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05.25.10

Hollywood's Billionaire Divorce Scandal

When Peter Getty married Jacqui de la Fontaine, it seemed like a fairy tale ending for a woman whose early life was marked by tragedy. But then the Hollywood romance turned bitter.

Some wives find out about their husband’s infidelity when they discover love-sick emails in the inbox. Others when a credit card statement reveals an unknown hotel bill.

For Jacqui Getty, her friends say, it was a pair of earrings and women’s sunglasses in the kitchen, neither of them belonging to her.

Her husband Peter, an heir to the Getty fortune, denied that he was having an affair, but a full frontal shot of a woman the couple knew, which Jacqui found on his desktop, was harder to explain. And when Jacqui learned that the woman was living down the street, in a place she now believes her husband paid for, suspicion turned to rage, her friends say.

“It’s like Dynasty, California edition,” says one person, who knows the couple.

Welcome to one of the ugliest divorce cases Los Angeles has seen in years.

In one corner, the eccentric heir to a reported $2.5 billion oil fortune, with Bob Dylan-like curls and a penchant for knitting.

In the other, his charismatic, soon-to-be ex-wife, a stylist and costume designer, whose close friends include Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Wes Anderson and Jason Schwartzman.

“It’s like Dynasty, California edition,” says one person, who knows the couple.

When the two tied the knot in Napa in 2000, however, it had seemed like a fairy tale ending for a woman whose earliest years were marked by tragedy. As the San Francisco Philharmonic played in the background, the bride walked down the aisle in a $100,000 Oscar de la Renta gown, brought to the altar by movie director Francis Ford Coppola. Peter’s wedding gift was a Bulgari necklace worth $600,000, according to court records.

After the wedding, Peter and Jacqui lived in the Hollywood Hills and drove matching Mercedes S500s. There were limitless credit cards and private jet trips to the couture in Paris. The parties at their house, where the art collection included Pollacks and Basquiats, achieved almost mythical status among the Hollywood hipster set.

The family vacationed at the 10,000-square-foot Getty compound in Kona, Hawaii, and at the exclusive Malibu Colony. When the couple travelled abroad, Peter generally didn’t even pack. He simply bought what he needed once he reached his destination, Jacqui said in her court declaration.

“We had a lifestyle that I am certain is beyond what most people could imagine or will ever be able to enjoy,” Jacqui testified. “But as I was told, that was ‘just the way it is’ when your name is Getty.”

Unfortunately, there was a darker side to being a “Getty wife.”

Now, Jacqui is alleging that her husband was a cocaine addict, who abused her physically and emotionally, breaking her arm during a binge in 2008.  “He told me ‘I could kill you and get away with it,’” she said in a court document that also detailed allegations that he choked her, told her she was stupid and clocked hundreds of hours watching online porn.

In the divorce proceedings, Peter’s counsel is the high-profile attorney Laura Wasser, who has represented Angelina Jolie, Kiefer Sutherland and Britney Spears. She declined to comment for this story.

Jacqui, for her part, is represented by another big-league lawyer. Stephen Kolodny has litigated on behalf of Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand and David Caruso. He declined to comment for the story.

At stake is spousal support that could run to hundreds of thousands of dollars per month an a $20 million to $30 million San Francisco home they just built, along with extraordinarily expensive furniture, including a bed that alone cost $1 million, according to Jacqui’s declaration.

The soon-to-be ex-Mrs.-Getty came from more humble origins. As friends tell it, she had a latchkey New York childhood. Her mother was a former model and her dad a restaurateur, who abandoned the family when Jacqui was 12. After her father walked out, Jacqui and her mother moved to L.A., where Jacqui attended Beverly Hills High School, eventually meeting Gio Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s son. But when Jacqui was 19 and pregnant with their daughter, Gio was killed in a speedboating accident.

She met Peter a few years later and her friends were elated. Though she was notably more social, it was obvious from the get-go that her new boyfriend was smart and had a dry sense of humor. What’s more, Peter appeared to love her daughter, named Gia in honor of her dad.

A Harvard graduate, Peter had grown up in San Francisco, attended the opera from an early age, and lived in a mansion where the furniture was too expensive to sit on. Peter later wrote in a blog for the San Francisco Chronicle that “friends got to put posters of rock bands and Farrah Fawcett in their rooms. We had a scary oil painting of some pale woman standing in a barren field.”

And a skeleton or two lurked in those deep Getty closets.

According to friends of Jacqui’s, two of Peter’s brothers struggled with addictions. And just before Jacqui and Peter’s wedding, his mother Ann discovered that her husband Gordon, Peter’s father, had lived a hidden, parallel life, fathering three children with another woman during a 14-year-long affair. Although his parents didn’t divorce, Peter was severely affected by the revelation, says a friend.

As Peter struggled to find a professional identity, the family’s wealth proved more toxic than helpful. It was, as a friend put it, “a big, dark money cloud.” There was a short-lived publishing company in the '80s, reportedly bankrolled by his mother; a record label, and talk of writing. But when Coppola hired Peter to write a movie, “he took the job and never delivered the script,” says a friend of Jacqui. Adds another friend: “He had all that money at his disposal—he didn’t need to do anything. He was like Henry VIII.”

When Gia went off to college in 2005, Peter’s drug use and erratic ways began to spiral out of control, according to court documents and friends.

Friends say Peter retreated from the world, into his converted garage. One friend says that in addition to using drugs, Peter spent hours knitting and playing computer games; another says Peter was addicted to internet pornography. “I called it his man-cave,” says the friend. “There were no windows or anything.”

In court, Peter has admitted using cocaine. But he denied being coked up that day in June 2008 when he allegedly broke his wife’s arm.

Jacqui, meanwhile, struggled with a substance abuse issue of her own. Friends say that she briefly became dependent on Vicodin around the time she had surgery for severe back pain, but note that she got help and now is free of drugs.

But while she could kick her own addiction, Jacqui was unable to convince her husband to go to rehab. “She was worried about Peter and she wanted him to get help. When she left, she thought the family would step in and say, ‘OK, go to rehab’ and…they’d get back together,” says a friend.

Says another: “I don’t think Jacqui thought they were actually going to get divorced. I think she thought this was going to be a reality check, but it didn’t work.”

Clearly not. As she says in court documents, he told her that “he wanted to live a ‘rock 'n' roll party life’ and that I would have to decide whether I wanted to stay married to him. His words were, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’”

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Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.