Patty Hearst goes from doghouse to dog show

More than three decades have passed since Patty Hearst became even more famous than her name when she was kidnapped by a radical leftist group in California, only to show up several weeks later, helping her captors rob a bank.

Ask her about those dark times now, she might reply: "Let sleeping dogs lie" Or, rather, "let tail-wagging, show-strutting dogs vie – and win – especially if they happen to be a butter-coloured French bulldog with melt-your-heart eyes by the name of Diva.

The whatever-happened-to question now has an answer if the subject is Patty Hearst, granddaughter of the media baron, William Randolph Hearst. Now aged 53 with two grown-up daughters and living quietly with her husband, Bernard Shaw, in Connecticut, Ms Hearst has joined the dog-show circuit. And, with a little help from her favourite pooch, Diva, she has proved to be rather good at it.

Nothing got tongues – and tails – wagging more feverishly at this week's Westminster Kennel Club Show at Madison Square Garden in New York than news that Ms Hearst was there as one of the owners. The fact that the top Best In Show award went to a beagle for the first time in the contest's 131-year history was almost by the by.

"When people find out it's me, it's like it doesn't make sense," acknowledged Ms Hearst-Shaw, the married name she uses nowadays. "The Frenchie people know me... but others, they seem surprised." Among the thousands in the stands, Mitzie McGavic, cheering on a friend, certainly did a double-take. "You're kidding. Is she the Patty Hearst? Showing dogs at Westminster? Who knew?"

But wait, it got better still. Diva, already the proud mother of two litters, actually walked away with a rosette. After a male took top honours among French bulldogs being presented, the judges picked Diva for "Best of Opposite Sex" in the same category.

It doesn't get much better than recognition at the nationally televised Westminster show, the American equivalent of Crufts. The ascent to the top on Tuesday by a beagle named Uno was sweet vindication for a breed that remains wildly popular but has rarely been taken seriously on the show circuit.

Uno started getting attention after winning the hound category earlier in the competition. Then there was no stopping him.

But it was Diva who was still getting the headlines yesterday. "This dog day afternoon turned better for Patty Hearst," was the Baltimore Sun's best shot, making reference of course to the 1975 film classic Dog Day Afternoon, starring Al Pacino about a bank hold-up that goes unnervingly wrong.

It was one year earlier, in February 1974, when a then 17-year-old Ms Hearst was dragged out of her Berkeley apartment and held hostage by leaders of the Symbionese Liberation Army who hoped to exchange her for members of the group in prison, as well as a pledge from the Hearst dynasty to give food to the poor. By April she was on their side, photographed at a bank heist, assault rife over her shoulder.

Defence lawyers for the heiress argued she had been brainwashed by her kidnappers. But Ms Hearst spent 22 months in prison before President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence. But all that, she now insists, was "a million years ago, back in the Jurassic era". Don't even ask her about that. Ask instead about Diva and the red rosette now proudly pinned to her kennel.