U.S. marshals escort Patricia Hearst from San Francisco's Federal Building...

U.S. marshals escort Patricia Hearst from San Francisco's Federal Building on Feb. 3, 1976, where jury selection continued in her bank robbery trial. Credit: AP

AMERICAN HEIRESS: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, by Jeffrey Toobin. Doubleday, 371 pp., $28.95.

On the night of Feb. 4, 1974, Patricia Hearst was home with her fiance when three people bearing weapons forced their way into the couple’s Berkeley, California, apartment.

“Stronger than her delicate, barely five-foot frame suggested,” Hearst struggled but could not overpower the intruders, who stuffed the granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst into the trunk of a car and drove off.

Authorities initially had no idea who had taken the 19-year-old Hearst. Learning that the kidnappers called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army shed no light on the group’s motivation. Opacity and confusion, according to “American Heiress” author Jeffery Toobin, were hallmarks of the SLA, a ragtag group of eight whose tactics he calls “an embarrassment,” their communiqués “pompous and impenetrable.” Toobin, a staff writer at The New Yorker, senior legal analyst at CNN and author of five previous books, does not disguise his contempt for the SLA, who lived in filthy safe houses where they built bombs, traded sex partners, ate horse meat (it was cheap) and argued revolutionary aims.

Hearst was at first kept in a closet in one of these houses. She was given a TV for company, on which she watched her story play out. The nation, too, was riveted: Would the SLA kill or release the young heiress?

The answer, as those familiar with the story know, turned out to be neither: Within two months Patricia Hearst was radicalized, took the nom de guerre Tania, appeared in the iconic photograph holding a sawed-off M-1 carbine, was captured on surveillance footage robbing a bank and drove the getaway car after another bank robbery during which a woman was killed.

“Patricia herself achieved a kind of perverse stardom,” writes Toobin. The San Francisco Chronicle, a Hearst newspaper, covered the story incessantly, as did a new magazine called People. She became a celebrity-cum-political litmus test for a divided nation. While a Berkeley newspaper cheered Hearst’s apparent SLA conversion as “her last goodbye to America’s ruling class,” conservatives decried her as a coward who had “embraced the illicit and licentious values of the SLA” and deserved no sympathy.”

Neither view captured the public imagination as did a third: that the pretty girl with the famous name had been brainwashed.

Not so, says Toobin.

“The SLA comrades lacked the skills, or even the inclination, to attempt anything as ambitious as a brainwashing,” he writes, and lays out an excellent case for Hearst as the ultimate opportunist — or a young woman so morally pliant she bent whichever way the wind blew.

As the months in captivity passed, Hearst had many opportunities to escape. She did not; she dug in. She publicly accused her mother of being a drunk and her father of betrayal. She told a fellow SLA member “her old life was gone.”

Until she was arrested in September 1975 and needed it back. Now she allowed her parents to fund her defense. Awaiting trial, she took up crocheting and learned The Hustle. The story that transfixed the public for two years looked as though it would have a happy ending — if not for the other SLA members, some of whom were killed in a firefight with police, while others went underground. Hearst helped send some to prison by having “secret sessions with the FBI, [during which] she buried her former allies with icy specificity.” She “never acknowledged any wrongdoing on her part.”

Hearst would spend less than two years in prison. President Jimmy Carter commuted her seven-year sentence in 1979, she married her bodyguard and became a suburban mother of two. On his last day in office, President Bill Clinton granted Hearst a full pardon, despite “a scathing letter of objection” written by Robert S. Mueller III, then U.S. attorney in San Francisco.

“American Heiress” gives us the characters and discord of the time. The Reverend Jim Jones makes an appearance, as does Sara Jane Moore, who attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975. F. Lee Bailey, hired as Hearst’s defense attorney, comes off as a self-interested blowhard. The throngs of reporters in the Hearst driveway sound like the original Camp OJ, a subject Toobin knows well, having written the book on which the recent television series “The People v. O.J. Simpson” was based.

Hearst received a $600,000 advance to tell her story in the 1982 book “Every Secret Thing.” That she refused to speak with Toobin for “American Heiress” suggests that she wants her record of events to stand. While, as Toobin writes, she may have “engineered a successful transformation of the narrative about her case,” his will be the last word, at least for now.

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