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Review: Jeffrey Toobin's 'American Heiress' captures the '70s and the extraordinary tale of Patty Hearst

In the middle of the 1970s, the Patty Hearst case was unavoidable.

Starting with the dramatic kidnapping on Feb. 4, 1974, of the 19-year-old scion of a wealthy newspaper dynasty, followed by her rapid conversion to membership in the radical group that snatched her and a violent bank robbery where she was caught on camera expertly slinging a sawed-off M1 carbine, then a more than yearlong pursuit by the FBI and a bizarre trial, and ending with her return to the privileged world she came from, Hearst's story is one of those stranger-than-fiction true tales that nevertheless captures the zeitgeist of its times.

Its reach was wide, across the nation right down to the Florida interstate. I was a grad student in 1975, and friends and family had joked that my driver's license photo looked just like Hearst.

One Friday night, headed from Gainesville to Tampa, I was pulled over by a highway patrolman for a malfunctioning tail light. He took a look at my face, then at my license photo. His hand drifted to his gun butt, and he asked how long I'd lived in Florida, then told me to get out of the car.

When he saw I was about 8 inches taller than the diminutive fugitive, he settled down and let me go, but not before saying, "Did anybody ever tell you that you look a lot like Patty Hearst?"

Much stranger is the fact that something very similar happened to Hearst herself — and she, too, drove away. It's just one of the fascinating details recounted in Jeffrey Toobin's new book, American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.

Having followed it with interest at the time, I thought I knew a fair amount about Hearst's long, strange trip. But Toobin skillfully enlarges and deepens the story I remembered, filling in gaps with material that will be new to many readers.

A longtime New Yorker staffer and senior legal analyst on CNN, Toobin has written a number of other books about the intersections of celebrity, law and politics. His 1996 book The Run of His Life was the main source for the recent hit FX series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, and American Heiress certainly has the potential to make a similar transition to the screen (preferably, like Run, as a miniseries; a feature film would require too much gutting of the complex story).

Toobin plunges us right into the kidnapping on the book's first pages. Hearst was living in Berkeley, Calif., with Steven Weed, who was one of her high school teachers when she began an affair with him. By 1974 the two were both University of California students and had recently become engaged.

On a quiet evening, three armed intruders burst into their apartment. Weed was beaten and took off running; Hearst, who was wearing only a bathrobe, underwear and slippers, was bound, dragged outside and, with some difficulty — she fought fiercely — stuffed into the trunk of a car.

Her distraught parents — Catherine, a conservative Georgia belle and friend of Ronald Reagan, and Randolph, one of the sons of media mogul William Randolph Hearst (the inspiration for Citizen Kane) — held endless press conferences and moved several FBI agents into their mansion in Hillsborough, a tony suburb of San Francisco, as the search for their daughter went on for months.

In the meantime, Patricia (Toobin notes she detests being called Patty) spent the next several weeks locked in a closet. Gradually, she learned who her captors were: the Symbionese Liberation Army.

The 1970s were a growth period for radical groups, many of them on the left. Today we would probably call them domestic terrorists; many used various forms of violence — Toobin notes that during the early '70s there were an average of 1,500 politically motivated bombings every year in the United States.

The SLA's members styled themselves on foco (Spanish for "focus") theory, based on South American revolutionary Che Guevara's methods. Its main principal is that small, nimble paramilitary groups can help to spark a larger insurrection or revolution by example.

The SLA, in Toobin's telling, comes off more like the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Its leader (and, at 30, its oldest member) was Donald DeFreeze, an African-American ex-convict who had a nightmarish childhood and was radicalized in California's highly political Vacaville prison. DeFreeze, who called himself General Field Marshall Cinque M'tume (Cinque for short), was obsessed with guns, but, Toobin writes, his "most enduring attachment was to the Akadama brand of plum wine, which he drank incessantly."

Other core members of the SLA were Nancy Ling Perry, a drug dealer and sex worker; Patricia "Mizmoon" Soltysik, a library researcher with a penchant for violence; Angela Atwood, an aspiring actor; Camilla Hall, a poet and gardener; Willie Wolfe, a Berkeley student; and Bill and Emily Harris, a constantly bickering married couple. He was a Vietnam vet with an aggressive temperament, while she liked to taunt him with her sexual adventures with other people.

The SLA members often lived together and might have remained just a politically obsessed circle of friends — except for their ready access to a huge arsenal of guns and, later, bombs. The SLA's first action, however, did not win support. In 1973 DeFreeze, Ling and Soltysik assassinated Marcus Foster, Oakland's popular African-American school superintendent. Despite a communique from the SLA that asserted it was an attack on the "fascist Board of Education," even other radical groups condemned the murder.

The kidnapping of Hearst, daughter of a wealthy conservative family, was meant to rebuild its credibility. The SLA's first demands were not for ransom but for the family to set up a massive food distribution program for the poor — and Randy Hearst did all he could to comply.

But Patricia herself threw a curveball when, after several weeks of captivity, she told the members she wanted to join the SLA. Like the other members, she adopted a nom de guerre, Tania, after one of Guevara's comrades. Her decision, and their acceptance of it, would have unforeseeable results. Public perception of her would reverse; Toobin writes that "she was a symbol no longer of wounded innocence but rather of wayward youth." Because she was so recognizable, the group would be ever on the move from one squalid rental to another, always dragging along an enormous arsenal and scrambling for funds — they had no connections with other radical groups or monied backers.

In May of 1975, five of the SLA members would die in the largest police shootout in Los Angeles history, which Toobin describes in breathless detail. Police fired more than 5,300 rounds of ammunition and 83 tear gas canisters in just over an hour; the SLA members fired between 2,000 and 3,000 rounds (and didn't hit a single officer). The house the five were hiding in caught fire and burned to the ground; three of them died in its crawl space from burns and smoke, while Perry and Hall were shot by police when they came out from under the house, guns blazing.

As it all went down on television, Hearst and the Harrises watched from a hotel room across the street from Disneyland.

Hearst's journey was far from over; it would take her to Pennsylvania and New York City, then back to California, where she and the Harrises, along with a cluster of new SLA members, were arrested in September 1975.

Toobin astutely describes the circuslike trial that followed, in which Hearst was defended by theatrical celebrity attorney F. Lee Bailey. The jury convicted her in less than 24 hours.

She served little of her seven-year sentence, though. Her father pursued a commutation, with support from Reagan and John Wayne, among others, and the case was even influenced by the 1978 mass suicide of 909 of the Rev. James Jones' followers, which raised questions about the possibility of brainwashing. President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence in 1979; in 2000, she became the first person ever to receive both a presidential commutation and a presidential pardon, from Bill Clinton.

The revolutionary returned, emphatically, to the fold. After Hearst was released from prison, she married Bernie Shaw, one of her bodyguards and a former police officer, moved to Connecticut and had two daughters. Aside from her appearances in several of John Waters' movies, she has kept a low profile. Now 62, she was last in the news in 2015, when her shi tzu, Rocket, was a winner at the Westminster Dog Show.

As Toobin explains in his author's note, Hearst declined to participate in the writing of American Heiress. His research is extremely thorough: He not only interviewed more than 100 people involved in the case, he also had access to trial transcripts, witness statements, evidence notes and thousands of pages of interviews with Hearst herself, including those conducted by the FBI, as well as her own 1982 memoir, Every Secret Thing.

American Heiress may never quite get us inside Patricia Hearst's head, may not definitively answer the question of whether her conversion was real or a survival tactic. But this book certainly gives us a panoramic picture of her times and a gripping, insightful account of her place in them.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst

By Jeffrey Toobin

Doubleday, 371 pages, $28.95

Review: Jeffrey Toobin's 'American Heiress' captures the '70s and the extraordinary tale of Patty Hearst 08/04/16 [Last modified: Thursday, August 4, 2016 2:01pm]
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