J. Paul Getty: The Real Story Behind The Man With All The Money In The World
What does one possibly do with all the money in the world? If you ask oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, the answer would be to keep it tight under your control. A self-made billionaire by the 1950s, Getty was named the richest living American by Forbes. But for all the money he had, he was notoriously close-fisted — especially when it came to his own kin — and was never without scandal in his personal life. Perhaps it had something to do with how his father treated him in his early adult years…
J. Paul Getty Was Always Used To Having Money
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Jean Paul Getty was born in Minnesota in 1892 to Sarah Risher Getty and George Franklin Getty, a former attorney who founded the Oklahoma-based Minnehoma Oil Company in 1903 and soon became a wealthy oilman in his own right. The Gettys relocated to Los Angeles, where J. Paul Getty graduated from Polytechnic High School in 1909. He subsequently attended the University of Southern California and University of California at Berkeley before transferring to Oxford University in England. Getty graduated from Oxford with a degree in political science and economics in 1914.
Despite His Comfortable Upbringing, Getty Still Knew How To Work Hard
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After college, J. Paul Getty returned to the United States, using loans from his father to buy and sell oil leases in Oklahoma. He had previously gained experience in the oil industry working at his father’s Oklahoma-based oil fields during summers in between his studies. Getty invested in wildcat wells, exploration wells that were drilled in areas where there weren’t yet any known oil fields. By 1916, Getty made his first million dollars from a successful well near Haskell, Oklahoma. The site was called the Nancy Taylor No. 1 Oil Well and was the first well that J. Paul Getty drilled.
Disagreements With His Father Still Proved Successful
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Getty then partnered with his father to incorporate the Getty Oil Company, continuing to amass millions by drilling and lease brokering. Of his outright success, J. Paul Getty once said, “I started in September 1914, to buy [oil] leases in the so-called red-beds area of Oklahoma. The surface was red dirt and it was considered impossible there was any oil there. My father and I did not agree and we got many leases for very little money which later turned out to be rich leases,” according to his New York Times obituary. Despite their lucrative partnership, Getty’s own father would later make a shocking conjecture based on the way Getty handled life outside of their business.
A Self-Made Millionaire Before The Age Of 25
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Fresh off his first million at just 23-years-old, J. Paul Getty briefly moved to Los Angeles where he freely used his self-made fortune to his advantage. Getty lived a lavish, leisurely life in his early twenties, taking on the reputation of a playboy, so it was no wonder that his father blatantly disapproved of his lifestyle. But after two years, the budding businessman ditched his gaudy lifestyle in 1919 to return to Oklahoma and tend to his oil business with his father. The Gettys continued acquiring and maintaining productive oil wells while selling the ones that didn’t work out. Throughout the 1920s, the Gettys added around $3 million to their already lucrative estate.
The First Of Getty’s Multiple Marriages
Getty was 30 years old when he married his first wife, 18-year-old Jeannette Dumont, in 1923. Dumont gave birth to Getty’s first-born son, George Franklin Getty II, who was named after his grandfather. But this first marriage would only be the first out of five. After divorcing Dumont, Getty was married to Allene Ashby for two years, during which time they had no children. Getty’s third wife, Adolphine Helmle, was the daughter of a German industrialist and only lived with Getty for a few months before giving birth to their son, Jean Ronald, in Germany in 1929. Getty and Helmle divorced a few years later.
Getty’s Inherited Pennies From His Father’s Fortune
Getty’s father was pleased with his son’s business savvy, but his disappointment in his son’s lifestyle was only exacerbated by the numerous marriages the younger Getty went through throughout the 1920s. Because of this, George Getty was certain that his son would ultimately destroy the family company and squander their fortune, which is why upon his death in 1930, J. Paul Getty inherited a mere $500,000 out of his father’s $10 million estate. Although J. Paul Getty became president of Getty Oil Company, his mother Sarah retained the controlling interest and inherited much of the estate his father left behind.
Despite the meager inheritance, his father left him, Getty’s business deals would help him strike it rich on his own.
Getty Made Some Risky Moves During The Depression
Perhaps out of determination to prove his father wrong, J. Paul Getty made major moves as president of Getty Oil Company. Even throughout the Great Depression, Getty managed to maintain his wealth by investing his resources and buying up oil stocks at low prices, which paid off big time. According to The New York Times, Getty once said, “I was fortunate due to my father’s foresight and my good luck. In the Depression, I did what the experts said one should not do. I was a very big buyer of oil company stocks.”
Getty Doesn’t Deny That He Was Lucky
At one point, Getty chalked up his success to being in the right place at the right time. “In building a large fortune, it pays to be born at the right time. I was born at a very favorable time. If I had been born earlier or later, I would have missed the great business opportunities that existed in World War I and later. I suppose it takes a long time and it takes extraordinary circumstances to be born at the right time and have cash money available at the right time,” he once said according to The New York Times.
Getty Definitely Succeeded In Proving His Father Wrong
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Getty made some shrewd business decisions during the 1930s, during which time he acquired the Pacific Western Oil Corporation which came with it, large oil reserves and a heavy cash balance. He eventually managed to gain some controlling interest in the company from his mother and with incredible patience over a drawn-out series of business moves, Getty began acquiring the Mission Corporation, which was the parent company of Skelly Oil and Tidewater Oil, and successfully completed the acquisition by 1953. In 1967, Getty merged all his acquisitions with Getty Oil Company, which by then had assets of more than $3 billion.
A foreign business deal that would eventually grant Getty billionaire status…
Getty Wasn’t Very Good At Being A Family Man
While at the helm of Getty Oil Company, J. Paul Getty also found the time to marry twice more during the 1930s. In 1932, he married silent film actress Ann Rork, who became the mother of his third and fourth sons, Eugene Paul Getty (who changed his name to John Paul Getty Jr. later in life) and Gordon Peter Getty. After his fourth marriage didn’t work out, Getty married for a fifth and final time to nightclub singer Louise “Teddy” Lynch, who was 20 years his junior, and it would end up being his longest marriage. Teddy gave birth to Getty’s youngest son Timothy.
Getty Didn’t Even Attend The Funeral Of His 12-Year-Old Son
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Despite how long his final marriage lasted, J. Paul Getty proved to be an absent family man. At the age of six in 1952, Timothy was diagnosed with a brain tumor that quickly blinded him. Although Getty flew mother and son to New York to see specialists, he never followed through on promises to visit, even making Teddy pay for the medical expenses on her own, telling her in a letter, “I’m glad you realize they are enormous. You should always… have an agreement in advance as to what the charges will be. Some doctors like to charge a rich person 20 times more than their regular fee.” When Timothy died at 12, J. Paul Getty didn’t even attend the funeral and Teddy divorced him after.
How J. Paul Getty Became A Billionaire
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After World War II, J. Paul Getty made one of the riskiest business maneuvers of his career. In 1949, Getty paid King Ibn Saud $9.5 million in cash for a 60-year concession in a tract of barren land in the Neutral Zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, also agreeing to pay $1 million a year whether or not oil was struck since no oil had been previously found there. Four years and $30 million later, the deal paid off and Getty’s field produced upwards of 16 million barrels a year since 1953. This major gamble was key in making J. Paul Getty a billionaire.
Growing up with wealth and acquiring it on his own accord wouldn’t be enough to make Getty a generous man, as you’ll soon learn.
Getty’s Incredible Wealth Garnered Unwanted Attention
In 1957, Fortune published a ranking of the wealthiest living Americans and surprised everyone by naming J. Paul Getty in first place, estimating his net worth somewhere between $700 million and $1 billion. With Getty’s wealth now publicized, he became something of an instant celebrity but didn’t take it well. “I’ll have to change my name if I expect to get any peace,” Getty once said according to a 1986 Fortune article. Getty’s now-enormous wealth soon became the root of his problems, which were only heightened by the scandals that surrounded his name in later years.
Getty Became An Expat In England
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In 1959, J. Paul Getty took up permanent residence in England, becoming an expat in Europe since it was conveniently in between his business in the United States and the Middle East. Getty purchased Sutton Place from the Duke of Sutherland for $840,000. Located about 35 miles southwest of London, the 400-year-old mansion had 72 rooms and sat on 700 acres of land that was also home to two swimming pools, tennis courts, a trout stream, and 30 cottages and lodges. Getty famously installed a payphone booth in the mansion specifically for guests — the first instances of his eccentric, penny-pinching ways.
J. Paul Getty The Billionaire Was A Huge Cheapskate
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For all the money that he had at his disposal, J. Paul Getty was infamously cheap. In addition to installing a payphone in his home for guests (and locking up all other phones!), Getty did all that he could to make sure he was spending as little as possible. Although he stayed in the poshest hotels around, he stayed in their smallest, cheapest rooms and lived out of his suitcase. There are even reports that say he liked to dress up in old, ratty clothes to make it feel as though he was poor. But the richest example of his miserly ways would come to light years later in a notorious incident with his grandson.
Getty Hated The Celebrity But Wasn’t Shy About Being Filthy Rich
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At the height of his career, Getty owned numerous properties. In addition to Getty Oil Company, its acquisitions, and his mansion, the oil magnate at one point owned New York City’s Pierre Hotel and homes in the Persian Gulf, Italy, and Malibu Beach, where his home was reportedly modeled after a famous Italian villa that was covered by the ashes of Mt. Vesuvius. Despite his grievances about the fame that came with his fortune, Getty didn’t do much to remain out of the spotlight, often attending events with celebrities and courting younger lady friends to social gatherings.
Getty’s Wealth Made Him Question Everyone
J. Paul Getty’s attitude towards his wealth was very peculiar to outsiders, but even he himself has stated that he was never sure if people liked him for who he was or how much money he had. “Time is the only yardstick by which I can judge who are—and who aren’t—really friends. I’ve known many people for years who have never asked me for anything,” he once said. Getty reportedly received thousands of letters a month from strangers who were all asking him for money, saying in his book, It’s Tough to Be a Billionaire, “I never give money to individuals [because] it’s unrewarding and wrong.”
The Kidnapping Of J. Paul Getty’s Grandson
Even in dire circumstances, Getty’s tightfistedness was unwavering. Fast forward to 1973, when Getty’s then-16-year-old grandson, John Paul Getty III, was kidnapped by Italian gangsters in Rome. The kidnappers demanded around $17 million for the younger Getty’s safe return, threatening to cut a finger to prove that they had him. At first, the family suspected that it was a ploy by the teenager to get money out of his grandfather since he was known to be somewhat of a rebel at the time. When Getty’s son asked his father for money to get his grandson back, the eldest Getty refused.
The traumatic kidnapping would prove to have lifelong effects, as you will soon see.
Getty Refused To Pay The Ransom As Paul III Lost An Ear
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Upon the initial refusal, the kidnappers decided to cut the Paul III’s ear off, mailing it off with a lock of hair, but an Italian postal strike delayed its delivery. An attached ransom note allegedly said, “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.” Months had passed by the time a newspaper office received the note, which then demanded only $3.2 million. The eldest Getty rebuffed pleas from Paul III’s mother to take action, while Paul III’s father didn’t have enough of his own money to help.
Getty Eventually Helped Pay The Ransom, But On Certain Conditions…
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Many were shocked that J. Paul Getty took no immediate action to save his grandson. But the billionaire reasoned, “I have 14 other grandchildren and if I pay one penny now, then I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.” Eventually, he relented and agreed to pay no more than $2.2 million, after he learned it was the maximum amount that could be deducted from his taxes. Getty loaned his son the remainder of his grandson’s ransom to be paid back at 4% interest. When the ransom was received, Paul III was returned alive (albeit missing an ear) and called his grandfather to thank him, but Getty refused to come to the phone.
Even The Captors Didn’t Understand Why Getty Wouldn’t Save His Grandson
Settling for a lower ransom supposedly came out of one of the captor’s desperation for Paul III to be rescued, growing pitiful for the boy whose family wouldn’t save him. “He can’t even conceive the world of these wealthy Americans… It’s like, how can you have all this money, and yet the money is more important to you than your kid, and he finds himself sympathizing with the kid,” screenwriter David Scarpa told Vanity Fair. Scarpa wrote 2017’s All the Money in the World, a film based on the entire ordeal according to John Pearson’s 1995 book, Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty.
After everything was said and done, Paul III was ultimately the only one to come out of the situation tragically.
Getty Said He Didn’t Want To Perpetrate More Crime By Giving In
As for the eldest Getty, he defended his refusal to give in to the demands in his autobiography, As I See It: The Autobiography of J. Paul Getty, writing that in addition to not wanting to put his other grandchildren at risk, “I contend that acceding to the demands of criminals and terrorists merely guarantees the continuing increase and spread of lawlessness, violence and such outrages as terror-bombings, ‘skyjackings’ and the slaughter of hostages that plague our present-day world.” Other reports say that Getty particularly did not want to be directly connected with the whole ordeal in any way, especially if there were crime syndicates involved.
Getty Said His Grandson’s Release Was The Finest Birthday Present
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For all the backlash the Getty family and J. Paul Getty himself received for not taking immediate action, the Grandfather Getty surprisingly displays some affection for his grandson when he recalls the kidnapping in his autobiography. “[The] payment was made. The kidnappers released Paul III on December 15, 1973—which by coincidence happened to be my eighty-first birthday. It was the finest and most wonderful birthday present of my life,” Getty wrote. Unfortunately for Paul III, life would never be the same after spending months in captivity and having lost an ear.
John Paul Getty III Was Permanently Traumatized
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Following his release, Paul III married and started a family in Los Angeles, but he was forever affected by the kidnapping and suffered a drug and alcohol addiction. In 1981, he suffered a drug overdose that left him a quadriplegic, nearly-blind, and unable to speak. He remained severely handicapped for the remainder of his life and had to sue his own father, Paul II, for medical expenses since his inheritance was squandered. Though he tried to make the most out of his later life, Paul III passed away on February 5, 2011, at the age of 54.
Though Getty was tightfisted with his family, his contributions to the public would leave a lasting impression, as you’ll soon read.
Getty Was An Avid Art Collector
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J. Paul Getty’s longest-lasting legacy is perhaps his vastly impressive art collection, which he began in the 1930s. Fluent in German, French, and Italian, Getty could also get by in Arabic, Greek, Russian, and Spanish while being able to read Latin and ancient Greek. This gave him an advantage in acquiring some of the most impressive works of art produced in ancient Europe. While he had most of these works at his Malibu mansion, he decided in 1968 to display them in a permanent museum after he ran out of space at his home.
Getty Began Construction Of A Museum For His Art
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The Getty Villa was constructed down the street from J. Paul Getty’s Malibu home. It was styled after the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, an ancient Roman town destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius. Getty reportedly said of its structure, “I refuse to pay for one of those concrete-bunker type structures that are the fad among museum architects—nor for some tinted-glass-and-stainless-steel monstrosity.” Getty followed the construction of the museum closely and like with all things in his life, was prudent throughout the process. He even scolded the architect for the unauthorized purchase of a $17 pencil sharpener, according to Philanthropy Roundtable.
J. Paul Getty Believed That Donating To Charity Was Not Helpful
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Getty’s incredible wealth generated unsolicited requests for money and often times he was goaded for donations to charitable organizations and higher education, which he considered “soft-headed humanitarianism.” “If I were convinced that by giving away my fortune I could make a real contribution toward solving the problems of world poverty, I’d give away 99.5 percent of all I have immediately. But a hard-eyed appraisal of the situation convinces me this is not the case. However admirable the work of the best charitable foundation, it would accustom people to the passive acceptance of money,” Getty once said.
Keep reading to see how Getty ultimately decided to give back to society.
Getty Once Said That His Fortune Is “Essential To The Nation’s Prosperity”
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Getty preferred to be known as a businessman, rather than a billionaire. Despite his notorious complaints surrounding his wealth, perhaps he felt that it gave back in the sense he served as inspiration for others. According to The New York Times, when Getty was asked if being rich was worth it, he said, “Though our rewards may be small, we are, if our society is to remain in its present form, essential to the nation’s prosperity. We provide others with incentives which would not exist if we were to disappear.” When Getty did eventually disappear, his greatest contribution to society would perhaps be his legacy that lasts to this very day.
Getty Was Buried At His Museum After His Passing
The construction of the Getty Villa was completed in 1974, but Getty himself didn’t live to see this through, as he never had a chance to visit before his death. J. Paul Getty passed away on June 6, 1976, at his Sutton Place mansion, succumbing to heart failure at the age of 83. Though he never got to see his museum in its completion, Getty was buried at the Getty Villa, though the gravesite is not open to the public. Worth more than $6 billion (equating to almost $18 billion in 2018) at the time of his death, the majority of his wealth unsurprisingly didn’t go to the family that survived him.
Getty’s Most Profound Contribution To Society
The majority of Getty’s estate, which included $660 million worth of stock in Getty Oil, was left to the J. Paul Getty Trust, which he established in 1953. The trust is largely in control of Getty’s art collection and the museum, which expanded in 1997 upon the opening of a larger, second facility, the Getty Center, that cost $1.3 billion. Getty once said, “In learning about ancient Greek and Roman art, one cannot help but also learn about the civilizations and the people who produced the art. This will unquestionably serve to broaden the individual’s horizons and, by increasing his knowledge of past civilizations, greatly aid him in knowing and understanding his own.”
Getty Still Left Behind A Significant Fortune…
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J. Paul Getty was survived by his three living sons — J. Ronald Getty, J. Paul Getty Jr., and Gordon Peter Getty — 16 grandchildren, and 1 great-grandchild. While the majority of the estate went to the museum, his heirs were left to clamor for the rest of the Getty fortune. Aside from the stocks in Getty Oil Company, much of the Getty family’s fortune came from the Sarah C. Getty Trust, which was started by Getty and his mother in the 1930s while his empire was in its budding stages. Getty’s mother held onto a big stake in her son’s company and by the 1980s, her trust held 40% interest in Getty Oil Company.
Getty’s Trust Was Not Necessarily Up For Grabs By Family
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J. Paul Getty was the sole trustee of his mother’s trust, which contained a restriction forbidding any other trustees to come along after his death from altering it or selling its holdings. Although Getty once orally stated that he’d give his sons some of the income, that isn’t quite what happened. Getty’s descendants took the disbursement of the Getty estate to court in order to obtain what they believed was rightfully theirs, especially since they considered the distribution of his fortune to be arbitrary and unjust. After it was all said and done, not everyone was treated equally.
Gordon Getty Eventually Gained Control And Sold Getty Oil For Over $10 Billion
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Getty’s youngest living son Gordon, who managed to become sole trustee of the remaining estate despite his lackluster reputation working in his father’s companies, controversially sold Getty Oil to Texaco in 1984 for more than $10 billion. Additionally, he managed to obtain control of his grandmother’s estate, unlocking $4 billion to split among the rest of the Gettys. $1 billion went into paying state and federal capital gains taxes. The remaining $3 billion was split equally among Gordon, his brother Paul II, and the three daughters of Getty’s firstborn George Franklin II.
Getty’s Estranged Son Ronald Was Left Out Of The Disbursement
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Getty’s second-born, J. Ronald Getty, was certainly dealt the short end of the stick and was not entitled to any of his grandmother’s trust, even after his father’s death. When the trust was established in the 1930s, the senior Getty bitterly split with Ronald’s mother, so he decided that Ronald would only receive $3,000 a year out of the trust. After his father’s death, Ronald unsuccessfully tried to alter his inheritance in court, however, it was determined that by then, he had already received $200,000 in trust from his grandmother’s will, which was four times the amount she left behind for the rest of Getty’s sons.
J. Paul Getty: “The Getty Family Is A Family”
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For all the distrust and lack of affection Getty displayed towards his family, he didn’t deny the connection they shared. In his autobiography, he recalls the summer of 1975, when Paul III’s siblings visited their grandfather at Sutton Place. Getty wrote, “I was delighted to have them — just as I was delighted by the visits during that same summer of my other grandchildren [and their parents]… It was a most reassuring summer for Grandfather J. Paul Getty. It proved that despite anything and everything — be it wealth, divorce, tragedy, or any of the other myriad conditions and tribulation of life — the Getty family is a family and will continue to be one.”