02.10.11

The Getty Family Implosion

John Paul Getty III’s recent death brings to a close a tragic chapter in the wealthy family’s decades-long drama of strife and eccentricity. Anthony Haden-Guest reports on their woe.

The death on February 5 of John Paul Getty III at Wormsley, his estate in the English county of Buckinghamshire, where he had long been watched over by his mother, Gail, and a round-the-clock team of caregivers, writes finis to a story as terrible as it is gripping. It is in its essentials a tale of the family lives of the hugely rich so we might as well begin at a peculiarly high or low point which is with his kidnapping at the age of 16 by a gang of mobsters at 3 a.m. on July 10, 1973 on Rome’s Piazza Farnese.

Gallery: The Getty Family Through the Years

Two days later Gail Getty received a ransom demand for $17 million. The police were at first dubious and there was a persistent rumor that the rebellious, counterculture youth had planned a fake kidnapping which had turned real. At any rate, Gail Getty, who was divorced, had nowhere near that sum. Nor had the boy’s father, John Paul Getty, Jr. His grandfather, John Paul Getty, whom Fortune had named as the richest American in 1957, was appealed to. Getty Sr., who had been living in the U.K. since the 1950s, summoned the press to Sutton Place, his Tudor mansion in Surrey, and told them, “I have 14 other grandchildren and if I pay one penny now I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”

So his grandson was in captivity—it would later emerge that he had been chained to a stake in a cave in Calabria—for three months when the Rome-based newspaper, Il Messaggero, received a package containing a clump of blond hair and a left ear. A note informed the world that both had been taken from the young Getty and more would follow unless the ransom was paid. John Paul Getty, Jr. borrowed the money from his father and his son was released that December.

The ransom had reportedly been bargained down to $2.7 million, a loan upon which the father charged the son 4 percent interest. Getty Sr.’s attitude to money is of interest here. When partygoers attending an extremely unusual event, a dance at Sutton Place, found that there was a pay-phone and the private phones had been locked, this was seen as a rich man’s joke-that-wasn’t-quite-a-joke. Michael Pochna, a New Yorker, whose father worked for Getty, has told me of being taken by his father to meet him as a child in the early 1950s. Pochna says he had a small suite in the Ritz and spoke extremely slowly.

"Would you like a glass of milk?" he asked.

“Yes.”

Getty opened the window and brought a milk bottle in off the ledge, then rinsed a glass in the basin.

"Room service is very expensive here," he explained. Pochna added: "He wasn't cheap. He just liked tweaking people."

John Paul Getty, Jr. was married to Gail Harris, a former water polo champion. John Paul III was born in 1956 and a daughter, Aileen, the following year. Getty Jr. was sent to run the Getty interests in Rome but the allure of the city proved too much for him. His marriage soon unraveled and he and Gail divorced in 1964. He was introduced to Talitha Pol, the ravishing daughter of a Dutch artist, at a dinner given by Claus von Bulow, who had worked for his father. She had expected to be seated next to Rudolf Nureyev but the dancer was a no-show. She wound up with the oil heir and they were married two years later.

John Paul Getty, Jr. was left a quarter of the Getty Trust, worth $1.3 billion, but blaming his son for his condition, he refused to foot the bill for his care.

Talitha Pol truly lit up a room. They had a child they called Tara Gabriel Galaxy Gramophone Getty—it was those times, David Bowie called his son Zowie—and the couple took off on a heroin-fuelled magical mystery tour with such constellations of the time as Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull. Talitha died in Rome of a heroin overdose on July 14, 1971 in the 12-month period that also saw the deaths of Edie Sedgwick, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin. Her husband’s wild days were over. He became a semi-recluse, devoted to cricket to which he was introduced by Jagger, and to building a collection of rare books, which he kept in a tower in Wormsley and included the first, second, third, and fourth Shakespeare folios and a first edition of Chaucer.

The Getty horrors were not close to being done with. The same year that John Paul III was kidnapped, George Getty, Paul Getty Senior’s son by his first marriage, died a curious death. “He fell twice on a barbecue fork,” von Bulow told me some time ago.

Twice? “Yes.”

Was it suicide?

“Well, we don’t know. He went to the bathroom. They broke down the door. And they got an ambulance. And he was taken to the hospital. They took him to a discreet place, which was out of the way, where they could put him in under a false name or something. And they just looked at the perforations of his stomach. They didn’t look at anything else. And he was lying there with a massive overdose of sleeping pills. And died of them.”

John Paul III was released that December. He called his grandfather to thank him but, Getty Sr., refused to take the call. He spent a couple of weeks at a clinic, and went on a skiing holiday. Less than a year later he married Martine Zacher, who was six years older, in Sovicille, Italy. The bride wore black. Incensed at the match, his grandfather cut off his income from the family trust.

In the mid-'70s John Paul Getty III and Martine relocated to Los Angeles, with occasional trips to New York, where, Vincent Fremont of the Warhol Foundation says, he often came by the Factory to see Andy Warhol and Fred Hughes. Indeed, there is a photograph of him at a Warhol party in 1976, poignantly labeled. In 1977 he was studying Chinese history at Pepperdine. But he was massively depressed and addicted both to hard drugs and to the spirits his kidnappers had given him to keep him sedated, and in April 1981 he OD’ed on methadone, Valium, and alcohol. He had massive liver failure and his brain was deprived of oxygen. He wound up a quadriplegic with restricted vision who could only communicate by screaming. It was estimated that his medical expenses would be $25,000 a month. John Paul Getty, Sr. had died on June 6, 1976. John Paul Getty, Jr. was left a quarter of the Getty Trust, worth $1.3 billion, but blaming his son for his condition, he refused to foot the bill for his care.

So the family’s obsessiveness about money continued. John Paul Getty, Jr. was a major philanthropist, to a slew of causes, and he was not stingy. “He had left three or four telephone messages on my machine in New York,” says von Bulow, speaking of the period between his two trials for attempted murder. "A mutual friend in New York called and said Paul wants to speak to you. I said, yes, but I’ve got quite a lot on my plate. And that sort of thing. They said, yes, but I think it’s in your interest.

“That was after the first trial. That was, in other words, when I had been sentenced. I don’t know whether maybe he hadn’t seen it before, or whatever. He immediately offered to pay and stand bail. And did, for a million, and ultimately advanced some $2.7 million. And with the elegance that is his forte said, it’s what my father would have wanted. You know ... don’t thank me. And, happily, the way things turned out, I was able to repay him once it was all over. But he never asked for it.”

John Paul Getty III sued his father in Los Angeles, won, with the judge handing down a stinging rebuke to the father, and moved into a house in Beverly Hills that had been turned into a five-star pushbutton clinic, complete with a bloodbank, but worked strenuously toward a partial recovery, upon which he relocated to Europe. His marriage dissolved in 1993. When his father, now an honorary knight and a British citizen, died in 2003, he was living in a Victorian lodge in County Tipperary. Among his survivors are his half-brother Tara, who has shed his third and fourth names, and is now a highly regarded ecologist, working in Africa. Perhaps the Getty demons have been exorcised at last.

Anthony Haden-Guest is the news editor of Charles Saatchi’s online magazine.