The Curse of the Gettys


  • 03 Feb - 09 Feb, 2018
  • Kara Warner
  • Spotlight

A grisly kidnapping, tragic addictions and insatiable greed: inside a dark dynasty and the crime that inspired the movie All the Money in the World

When billionaire J. Paul Getty’s 16-year-old grandson was snatched off the streets of Rome in the wee hours of July 10, 1973, the most shocking aspect of his ordeal was that the person with the power to rescue him refused to do so. Because Getty, then the world’s richest private citizen, wouldn’t budge, his grandson John Paul Getty III was held hostage for five months by Italian gangsters who hoped to extort $17 million for his return. Even when the boy’s captors sliced off one of his ears and mailed it to a newspaper in Rome, the oil tycoon was unmoved. In the end what saved Paul was a tax loophole through which Getty found he could write off a portion of the $2.89 million bargained-down ransom he eventually paid. He designated the rest for a loan to his son John Paul Getty II to be paid off at 4% interest. The miserly patriarch “was genius at business,” biographer Robert Lenzner once told People, “but an illiterate with respect to intimacy and family.” The billionaire’s obsession with his fortune turned his legacy into a Greek tragedy, with many of his heirs falling prey to drug abuse and suicide. “The great unanswered mystery of the Getty fortune is why it has apparently devoured so many of its beneficiaries,” wrote John Pearson in his 1995 biography Painfully Rich, which inspired the new movie about the Getty kidnapping, All the Money in the World. “It’s a sad story,” Pearson says now of the Gettys, citing a quote attributed to the French writer Honoré de Balzac: “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.”

Born in Minneapolis to businessman George Franklin

Getty and his wife, Sarah, J. Paul developed an addiction to money that was in part a rebellion against his father, an austere Methodist more focused on his faith than on being a loving parent. J. Paul also became a notorious philanderer and had five wives who bore him five sons, George Franklin II, Ronald, John Paul II, Gordon and Timmy, who died of a brain tumour at age 12. Getty attended none of his sons’ weddings. While he amassed billions via shrewd business deals and pioneering partnerships to drill for oil in the Middle East, Getty often said his father would posthumously “eat his words” when he saw how successful and rich his son had become. “This is a man with a deep, gnawing sense of insecurity,” says All the Money in the World screenwriter David Scarpa. “The money is what he thinks is going to fill it, and it never does.” Getty’s friend and former chief executive Claus von Bülow (who became the centre of a society scandal himself in the 1980s) says the tycoon, who bought art masterpieces and palatial estates, wanted his money to speak for itself. Getty’s vast fortune makes the tale of his grandson’s 1973 kidnapping all the more poignant. On-screen that man is played by Christopher Plummer, who joined the project less than a month before the film’s release after original star Kevin Spacey was accused of multiple incidents of sexual assault. After the kidnapping, the Getty family was remote, closed off, almost unreachable. When the kidnappers’ initial demands went unanswered, an envelope with John Paul Getty III’s severed ear arrived at a newspaper in Rome though in stereotypical Italian fashion it was delayed by a postal strike. The note included a discounted ransom of $3.2 million and a threat: “This is Paul’s ear. If we don’t get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits.” Eventually Getty paid up.

At 18, Paul wed his girlfriend Gisela Martine Zacher, who was pregnant with their son Balthazar. At 25, he overdosed on drugs, causing a stroke that left him quadriplegic.

Dysfunctional is a word that comes up frequently with those who know members of what J. Paul Getty hoped would be a “Getty Dynasty.” Gail Harris told Pearson that “being a Getty was like becoming part of a mathematical progression,” he recalls. “As the family empire grew more complex and remote, those within it found it impossible to maintain normal relationships with anyone outside the empire. “With a $4 billion trust fund that was unequally shared among Getty’s heirs, family have struggled to find their place. Some have battled drugs and darkness, while others have come into their own, committed to doing what their patriarch never did: giving money away. “Large amounts of money are very toxic,” Getty’s granddaughter Aileen, a recovering addict turned philanthropist, told People in 1992. “It’s a very unfortunate substance to have.” Balthazar Getty, who found success as an actor, also wrestles with that history. “I struggled with it a lot as a kid,” he told People in 2014. “I didn’t ever want to be labelled a rich kid. But it’s my legacy. I teach my kids the opposite – they should really be proud.” He said the extended Getty clan has forged what J. Paul never could – a real bond. “Every year in June we spend a week as a family together in Europe. There are about 40 of us. Many of my best friends are my cousins. Their kids and my kids are best friends. We are a very close family.”

Source: People