It would be interesting to conduct a quick straw poll to see just what sort of name recognition Patty Hearst gets these days. I suspect that people under, say, age 42 may know the name, but have no idea who she is unless they happen to be John Waters fans, and even then they would have no idea who “Tania” was, and have scant knowledge of Patty/Tania’s headline-grabbing life in the 1970s.
As it is, I am the perfect age for the name of Patty Hearst to be immortalized–to be hardwired into the same memory bank as Santa Claus, Mister Rogers, and Bugs Bunny. I was seven when Patty Hearst was kidnapped on that pleasant Feb. 4, 1974 night, just the age when a kid’s ears are open to everything new, and whatever is in heavy rotation in the news cycle on the car radio on the way to school gets permanently etched into the wet cement of your developing brain.
For me, modern history begins with the Energy Crisis, “Angolan gorillas”, and Patricia Hearst, precisely because they were in the news those early days of 1974 at the time when I first became aware of what “news” even was.
Of course, the Patty Hearst saga went on for months and took one bizarre turn after another, playing out like a Faye Dunaway script (two parts Bonnie and Clyde shoot ’em up, one part Chinatown mentally and physically abused rich girl) that dutifully hit on all the touchstones of the counterculture era.
Firstly there was young Patty herself. The middle child in a family of five daughters, she was described as very bright, very pretty, aloof from her siblings, favored by her father for her precociousness, and at constant loggerheads with her more conservative mother.
The Sixties counterculture seemed to be all about the middle child acting out. And Patty was acting out alright, getting herself kicked out of Catholic school and promptly beginning a relationship with Steven Weed, her math tutor at the new high school, when he was 23 and she was only 16, much to the disappointment of both parents.
Even the guy’s name, Weed, was straight out of the counterculture. Steven Weed may have seemed cool to the sheltered private school girls in affluent Hillsborough, but he came across as a bit of a milquetoast to the general public, especially compared to the crowd Patty would soon find herself running with.
After more teenage rebellion and parental defiance, Patty eventually enrolled at UC Berkeley, helped by the fact that her mother was a UC Regent and there are several Hearst buildings on campus named after her forebears.
On the other hand, the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst could have gone to just about any school in the world, and UC Berkeley at the time was still tuition-free for California residents. More importantly, Berkeley was still Berkeley in 1973, the ultimate epicenter of student radicalism and counterculturalism. For Patty to choose UC Berkeley was a statement in itself, not unlike hooking up with a 23-year old boyfriend before she was old enough to drive.
When Patty went off to Berkeley, Weed went with her. They lived together in an apartment on Benvenue Ave. near campus, slumming it by heiress standards, where she majored in art history and he was a graduate student in philosophy. They took in the Berkeley culture, which apparently included some recreational acid and attendance at protest meetings where the Hearst legacy was not held in favorable light.
Weed and Hearst announced their engagement on Dec. 19, 1973. In June of the following year, Patricia Hearst would become Mrs. Steven Weed.
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Meanwhile, on the other side of campus….
Like the Manson Family, the S.L.A. represented a grim, blood-soaked chapter of the Sixties counterculture. Like the Manson Family, the group’s appeal rested on the leadership charisma of one central figure who honed his people skills in jail and was masterful at getting others to do his bidding for him. Like the Manson Family, the transition from prison into mainstream society happened in the unlikely town of Berkeley, CA.
Manson in Berkeley? Oh, yes. After his release from prison in 1967, Manson charmed his way into the apartment of a 23-year old woman who worked at the university. Manson, who had learned the trade of pimping in his previous stint as a free man, began moving young women into the apartment. But Manson soon found his natural forte across the Bay, ministering to the bumper crop of teenage runaways on Haight Street during the Summer of Love.
The S.L.A. was formed by Donald DeFreeze, an escapee from Soledad prison who found refuge among the radical commune culture in Berkeley. While Manson’s power structure was based on his control of a loyal cadre of high-school aged women (not men), DeFreeze’s power base was a loyal cadre of college-educated women.
The S.L.A. was one of those “only in the 70s” cults that seemed to exist exclusively in Dirty Harry movies or Streets of San Francisco episodes. The strange but true nature of this group and those times is captured well in David Talbot’s chronology of San Francisco in the Seventies, “Season of the Witch,” which contains an entire section on the brief but headline-dominating run of the Symbionese Liberation Army. It’s a history worth studying in depth, but we’ll just touch on the relevant details for our story here.
When you see peaceful UC Berkeley now, it’s hard to fathom the level of radicalism that existed on the campus 40 years ago. UC Berkeley is, after all, ground zero in the campus free speech movement, which kicked off in late 1964, when students and community members surrounded a police car to prevent an arrested pamphleteer from being driven off into custody. Several of them took turns stepping onto the roof of the police car and using it as a makeshift podium for addressing the assembled crowd. What was noteworthy in hindsight was how each student carefully removed his or her shoes before climbing atop the car in order to avoid damaging it. This small act of instinctive consideration served as a place marker for just how far the student movement would stray into violence and confrontationalism in the coming months and years.
By the early 1970s, most of the Vietnam protesting had died down, and in hotspots of social justice activism like Berkeley, people’s interests turned to prisons. This was the time of Angela Davis and the Soledad Brothers. Prisons were seen as a facet of state-sanctioned Jim Crow, where racist lawmen violently kept black men unjustly subjugated. Like the corrupt police forces a decade earlier in the Deep South, these prisons were thought to be in need of exposure to sunlight and reform.
Berkeley activists would volunteer to tutor prisoners, but in reality, they were entering the prisons to get ministered to by popular liberation theologists of the time, who happened to be incarcerated.
And so it was that Donald DeFreeze was able to escape Soledad with the aid of accomplices, find no shortage of safe houses in Berkeley, and in fact, have the wherewithal to start up a movement of his own.
The S.L.A. made its bones in November 1973, with the ambush killing of Marcus Foster, Oakland’s first black school superintendent. After the arrests of two S.L.A. members for the crime, DeFreeze (referred to exclusively by his nom de guerre, “Cinque”) wanted to kidnap a high-value target to barter for the release of their comrades.
The Hearst-Weed engagement, along with the couple’s Benvenue Ave. address, had been announced in the San Francisco Chronicle towards the end of 1973. This publicity is apparently what gave the group the idea to kidnap Patty.
The apartment at 2603 Benvenue Ave. turned out to be not very far from the S.L.A. hideout. The S.L.A. member put in charge of surveiling Patty was surprised to find that the young heiress attended the same sorts of protest meetings they did, and was not the “capitalist pig” she imagined.
Sometime between 8:30 and 9:00 PM on the evening of Feb. 4, 1974, members of the S.L.A knocked on the door of the Benvenue apartment under the ruse of having car trouble and needing to use the phone. They quickly overpowered Steven Weed, beating him with a wine bottle before tying him up, along with a neighbor who had heard the noise and came to help. Patty Hearst was nabbed and stuffed into the trunk of a waiting car that sped off into the night.
* * *
Little could the S.L.A. have imagined what sort of publicity bonanza they had created for themselves. As news of the kidnapping surfaced, a media camp was set up in front of the Hearst house in Hillsborough. Reporters and camera crews waited round the clock for announcements from the Hearst family. It was the first example of a media camp in the television era, and the public was enthralled.
First there was a voice recording of Patty, imploring her father to cooperate with her kidnappers’ demands. One of these demands was that her father, Randy Hearst, spend several million dollars to provide food to the Bay Area’s poor, a demand with which he complied, or at least tried to.
Next came the tape that shocked everybody. “I renounce my class privilege and I would never choose to live the rest of my life surrounded by pigs like the Hearsts,” the voice of Patty Hearst declared, “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.”
Patty had become Tania. And for the next year and a half, she spent her life on the run as either a willing convert to the S.L.A., a sufferer of Stockholm Syndrome, or a traumatized victim just trying to survive.
When Patty was finally arrested, the prosecution tried to portray her as just another member of the gang. Patty didn’t help her cause by writing “urban guerilla” (sic) in the part of the police form asking for occupation when she was booked. At trial, the prosecution pointed out that she had numerous chances to flee after Cinque was killed and the S.L.A. was in disarray.
Patricia Hearst’s prosecution, and subsequent prison sentence for armed robbery seems surprising based on our current understandings of victimhood. Today, Patty would almost certainly be seen first and foremost as a victim who endured unimaginable psychological tortures as well as rape. Even her privilege didn’t help her out in court. Patty herself surmises that society was still angry and vengeful about the youth movements of the Sixties, and for society, Patty was “one of them.”
Sentenced to 35 years, Patty’s term was eventually commuted to two years by President Carter. She was granted a full pardon by Bill Clinton on his last day in office in Jan. 2001.
* * *
In the wake of the kidnapping, the Hearsts seemed to be one of those families destined to face the sturm and drang reserved for certain prominent dynasties. The family name and fortune had been created by Patty’s grandfather, William Randolph Hearst, a man who played an oversized part in shaping the course of American history through his newspaper empire, a chain of papers for which the term “yellow journalism” was coined.
Hearst was one of those great men (I use the term loosely) whose eminence seemed to defy time itself. He started out in the post-Civil War/Emperor Norton era of San Francisco. As World War II ended, he was still seated atop his empire, ensconced in his San Simeon Castle, one of the richest men in America, having helped chart the course of American history as it grew from a 19th Century agrarian settler nation into 20th Century global superpower.
Hearst amassed his fortune through sometimes dubious means, using the power of his press and the influence of his connections to make sure his agenda was also America’s agenda.
But as these things often do, history came back to bite the great man in the rear. The higher you climb, it seems, the further you fall. While trying to maintain his great influence and legacy in the winter years of his life, William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper baron who arguably got America to go to war with Spain, could only watch impotently as Orson Welles, a brilliant young upstart versed in the era’s new media of moving pictures, skewered him brilliantly in one of the greatest films of all time, Citizen Kane.
Despite all his undertakings, the legacy of William Randolph Hearst would be “Rosebud.” The curse would strike again when the granddaughter of this media tycoon, a child of the campus scene of the early 70s, a time and place that seemed as far away as possible from her grandfather’s 19th Century Gilded Age, was abducted and made into a spectacle.
Of course, the curse didn’t skip a generation. Arguably it was Patty’s parents who suffered the most, fraught with dreadful uncertainty for the duration of their daughter’s extended trauma. Indeed, the kidnapping did seem to take its toll. The couple was never the same, and ended up divorcing, with Patty’s father Randy relocating to the East Coast.
And what of Patty Hearst?
Based on my informal survey, people under 42 know her name, but have no idea about any of the history we just talked about.
So why do they know her name?
They know her name because she’s been in movies. Not just any movies, but in particular the movies of shock-director John Waters, who is notorious for pushing the envelope in his films and for casting controversial figures, like Patty.
Generally, the super-wealthy like to stay as far out of the headlines as possible. Indeed, have you heard of any of Patty Hearst’s four sisters?
But Patty was always different. As a youth, she rebelled. At Berkeley, she waded into the counter-culture. After the ordeal she went through, starring in John Waters films might be the last thing you’d expect of an heiress whose entire life had been made into a spectacle. But that’s Patty.
Besides the acting, Patricia Hearst married and started a family. She did not marry Steven Weed. She married a man named Bernard Shaw the year she got out of prison. Shaw was an ex-San Francisco cop who happened to be Patty’s bodyguard. Several years older than Patty, Shaw left his first wife and kids to marry her, which for some reason reminds me of her successful pursuit of Steven Weed, when he was a 23 year old teacher who apparently dropped everything to be with his 16-year old ward and make her life his life.
Bernard Shaw died on Dec. 17, 2013. Although it wasn’t headline news, it was certainly big news to me. It’s what got me thinking about this story in the first place, especially when I realized that the 40th anniversary of the event that started it all was approaching.
Hearst and Shaw had two daughters, both grown now. The elder daughter, Lydia Hearst-Shaw, seems to share her mother’s penchant for the spotlight. Although she certainly doesn’t need the money, Lydia is a professional model and actress. For those so inclined, photos of her posing topless are available on the Internet.
Patty Hearst always had the look of an heiress, noticeably pretty but not so pretty that her looks overtook her moneyed pedigree. And there is a bit of that in her daughter, who is pretty enough to have been signed by a top-level modeling agency, but whose allure is no doubt enhanced by the Hearst mystique.
Indeed, the Hearst name is not something you give up just because it comes from the mother’s side instead of the father’s. The daughters were given the hyphenated last name of Hearst-Shaw, and the Shaw part is dropped altogether for Lydia’s professional career.
The Hearst women give old geezers and working class guys hope that we too can join in on the American Dream and mix with the wealthy and the beautiful. There, you see, sometimes the pretty rich girls date the help. Sometimes they even marry the help. Sometimes they engage in age or otherwise inappropriate relationships just because they can. The Hearst women remind us that there is indeed an uber-class in America, but that the line between elite and commoner can be readily transgressed, to the mutual thrill of both parties.
* * *
In conclusion, a sidenote:
Before reading “Season of the Witch,” my big media project had been to watch every episode of “Leave It To Beaver” in sequential order. I came to learn that the writer of “Season of the Witch,” David Talbot, happened to be the brother of Stephen Talbot, who played Beaver’s friend Gilbert on the show.
Furthermore, as the Leave It To Beaver generation matured into the counterculture, a rumor emerged that Jerry Mathers had died in Vietnam. In actuality, Mathers had spent the early 70s studying at UC Berkeley, graduating with a B.A. in philosophy in 1973, a year after Patty Hearst enrolled there.
If true, this means Tania and the Beav were on the same campus for an entire school year.
How sweet is that?