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Welcome to Her Latest Life

To the list of Patricia Hearst's many identities, add TV host out to show that San Simeon is nothing like Orson Welles' creepy Xanadu.

March 04, 2001|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten is a London-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Calendar

PASADENA — Talk about a snapshot in time. For people of a certain age, the primary image conjured up by the name Patty Hearst is a single frame of film shot on a surveillance camera. It shows her at age 19, brandishing a carbine, in the act of holding up a San Francisco bank.

In this iconic picture, she looks the very embodiment of radical chic--rail-thin, with a beret atop her distinctly shaggy, shoulder-length hair. While she has the stance and manner of a desperate young subversive, there is also an intriguingly plaintive look in her eyes.

This image dates from 1974, a year in which Hearst was arguably the most famous young woman in the world. An heiress born into a publishing dynasty (the flamboyant, fantastically wealthy newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was her grandfather), she was kidnapped by an obscure radical group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and held captive in a cramped San Francisco studio apartment for 57 days.

The SLA gave her a code name--Tania--that the whole world soon knew about. She joined them in a series of robberies, was finally captured by police, and served 21 months in prison before then-President Carter commuted her sentence, allowing her release into her parents' custody. She has always maintained that she was brainwashed and coerced by the SLA into joining its criminal activities.

Well, that was then. Today, at 47, Patricia Hearst (new acquaintances are warned not to refer to her as Patty) looks every inch the woman she would have become anyway, even if the SLA had not played a fateful part in her life story. Apart from her aristocratically high forehead, she is unrecognizable from her days as Tania. Her hair is expensively coiffed, she is immaculately groomed, and her conversation is laced with an easy wit; it is hard to imagine her feeling daunted by any society gathering.

Given the turbulence in her early life, Hearst might understandably have spent the rest of her life as a wealthy recluse. That has not been the case. She has a minor acting career and, in such films as "Cry-Baby," "Serial Mom," "Pecker" and "Cecil B. Demented," has become a member of the informal repertory company surrounding the trash-fixated satirical filmmaker John Waters. She also had a role in the comedy "Bio-Dome," a best-forgotten 1996 flop starring Pauly Shore, and that same year made a guest appearance on the TV sitcom "Boston Common."

Now she is planning to extend her range--as a TV presenter. Hearst arrived at Pasadena's Ritz-Carlton hotel to meet a twice-annual gathering of television critics, who were shown a cable documentary she is hosting and had a chance to ask her questions at a press conference. The two-hour special is, literally, close to home for her.

Titled "Secrets of San Simeon," it outlines the history and offers a look behind the scenes of Hearst Castle, that massive, remarkable home built on a California coastal hilltop by William Randolph Hearst. (It will premiere on the Travel Channel, part of Discovery Networks, on March 19.) Patricia, who grew up in San Francisco, visited the castle as a weekend retreat in her childhood.

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"I've seen photographs and I first went there when I was very young," she said. "Then as a teenager, I would go up and join my aunt and uncle for summers up there. It was an outdoors experience. In the morning, after the fog rolled out, my cousins and I would run around the place, go horseback riding, have a picnic."

It occurred to her gradually that she was growing up in a remarkable family, and that Hearst Castle was an extraordinary place. "Vacations at San Simeon helped make that sink in," she reflected, in a voice that says blue-blood Yankee. "How could they not? People were taking tours through the house, there's lots of property up there. I guess [the prominence of the family] really sank in after I was kidnapped. But no negative aspects were apparent before that."

She recounts humorously how her parents Randolph (who died recently) and Catherine tried to play down the fact that the Hearst family was not like others: "No one said, 'You're better than anyone else,' or 'Don't play with that riffraff,' which was good. But the complete denial was pretty strange too. So when friends at school would say: 'We learned about your grandfather today. He helped start the Spanish-American War,' I was, like, 'I beg your pardon?' "

Her parents also tried to convince her that Orson Welles' film "Citizen Kane" had nothing to do with her grandfather, and that such a notion was ridiculous. "Well, the first time I saw 'Citizen Kane,' I was 25, and it was blatantly obvious," she said, laughing at the recollection. But she takes issue with one aspect of "Citizen Kane," which became a factor in wanting to make the TV special: "It's that myth of what Hearst Castle is, that gloomy, foreboding Tim Burtonish thing up there on the hill. Few people are able to separate the movie 'Citizen Kane' from William Randolph Hearst the man, and they think it's a documentary."

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