To truly understand how shocking and bizarre the kidnapping and radicalization of Patty Hearst was in 1974, just imagine if, today, Paris Hilton announced she’d joined ISIS by way of a beheading video, or Kim Kardashian shot up a gay bar while loudly espousing extreme alt-right politics.
Really. It was that weird. To this day, even the FBI’s official website describes the Patty Hearst incident as “one of the strangest cases in FBI history.”
On February 4, 1974, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a Northern California left-wing terrorist group, kidnapped Patricia Campbell “Patty” Hearst, the stunning, 19-year-old socialite granddaughter of multimedia mega-mogul William Randolph Hearst. At the time, the Hearst fortune was estimated at $28 billion (that would be $136 billion today). So the SLA knew what they were doing.
Once in captivity, SLA members reportedly “brainwashed” Patty through isolation, starvation, repeated sexual assaults, and clear promises that she would be killed if she didn’t “convert” to their cause.
On April 3, authorities received an audiotape from Hearst in which she announced that she’d changed her name to “Tania” and would be taking up arms as a member of the SLA to combat what she described as the inherent evil of the United States in general and the toxic capitalist violations committed by the likes of her own family in particular.
Less than two weeks later, on Tax Day, Hearst burst into a San Francisco branch of the Hibernia Bank brandishing an M1 carbine machine gun. Other SLA members executed a robbery and shot and wounded two men who just happened to walk inside during the heist.
The FBI immediately released surveillance video that clearly depicted Hearst leading the whole charge. Law-enforcement agencies exploded into action.
On May 16, Patty fired shots from a van toward a gun store to provide cover for two SLA members who had stolen an ammunition belt. The FBI traced the vehicle and discovered the SLA’s hideout.
During the ensuing shootout that led to Hearst’s capture, six SLA members died and their safe house burned to the ground.
Famed attorney F. Lee Bailey represented Hearst in court. He argued that she was an intimidated victim not in control of her actions. The jury didn’t buy it and she got seven years. The public, however, proved to be sympathetic to what Hearst said she had gone through.
Two years later, President Jimmy Carter commuted Hearst’s sentence, and she walked free. In 2001, President Bill Clinton granted her a full pardon. From there, Patty Hearst, no longer known as Tania, settled into the closest thing she could have to a typical heiress life, even as pop culture continued to ponder the whole insane affair.
Here are five prime examples of how Patty Hearst’s legacy lives on in arts and entertainment.
1. PATTY HEARST, MOVIE SUBJECT
Loaded as it is with sweeping cinematic potential, it’s somewhat surprising that the Patty Hearst saga has played out on screens big and small only a handful of times.
As network TV’s boldest outlet in the ’70s, ABC got their first with the TV movie, The Ordeal of Patty Hearst (1979). Lisa Eilbacher portrays Patty in a dull, just-the-facts docudrama that, rightly, nobody remembers. In an era of sensationally salacious TV movies, this was a real bummer.
The most famous feature is simply titled Patty Hearst (1988), a semi-artful exploration of the events directed by Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader. Natasha Richardson does fine work in the title role but, ultimately, we don’t learn much. The film is a serious effort that, alas, made minimal impact.
The best-reviewed cinematic effort is the theatrically released 2004 PBS documentary, Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, directed by Robert Stone. It’s an electrifying account of the case that tantalizingly raises questions about Patty’s motives while never diminishing her accounts of abuse.
Far less tasteful than any of those — and, let’s just admit it, more fun — is the spate of saucy exploitation movie cash-ins on the case that quickly flooded drive-ins and grindhouses. Among those gems are the edgy Abduction (1975), the hardcore Patty (1976), and, best of all, the R-rated Tanya aka Sex Queen of the SLA.
2. PATTY HEARST, BEST-SELLING BOOK TOPIC
Perhaps more than any other medium, the Patty Hearst scandal is a natural topic for true-crime books.
In 1982, Patty herself wrote Every Secret Thing, her first-hand remembrance of the events, shortly after getting sprung from jail. Six years later, she published a follow-up, Patty Hearst: Her Own Story, to coincide with the Patty Hearst movie.
Other authors’ takes on the case had come out almost from the moment “Tania” emerged. One prominent example: Steven Weed, the fiancé that Patty said she officially ditched in favor of the revolution, published his own account in 1976, My Search for Patty Hearst.
Somewhat strangely, an onslaught of Patty books has emerged since 2014. The most impactful has been American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin, the acclaimed author of The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson.
It’s a terrific read and, interestingly, Toobin concludes that Patty wasn’t brainwashed. Suffice to say, she refused to participate in the book’s promotion.
3. PATTY HEARST, PERPETUAL PUNCHLINE
Precisely because the Patty Hearst scandal is so off-the-wall, jokes and comedic treatments of the material have always been associated with it. Even in spite of the violence, there is something inherently hilarious about the whole thing.
During its first five seasons, Saturday Night Live’s founding crew repeatedly parodied Patty Hearst, with frequent host Candice Bergen and cast member Jane Curtain trading off the role, with each of them perfectly playing the part.
Even before that, though, future SNL legend Gilda Radner portrayed Patty on the National Lampoon Radio Hour alongside John Belushi. Check out ultra-rare video of the late comedic giants running through the bit here.
Through the decades, Patty has since been repeatedly spoofed in stand-up bits and on TV sitcoms, and it continues. In 2013, Comedy Central’s Drunk History cast Natasha Leggero as the intoxicated narrator of the tale, which we see played out with, yes, SNL star Kristen Wiig doing it up as the put-upon debutante.
4. PATTY HEARST, MOVIE STAR
Part of the power of Patty-as-a-punchline arises from Hearst herself so clearly getting and remarkably enjoying the joke.
Her highest-profile public association since being freed has been with crackpot cult filmmaker John Waters. Baltimore’s brilliantly mad “Pope of Trash” has cast Patty most memorably in his last five films: Cry-Baby (1990), Serial Mom (1994), Pecker (1998), Cecil B. DeMented (2000), and A Dirty Shame (2004).
In 2000, Hearst and Waters even memorably sat in, alongside each other, to debate the doings of the day on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.
Elsewhere, Patty is very funny as Doyle’s mom in the goofball favorite Bio-Dome (1996), and she’s turned up most amusingly on TV as well, in shows such as The Adventures of Pete and Pete, Son of the Beach, and Veronica Mars.
5. PATTY HEARST, SUPERMODEL MOM
These days, Patty mostly keeps a low profile, ceding the spotlight to her daughter Lydia Hearst, who ranks as one of fashion’s leading contemporary supermodels and is quite the popular presence on social media. Lydia was born in 1984.
In addition, Lydia acts, mostly in independent features. In 2014, she served as a coach on the supermodel competition reality TV show, The Face. Last year, she married Comedy Central’s @Midnight host and Nerdist media honcho, Chris Hardwick.
Lydia says the show-biz bug bit her as a result of her hanging around John Waters movie sets with mom. Now that’s the kind of “brainwashing” we can really get behind!