American Heiress

By Jeffrey Toobin

The twentieth century had a lot of “crimes of the century.” Best-selling author and CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin has already written a book on one of them, the O. J. Simpson case, and in American Heiress he takes on another: the kidnapping and subsequent criminal career of Patricia Hearst.

What makes a crime a crime of the century? Celebrity is one crucial ingredient. Patty Hearst wasn’t famous for anything she did, but she had a famous name, being an heiress to the Hearst family fortune (her grandfather was the tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane himself).

Then there is the matter of how sensational and media-friendly a case it was. Here again Hearst’s story checked all the boxes as the revolutionary Symbionese Liberation Army played the media for all it was worth before going down in a blaze of guerilla glory on live TV (a novelty at the time). To this day the image of “Tania” (Hearst’s nom de guerre) holding a machine gun in front of the SLA flag is one of the most iconic of the period. In many ways her controversial trial-of-the-century, starring F. Lee Bailey for the defence, was anti-climactic.

A final factor contributing to crime-of-the-century status is broader cultural significance. In the case of O. J. Simpson, for example, there was the issue of race in America. For the story of Patty Hearst it was the moment of backlash against the counterculture. By 1974, the year she was kidnapped, the Summer of Love was a bitter memory for many, even in San Francisco.

Hearst was, in Toobin’s analysis, “emblematic of the political evolution of the country during the 1970s,” going from being a symbol of wounded innocence to one of wayward youth, “just another privileged youngster who had turned her back on all that was wholesome about her country.”

The hero of the historical moment wasn’t Patty’s father, a genial, alcoholic patrician who came to be seen as a lax and irresponsible parent, but the law-and-order governor of California Ronald Reagan. You didn’t need to be a Weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing. After her rescue Hearst adjusted quickly to the changed political climate, casting herself as the victim in a captive narrative and marrying her police-officer bodyguard.

The question of how sincere Hearst was in her turnaround is the question that has dogged her ever since.

Was she just a naive idiot? If not for their involvement in a couple of murders (one of which was apparently accidental), the SLA might be remembered today as a comic gang that couldn’t shoot straight, and the story of Hearst’s kidnapping a 1970’s version of O. Henry’s classic story “The Ransom of Red Chief” (a parallel that at least one SLA member drew explicitly).

Was she a victim: raped and brutalized, coerced and brainwashed by the SLA? It’s clear she had numerous chances to escape, but was she too traumatized or fearful to take them? Had she developed Stockholm syndrome?

Or was she a willing participant in the SLA’s madcap plans for revolution but then changed her mind when the law caught up with her? Was throwing her fellow revolutionaries under the bus just the price she had to pay in order to re-embrace her former life of privilege?

Readers will have to make up their own minds. Toobin, who did not get to interview Hearst, has no particular agenda and lets the facts speak for themselves. What he does render judgment on is the distasteful aftermath of the affair, as Hearst, after being convicted for bank robbery, had her sentence commuted by President Carter before receiving a pardon from President Clinton. As Toobin observes, “Rarely have the benefits of wealth, power, and renown been as clear as they were in the aftermath of Patricia’s conviction.”

If there’s a moral to the story it is here. Wealth will out. “The story of Patricia Hearst,” Toobin concludes, “as extraordinary as it once was, had a familiar, even predictable ending.” After her brief flirtation with fame and notoriety Hearst returned to lead “the life for which she was destined.” In this she was, again, flowing with the historical tide. Waking from the nightmare of revolution and social upheaval, Americans just wanted to enjoy being rich.

Review first published in the Toronto Star August 7, 2016.

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