentator on current issues and events on the nationally syndicated daily radio program Byline.
And all along, she was writing — for the Wall Street Journal, for the Washington Times, for Reason and Inquiry and Success and American Enterprise, and for scholarly publications like the Stanford Law & Policy Review, the CommLaw Conspectus: Journal of Communications Law and Policy, and the Journal of Information Ethics. She wrote monographs on feminist issues for the Cato Institute and the Hoover Institution. She contributed essays to a number of scholarly books.
And she wrote her own books, too. Reclaiming the Mainstream: Individualist Feminism Rediscovered (1992) elaborated her theory that the true origins of American feminism lay in the mid-19th century, when men and women of the "classical liberal" persuasion, many of them also involved in the abolitionist movement, began calling for an end to government policies that held women back. Today, she argued, feminists should return to their classical liberal roots, for they will find that opportunity and equality for women are best maximized through reliance on individual rights and the free market, rather than reliance on laws and government programs.
Her last book, What to Do When You Don’t Want to Call the Cops: A Non-Adversarial Approach to Sexual Harassment, was published by New York University Press in 1999.
During the last fifteen years of her life,in addition to her writing and lecturing, Joan devoted much of her time to volunteer work for feminist organizations. From 1989 to 2003 she was national coordinator of the Association of Libertarian Feminists, and throughout the 1990s she served as a vice president and member of the board of directors of Feminists for Free Expression.
For more than twenty years, ever since the death of Ayn Rand in 1982, Joan Kennedy Taylor was the leading woman intellectual in the libertarian movement. Only two other figures — Sharon Presley and Wendy McElroy — could make a plausible claim to comparable stature. Her death is an irreparable loss to the movement she did so much to advance.
- James A. Pegolotti, Deems Taylor: A Biography (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003).
- Ayn Rand, "A Recommendation." The Objectivist Newsletter, Vol. 4 No. 12, December 1965, p. 8.
November 2, 2005