Growing Up Getty: Biography details the extravagant life of a billionaire

Growing Up Getty: Biography details the extravagant life of a billionaire

BIOGRAPHY

GETTY GROWING UP

by James Reginato (gallery £22.92, 336 pages)

When he was 22 in 1914, J. Paul Getty’s father gave him $10,000 (equivalent to £250,000 today) to invest in the oil business.

Getty, who had dreamed of becoming a writer or a diplomat, leased some untested oil wells and within a year had made his first million.

By the time he was in his 60s, he was America’s richest man with a fortune of $1 billion. Although highly intelligent and fluent in several languages, Getty’s personal life was chaotic, with five failed marriages, all to much younger women.

In 1923, at the age of 30, he married Jeanette, described by author James Reginato as “a 19-year-old beauty of Polish descent”. They had one son, George, but the marriage ended within a year.

Stingy: J. Paul Getty, divorced five times, surrounded by attractive women. The reason for all these failed marriages, Getty said, was because “no woman wants to feel like she’s being neglected because of an oil rig.”

Two years later he married 17-year-old Allene, “the tall, slender daughter of a Texas rancher.” This marriage barely lasted six months.

Next came Fini, “a light blonde, blue-eyed beauty,” also 17. They divorced shortly after the birth of their son Ronny.

Wife number four was Ann, with whom he had two sons, Paul and Gordon. Getty first met Ann at a Hollywood restaurant eight years ago “when she was a spirited 14-year-old.” Reginato writes, “There was some tension between them, but their parents forbade them to see each other.” You don’t say it!

J. Paul Getty with a glass of wine.  By the time he was in his 60s, he was America's richest man with a fortune of $1 billion

J. Paul Getty with a glass of wine. By the time he was in his 60s, he was America’s richest man with a fortune of $1 billion

Getty and Ann divorced after four years, but undeterred by his terrible track record, he remarried Louise, known as Teddy, “a black-haired chanteuse” in 1937. Their son Timmy died of a brain tumor at the age of 12 and the couple divorced in 1951.

The reason for all these failed marriages, Getty said, is because “no woman wants to feel like she’s being neglected because of an oil rig.” All wives were able to maintain good relations with him after the divorce. After his last, Getty left the US for a brief stay in London. He never left.

After resisting the craze for stocks and equities in the 1920s, Getty had emerged unscathed from the Wall Street crash and shrewdly continued to invest in oil fields around the world.

In 1959 he bought Sutton Place, a sprawling Tudor mansion in Surrey, where he entertained guests including the Queen Mother and members of the Guinness and Rothschild families.

Although he has now renounced marriage, Getty had a number of girlfriends and also employed the services of dominatrix Norma Levy, whose other clients included the Shah of Iran, Aristotle Onassis and the then Duke of Devonshire.

Levy reported that seventy-year-old Getty was particularly creepy, asking her to dress in white and lie in an open coffin and play dead while he looked down at her.

Getty’s children suffered from his cold. His eldest son George, who worked for his father’s company, was a heavy drinker and would often stab his hands with a letter opener when stressed. He died of an overdose in 1973.

Paul Getty Junior and Talitha Pol in 1966. The book describes how Getty's children suffered from his cold

Paul Getty Junior and Talitha Pol in 1966. The book describes how Getty’s children suffered from his cold

Weeks later, Getty’s eldest grandson, 16-year-old Paul, was kidnapped in Rome. Little Paul, as the family called him, was held for five months by the Calabrian mafia, who cut off his right ear and sent it to a newspaper, which said the rest of him would arrive “in little pieces”.

Getty initially refused to pay anything, saying his 13 other grandchildren would be in danger if he did.

Eventually he paid $2.2 million of the $14 million ransom, haggled down to $3.2 million, and loaned the rest of the money to his son Paul, to be repaid with 4 percent interest. When young Paul called to thank him after his release, Getty declined the call.

Eight years after his kidnapping, still addicted to drugs and alcohol, he suffered a stroke that left him paraplegic and unable to speak. He died at the age of 53.

His grandfather, J. Paul Getty, died in 1976, leaving most of his money to the California museum he founded. Things were not bad for his heirs. They benefited from a $2 billion trust fund.

Family members could not agree on how to run it and sued each other. The lawsuits took ten years to settle, cementing the image of a dysfunctional family ravaged by the “Getty Curse.”

Reginato, a journalist for Vanity Fair magazine, dedicates most of this book to the younger generation of Gettys.

The most interesting chapter is about Getty's third son Paul, father of kidnapped young Paul, who lived in a palace in Marrakech in the 1960s and was the focus of a glamorous, drug-addicted crowd

The most interesting chapter is about Getty’s third son Paul, father of kidnapped young Paul, who lived in a palace in Marrakech in the 1960s and was the focus of a glamorous, drug-addicted crowd

But they are not as interesting as the monstrous Paterfamilias and would not reasonably speak to him, so much information about them comes from rare magazine interviews.

They’re still incredibly rich; The family’s net worth can be as high as $20 billion. Some of the younger Gettys are involved in good causes such as environmental protection and AIDS research. And like many rich people, they are passionate about horse racing, opera, winemaking, racing yachts and their own fashion lines.

Most successful in carving out his own niche was Oxford-educated Mark Getty, one of J. Paul Getty’s grandsons.

He has bought up photo agencies and made another fortune with his company Getty Images.

The most interesting chapter is about Getty’s third son Paul, father of kidnapped young Paul, who lived in a palace in Marrakech in the 1960s and was the focus of a glamorous, drug-addicted crowd.

The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards said Paul and his beautiful wife Talitha had “the best and finest opium”.

After her death from a heroin overdose in 1970, Paul retired from the world. Overcome with grief and still struggling with addictions, he spent most of his time in a private London clinic making charitable donations.

Some were small (sent his Bentley to collect a dog after its owner went to jail), others large (£50m to the National Gallery).

On hearing of his state of mind, Mrs Thatcher went to see him and said briskly: ‘My dear Mr Getty, we mustn’t let ourselves down, can we? We’ll get you out of here as soon as we can.”

Paul Getty has recovered. He married happily, was knighted and became a British citizen six years before his death in 2003.

Perhaps the secret of his satisfaction was that he was as generous as his father had been stingy, giving over £100m to UK charities.

Reginato, a die-hard Getty fan, dismisses talk of a family curse. “Some of them actually seem balanced and happy,” he protests. But who would want to be a Getty for all their wealth?