The 1970s were not America’s finest hour. From Watergate to the Iran, stagflation to gas rationing, we suffered a decade-long humiliation where interest rates topped out at 20 percent, New York City nearly went bankrupt, and Sixties idealism curdled into nihilism and random acts of domestic terrorism. The cultural touchstones are familiar - the mood ring. Polyester leisure suits. Disco. The people, however, are a bit cloudy in our collective remembrance. Comes now Jeffrey Toobin, fresh off the success of FX’s adaptation of his book about the O.J. Simpson trial, with American Heiress, a gripping and wonderfully written account of the kidnapping of Patricia Heart, the then twenty-year-old heir to a fortune accumulated in newspapers and real estate.
For those of a certain age, the broad strokes will quickly be remembered. Hearst was taken by a group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and famously captured in an iconic photo with a machine gun at the ready and the SLA’s seven-headed hydra symbol behind her. After most of her comrades were killed in a standoff with police a few months later, Hearst and the remaining members of the group went underground for more than a year, zig zagging the country before being captured in September 1975. At trial for a bank robbery committed shortly after her kidnapping, the then-famous trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey unsuccessfully attempted to argue that Hearst had been brainwashed by the SLA and thus not culpable for her acts.
Toobin chose his subject well. He has a jeweler’s eye for the fine details as well as the big picture, zooming in to explore the wide range of characters who are part of the tale while also pulling the lens back to put the kidnapping in the broader context of unrest at the time. While many consider the 1960s as a time when the country nearly unraveled in protest over Vietnam, the following decade is largely forgotten in its extensive incidents of domestic terrorism. This may be because many bombings (which were the preferred method of fear mongering) resulted in injury to property as opposed to person, but as Toobin points out, attacks became so commonplace in California, they ceased making news.
In Toobin’s telling, the SLA is more myth than reality. The entire group was small enough to be transported in a modern-day SUV and while they did commit an egregious murder (of the Superintendent of the Oakland School District), the bank robbery that made Hearst infamous netted less than $10,000 and five of the eight members, including its leader, died shortly thereafter. The SLA’s outsized impact was largely due to Hearst’s presence, but it was only one of a number of groups that fancied themselves as guerrilla warriors fighting against the government.
As the story picks up speed with Hearst’s conversion to the SLA cause, the standoff that results in most of the group perishing in an inferno, and Hearst and the two remaining members’ months on the run, it is impossible to read Heiress and not sit in surprise that it took the FBI so long to catch them. Toobin digs into all of it with zeal, introducing bit players and off-hand connections (a cameo by Bill Walton is particularly interesting) to illustrate how Hearst and her two comrades eluded capture. A second crime spree that included a bank robbery where a bystander was murdered highlighted the group’s return to the West Coast, but by then, the three SLA castoffs and a couple of their confederates were less revolutionary and more petty criminal. Whatever political message they were asserting had long since lost its thread.
It is possible Hearst could have remained at-large for far longer were it not for a tip given to law enforcement by the brother of one of those who helped her while she was on the run. Once a few dots were connected, the walls quickly closed in. Ironically, when she was captured, Hearst had settled into a sort of bizarro version of her previous life - living with a boyfriend in suburban quiet, except instead of home making and going to college classes, she was reading feminist tracts and stashing guns and money in her home.
The final section of the book, which examines Hearst’s trial, conviction, and post-incarceration life is its most frustrating. Not because of any fault of Toobin’s, but rather, the shameful way Hearst and her family manipulated their wealth and good name to game the system. Hearst renounced her comrades, perjured herself (an affidavit she admitted was false along with testimony Toobin makes clear was also fabricated), then flipped against them to garner even greater leniency. She was found guilty of the first bank robbery but had her sentence commuted by President Jimmy Carter, getting her out of prison five months before she was eligible for parole. Toobin makes clear that the Hearsts had successfully whitewashed Patty’s eighteen month journey with the SLA as one that was coercive and not complicit, even though all facts were to the contrary. As if this was not extraordinary enough, Hearst received executive clemency from President Bill Clinton on his last day in office. The grant, largely symbolic at that point, made Hearst the first person in American history to receive leniency from two different Presidents.
The question begged is whether Hearst’s tale of brainwashing is true. We cannot be inside her head; however, Toobin makes a compelling case that she was a willing participant in much of what the SLA and their successors engaged in. Hearst had ample opportunity to escape or turn herself in, yet over and over, she did not do so. At the time of her capture, there was no one monitoring her comings and goings and she could have surrendered at any time. She did not. She was, if nothing else, a chameleon, adapting herself to her surroundings. She fell for an SLA guerrilla just as easily as she did a San Francisco police officer hired to protect her while out on bail. When she was arrested, she reported her occupation as “urban guerrilla” but was back to being a proper heiress, complete with hair, make up and wardrobe by the time of her trial. Ultimately, like many rich people who commit crimes, Hearst successfully leveraged her fame and money to obtain breaks unavailable to her co-conspirators, many of whom ended up doing far more time for the same crimes.
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