Hearst was born in San Francisco, California, the third of five daughters of Randolph Apperson Hearst and Catherine Wood Campbell. She grew up primarily in the wealthy San Francisco suburb of Hillsborough. She attended Crystal Springs School for Girls in Hillsborough and the Santa Catalina School for Girls in Monterey. Among her few close friends she counted Patricia Tobin, whose family founded the Hibernia Bank, a branch of which Hearst would later aid in robbing stores and banks.
On February 4, 1974, the 19-year-old Hearst was kidnapped from the Berkeley, California apartment she shared with her fiancé Steven Weed by a left-wing urban guerrilla group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. When the attempt to swap Hearst for jailed SLA members failed, the SLA demanded that the captive's family distribute $70 worth of food to every needy Californian — an operation that would cost an estimated $400 million. In response, Hearst's father arranged the immediate donation of $6 million worth of food to the poor of the Bay Area. After the distribution of food, the SLA refused to release Hearst because they deemed the food to have been of poor quality. (In a subsequent tape recording released to the press, Hearst commented that her father could have done better.) On April 3, 1974, Hearst announced on an audiotape that she had joined the SLA and assumed the name "Tania"(inspired by the nom de guerre of Haydée Tamara Bunke Bider, Che Guevara's comrade).
On April 15, 1974, she was photographed wielding an M1 Carbine while robbing the Sunset District branch of the Hibernia Bank at 1450 Noriega Street in San Francisco. Later communications from her were issued under the pseudonym Tania and asserted that she was committed to the goals of the SLA. A warrant was issued for her arrest and in September 1975, she was arrested in a San Francisco apartment with other SLA members. While being booked into prison, she listed her occupation as "Urban Guerilla" and asked her attorney to relay the following message: "Tell everybody that I'm smiling, that I feel free and strong and I send my greetings and love to all the sisters and brothers out there."
Hearst was convicted of bank robbery on March 20, 1976. She was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment, but her sentence was later commuted to seven years. Her prison term was also eventually commuted by President Jimmy Carter,and Hearst was released from prison on February 1, 1979, having served 22 months. She was granted a full pardon by President Bill Clinton on January 20, 2001.
After her release from prison, she married her former bodyguard, Bernard Shaw. She now lives with her husband and two children, Gillian and Lydia.
Robert Stone in 2004 directed Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, which focuses on the media frenzy surrounding the Symbionese Liberation Army, and includes new footage and interviews. (The film was released in some countries under the title Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Dissatisfied with other documentaries made on the subject, Hearst produced a special for the Travel Channel entitled n in which she took viewers inside her grandfather's mansion Hearst Castle, providing unprecedented access to the property. (A video and DVD were later released of the special.)
Hearst co-authored a novel with Cordelia Frances Biddle titled Murder at San Simeon (Scribner, 1996), based upon the death of Thomas Ince on her grandfather's yacht.