Patty Hearst Turns from Heiress to Revolutionary and Then Back in New Archival Documentary
The Smithsonian Channel documentary revisits an iconic 1970s moment when a kidnapping and crime spree mirrored chaos in America
Newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst Shaw occasionally creeps into the headlines these days as a champion show dog trainer, a figure of enduring curiosity with a past string of minor roles as an actress on TV and in the kitschy films of director John Waters.
But for a heightened moment in the mid-1970s, Patty Hearst, as she was then known, was the central figure in a San Francisco Bay area kidnapping and crime spree that intersected with domestic terrorism during a chaotic moment in American politics and culture, producing iconic images of the era and landing her in prison for 22 months after she embraced, then later renounced, her captors.
The Lost Tapes: Patty Hearst, a documentary airing Sunday on the Smithsonian Channel (9 p.m. ET), unspools archival video and audio to recreate the drama after Hearst, then 19 and the granddaughter of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, was grabbed Feb. 4, 1974, from her Berkeley apartment in the middle of the night by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a homegrown anti-government terrorist group.
Hearst later claimed in recordings released to the media that she’d developed an affinity for the group while taken hostage. But the group’s criminal activities led to Hearst’s arrest 19 months later for her role in a bank robbery carried out by its members.
In an exclusive clip from the show, Hearst renounces her privileged background and adopts the name Tania, “after a comrade who fought alongside Che [Guevara] in Bolivia for the people of Bolivia,” she says in an audiotape released April 3, 1974, the 59th day of her ordeal. “I embrace the name, with the determination to continue fighting in her spirit.”
After assuring in the tape that, “I have never been forced to say anything on any tape nor have I been brainwashed, drugged, tortured, hypnotized or in any way confused,” Hearst breaks off her relationships with then-fiancé with the words, “Love doesn’t mean the same thing to me anymore. My love is expanded as a result of my experiences to embrace all people. A love that comes from the knowledge that no one is free until we are all free.”
She later says on the recording: “One thing which I have learned is that the corporate ruling class will do anything in their power in order to maintain their position of control over the masses — even if this means the sacrifice of one of their own.”
“It should be obvious that people who don’t even care about their own children, couldn’t possible care about anyone else’s children. The things which are precious to these people are their money and power and they will never willingly surrender either.”
The release of the recording was accompanied by an image of Hearst posed in a beret and holding a machine gun in front of an SLA banner. That image later was matched in the public’s mind with a secondary photo of Hearst armed and standing watch over her alleged colleagues on a bank surveillance camera during a robbery.
‘It’s the Evil that Comes in the Night’
“There was all this chaos going on,” Lost Tapes executive producer Tom Jennings tells PEOPLE about the period. “We think we’ve cornered the market these days with the world going insane,” but adding context to Hearst’s unfolding drama, he notes that around the same time, the Watergate investigation was peaking, President Nixon would resign, the Vietnam War was ending, the energy crisis was in full swing, and in the San Francisco Bay area, the Zodiac serial killer was on the loose.
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“The Symbionese Liberation Army was a domestic terrorist organization, they had killed the school superintendent in Oakland, and two of their members were going up on murder charges,” he says. “The SLA wanted to get them out of prison, and they figured, what better way to do that than to kidnap somebody like Patty Hearst.”
Even later during Hearst’s captivity, he notes, an hours-long standoff and gun battle between Los Angeles Police and members of the SLA who were holed up in a burning home — six of them would die — became one of the early instances of such violence broadcast live via television into American homes.
The Hearst episode in Smithsonian’s Lost Tapes series weaves its tale without narration, using only broadcast media, newspaper clippings and audio from the day to recreate the story as it happened. “These shows, they play almost like time machines,” says Jennings. “If anything, the tapes in the Lost Tapes series are always lost to time.”
Unresolved questions — “Did she really become a revolutionary and start making these tapes?” he asks — drive interest in Hearst’s story decades later, long after she emerged from the experience to tell interviewers that she’d been a victim of Stockholm syndrome, and made to identify with her abductors. “She completely flipped back to, ‘I’m a victim,'” he says.
“Everybody loves a good story,” he says. “It’s a crazy, fascinating story.”
“When you get right down to it, it’s about people being afraid of having something happen to a loved one,” he says. “It’s the evil that comes in the night.”
‘This Show Holds a Mirror Up to Ourselves’
After her 1976 arrest and release on $1.5 million bail, that same day Hearst met the man, Bernard Shaw, a former San Francisco police officer, who would become her husband of 34 years. He was the vice president of corporate security for Hearst Corporation when he died in 2013 at age 68. The couple have two daughters.
Hearst’s sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter, and she was pardoned by President Bill Clinton.
“Patty Hearst is living the life that she’s very happy with apparently now, and that’s good for her,” Jennings says. “But at the time what happened to her is kind of an iconic moment of what happened in the 1970s. It’s almost like this show holds a mirror up to ourselves and we can look at ourselves and say, how much have we changed, or have we changed at all?”
Certainly Hearst has changed.
“Of all the things, to go from terrorist Tania robbing a bank, to dog show,” he says.
The Lost Tapes: Patty Hearst airs Sunday (9 p.m. ET) on the Smithsonian Channel.