Patty Hearst? Jeffrey Toobin was skeptical when his Doubleday editor suggested writing about the sensational 1970s kidnapping saga that Toobin would eventually recount in riveting detail in American Heiress.
“The first thought that came to me was that there must be a million books about Patty Hearst,” Toobin says during a call that reaches him in Washington, D.C. Toobin, whose bestsellers include The Oath and The Nine, is a staff writer for The New Yorker and senior legal analyst at CNN. His wife is an assistant secretary of education in the Obama administration. Their two children are recently out of college and on their own, so as an empty-nester, Toobin says his work is portable. Although he has offices at both The New Yorker and CNN, his real desk, he says, is the dining room table in their apartment in New York City—or his laptop just about anywhere.
To his surprise, when he looked into the Patty Hearst case, he found that “nothing had been written about it for decades. For decades! I was a young teenager when it happened, so I was vaguely aware of it but not really following it. Just a bit of preliminary research suggested that it was an amazing story that had not been told in any detail.”
For those who don’t remember, on February 4, 1974, Patricia (or “Patty,” as she disliked being called) Hearst, a 19-year-old U.C. Berkeley student and the granddaughter of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped by a shadowy group of revolutionaries known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Two months later, Hearst publicly declared she had joined the SLA and taken the nom de guerre “Tania.” She appeared heavily armed on a videotape taken during a bank robbery in San Francisco. Months later, she and fellow SLA members Bill and Emily Harris were out buying supplies when police surrounded the SLA’s Los Angeles hideout. A fiery shootout, the first such news event to be broadcast live nationwide, left all the SLA members at the house dead.
Over the next year, Hearst and the Harrises joined with others, including Kathleen Soliah and her brother, Steve, and continued their revolutionary crime wave with bank robberies and bombings. Hearst was finally captured in September 1975, but the drama continued during her trial on bank robbery charges, where she was defended by the blustery F. Lee Bailey.
With great clarity, Toobin takes readers through all the perplexing twists and turns of the SLA’s misadventures. The SLA, for example, was led by a plum-wine-drinking escaped convict named Donald DeFreeze. His leadership was tactically proficient but strategically hapless, almost comically so.
“There was an element of theater to what they did,” Toobin says. “Guerilla theater can be effective. But every time you think of the work of the SLA, it’s imperative to remember Marcus Foster and -Myrna Opsahl [two victims of the SLA’s murderous rampage]. That quickly takes their behavior out of the realm of funny. . . . DeFreeze attracted a small cross section of an extreme of the counterculture.”
Toobin excels in giving readers a sense of 1970s-era counterculture, the petri dish in which the SLA was spawned. “One of the things that I found so fascinating researching this book was how insane the ’70s were. I mean, there were dozens of bombings in Northern California alone. Can you imagine what cable news would be doing with dozens of bombings?”
Two big research scores allowed Toobin to add texture, detail and a sense of the complex interpersonal dramas that play out in his narrative. After Bill Harris was released from prison, Harris collected all the material about the case he could get his hands on—court documents, FBI files, private investigators’ notes. Toobin found out about the materials while interviewing Harris and arranged to purchase what turned out to be 150 boxes of documents. “For a journalist/historian looking at the era, this was a gold mine,” he says. Even more interesting was the acquisition of the jailhouse love letters exchanged by Hearst and Steve Soliah. Passed through their lawyers so they remained protected by attorney-client privilege, the letters speak loudly about Hearst’s state of mind after her arrest.
And Hearst’s state of mind is a central question of the book and was the question at her trial. Toobin offers a balanced portrait that is surprisingly complimentary of her courage and strength. And in some ways he believes her behavior was entirely rational given the circumstances.
“One of my goals in portraying anyone is complexity,” Toobin explains. “People are not one-dimensional. Their behavior is not accurately defined in black and white. I think that is especially true for Patricia. She was kidnapped, and it was a horrible experience. But she also was a willing participant in a lengthy and extensive crime wave, long after she had the opportunity to walk away. I certainly understood why the jury in her trial convicted her. And frankly, she was fortunate that she was not prosecuted for the other two bank robberies that she participated in, or shooting up Mel’s Sporting Goods and setting off bombs in Northern California. That is very serious stuff. If you want to evaluate her conduct, you have to take all that into account.”
Toobin’s portrait of Hearst is nuanced enough that readers are likely to hold different opinions about the extent of her culpability when they reach the end of the book (just as people in the 1970s differed, often vigorously).
“I always thought this was bigger than just a legal story,” Toobin says at the end of our conversation. “It is really about this era and these people. It would have been a mistake to see Patricia Hearst’s experience as simply that was she guilty of a bank robbery. This is really about the question of who this woman was, why she got involved with this craziness, and how did this all happen.”
American Heiress offers compelling answers to these questions.