Looking Back to When a 19-Year-Old Kidnapped Heiress Was the Subject of One of the Greatest FBI Manhunts in American History—the Osama bin Ladin of Her Time.
Between the time the S.L.A. kidnapped her from her Berkeley apartment on Feb. 4, 1974 and her arrest nineteen months later on September 18, 1975, where she would eventually be sentenced to seven years in prison, Patricia Hearst, granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, heiress to America’s largest privately owned media and land conglomerate, appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek (as well as Rolling Stone, U.S. News & World Report, and dozens of other publications) over a dozen times, setting the record for most covers in the shortest time frame. Her autograph on any of these covers is considered a bit of the Holy Grail among collectors of such things because she refused to sign any of them. I know this because she told me so when I plunked the February 2, 1976 Newsweek in front of her one day and asked for her John Hancock. “I don’t sign those,” she said. “And when people send them to me, which they do all the time, I keep them. I won’t return them.”
This was one of numerous revelations Ms. Hearst told me when I was with her. How I became the lucky journalist to get the Patty Hearst interview for Playboy after she had served two years in prison before President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence is a story in itself.
“Patty Hearst is coming with her husband for breakfast to the mansion,” Christie Hefner told me over the phone. “Why don’t you join us?”
“You mean to see if she’d agree to do the Interview?” I asked. I had done several Playboy interviews by then, including marathon sessions with two highly elusive stars, Barbra Streisand and Marlon Brando
“You never know,” Christie said.
Hearst and Hefner had run into each other in the past. Both were young media-connected women who could empathize with each other. I was sure when Patty got kidnapped, Christie began thinking about bodyguards.
So I joined them at the fabled Playboy Mansion, home of papa Hugh and his ever-changing warren of playmates. Christie resided in Chicago, but was in L.A. on company business. This breakfast was part of that business.
It was eight A.M. when I walked through the marbled foyer into the dining room where Christie, Patty and her husband and former bodyguard Bernie Shaw were already sitting. Christie made the introductions and I joined in the polite, small talk one makes when one has so much more on one’s mind to say. After all, here was the young lady who was the subject of one of the greatest FBI manhunts in American history—the Osama bin Ladin of her day. After being blindfolded and held in a closet by her kidnappers for 57 days, she decided to join them. She made a tape which was played on every radio and television station saying, “I have been given the choice of being released in a safe area or joining the forces of the Symbionese Liberation Army and fighting for my freedom and the freedom of all oppressed people. I have chosen to stay and fight…I have been given the name Tania, after a comrade who fought alongside Che [Guevara] in Bolivia…I have learned how vicious the pig really is, and [my] comrades are teaching me to attack with even greater viciousness.” Then she and this fervid band of eight revolutionaries proceeded to rob a few banks and accidentally kill an innocent bystander named Myrna Opsahl. They holed up in safe houses in Sacramento, San Francisco, Anaheim, and L.A. until the L.A. police got a tip where they were staying and torched the place, killing most of the members. Hearst and Bill and Emily Harris escaped incineration that day because they had gone to rob a sporting goods store. For months after that, Hearst believed if she tried to turn herself in she would be killed. The Attorney General of the U.S. said he was convinced she was a terrorist. She figured her parents would want nothing to do with her. So even when she was alone, she didn’t think about surfacing. She was, effectively, a prisoner of her own mind, a mind that had been washed into believing that the revolution was the only way to go, and that the cop pigs must be offed.
Where’s Patty became the “Where’s Waldo” of dinner conversations across the country. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion about her. Was she a victim or a convert? A young vulnerable woman susceptible of being brainwashed by a rowdy band of louts or a spoiled heiress who had found adventure, excitement and acceptance among a daring group of forward-thinking activists?
And once she was captured and interrogated by psychiatrists, lawyers, and law officials for thousands of hours, what was left of her? Who, really, was she and what had she become?
These were the thoughts going through my mind as I passed the butter, salted my eggs, and talked about the beautiful koi in the pond by the swimming pool. “Speaking of the pool,” Hearst said as we finished our coffee, “are we going to do the Jacuzzi?”
“Sure,” Christie said. “You’ll join us, won’t you?” she asked me
“Of course,” I said, feeling just a tad uneasy. I hadn’t been prepared for this turn of events. I didn’t have a bathing suit with me, and I wasn’t sure if one was required. I didn’t know the proper etiquette for such a morning tryst.
“We can change in the dressing rooms behind the grotto,” Christie said. “Larry, there are bins of suits there you can choose from.”
So, that was a relief. I didn’t want my lack of six-pack abs or anything else to be held against me when I popped the question to Ms. Hearst of whether she would consider spending a couple of days talking to me.
But I was in for a Playboy Mansion lesson: you don’t get invited into the storied grotto when your waist is above 32 inches. At least that’s what the bathing suits in the bin indicated. There must have been three dozen to choose from, and none of them made it past my derriere. My 36 inch waist might as well have been a fat man’s 44 inches. In fact, that’s exactly what it should have been when I found the one pair of boxers hidden in the last bin that could wrap around my waist—with eight big inches to spare! Even with the waist strings pulled tight, I had to hold onto the suit to keep it from slipping to my ankles.
“What happened to you?” Patty Hearst asked when I finally made it into the grotto, where the series of Jacuzzis were located. It was like an above ground cave, with mood lighting and speakers cleverly disguised as faux rocks. The actor Robert Culp once described this party-favorite site as a “wonderful sybaritic womb.”
“I had to make a phone call,” I lied, my hand tightly gripping the bathing suit as I eased into the hot water between Christie and Patty.
Just as the water rose above my waist so did the suit, like a small animal’s parachute.
“What the hell…..?” Patty’s husband Bernie said, trying to stifle a laugh.
I basically did my Inspector Clouseau best to ignore the 500-pound gorilla in front of us, as I pushed down on the bloated suit to get the water and air out.
“So Patty,” I transitioned smoothly, “do you plan on doing any interviews to promote your book?”
And that, so help me God, is how I got Patty Hearst to agree to do the one and only in-depth interview about her ordeal with the S.L.A., her life as “Tania”, her life on the lam, her capture, imprisonment, and eventual release.
When we finally sat down to talk, it was at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in San Mateo, north of San Francisco, where she and Shaw had a home and a new baby girl. Our room was high enough where we could look down on the rooftop of the building across the way, where I spotted two police cars and wondered whether we were under surveillance. Hearst wasn’t sure, though when the wind made the door to the adjoining suite creak, Patty jumped and then whispered that someone might be listening to our conversation. Such was the atmosphere of our first of three hotel sessions. The fourth time we spoke was at my house in Los Angeles, where she and her husband and child came for a sushi dinner, before Patty and I went down to my office to continue our taping. “This is the first time I’ve given an interview with a tape recorder,” she told me. “I’m always afraid that some jerk will get hold of them and play them on the radio.”
I could understand. After all, the last time the public heard her taped voice it was when she announced her conversion to join her captors. There was obviously a lot to talk about in the twenty-odd hours I had with her. I wanted to know what was going through her head when she was first abducted, what had happened to get her to cross over. Did she fall in love with one of the S.L.A. members? Was she raped? Did she worry about getting pregnant? Did she ever think of her boyfriend Steven Weed, who would eventually write his own book about all this? Did she think she might be rescued or killed? Did she share a communal toothbrush? Did the CIA help set up the S.L.A. as a diversion to get the country’s mind off Watergate? What did she and her parents talk about after she resurfaced?
At one point I couldn’t resist saying to her : “You must know that when you became Tania you captured the imagination of a lot of people.”
To which she jibed, “Maybe you liked it.”
“Well,” I goaded, “she was a symbol of defiance, antagonism, liveliness, anti-establishment at a time when many people were feeling that way.”
But Hearst would have none of this. “It amazes me to sit here and hear you say that it was a lively image,” she challenged. “It was a terribly violent image. It was the result of a violent kidnapping. Tania never really existed except as a fantasy for most people.”
What would happen today, I wanted to know, if a van stopped in front of her and someone stuck a gun in her face and told her to get in?
“I wouldn’t,” she said without hesitation. “Forget it. I’d rather be dead.” And then she turned on me with an anger that was previously simmering. “You have a really odd idea about the S.L.A.! You have this romantic notion of what they were like, that it was all one great adventure! You lived it vicariously and it’s just too exciting for you and you can hardly control yourself, and it’s so disturbing to find out that I don’t even think Tania lived except in people’s imagination, like yours—and she still lives in yours!”
At this point I couldn’t help thinking that I had provoked her into showing me Tania, that Tania really did exist. But she took umbrage at such thinking. “Tania was a total invention,” she said. “And while you saw a photograph of this person with the machine gun, the rest of the time what you didn’t see was me sort of being weepy and meek and not strong or angry at all.”
Still, Tania did hold an automatic weapon during one bank robbery, she did pull the trigger and fire off shots to help Bill and Emily Harris escape from that sporting goods store, and she was in the car when Mrs. Opsahl was shot inside a bank in Carmichael. California.
That killing was the incident that festered for a quarter of a century, and has finally come back into the headlines. On Jan. 18th, Sarah Jane Olson was sentenced to 20 years to life for attempting to pipe bomb a police car. She was then charged for the murder of Mrs. Opsahl, along with Bill and Emily Harris and Michael Bortin. The FBI had decided, after all these years, that the climate was right to resurrect the S.L.A.’s surviving members and put them on trial. Patricia Hearst was once again back in the news, this time as a material witness. Her machine gun toting picture as Tania, wearing a black beret and standing before the symbol of the S.L.A. appeared in the pages of the Feb 4, 2002 Newsweek. The headline was “From Villain to Victim.” The subhead read: “In 1976, prosecutors tore Patty Hearst’s credibility to shreds. A new case against her S.L.A. partners rests on rehabilitating it.”
Patty Hearst’s radical twin, whom she claimed never existed, had returned.
And so had my twenty-year old memories of my days and nights with her. Of my breakfast and that ballooning bathing suit. The hotel in San Mateo and her visit to my home. Of my grilling her about what happened inside that bank in Carmichael.
“Did you witness the shooting?” I had asked her.
“No,” Hearst said. “But Emily admitted to me right after she did it that she’d done it.”
“What exactly did she say to you?”
“Jim Kilgore said something about the woman who was shot. I said, ‘Who did it?’ And Emily said, ‘I did.’”
“Why, then, wasn’t Emily Harris brought to trial on a murder charge?” I wondered.
“Don’t ask me,” Hearst said, “I’m not with the D.A.’s office. They haven’t done it. They should do it. I mean, they could conceivably try me for it for writing about it in my book and saying that I know about it. But it’s not right for them to just pretend it didn’t happen and try to ignore it. Here she goes and kills someone and immediately justifies it by saying, ‘Well, she was just a pig, anyway, her husband was a doctor.’ Well, God!”
“Did you know then that the woman had been killed and not just wounded?”
“Emily said it was an accident because her finger must have slipped on the trigger,” Hearst said. “She couldn’t have been more than nine feet away with a shotgun going off, and they always used double-ought buck, which isn’t exactly bird-shot. It’s a shotgun shell with nine pellets in it, and each pellet is the size of a .30 caliber slug. Anybody would get killed from that.”
Her response made it obvious to me that Patty Hearst knew guns. Later she would tell me how she wound up becoming the S.L.A.’s weapons expert by reading all their weapons manuals and learning how to break a gun down. It wasn’t completely new to her—when she was twelve she and her father went duck hunting with .28 gauge shotguns. “There were always guns in the house, always loaded,” she would tell me. “My father had a gun in his bedside table and one in his closet and hunting guns all around the house.”
But when we spoke about the killing of Mrs. Opsahl, I couldn’t help wondering whether that act cemented her participation with the S.L.A. Because whether she was in the bank during the robbery or in the getaway car outside, she would be considered an accomplice.
“It made me feel very worried for myself,” she answered, “because with this woman, I was right next to Emily as she was saying she did it. The smoking gun was still in her hand. I realized they’d kill anybody. They’d kill me.”
So what did she really think of Bill and Emily Harris, now that she was out of jail and trying to recoup her life. “Total hatred,” she said.
Patty Hearst is 47 now. She’s still married to Bernie Shaw. They have two daughters. She’s acted in a few John Waters’ pictures, like Cry Baby, Hairspray, and Cecil B. Demented. Bill Clinton gave her a full pardon before he left office. She’s ready and willing to testify against Bill and Emily Harris, Sarah Jane Olson, and Michael Bortin in that Carmichael bank tragedy. She compared them on CNN to Timothy McVeigh and Charles Manson. James L. Browning, the former federal prosecutor who tried her in 1976, believes her testimony today will be suspect because he’s convinced that she wasn’t coerced to join the S.L.A. but did it voluntarily. I wonder how much she will relish raising her hand on the witness stand to swear to tell the whole truth to put these people who helped turn her into an outlaw behind bars for the rest of their lives. I can still hear her saying, “You have this romantic notion of what they were like, that it was all one great adventure! You lived it vicariously.”
Perhaps I did. But I also remember asking her whether she still likes to hunt and she answered that she did: pigs, deer, ducks.
“What else would you feel satisfied shooting?” I wondered.
“Oh,” she said, “maybe you.”
We both smiled, but neither of us thought it funny. And then Patty added, “Every hunter will think I’m right. They’ll think, Boy, what a jerk she is to talk to this guy!”
Not only did she talk, but she even signed that copy of Newsweek. It took a few tries, but I felt challenged. She said she never signed any of them. I believed her.