Late in the afternoon of July 25, 1974, I came home from an aimless summer’s day of riding my Schwinn “Varsity” ten-speed around North Hollywood to find my neighborhood crawling with reporters, cars, and cops.
One name was on everyone’s lips: Patty Hearst.
I was a few months shy of sixteen, barely five years younger than the abducted Hearst Castle heiress turned urban guerilla. Patty, aka “Tania,” was a privileged kid turned kidnapped rebel who took up arms against her upbringing alongside a band of lunatics called the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was the last gasp of the radical underground, a bizarre distraction during the dog days of the Nixon administration.
Had she been brainwashed? Nobody knew. Was she a living, breathing, gun-toting example of the Stockholm Syndrome or was she a willing participant in the SLA’s many crimes and escapades. Anyone’s guess. Patty Hearst had been a national obsession since her abduction in February. Her disappearance, followed by cameos in robberies and taped diatribes, was reality TV back when most drama was still scripted.
On this particular hot summer’s Thursday, Patty reportedly surfaced in my neighborhood. Earlier this same day, the Supreme Court demanded Nixon turn over his tapes and Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan gave an impassioned, nationally televised speech to open impeachment proceedings against the president. By that evening, my neighborhood was also national news. The summer of our discontent was now coast-to-coast.
Gridlock had seized our narrow suburban streets. Cars were parked in our driveways. Motorcycle cops were driving on the sidewalks. People were milling about hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous rebel. Kids were up in the trees hoping to see action across the rooftops. I’m surprised no one set up a lemonade stand to profit off the thirsty crowds and hot weather. The suburban mayhem created problems for the emergency services who, like me, couldn’t get close to the nearby stakeout site.
Which was fine. The last I’d heard about the SLA was back in May when their ultra-violent, fiery shootout with the Los Angeles Police was broadcast live. Six people died in that scorched house. Today could be worse.
What had triggered this stampede to my normally sleepy corner of North Hollywood?
Neighbors had reported seeing someone who looked like Patty. An advisory had gone out to media which dutifully broke the requested embargo and shared the story. Radio picked up the rumor, amplified it, and triggered the flash mob. A crank caller to an L.A. station, claiming to be in the surrounded apartment, said that Patty wanted to surrender to her Uncle George. But Uncle George had died years earlier, so perhaps the phony caller really meant George Hearst, Jr., the publisher for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Nobody had time or inclination to fact-check anything when the scoop of a lifetime was at stake. This included Patty’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Randolph Hearst, who jumped in a plane from San Francisco to L.A. in order to be present for her capture, surrender, or flaming demise.
A frustrated police spokesman called it a circus.
With SWAT teams in position and a helicopter overhead, the cops broke through the apartment door and found a cat. The Patty Hearst look-a-like turned out to be a sixteen-year-old girl from Sacramento.
The circus folded. Patty remained on the lam for another year. Nixon resigned a few weeks later. Jimmy Carter eventually pardoned Patty and her long, strange trip is now all but forgotten.