Why you should care
Because when this high-flying socialite was kidnapped, the American media had its first run-in with celebrity terrorism.
The grainy images of a gun-toting Patty Hearst during a bank robbery on April 15, 1974, still have the power to shock; they paint a riveting portrait of a rich girl turned terrorist whose 15 minutes of fame forever changed the American media.
Hearst stands with a gun on her hip, moving uncertainly as her fellow bank robbers mill about, shouting orders. One photograph shows her face twisted with fury, yelling at an unseen bystander. She is utterly unrecognizable as a 1970s California college student or privileged granddaughter of a media mogul.
Hearst was America’s first celebrity terrorist.
The 19-year-old Berkeley undergrad was kidnapped from her apartment by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a militant left-wing “guerrilla army” loosely inspired by the Cuban Revolution and the Black Panthers. Their goal? To grab attention with a high-profile kidnapping and, rather optimistically, use the ransom money to feed California’s poor.
The SLA’s initial plan went awry after it deemed the Hearsts’ $2 million donation for a food distribution program insufficient. But it was soon forced to negotiate a far bigger PR stunt. Just a few weeks after her kidnapping, Patty publicly announced her decision to “stay and fight” with the SLA, and even changed her name to Tania, after one of Che Guevara’s associates.
Hearst was involved in several more of the SLA’s “guerrilla” actions, including the notorious bank robbery, armed shoplifting and a shoot-out with the police that left six SLA members dead. Ultimately arrested in September 1975, she triggered an increasingly hysterical American media feeding frenzy that desperately tried to explain how an “all-American girl” could morph into a gun-wielding terrorist.
Her arrest fed a media feeding frenzy that tried desperately to explain the transformation of an ’all-American girl’ into a gun-toting terrorist.
The verdict? Hearst was a victim of Stockholm syndrome. The court concluded that she wasn’t the willing convert she claimed to be — instead, she’d been locked up and blindfolded, verbally and sexually abused, and her life had been threatened by SLA members. Her psychiatrist compared Hearst’s treatment to the torture endured by American POWs during the Korean War and suggested it explained her “compliant behavior” and “depersonalization” during her time with the SLA.
Hearst’s 35-year prison sentence was subsequently commuted to two years, and in 2001, Bill Clinton gave her an official presidential pardon two hours before he left office.
Why this decades-long obsession with Patty Hearst? The simple answer is that she was America’s first celebrity terrorist. The story of a wealthy teenager turned radical militant was unprecedented — so much that it consumed and changed American media.
The 1970s had already started to shake up press culture before Hearst came along. Controversial and graphic images of the Vietnam War were airing on television. The Watergate scandal showed that the media could hold the most powerful man in the world accountable for his crimes.
But celebrity culture as we know it today certainly did not exist then. When the Hearst family was thrust into the spotlight after Patty’s kidnapping, reporters erected a tent “press city” outside their mansion. A media adviser had to remind the publicity-averse Randolph Hearst not to pick his nose on international TV. And Patty’s image was splashed across the front pages of newspapers for months — effectively shaping what scholar Anna Bodi calls “the multiple media personalities” of Patty Hearst.
Some papers portayed her as part of a college-kid-radical-bogeyman legacy left over from the Weather Underground. Others condemned her as a sinister fraudster pretending to have been brainwashed to excuse her crimes. The media was desperate to explain the inexplicable, to make sense of something so at odds with the American public’s assumptions about well-heeled socialites.
Ultimately, the media’s fascination with Hearst spiraled out of control. Over two years, Hearst appeared on the cover of Newsweek seven times — more than anyone else of her era. Stories ranged from legal analysis of her trial to critiquing her fashion choices on the witness stand.
And now, a full 40 years later, terrorists who attract celebrity-level press attention are cast in Hearst’s image.
Last year, another 19 year old committed an unimaginable and shocking crime on April 15 — and unleashed a media hell-bent on finding answers to the unanswerable. Like Patty Hearst, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two Boston Marathon bombers, elicited a strange mix of horror, sympathy and confusion.
A Rolling Stone feature about Tsarnaev (who appeared on the front cover, to the dismay and anger of many) revealed him to be disturbingly normal — a pot-smoking, sports-loving college kid who didn’t adhere to his brother’s jihadist convictions. Shortly after the bombing, an experienced terrorism lawyer suggested that Tsarnaev might be “under his brother’s thrall, like a Patty Hearst or the Stockholm syndrome,” and that this could stand up as a legitimate defense in court.
Hearst and Tsarnaev were involved in markedly different cases, but as media phenomena, they have some things in common: They were both seemingly “normal,” with plenty of opportunities available to them — and yet capable of unspeakable crimes. It’s no wonder we’re all so fascinated by their stories.