Sunday, September 4, 2016

Book Review: "American Heiress"

I read a review of this book a few weeks ago in the paper, and the critic said something to the effect that a person would have to be at least fifty years old to remember the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst, 19 years old at the time, and the events that surrounded and followed it.  That astonished me, but when I did the math, a realized that a fifty year old person today would have been all of eight years old in February 4, 1974, the night that Hearst was abducted by members of the radical group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and "army", by the way, that numbered all of eight people.  So, that assertion is probably just about right.

Most people, if they remember it all, view the events and Miss Hearst herself as just another relic of the 1970's, like mood rings and disco music.  Jeffrey Toobin, however, has done voluminous research using FBI documents, trial transcripts, interviews with some of the surviving players, and Hearst's own book, "Every Secret Thing", about the kidnapping and her life on the lam, but, alas, Patricia Hearst herself did not meet with or cooperate with Toobin in his writing of this book.  However, he has put together a terrific account of this remarkable truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story.

We know for a fact that Hearst was forcibly kidnapped on that February 4, 1974 night.  What happened after that, no one can really be sure, and we may never be sure.

Toobin's account of the tale paints a picture of America in the early 1970's and it wasn't pretty. Domestic terrorism was rife in America in those days, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Thousands of bombings occurred in protest of, well, you name it: Viet Nam, Watergate, government corruption, race relations, poverty, inflation, gasoline lines.  So many bombings that they barely were reported on the news any more.  As for the counter-culture groups that fomented these actions, they were rag tag and disorganized, and the SLA was a prime example.  Led by a drunken ex-con named Donald DeFreeze, aka General Cinque, the SLA consisted of eight people, that had no plans, and seemingly made things up as they went along.  

They did succeed in turning Patricia Hearst as a member of their cause, having her participate in a bank robbery and producing one of the most iconic photos of the decade:

Or did they?  Was Hearst forced into doing this or did she do so willingly?  Did she truly become the "urban guerrilla" that she claimed to be, or did she merely do what she did in order to stay alive?  That is the crux of this entire saga.

I can recall that at the time of Hearst's trial and conviction, I was in the camp that said that she was a true victim of a brutal crime and that she never should have spent a day in prison (she ended up serving 22 months in prison).  Back in 1976, I felt that she was victimized again by a political climate and a jury that bent over backwards to prove that a "rich family wasn't going to buy their way out of this".  I still feel that way, but after reading this book, I must admit that I am not so steadfast in this stance as I once was.

It took nineteen months for the FBI and police authorities to finally catch up with Patricia Hearst and her captors.  Along the way, three banks were robbed, one person was killed n one of those robberies, and six SLA members were killed in a horrific gun battle with the Los Angeles police, and event that was televised live using the then new technology of mini-cams and microwave transmissions.  If the SLA and the people who followed sometimes came across as The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, the FBI and other local authorities could also have been mistaken for the Keystone Kops.  And while the Hearst money (which was not as great as people thought, as Toobin explains in some detail) was able to hire the services of the most famous trial lawyer in the country, F. Lee Bailey, it couldn't guarantee a strong defense for Miss Hearst, as Bailey pretty much bungled the case, although he did pull off a nifty legal maneuver that avoided Hearst being tried for another SLA bank robbery, one in where a person was killed.

You will learn a good bit in this book about William Randolph Hearst and the publishing empire he launched and the fortune he made, about his five pretty much ne'er do well sons, one of whom was Patricia's father, and how the Hearst influence was still capable of pulling strings to produce a commutation of Patty's prison sentence by President Carter, a commutation, it should be noted, that as fully supported by people from across the political spectrum, including former California Governor Ronald Reagan.

As I mentioned, my own stance on Patricia Hearst (she preferred "Patricia", by the way, not "Patty") has changed since I read this book.  She probably deserved her time in prison, but I also believe that she was first and foremost a victim, and that she also fully deserved that Presidential commutation from Jimmy Carter and, later, that Presidential Pardon from Bill Clinton.

Great book.  Three and one-half stars from The Grandstander.

Oh, a post script.  When I first mentioned that I was reading this book on Facebook, a lot of "whatever happened to Steven Weed" comments arrived.  Weed was Patricia's 24 year old fiance.  When the SLA broke into their Berkeley apartment that February night, they hit Weed in the face with a gun, whereupon he yelled "Take anything that you want" and then fled the apartment.  Sir Gallahad, he was not.  As it happened, Hearst was becoming disenchanted with Weed at the time of her kidnapping.  (The Hearst Family couldn't stand him, and these feelings only intensified in the months following the kidnapping.) She never saw him nor spoke with him again after that night.  Weed left academia and became a successful real estate agent in Palo Alto.  

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