The kidnapping of Patty Hearst, granddaughter of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, by the Symbionese Liberation Army was one of the strangest events of the 1970s. It moved beyond strange when Hearst, now using the name Tania, was seen carrying a machine gun and assisting with the SLA’s holdup of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. There had been kidnappings and ransoms before, but none—or at least none this high profile—where the person being held hostage joined his or her captors. With the robbing of the Hibernia Bank, Patty Hearst had moved from spoiled heiress to a member of a group so left wing that pretty much every other radical group at the time denounced their actions, particularly their fatal shooting of Oakland public schools superintendent Marcus Foster. (The Foster shooting took place before the SLA kidnapped Hearst.)
Even poorly told, Hearst’s is a fascinating story, but the writing is lively in Jeffrey Toobin’s American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst. This is true even when he’s covering the trial late in the book. I find trial coverage to generally be as thrilling as a bowl of plain yogurt, but Toobin wisely chooses not to get bogged down in the details.
In his author’s note, Toobin explains that Hearst did not grant any interviews to him for the book. This left me wondering if he had a fair take on the events, particularly the long-debated question of whether or not Hearst was a willing participant in the bank robbery and also a shootout at a sporting goods store. But he did reference Hearst’s memoir about the events, and he had access to newly released documents. By the end of American Heiress, I still wasn’t sure who the real Patty Hearst was, or if the real Patty Hearst was in fact the machine gun toting Tania. But even if Hearst had granted interviews to Toobin, we probably would still never know for sure. In American Heiress, Toobin makes the best guess as to who she was, or is, when writing about her quick transition from the SLA back to being a privileged Hearst after the FBI captured her: “One could say that the lawyers reverse brainwashed her, but the truth may be simpler. Patricia was always a rational actor – with the SLA and now with her lawyers. Even in chaotic surroundings, she knew where her best interests lay.”