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New book recalls Hearst’s kidnapping, robbery

Book is knowledgable reimagining cleverly plotted, stylishly told

By Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune
Published: February 24, 2024, 6:05am
2 Photos
Patty Hearst makes her way to court on Feb. 17, 1976, during her trial on charge of bank robbery.
Patty Hearst makes her way to court on Feb. 17, 1976, during her trial on charge of bank robbery. (Keystone/Getty Images) Photo Gallery

Patty Hearst turned 70 on Tuesday.

That might not mean a great deal to some of you. But to a generation very much alive, that name should bring back some vivid memories, some images of a rifle-toting young woman who was at the center of one of the most colorful, extensively reported crimes of the last or any century.

What’s she been up to? Well, she is now known as Patricia Hearst Shaw and for many years has been in the news mostly for her dogs. A couple of her French bulldogs (Tuggy and Rubi) won prizes, including some at the prestigious and televised Westminster Kennel Club dog show.

What was she up to 50 years ago?

You might remember that on the morning of Feb. 4, 1974, she was a 19-year-old University of California at Berkeley student when she was kidnapped from her apartment near campus.

She was taken by a group of armed men and women who called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA, a group that was intent on starting a war against the United States government.

This gang knew that since Hearst was from a wealthy, powerful family — the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst (see “Citizen Kane”) — this kidnapping would make for front-page news and constant TV coverage. It sure did, day after day after day

The SLA released audiotapes demanding money and food in exchange for Hearst’s release and kept up the heat by releasing a wild tape on which she claimed to have joined the SLA’s fight against the U.S. On tape, she denounced her family, claimed allegiance to the SLA and said that she was to be called by her new name, “Tania.” Days later came a film of Hearst participating in a bank robbery with the SLA in San Francisco.

Hearst and her new “pals” kept on the run until Sept. 18, 1975, when FBI agents nabbed her and others. She was tried for robbery and other crimes, found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence after she had served 22 months, and she was pardoned decades later by President Bill Clinton. She drifted off into a comfortable life of marriage to Bernard Shaw, a cop who had been a member of her security detail (he died in 2013), their two children (girls Lydia and Gillian) and her dogs. She did charity work, appeared in a couple of movies, some documentaries and even wrote a book, with Alvin Moscow, 1982’s “Every Secret Thing.”

But she never left the mind of Roger D. Rapoport, who has published a fascinating and entertaining new book titled “Searching for Patty Hearst.” This is not merely some rehashing of the story and there have been plenty of those (one of the best is legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin’s “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst” in 2016.)

Rapoport’s book is a knowledgeable reimagining, cleverly plotted, stylishly told.

As he writes, “The ‘facts’ of the Patty Hearst case … have been the subject of both a legal and journalistic debate for many decades. Today the ‘true’ story as presented from many points of view continues to raise just as many questions as it answers.”

Rapoport has been closely involved with the case since he was a young reporter and he has had contact with some of the principals, even writing his own, unpublished nonfiction version.

I am reluctant to spoil the many twists and surprises of this book.

Here’s a small sample, set the day of the kidnapping: “Patty sat, tied up and gagged in a Daly City safe house closet on Northridge Drive, just a few miles from the epicenter of the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake. A portable radio turned up full blast made it impossible for her to follow the kidnappers’ discussion.”

It is a quick and satisfying read. As Rapoport writes, “I wrote this novel because I believed the American public deserved nothing but the truth. Very sorry about the delay. This book took a lot longer that I expected. Hope it was worth the wait.”

It was indeed.