September 1975 was an especially heady period for a precocious, jittery, news-obsessed nearly eight-year-old in Sacramento, CA. Right there in my hometown, we had a big-deal assassination attempt on President Gerald Ford by a member of the Manson family; this was followed in the next two weeks by a second assassination attempt on the president in nearby San Francisco, and then, also in San Francisco, we learned of the surprise apprehension of FBI-most-wanted-criminal Patty Hearst, the culmination of one the strangest and most compelling spectacles of the 1970s.
This jarring news played out on nearly successive covers of TIME magazine that month, interspersed with a cover story on the racist busing battle taking place in Boston at the start of that school year. I read it all gleefully and cover-to-cover, over and over again. While I myself was just beginning the 3rd grade, my parents had benevolently allowed me to marinate and pickle myself in the era’s America-coming-undone news, which was playing out in our weekly delivery of Time; the nightly 6pm national news; and gravely-intoned 24/7 news reports on KCRA radio of happenings around the world – hijackings, wars, bombings and New York City bankruptcies – that provided an ever-present ambiance to cross-town car trips to baseball practice, the library and Herfy’s Hamburgers in our Ford Pinto.
It was the Patty Hearst kidnapping, bank robbery and eventual SLA immolation in Los Angeles that captivated me the most. The brazen snatching of the wide-eyed, rich, innocent heiress from Berkeley and her gradual absorption into the Symbionese Liberation Army’s cockeyed schemes of revolution was and remains totally fascinating, even then to a 7-year-old who could only skim the surface of what was really going on. Their multi-headed cobra logo was extremely cool. I knew at the time that their pseudo-overthrow of the establishment was taking place near us, if not in Sacramento proper then only 90 minutes “down the road” in San Francisco. I remember clearly news reports of the robbery of the Hibernia Bank at 1450 Noriega in SF’s Sunset District in April 1974 – the one in which Patty Hearst, now “Tania” and a full-fledged member of the SLA, menacingly stood guard with a gun. The shock of silver-spooned Patty Hearst, whether willingly or unwillingly, enlisted into the services of the batshit-crazy SLA was palpable, and was a frequent subject of discussion among parents, news anchors and Time Magazine pundits over the course of that next year.
It was the terrifying end of the SLA the following month that I remember the most clearly, the May 1974 shootout and fire in Los Angeles that killed six members of the group. We listened to it taking place on the news – to this very day I can remember the story “breaking” into music programming of whatever radio station my mom was listening to in the car, and then breathlessly following regular updates of the gun battle and engulfing, organization-ending fire that followed.
I know it all sounds implausible that a 6½ year old kid claims to have not only followed but to have moderately understood even a fraction of what was going on with the SLA and Hearst. While I can reasonably assume that my sociopolitical sentience only went so far at that age, I truly did hoover up each issue of Time and every news broadcast, so much so that I’d intermittently be brought out amongst my parents’ friends to rap about the news or to count down my memorized American Top 40, usually as a sort of parlor trick that I of course was only too delighted to partake in, to the oohs and aahs of the assembled guests.
All this American psychopathy was stamped upon me at this young age, and so when Jeffrey Toobin’s well-reviewed history of the Patty Hearst saga, American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst came out in 2017, I devoured it and it in turn, at some level, devoured me. See, Toobin’s book was not merely thrilling and a terrific history of the saga and the times – which, forty years later, really placed the homegrown American left-wing revolutionaries as relics of a very different ethos and place – but it provided just about every street address where every act in the story went down. And most of these street addresses were located within a 5 mile radius of my San Francisco home.
I did what any of you would have done – right? – and proceeded to “collect” photographs of each location as it stands today, much to the chagrin and dismay of my immediate family. This project was completed earlier this year, in 2022, when I accompanied my wife and son on their trip to Disneyland, but rather than share the joy of Disney with them, I basked in my own joy spent standing and ogling the exact site where 6 Symbionese Liberation Army members died in a violent revolutionary gun battle with the Los Angeles Police Department.
To wit – my photographs.
Our story begins at 2603 Benvenue Avenue, Apt. #4, where Miss Hearst was kidnapped while a college student at UC-Berkeley and taken away by the SLA. Here’s what it looked like in 2018 when I visited. This is several blocks away from campus, in a typically lovely, leafy and ramshackle Berkeley neighborhood.
Here’s where the SLA took Patty after her kidnapping, to 1827 Golden Gate Avenue in a neighborhood somewhat bordering Pacific Heights now commonly called “NOPA” (North of Panhandle). My understanding is that this is the location that she spent the bulk of her captivity in.
I don’t know how the SLA thought they could then safely hide Patty out one half-block away from Haight Street, but one helpful site posits that “The SLA was able to hide in plain sight because the counterculture was prevalent in the area during that time”. This area is full of lovely Victorians both then and now, and the only whiffs of the counterculture are the omnipresent self-congratulatory murals, signs and t-shirt shops lauding the 1960s heyday of the place.
Toobin’s book pinpoints this location as the place where Patty Hearst was locked in a closet and underwent most of her psychological torture, which then transformed her into the most famous exponent of “Stockholm Syndrome” of her day. It’s an unassuming home near a cliff overlooking the ocean in the outer reaches of Daly City, just south of San Francisco.
The former Hibernia Bank, the robbery of which by the SLA with Patty in tow really made this case a cause célèbre around the world.
This location in the Mission/Bernal Heights area was used as a safe house by SLA members Bill and Emily Harris in 1974 until they were arrested.
I think I was the most excited when I came upon this one. It’s where Patty was arrested, and the safe house that she was using up until 1975. The neighborhood was eerily quiet when I took this photo, and I had half a mind to knock on the door to see who was home and if they wanted to talk Hearst arcana with me. I wisely decided against it, but at least I took this snapshot.
This was the culmination of my journeys, the house where the dream died. The house itself is gone now; as you see, the canopy in the driveway to the right of 1464 East 54th Street is where the destroyed house once stood; to the right of that stands 1468 East 54th. When I visited, I had to deduce that the house was no longer there, as I’d thought it had likely been rebuilt.
If you want to watch what happened there on May 17th, 1974, this is a good video to watch. And if you really want to experience the psychological weirdness of those times, I recommend not only the Toobin book but Death To The Fascist Insect, a collection of communiques and writings by the SLA during their underground terrorist peak. It’s a wonder that most of us who marinated in all of this at a young age seemingly made it out okay.
One thought on “My Patty Hearst Obsession, In Photographs”
I’m struck with the phrase “organization-ending fire”, and immediately disappointed when I google “organizations ended by fire” and google fails to immediately surface a wikipedia post provide a curated list of organizations that have culminated in conflagration. I console myself with the certainty that the internet is still young, and wikipedia remains a work-in-progress.