Who of us now remembers Barbara Hutton, the poor little rich girl? Oh, we might be able to dredge up from the recesses of memory or the depths of Wikipedia a few stray facts about her—the much-married heiress of the Woolworth five-and-dime fortune, perhaps the richest girl in the world, who managed to fritter away the equivalent of a billion dollars between her coming-out party at age 18 in 1930 and her death at age 66 in 1979.
We might even remember the original cause of her fame or infamy: that coming-out party, a debutante ball that cost nearly a million dollars (in today’s terms) during the depths of the Great Depression. At 18 she had to flee to Europe to escape the tabloid press, which had publicized her as decadent while the rest of America starved.
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What can’t quite be resurrected, however, is the power, the valence, of her symbolic significance. Nothing fades faster than useful emblems: When their meaning is gone, so is their existence. Barbara Hutton, the poor little rich girl, was once thought to mean something. And now, who remembers her? Who calls her to mind when a metaphor or a symbolic figure is needed?
All of which is itself a figure, an image with which to think about Patty Hearst, the newspaper-chain heiress who was kidnapped in 1974, at age 19, by a dozen radical criminals who gave themselves the grandiose name of the Symbionese Liberation Army. Within a few weeks, she had joined the SLA under the name Tania (after Ché Guevara’s lover), working with them in a bank stick-up, an armored car robbery, and a store hold-up before her capture.
Perhaps it was because she had been radicalized by the SLA and was in love with one of the gang members. Or perhaps it was because she had been brainwashed and raped, and was only pretending to be a gang member out of fear for her life. Hearst’s motive became the question when her trial for the bank robbery began in January 1976. In the end, the jury decided she had been a willing participant. She was convicted and sentenced to seven years in jail. Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence in 1979, and Bill Clinton pardoned her in 2001.
That would be the end of the story—and, in truth, it is the end of the story. The media fascination with Patty Hearst faded as the 1980s rolled around, and what was left to say about her? The 1970s had seen many attempts to make her into a symbol, a figure of all that was weird and disturbed about the decade, but no one was ever quite clear about what exactly she was supposed to represent. She was the Barbara Hutton of her day, another poor little rich girl, but with fuzzier edges and correspondingly less symbolic power.
How strange, then, that Jeffrey Toobin would take up her story with this summer’s American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst. Toobin is a television commentator and widely published legal writer, perhaps best known for his 1996 book about the O.J. Simpson trial, The Run of His Life. But today, more than 40 years after her abduction and crime spree, Patty Hearst’s national significance has faded, and her conviction, in what was called the Trial of the Century, has disappeared behind half a dozen subsequent Trials of the Century.
The answer to the puzzle of American Heiress may simply be opportunity. Toobin was offered the chance to buy a cache of SLA documents about the case, which he supplemented with prison correspondence and careful research into the trial record and police files—and he used them to build an indictment of Patty Hearst’s own tale of her life and times in her 1981 memoir Every Secret Thing.
In Toobin’s version of the story, Hearst was a wealthy teenager living a dull life with a dull boyfriend: Steven Weed, who told their attackers "Take anything you want" as they hauled his fiancée away. (According to Toobin, Hearst and the cowardly Weed never spoke again.) In contrast, the SLA seemed violent, vibrant, and romantically alive. After 57 days, mostly sitting in a closet and reading the radical texts forced upon her, she gave in to the new life and was, Toobin believes, a willing participant in all that followed.
As far as the SLA goes, Toobin decides, with considerable proof, that they were sadsacks and not particularly bright criminals with a revolutionary philosophy that was incoherent and self-contradictory at best. Of Donald DeFreeze, the group’s "field marshal," Toobin notes that he was "almost the opposite of a master criminal; he was most inventive in finding ways to get caught." The SLA was notable mostly for having gotten lucky once, with the capture of the poor little rich girl who lived near one of their hideouts. The techniques that brought about Hearst’s indoctrination were less the result of intelligent brainwashing and more the result of DeFreeze’s inability to decide what to do with the heiress once he had her. The SLA made the national news night after night, but they were not destined to lead a Marxist revolution in America. By the end of May 1974, most members of the group had been shot dead by police, with Hearst and the last of them captured in September.
It’s no surprise that Toobin’s legal expertise would render Hearst’s actual trial a fascinating study. Still, Toobin seems a little unfair in blaming the celebrity lawyer F. Lee Bailey for the guilty verdict. Bailey at least saved her from the worst possible charges, and his decision to have her testify was undercut by Hearst’s blank demeanor (possibly from drugs she was given by prison doctors) and the judge’s changed position on whether Hearst could be questioned about her actions after the bank robbery.
By the end of the book, Patty Hearst emerges as not much more remarkable than any other 19-year-old in a strange situation. She did what seemed interesting and necessary to survive while she was under the SLA’s thumb, and she did what seemed interesting and necessary to survive once she was recaptured by the police (quickly turning from denouncing "Amerikkka" to writing her sister to beg for makeup).
Though quick and precise, Toobin isn’t quite good enough as a writer to make the story worth the read on its own terms. And so he attempts what many other writers attempted long ago: to make Patty Hearst into a symbol.
There’s not much mileage left in the revolutionary idea that she represents the ease with which thin and fascist American personality gives way to the rigor of advanced Marxism. For that matter, there’s not much left in the notion that the 1970s meant the reversal of the 1960s: Where society used to get blamed for the wrong that people did, people were now to be blamed for the wrongs they did to society.
About all that remains of Patty Hearst as symbol is that old tale of the poor little rich girl. Toobin insists the key to her story lies in his title word heiress. She was guilty, really guilty, in his view, of robbery, felony murder, and brutal mayhem. But she spent only a few months in jail because her family was so rich and she was so privileged.
In proof of his claim of special treatment for the wealthy and the elite, Toobin notes that Patty Hearst is the only American to receive commutation and pardon from two different presidents. Unfortunately, as the sharp San Francisco journalist Debra J. Saunders recently pointed out, this simply isn’t true. Perhaps a hundred Americans have received presidential grace from multiple administrations. The blunder marks more than a minor error in American Heiress. In order to have Hearst mean something now, all these decades after her famous kidnapping, Toobin needs Hearst to be the symbol for contemporary class divisions. And she just isn’t.
Without that, what do we have left of the tale of Patty Hearst? Not much more than we have left of the tale of Barbara Hutton. A symbol from long ago, emptied out of symbolism.