In American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst (Doubleday; pub month, Aug.; Reviews, June 27), journalist Toobin provides the definitive account of the 1974 kidnapping of teenage newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst in Berkeley, Calif., by a group of self-described revolutionaries calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army.
It’s been more than 40 years since Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a group she later joined. Why do you think the story still resonates?
It is an extraordinary window into a wild era: the poisonous, toxic ’70s, when the idealism of the ’60s yielded, for many, to an angry, anarchic rage. The kidnapping and it’s aftermath comes out of that madness. But it also has an enduring appeal for a simpler reason. It’s a mystery. Why did an apolitical 19-year-old heiress with one of the most famous names in America do what she did?
Could the Hearst kidnapping have occurred anywhere but 1970s California?
California is indispensable to this story. By the ’70s, the idealism reflected in San Francisco’s summer of love and the Berkeley free speech movement had curdled. What was left of the counterculture descended into bitter anger. It’s revealing that when the SLA went on the run after the kidnapping, they kept being drawn back to California. It was the only place where they could even hope to find allies in their mad crusade.
You interviewed many people associated with Hearst during her days as a fugitive and also had access to primary (written, audio, video) sources. Was there any one source that you found more reliable than others?
The turning point in my research came when I obtained 150 boxes of material from Bill Harris, a former member of the SLA. This was a gold mine of previously undisclosed material: all the FBI interviews with witnesses, all the secret grand jury testimony, all the evidence in all the trials. Also, a 60-page narrative of the saga compiled by private investigators for the SLA defendants gave me great insight into the surviving kidnappers’ view of events. Of course, I did not accept anyone’s account as gospel, but tried to find the truth amid the competing versions of what happened.
You are up front when it comes to your opinions concerning most of the figures in this book. For instance, it appears that you dislike Hearst’s mother, Catherine Hearst; Hearst’s ex-fiancé, Steven Weed; and attorney F. Lee Bailey. Would you call American Heiress an objective account?
I’d quarrel with your characterizations. Catherine had a stormy relationship with her daughter. Most of the complaints about Catherine in the book come from Patricia, not from me. Weed was a haughty figure in the months after the kidnapping who managed to alienate Patricia, the FBI, and the SLA. Bailey made some poor strategic judgments in defending Patricia; I’ll stand by those characterizations, though I regard Bailey as one of the great characters I’ve had the privilege to write about in several books.