When media heiress and UC Berkeley sophomore Patty Hearst was kidnapped 50 years ago Sunday, America battened down the hatches. In California, coming out parties, even proms were cancelled out of an abundance of caution. The FBI, badly tarnished by its failure to find missing union leader Jimmy Hoffa, launched Operation Hernap with field agents flown en masse to California to find the Symbionese Liberation Army revolutionaries who had seized the beautiful 19-year-old fiancée from her Berkeley apartment.
Within days, people who never heard of her — or even famous grandfather, his San Simeon castle or Citizen Kane, the legendary movie that made him an antihero — were immersed in the intimate details of her life.
They went to churches and other houses of worship to pray for her safe return — and even sent donations to her wealthy parents to help pay for her ransom. All that collapsed when Hearst, furious over her family’s failure to ransom her, announced she wasn’t going home. Instead, she enlisted with the SLA to participate in three bank robberies and joined the kidnapping of a 17 year-old Southern California high school student.
Within months, I found myself approaching a hard deadline for Ballantine for a book by her fiancé Steve Weed, a philosophy student at Berkeley who had begun an affair with Hearst when she was one of his 16-year-old pupils at a private school near San Francisco. Weed lived in my Berkeley home for months, eating dinner many nights with me and my wife and collaborating on our book. Or, rather, pretending to collaborate on a book he killed shortly before it was completed to go off and write his own watered-down version of his three years as a Hearst-in-waiting.
With the Weed manuscript scuttled, I later wrote a long Oakland Tribune interview with her kidnapper Bill Harris, and interviewed famous Dr. Thomas Noguchi, the Los Angeles coroner (Robert Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Janis Joplin) who autopsied six deceased members of the Symbionese Liberation Army group that captured Hearst. I continued to write about the case for years after Patty went to jail for felony bank robbery. She served 22 months before being pardoned by President Carter. She pled guilty in the kidnapping case and received a suspended sentence.
Fifty years later, the story feels as alive as ever. On tour for Searching for Patty Hearst, I am speaking to audiences who have a special interest in the case, friends of the Hearst family, retired tour guides from Hearst castle, an employee who worked at the ranch where Patty hid out in a small cottage when she was on the run from that vast FBI task force. In hindsight, it’s no surprise that Hearst’s story — the wealth, media pedigree, social radicalism, Stockholm syndrome, lawlessness — captivated the country then and continues to intrigue decades later.
Today Patty lives in New York, far removed in time and space from the California that served as backdrop to her infamous turn. She is a proud mother, grandmother, philanthropist, women’s rights advocate, actress and novelist. Highlighting her film career are a series of films with the “Pope of Trash” John Waters.
The rehabilitation of Hearst’s reputation clearly demonstrates just how far privilege can carry you — even if it is back from the brink. Her trial judge, a family friend who knew Patty as a little girl, let the Hearst family sit in on a private jury selection session. In addition, the Committee To Free Patty Hearst expended vast resources (no exceeding the ransom demand) to persuade President Jimmy Carter to commute her 7-year bank robbery sentence after less than two years.
In my new novel Searching for Patty Hearst, I present all points of view to give readers an opportunity to decide who to believe in this complex true-crime case. Fiction allows the reader to come to their own conclusions when two people in the same room at the same time offer conflicting accounts of what really happened.
Despite an extensive historical record it’s hard to know if Patty Hearst was, as her unsuccessful defense attorney F. Lee Bailey argued, brainwashed. The opposing argument — made by no less than Northern California U.S. Attorney and future FBI director Robert Mueller III — when she came up for a pardon from Bill Clinton, is also persuasive:
“The attitude of Hearst has always been that she is a person above the law and that, based on her wealth and social position, she is not accountable for her conduct, despite the jury's verdict."
The fact that the FBI agent in charge of the vast San Francisco Patty Hearst search supported her pardon (along with Governor Ronald Reagan and Cesar Chavez) furthers the debate over Hearst’s guilt.
During my book tour I’ve been heartened by the presence of younger people who embrace the key message of publications like this one: never take just one person’s word on any story. Due diligence means listening to all points of view and weighing them for veracity. You never know just how distorted or redacted any one version of a story may be. In my months of interviews with Hearst’s fiancé, he told me “the truth” in great detail and then, when it came time to publish, engaged in strategic omission.
Some colorful context Mr. Weed left out of his and Patty’s story: his time as a drug dealer at Princeton, Patty’s comment that at times she wished her frustrating parents “would die in a plane crash,” his practice of pilfering geometry exams to help her squeak through the class.
What I learned is that the only way to make a good decision on a controversial case is to listen to everyone, realizing that the more people you speak with the closer you will come to what really happened.
It turns out that everyone has a convincing and believable story until you start cross checking and speak to others who were also in the room. That’s the power of fiction — and the challenge of using it to plumb for truths lost to the historical record; it deals directly with the ambiguity of depending on individuals who can never offer a 360° view.
Novelist and playwright Michael Frayn (Copenhagen) says:
“The great challenge facing the storyteller and the historian alike is to get inside people’s heads, to stand where they stood and see the world as they saw it, to make some informed estimate of their motives and intentions — and this is where recorded and recordable history can not reach. Even when all the external evidence has been mastered the only way into the protagonists’ heads is through the imagination.”