Chapter One: Sutton Place 1 Sutton Place
It was the dawn of a new decade and a new era—a day early in 1960—as J. Paul Getty marched through the Tudor labyrinth of Sutton Place. Twenty-three miles southwest of London, it had been built 440 years earlier by a courtier of Henry VIII. Just now, it had been rebooted as the nerve center of Getty’s worldwide petroleum empire, and his seventy-two-room home. Telex machines clattered with reports of stock market gyrations on Wall Street and the flow of oil from Arabian deserts. Bustling about were members of Getty’s executive and domestic staffs, the latter headed by Francis Bullimore, his unimpeachable butler.
Getty, wearing one of his customary Kilgour, French & Stanbury dark three-piece suits, and bearing the mournful mien that made him always look, his longtime aide Claus von Bülow observed, as if he were attending his own funeral, trod through the 165-foot oak-paneled Long Gallery, draped with sixteenth-century Flemish tapestries. When Getty reached his private study, where Dutch Old Masters hung on the Honduras mahogany paneling, he shut the door.
He then unlaced his John Lobb oxfords and jumped onto a long antique settee.
“Come on,” he beckoned to the other person in the room, his solicitor, Robina Lund, a brainy twenty-three-year-old Scotswoman employed by the starchy firm of Slaughter and May. The dealer who had just delivered the settee had vouched for its sturdiness, promising it was “strong enough to jump on,” explained Getty (who stood five feet eleven and weighed 180 pounds, with a muscular build from years of weight training).
“So let’s try it!” he said to Lund.
“What if it breaks?” she wondered.
“I’ll send it back,” he said.
Recalled Lund, “So for a good five minutes we bounced up and down, and I nearly killed myself laughing as he did an Indian war-whoop each time he went in the air.”
At the sound of a knock on the door, the pair were back into their shoes in a flash. As Bullimore ushered in the next appointment, a pair of businessmen, Getty reassumed his customary countenance. “Paul gravely shook their hands,” Lund remembered.
People can be so different behind closed doors. J. Paul Getty had so many doors. That day, as he settled into Sutton Place, the richest man in the world had reason to feel giddy. This was at last a permanent home—something this sixty-seven-year-old hadn’t had since childhood. Over the previous decades, he’d been a virtual stranger to the households where his five wives and five sons lived. His had been a nomadic existence, unspooling in a succession of hotel suites, mostly in Europe, where his ear was glued to the phones on which he conducted business, and where he washed his own socks and underwear.
Resolutely low-profile, Getty ensured that his photo seldom appeared in print outside of the Oil & Gas Journal and publications of that ilk. The anonymity suited him well, allowing him to stealthily acquire stakes in companies he sought to take over, and, when he had the time, to conduct amorous meetings with an array of women.
But his cover had been blown on October 28, 1957. His first inkling came when he found the lobby of the Ritz, the hotel in London where he was then living, swarming with journalists, all clamoring to see “the richest American.” Fortune magazine had just published the results of a thorough and novel investigation that identified all citizens with fortunes exceeding $75 million. Getty was not only at the top of the seventy-six-person list—which was divided into five tiers—but far above the rest. His name alone appeared in the $700 million to $1 billion category. The $400 million to $700 million class included four members of the Mellon family as well as John D. Rockefeller Jr., Dallas oil magnate H. L. Hunt, and Miami real estate mogul Arthur Vining Davis.
Four Du Ponts, as well as Joseph Kennedy, Howard Hughes, Fort Worth oil wildcatter Sid Richardson, and steel heiress Mrs. Frederick Guest (the former Amy Phipps), made the $200 million to $400 million category; six Rockefellers (John D.’s kids), Vincent Astor, Doris Duke, and Mrs. Edsel Ford were bunched in with Texas oilmen Clint Murchison, John Mecom, and James Abercrombie at the $100 million to $200 million level; Henry Ford II, Mrs. Horace Dodge, Marjorie Merriweather Post, and John T. Dorrance Jr., son of the Campbell Soup formula inventor, were among those bringing up the rear, with $75 million to $100 million apiece.
The compilation, Fortune wrote, “only serves to emphasize the tremendous changes that American wealth has undergone in both numbers and character over the past twenty years.… No longer among today’s Very Rich are the Morgans, the Goulds, the Guggenheims.”
This rich roster was republished in newspapers worldwide. “Topping the list is Jean Paul Getty, Minnesota-born oil man and owner of the Pierre Hotel,” wrote the New York Times, in its front-page, above-the-fold story.
For the rest of his life, Getty expressed rueful feelings over this “outing.”
“I was thenceforth a curiosity only a step or two removed from the world’s tallest man or the world’s shortest midget.… I had become a sort of financial freak, overnight,” he observed.
Yet he did invite some of those journalists who thronged the Ritz lobby up to his suite. “In a two-hour interview,” wrote the New York Times’s reporter, “he traced the origins of his fortune, spoke lovingly of his extensive art collection, and imparted some thoughts on world affairs.” Nonetheless, Getty claimed to the paper that being named the richest man in the USA was “a distinction I’m not particularly interested in. I don’t think there is any glory in being known as a moneybags. I’d rather be considered an active businessman.”
In 1963, he concluded that the Fortune piece had marked “a turning point” in his life, “in the sense that it had the effect of ending my existence as an ordinary private citizen and made me, for better or worse, a public figure, or at least a person about whom the public curiosity was whetted.”
Most materially, the article prompted him to finally acquire a permanent residence. Stalkers and concerns for his security had come with fame, making hotel life problematic. Perhaps, too, he decided it was finally time to settle down. A home at last? In his own way and unique vocabulary, he envisioned it initially as “a sort of liaison base.” He weighed the merits of various capitals in Western Europe (midway between the Middle East and California, twin centers of his empire, this was the place for him). Paris was his first choice. But then, one evening in June 1959, just after he’d arrived back in London, a friend drove him into Surrey to a small dinner party at Sutton Place, hosted by its owner, George Granville Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 5th Duke of Sutherland—Geordie, to friends.
While Sutton Place and His Grace’s lineage were both ancient, they hadn’t, in fact, been connected so long. Geordie, one of the largest landowners in Scotland, had bought the manor in 1917 from descendants of its builder, Sir Richard Weston. (Weston’s young son, Francis, had the misfortune of being beheaded by Henry VIII after the king decided that Francis had engaged in more than tennis matches with Anne Boleyn, his second queen, during royal visits to Sutton Place.)
With numerous other roofs to keep in repair, Geordie was ready to part with the twenty-seven-bedroom, redbrick pile on 700 acres. Getty made the lowball offer of £60,000, which was promptly accepted.
Although it took several months to install acres of new curtains, linens, and upholstery, Sutton Place came largely furnished—Bullimore included. A native of Norfolk, England, he had served as butler to Joseph Kennedy when he was the American ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, and to Henry Ford II, before the Duke of Sutherland hired him at Sutton Place. Getty described him as “benevolently despotic.”
Another indispensable employee was the footman, Frank Parkes—Bullimore’s longtime companion. While guests were likely unaware of their relationship, it was evident to everyone that Parkes’s floral arrangements were second to none. Some visitors even compared them favorably to the legendary florist Constance Spry’s.
A rotating cast of other lively characters inhabited Sutton Place too: Getty’s numerous lady friends and mistresses. Among them were Penelope Kitson, a well-bred English divorcée; Mary Teissier, a lady of Russian and French extraction with regal bearing; Rosabella Burch, a seductive Nicaraguan widow; and Lady Ursula d’Abo, née Manners, a daughter of the 9th Duke of Rutland (as well as the niece of the celebrated Lady Diana Cooper).
His protestations against the press notwithstanding, Getty warmed up to reporters. The gates of Sutton Place were opened to a variety of glossies, from Town & Country, with which he discussed entertaining (“The English are simply marvelous at giving a party. They’re never blasé.…”) to Cosmopolitan, with which he discussed, naturally, his success with women and his failure at marriage. (“You have to face facts. If you’ve tried to fly an airplane and crashed five times, you had better give up. It’s too dangerous.”)
But it was a fifty-five-minute BBC program, The Solitary Billionaire, aired in February 1963, that probably created the most indelible public image of J. Paul Getty. A documentary, it was also something of a precursor of reality TV. It began in the dining room, with the camera panning, and panning, down the immense seventy-foot length of the silver-plate-laden refectory table (previously owned by William Randolph Hearst), until finally coming upon the aptly named title character, who was dining in solitude. “An absolute monarch, his real wealth incalculable—remote and mysterious as someone from another planet,” the announcer intoned. Trailed by Shaun, a forlorn-looking Alsatian (the four-legged kind), Getty proceeded to take the horn-rimmed host and interlocutor, Alan Whicker, on a tour of the manor, even offering him a demonstration of his fitness regimen, in which Getty, still clad in a three-piece suit, did overhand presses with a barbell, a Renoir in the background. Quizzing Getty about his already famous frugality (“There are a great many stories, Mr. Getty, of your care with money”), Whicker inquired about that phone booth that had been installed “to prevent guests from abusing your hospitality.” “Well,” Getty answered, “I think right-thinking guests would consider it a benefit. It’s rather daunting if you are visiting someone, and you have to place a long-distance call and charge your host with it.”
Just three weeks later, Getty made an entry into his diary verifying his celebrity status: My name was mentioned on the Lucy show on TV tonight. Lucy was expecting a blind date.
Throughout the sixties and seventies, Getty produced several publications of his own, through which he clearly intended to build and burnish his legend. My Life and Fortunes, a memoir published in 1963, struck a Horatio Alger–like note from its first sentence: “In 1914, a brawling, bare-knuckled frontier atmosphere still prevailed in Oklahoma.”
Getty had a knack for coining memorable maxims. “The meek shall inherit the earth—but not its mineral rights,” he declared. Then there was his advice when asked for his recipe for success: “Rise early, work hard, and strike oil.”
From 1961 to 1965, he wrote monthly columns for Playboy in which he expounded on the themes of “men, money, and values in today’s society,” which were subsequently published in book form under the title How to be Rich. He opted not to publish these essays in any of the “staider” magazines, because they had lesser reach among his intended audience of “young executives and university students,” he said. “[Whereas] Mr. Hefner’s frisky and epidermal periodical attracts the nation’s highest readership among men in these two categories. And it was precisely these individuals whose thinking-processes the articles were designed to prod and even jolt.”
(A seventysomething Getty recalled a private chat in which he delighted in regaling a thirtysomething Hef with tales of his youthful sexual exploits, to the latter’s chagrin. “Younger people,” explained Getty, “are discomfited by the suggestion that members of their swinging generation are not, after all, the first to have enjoyed amorous adventures while still in their teens.”)
In The Joys of Collecting (1965), Getty delivered a didactic art primer, with anecdotes and advice that aimed to convey to the reader “the romance and zest… that make art collecting one of the most exhilarating and satisfying of all endeavors.”
A decade later, in the last years of his life, he wrote another memoir, As I See It, which appeared just after his death. Here, there’s a different tone. It’s not so sunny. A good deal is pessimistic and defensive. Family tragedies had taken their toll.
“The idea that people who are reputedly wealthy must be miserable seems to gladden countless hearts,” he wrote. “After a time, a person who is wealthy grows a tough impervious skin. It is a protective carapace essential for survival.”
During his lifetime, then, Getty cultivated his image as a rich skinflint. Following his death in 1976, it was easy to turn him into a caricature—one of the twentieth century’s premiere Scrooges. But in the succession of articles, books, and films that appeared in the years to come about him—and, inevitably, his heirs—the narrative grew darker and more unsympathetic.
In one of the first biographies, The House of Getty, published in 1985, English journalist Russell Miller established a tone on his dedication page: “To my family, with heartfelt thanks that our name is not Getty.”
Perhaps it was Getty’s somber countenance that caused him to be depicted as such an ogre. But appearances can be deceiving.
“If he looked gloomy, it was because he had three facelifts,” Gillian Wilson, the longtime curator of decorative arts at the J. Paul Getty Museum, explained to me. “So when his face lost all its plasticity, there was a great collapse and he looked rather gloomy. It took a great deal of effort to put a smile on and he didn’t bother. But he was perfectly happy.”
Though he was ruthless in business, people who actually knew Getty—whose eyes were described as “penetratingly blue”—liked him, his ex-wives and former mistresses included. Over time, some of them have stepped forth to offer their views.
One year after his death, Robina Lund wrote an affectionate memoir, The Getty I Knew. But she held back from revealing that she and Getty (forty-four years her senior) had become lovers in the early sixties, about a year after he hired her away from Slaughter and May and made her his English legal advisor and press officer. Their romance continued until his death.
Four decades later, the releases of All the Money in the World and the FX TV series Trust prompted Lund, now a retired octogenarian in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, to disclose the full extent of her relationship with Getty, which included two failed pregnancies, and to defend him. “Both [depictions] were gross distortions… complete fabrications, and obscene at that,” she said in a podcast with her niece, Glenda D. Roberts, a psychotherapist. “I want people to know the truth. He’s been maligned, to a disgusting extent. He was lovable and very loving… very caring, very gently affectionate. The only person he was mean with was himself.”
More recently, she shared other fond memories of Getty with me: “What were the things I liked most about him? His kindness and empathy, especially toward people in genuine trouble; his modesty; his sense of humor and enjoyment of fun; his intellect and knowledge; his respect for women and their intellects; his willingness to debate with opposing views.” Lund also recollected Getty’s “very good ‘party tricks.’ He was, for instance, a superb, but not malicious, mimic.”
In 2014, ninety-eight-year-old Lady Ursula d’Abo came forward with her own defense, in her memoir The Girl with the Widow’s Peak. “He really was the most charming man, made into this monster by journalists,” she wrote. (She was a widow in her early fifties and he was in his late seventies when she began seeing him around 1970.) “Very few people saw the kind, cozy side of Paul as more often than not he was on his guard when he mixed in society. He was clever and used to study Latin grammar at breakfast. He made you feel like you were the only person in the world when you were with him. He had a great sense of fun.”
Lady Ursula, who was one of the six maids of honor at the coronation of George VI in 1937, passed away in 2017, a few days short of 101, survived by three children from her second marriage. Her eldest, John Henry Erland d’Abo—who, during his school days at Eton, spent many breaks at Sutton Place—has also stuck up for his mother’s old flame. “He was absolutely not as portrayed. The movies were very inaccurate,” d’Abo said. “He could be difficult. But all very rich people are difficult.
“You liked him,” he continued. “He was funny, with a very, very dry sense of humor. He was always interested in trying to ameliorate his knowledge in matters that he didn’t understand. When I see [Getty’s grandson] Mark today, he is the spitting image of him.”
When Jean Paul Getty was born, in Minneapolis on December 15, 1892, his parents, George and Sarah, were just beginning to rise out of the harsh circumstances that their families had endured for generations. Wealthy though they became in later life, they retained forever that particularly strict brand of Scots-Irish frugality, as did their son.
It is curious that, despite George and Sarah’s Anglo-Saxon, Calvinist background, they chose the Gallic spelling for their son’s first name. (He was always called by his middle name, however.)
George Franklin Getty, whose ancestors had come over from the north of Ireland at the end of the eighteenth century, was born in 1855 in Maryland. His father, John, a struggling farmer, died of diphtheria when George was six, forcing him to do what farmwork and errands he could to bring in pennies.
Rescue came from an uncle, a preacher, who brought him to Ohio for education. Resolute George worked his way through Ohio Normal University, where he met Sarah McPherson Risher—a stern-looking woman almost three years his elder. They married in 1879.
In Sarah, a fellow Methodist whose ancestors had fled Scotland for Ohio in 1746, he found his match. In fact, she may have been even more determined and ambitious than he was. He planned to become a teacher, but she steered him to law, providing $100 from her dowry to finance his studies at the University of Michigan. Their funds had to be stretched in 1880, when a daughter, Gertrude Lois, was born to the couple. Two years later, George earned his law degree, and opened his own practice.
His career was off to a promising start, but Sarah thought they could do better in Minneapolis. In 1884 they arrived in the bustling midwestern city. His legal business, which catered to the insurance industry, began to thrive. But the young family was shattered in 1890 when Gertrude perished in that winter’s typhoid epidemic. Sarah was stricken too. She recovered, but her hearing declined. Though George hadn’t been infected, the loss of his child shook his faith and led him to convert to Christian Science.
In 1892, when she was forty, Sarah gave birth to Jean Paul. Always to be an only child, he grew up much loved by these overprotective parents. Yet—firm, devout people that they were—they never gave him physical affection.
“My parents,” Paul wrote, “knew the now apparently-lost art of showing their child great love and affection without being overly indulgent or permissive.”
Paul’s solitary childhood, and the Getty fortunes, were transformed in 1903, when George was called to Bartlesville, later to be part of Oklahoma but then in Indian Territory, and in the early years of its oil boom. There to settle an insurance claim for one of his clients, George lifted his sights. He invested $500 in a lease to the oil rights of “Lot 50.” Within a few months, multiple wells to which he had rights were gushing.
By 1905 the Gettys were wealthy people, and they relocated, at Sarah’s behest once more—this time to Los Angeles. At 651 South Kingsley Drive, adjacent to a still-unpaved section of Wilshire Boulevard, George constructed a fine two-story stucco house. The architectural style: Tudor.
Paul was a voracious reader, but his academic record was hardly stellar. Structured environments like schools didn’t bring out the best in him. He did well enough at Harvard Military Academy and then at the University of Southern California, where he studied economics and political science, but his more stimulating and formative experiences came through his summer jobs, working for his father’s company, Minnehoma Oil (the name being an elision of Minnesota and Oklahoma). Later, Getty senior bought or established other companies, including George F. Getty Inc.
After earning his stripes as a roustabout (a laborer who performs the heaviest and dirtiest work on a drilling site), Paul rose up to become a tool dresser (an assistant to a driller). A “toolie” was required to be a crack technician and skilled blacksmith in order to do his tasks of sharpening drilling bits and tools and keeping them in optimal order.
To master this craft, Paul convinced a leathery veteran known as Grizzle to take him under his wing. “Such was his reputation in the fields that when he pronounced that he considered me a qualified toolie, it carried more weight than any dozen university diplomas,” Getty wrote.
But the strongest influence in Paul’s life, and, to an extent, his parents’ too, lay a continent and an ocean away. Early on, the Gettys developed a profound reverence for Europe. Its art and refined culture were beacons to them. As a family, they undertook three grand tours, each one lasting at least a few months. The first, in 1909, when Paul was sixteen, took them to England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Monte Carlo, and Holland.
In 1912, Paul convinced his parents to send him to Oxford to continue his education. The US, he said, was “insular, isolationist… it largely ignored what transpired outside its borders.” Before reporting to Magdalen College in Oxford, he spent two months traveling through Japan and China. A year later, upon finishing his exams, he embarked on a yearlong solo trip that took him across Scandinavia, Russia, Greece, Turkey, and Western Europe. When he reached Paris in June 1914, his parents were waiting; another family grand tour had been organized. But their itinerary was altered by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo later that month, by which time they had reached London, where they awoke to learn that Austria had declared war on Serbia. Arranging passage back to the States was difficult, as most ocean liners were being pressed into service as troop transports.
George eventually prevailed upon the Cunard Line, and on September 12 the Gettys set sail back to America on the Lusitania. Several months later, the ship sank to the bottom of the Atlantic after being hit by German torpedoes.
Prior to World War I, it was uncommon for West Coast families, even wealthy ones, to undertake such extensive European travel. Certainly, few of Getty’s fellow wildcatters harbored such worldly curiosity. It’s interesting to compare Getty to his peers on that Fortune rich list, such as Sid Richardson. Born one year apart, they were exact contemporaries. But Richardson rarely strayed far from Fort Worth. “I don’t want to go nowhere outside the US,” he declared.
Getty was also a whiz at languages. He became fluent in German, French, and Spanish; he got along commendably in Italian, Russian, Greek, and Arabic—which he taught himself so he could negotiate better terms in the Middle East. He could also read Latin and ancient Greek.
Once back in California, Paul expressed his desire to become a diplomat or a writer. To entice Paul into the oil business, his father advanced him $10,000. Paul could invest it in whatever oil fields he chose, but most of the profits would go back to Minnehoma—save 30 percent, which Paul could keep. Within a year, oil was flowing from wells he had taken leases on. At twenty-three, he had made his first million.
In the ensuing decade, J. Paul Getty also devoted a good deal of his energy to another vocation: marriage. Unlike his business career, which he pursued till almost his dying breath, this one had a compressed and finite time frame, though his strong interest in women endured till the very end.
By 1958, he had five failed marriages behind him—each to a woman about half his age. The first four marital unions were particularly short-lived: his maiden trip to the altar came in 1923 and his fourth divorce decree was issued in 1936.
In My Life and Fortunes, he shoehorned in a speedy summary of weddings. His opening sentence: “Then, in October 1923, two months before my thirty-first birthday, I took my first plunge into the troubled seas of matrimony.”
Jeannette DeMont, a nineteen-year-old beauty of Polish extraction, had just graduated from high school in Los Angeles. He described her as having “a vibrant and magnetic personality and remarkable degree of intelligence.” They eloped to Ventura, then returned to Los Angeles and surprised his parents with news of the wedding. In a house he rented not far from George and Sarah, marital life began well enough. Jeannette was soon pregnant. But after the birth on July 9, 1924, of his first son, George Franklin Getty II, named after his father, “jarring notes of dissension and discord crept into the relationship.” Two months after George was born, Jeannette filed for divorce.
Getty accepted the blame, and pinpointed the problem, in his inimitable fashion: “No wife wants to feel she is being neglected for an oil rig.” In fact, Jeannette had diagnosed the same problem. “I married you, not your oil rigs,” she pouted.
That conflict—between the demands of business and the responsibilities of marriage—was the crux of all his subsequent divorces, he maintained.
After their separation, Getty admitted to feeling “stunned and dismayed.” There are discrepancies, however, regarding the date the divorce decree became final. In his memoirs, Getty says it was February 15, 1925; other sources have said it arrived September 22, 1927.
In any event, Paul soon enough resumed a warm rapport with his ex-wife, the start of a pattern. “Once the acrimony that accompanies any divorce was dispelled, Jeannette and I re-established a friendly relationship, and have remained friends ever since,” he wrote in 1963.
In the aftermath of the divorce, Paul had little time for reflection. It was a banner year for Minnehoma Oil. Several wells were gushing.
By the spring of 1926, with his fortunes flush, he took a break. Driving in his Duesenberg to Mexico, he enrolled in Spanish language and history courses at the National University of Mexico City, where he met Allene Ashby, seventeen, the tall, slender daughter of a Texas rancher, who was there with her elder sister, Belene. Getty recalled being “enchanted” by the “vivacious, attractive, and brilliant” Allene when they took romantic horseback rides together. Within weeks, they drove to Cuernavaca and, impetuously, were wed. If some sources are correct about the date of his divorce decree from Jeannette, the marriage was bigamist.
At the same time, Paul became very close to Belene. There is some conjecture as to how close—we will return to that a bit later.
For now, suffice it to say it was a splendid summer. But when it drew to a close, he and Allene realized they had little in common, that they’d made a mistake rushing into marriage. In September, they parted amicably, though they kept in touch; apparently they also kept the marriage—Getty’s only one that did not produce a child—a secret from some family members. “Somewhat later,” according to Paul, “Allene got around to suing for divorce.” That decree came finally late in 1928—in the nick of time for his third wedding.
After Paul steered the Duesenberg back to LA, the thirty-four-year-old millionaire resumed his established patterns, another of which was bunking again on South Kingsley Drive. “I always went back and lived at my parents’ home between marriages,” he told Cosmopolitan. “I had a great love and respect for them both. They had a marriage any two people could be proud of.… I could never achieve that, I’m sorry to say.”
When the spring of 1927 wheeled around, these septuagenarians and their son embarked upon another grand tour. Accompanied by George’s devoted Japanese valet, Frank Komai, they crossed the continent by rail, then sailed on June 7 from New York aboard the SS Resolute. By all accounts the next months were idyllic, their itinerary encompassing London, Paris, Strasbourg, Baden-Baden, Venice, Rome, Naples, Augsburg, Munich, Innsbruck, and Cortina d’Ampezzo.
As summer came to an end, Paul waved the trio off as they boarded the SS Olympic. In no rush to return to America, he rented a petit meublé in Paris for six weeks. It was during this time that Getty made a decision to thenceforth spend five months a year in Europe, a vow he broke only when it was made impossible by war in 1939.
Tearing himself away from Paris in October 1927 wasn’t easy, but his father was ailing (George had a stroke in 1923 from which he never fully recovered), so Paul’s attention was needed more than ever at the Getty businesses. An agreement was reached for the son to buy 30 percent of the stock in his father’s company for $1 million, “which would give me a considerable voice in the management of the company.” It was another demonstration of the Gettys’ capacity to simultaneously negotiate contracts and familial relations.
With business on an even keel, Paul returned to Europe in the summer of 1928. One of his first stops was Vienna. Dining at the Grand Hotel, he became infatuated with a flaxen-haired, blue-eyed beauty at a nearby table. The future third Mrs. J. Paul Getty was Adolphine “Fini” Helmle. Seventeen, she was seated with her parents. “Romance blossomed despite the strictly chaperoned climate in which it was nurtured,” Paul recounted.
Herr Dr. Otto Helmle—a wealthy engineer who headed the Badenwerk industrial complex in Karlsruhe, Germany—was not amused by a twice-married thirty-six-year-old American courting his teenage daughter. But Getty’s charms won out. Young Fini, convent girl that she was, was determined enough to override her father’s diktat.
In December, Paul arranged for her and her mother to sail to Havana, where he and Fini were married (the ink on his divorce decree from Allene perhaps barely dry). Once wed, the pair enjoyed a two-month honeymoon in Miami and Palm Beach, and then a leisurely cross-country drive back to Los Angeles, where Fini was introduced to Paul’s parents, surprised again.
George and Sarah took an immediate liking to Fini, which was fortunate, since Paul, too busy with work to find a new house, deposited his new bride with them on South Kingsley Drive. Fini, who spoke little English, became pregnant in the spring. Lonely, she sailed that summer back to Germany for the birth of their child. Paul promised to follow as soon as he could. In October 1929, just as he was ready to embark from New York, the stock market crashed. He reached Berlin just in time to be beside Fini for the birth, on December 19, of his second son, Jean Ronald, whom he would call Ronny.
Getty’s happiness over becoming a father again was tempered by his new father-in-law’s opposition toward him. Helmle issued an ultimatum that Paul would have to live permanently in Germany with his wife and child, or he would insist Fini get a divorce. Paul remained in Europe for several months, trying to work things out. But in April a cable reached him with the dire news that George had had another stroke and his condition was serious. Getty departed immediately for California.
Amidst the drama surrounding the death of George F. Getty at age seventy-five on May 31, 1930, and the early months of the Depression, Helmle pressed the divorce case forcefully. By the time the decree was finally issued in August 1932, Getty had to agree to a large financial settlement, which left him bitter at Dr. Helmle, though not at his daughter. “I was forced to admit ruefully to myself that, in Dr. Helmle, I had encountered a businessman who was most certainly my equal,” Getty wrote. (Grief and loneliness may well have propelled Helmle’s actions: his wife, Fini’s mother, had died unexpectedly in the early 1930s during what was supposed to be a routine operation.)
As war clouds gathered in Germany, Fini and Ronald moved to Switzerland for safety. Dr. Helmle, a Catholic and a staunch opponent of Hitler, was imprisoned. Eventually he was released, but his fortune was seized by the Nazis. In 1939, Fini and Ronald fled to Los Angeles.
Back in Los Angeles, even as Paul faced the enormous financial repercussions of his father’s death and the divorce negotiations, he began his next romance. Things being as complicated as they were, it would take some time to get to the altar for this wedding.
In 1930, Ann Rork was twenty-two. In fact, Ann and Paul had first met at a restaurant in Hollywood when she was a spirited fourteen-year-old. Some electricity between them was evident, but her parents forbade them to see each other.
Her father was producer Samuel Edwin Rork, who made movies with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Rudolph Valentino, Will Rogers (Ann’s godfather), and silent picture “It girl” Clara Bow—who was also reputed to be his lover, which was perhaps what prompted Ann’s mother, onetime starlet Helen Welch Rork, to relocate with Ann to Boston.
Eventually Ann found her way back to Hollywood, where she got parts in a few early “talkies,” and somehow reconnected with still-legally-wed Paul in 1930. Gossip that they were dating began to circulate around Hollywood, prompting Paul to transfer their romance out of town. In early 1931 he took her to Berlin, where he dealt with continuing divorce drama; in August he brought her to New York, where he established her in a series of hotels and apartments, while he continued to live in Los Angeles.
They took two more trips together to Europe, including a summer holiday to Italy during which, on September 7, 1932, she gave birth to Getty’s third son, at sea. They were en route from Naples to Genoa.
Owing to miscommunication with the notary in the port of La Spezia, where Paul and Ann disembarked with their precious little bundle, confusion over this son’s name has persisted. His father asked for him to be named Jean Paul Getty Jr. But the Italian clerk wrote down “Eugenio Paul” on his birth certificate. Once in America, that turned into Eugene. When he returned to Italy as an adult, he officially changed his name to J. Paul Getty Jr. To make things more befuddling, he adopted the anglicized spelling of his first name: his obituaries referred to him as John Paul Getty Jr. In any event, his first name was never used—during his lifetime he was just Paul, or Sir Paul, to pretty much everybody.
Once the divorce from Fini was at last sealed, wedding number four took place on December 2, 1932, in Cuernavaca, Mexico (just like marriage number two). “I embarked upon yet another marital venture,” the groom recorded. Now legally wed, Ann and Paul moved into a beach house he bought in Malibu, though Paul continued to keep his clothes at his mother’s house. Sarah, for her part, was frosty to poor Ann. As usual, business pulled Paul away. By the birth on December 20, 1933, of Gordon Peter, the marriage was on the rocks, and the couple separated. She continued to live in Malibu and later sued for divorce, as he decamped to New York. Their divorce decree came in 1936.
Ann, described by contemporaries as “madcap,” went on to compile a colorful and impressive marital résumé of her own. In the club car of the train bound for Reno, Nevada, where she was heading to obtain her divorce from Paul, she met Herbert Douglas Wilson, an Ohio-born stockbroker. Their marriage lasted less than a year, but before it ended in divorce it produced a half sister for Paul and Gordon, Donna Wilson Long. (A resident of Palm Beach, she is an equestrian and an artist with an active social life.) The records vary, but 1941 appears to be the likely year of Ann’s wartime marriage to Jay Ruppert Ross, an aviator who volunteered for the British Royal Air Force. Four years later, she married Joseph Stanton McInerney, an attorney, with whom she settled in San Francisco. Though this marriage was not to endure either, she remained in the Bay Area, where she brought up the children.
During their childhoods, Paul Jr. and Gordon could enjoy the camaraderie that came with being the only pair of full siblings born to J. Paul Getty. Like all the Getty sons, they seldom saw their father, or their half brothers. “Oh, this is your brother Ronald. Do you know him?” Paul Jr. was asked by his father during a rare get-together at the Getty Oil offices in Los Angeles, when the boys were on the verge of puberty. In fact, they hadn’t yet met.
In the autumn of 1931, Ann Rork, temporarily domiciled in Manhattan, pined for her lover a continent away.
“Darling,” she addressed J. Paul Getty in a letter postmarked September 18, 1931, from 38 E. Fifty-Ninth Street in New York City and mailed to him at the Subway Terminal Building in Los Angeles. “The letter I wrote yesterday is now void and I am again on top of the world.… There is now hope of my being able to become pregnant.… You have no idea sweetheart how badly I want a family.… I’m so happy that you’re phoning tonight.”
Over the next months, she wrote him a series of poignant letters. His replies are not in the archives of the Getty Research Institute. But, if one can judge only by the ardor of Ann’s missives, it is hard to believe that the recipient was the cruel, coldhearted misanthrope some have accused him of being.
The letters do, however, confirm one stereotype: Getty was cheap. He was putting her up in far from royal style, in the depths of the Depression. Cans of sardines were sometimes all she could afford for dinner in her room, unless a friend treated her to a meal out.
A letter of October 8 indicates she wasn’t in it, as it were, for the money:
“In spite of the fact that you are a very wealthy man I live as would become the sweetheart of a striving young poet, but, my love has not flown nor will it ever,” she assured him.
Yet in the same letter, she chided her beau. She has caught wind that he has been veritably bragging to her friends and family—including her mother—how parsimonious he has been with her: “… by much propaganda I had them ready to love you for being so good to me. Then you turn around and admit that you kept me without bus fare for months!… So please stop that conversation.… Remember I’m one of the few people in the world that have gone to the pain of trying to understand you and that you make things very difficult for me by alienating people whose high opinion of you is necessary to my happiness.”
Not to say it is all penury. She wrote excitedly of shopping for pretty hats, coats, and shoes—but on sale, or at wholesale. But then, on October 2, she wrote, “Sweetheart Angel—I learned something last night. It’s no fun to look beautiful when the man you love isn’t there to see you.”
On occasion, she partook of glamorous Manhattan society. “Expect tonight will be gala. Condé Nast is having a party after the concert at his penthouse and Mrs. Stotesbury is having one at the Casino. Mrs. Hearst also wanted to entertain.…”
She also curled up with some good new books: “I’m reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and it fills me with the most terrific nostalgia for Europe. When can we sail?”
Mostly, however, she pines for her “Angel Mine,” as she often addresses him.
“Oh darling, I love you so, miss you so.”
“I love you, only you, ever you.”
“I’m so frightened. Oh why aren’t you here? I need you so badly.… Oh please dear come to me.”
“It’s raining cats and dogs—very depressing. But your wire makes me believe I’ll never be unhappy again.”
On October 31, it was all blue sky and sunshine ahead, when Getty phoned her to say they would be departing the following week on a round-the-world voyage: “I’m simply breathless over the itinerary.… I’m practically packed—will finish Sunday.… Oh blessed to be with you again Thursday—I’m afraid I’ll burst!”
Two years and two babies later, it didn’t end happily ever after for the couple. But in her letters to Getty in the years after their breakup, it is clear that they remained mutually affectionate.
By May 2, 1934 they had traded coasts—she in Santa Monica and he in New York, at the Hotel Biltmore. She wrote, “Try to eat regularly and if you get too tired go away for a few days.”
“Dearest Paul,” she wrote on February 25, 1941 (five years after their divorce decree). “Such fun to speak to you yesterday, and such a temptation to accept your suggestion of Acapulco.” Before signing off, she asked him: “Do you suppose I’ll ever get over missing you?… hoping you are happy—Always, A.”
On July 7, 1941, she sent a letter from the Lake Placid Club in the Adirondacks, where she was participating in the summer ice-dancing competitions that were all the rage. “The boys seem to be having a wonderful time at camp,” she opened, before reeling off her plans for the remainder of the summer, which included Newport and East Hampton. In closing, she said, “I do miss you darling. Be a little careful about a girl that works at Saks. All the saleswomen are pointing her out to their customers as a girl that won’t be working there much longer because of Mr. Getty. Love—A.”
There is another touching, and illuminating, file of correspondence in the Getty archives: letters written by J. Paul Getty to Allene and Belene. They were discovered by Belene’s granddaughter, Christine Banks, a Carlsbad, California, cosmetologist, after the death in 1984 of her grandfather Orell “Frank” Smoot. Belene Ashby Smoot predeceased him by four years, at the age of seventy-six; they’d had one child together. Allene died in 1970 at age sixty-one, never having remarried or had children.
While rummaging through her late grandfather’s desk, Banks found stacks of uncashed checks made out to Belene, stock certificates, and notes, all with the name Getty on them—a name she’d never heard of. After a good deal of research, including visits to staff members at the Getty Center, she learned who J. Paul Getty was, and that in his will he’d left Belene $183,281 of Getty Oil common stock, and $300 a month for the remainder of her life. Over the previous forty years, he had also been sending her regular checks, letters, and a dozen roses on her birthday every year.
Christine Banks nonetheless concluded that her grandmother and Getty had not been lovers, though others have drawn that conclusion. In any event, he maintained great fondness for both sisters his entire life, as his letters attest. (Unfortunately for Christine, none of Getty’s beneficence reached her. While Belene “never spent one penny of it,” she recalled, her daughter—Christine’s mother, Donna—blew through it on “spur of the moment” spending that included several time-share condominiums. Donna died “virtually broke.”)
Paul’s first letter to Allene was postmarked from Los Angeles on November 20, 1926—a few months after they parted in Mexico. “I was indeed glad to hear from you. You broke a long silence. Of course, I am not mad at you,” he wrote. “I have too many trials and tribulations in my business ventures to relish silly anger.… Trusting to see you very soon.”
“Hello Infant,” began a sunny letter he composed to her on June 26, 1927, from “Le Beau, Paris,” where he and his parents, on one of their grand tours, had very much enjoyed the Grand Prix that day. “But I would like it much better if you were here,” he told her. “Do take care of yourself and Beanie and don’t see too much of your friend… Did you get the cable and allowance all right? I will send you the other fifty a little later,” he finished the letter, signing off “With loads of kisses.”
A short Western Union cable sent to her two months later indicates he sought to resume their romantic relationship: “Dearest Precious, Expect your first letters in New York. Love you, please leave now.”
There is no record of the two ever seeing each other again. In a letter sent June 24, 1928, from the Grand Hotel Wien, Paul mentioned meeting someone he doesn’t name, but doubtless he was referring to Fini: “I found the girl I wanted to see, in Vienna.” Yet he maintained his warm tone toward Allene: “I have certainly missed you.… The 28th is your birthday—just think how smart you will be—nineteen—it doesn’t seem possible… Please write me.”
Three months later, a letter from Paris is full of shock:
“I just received your letter.… Are you really in a sanitarium?… I got such a nice letter from you in early June. I have always been very proud of you and liked the way you do things and then, like a bolt from the blue, came the letter you wrote June 15th. It was so terrible. I’ll never get over it.… But if you have really been ill I am terribly sorry.… I had expected to come home about July 4th, but when I got your letter in Vienna, I decided that I didn’t want to come back at all. This summer I just figured you out of the picture. Can you blame me? Once such letter, and then not a line for six weeks, from you or Beanie?”
The Ashby-Getty correspondence continued for decades, but henceforth all the notes were addressed to Belene, who, like her sister, lived in the Los Angeles area. “Dearest Beanie,” he wrote on August 9, 1950, from the Grand Hotel Victoria-Jungfrau, Interlaken: “Your letter just came. I am glad Allene is feeling better… use your discretion about the gift, tell her it was from me, if you want to. I hope to be back in October.”
In a February 1969 letter from Sutton Place, Paul thanked Belene for her “very welcome Valentine” as well as for some photos from that distant summer. “The Mexico City pictures brough back vivid remembrance of our sojourn in Mexico 1926. What a wonderful time we had and how jealous Van turned out to be!”
One year later, he reached out to her following Allene’s death: “I have been trying to phone you.… It is tragic to think that poor Allene has gone. She had so much to cope with in her life. I know that nothing I can say will be helpful. We both know what a sweet person she was.”
He wrote again in October 1971: “Dear Beanie, it has certainly been much too long since we have seen each other and I am planning to be back some time next spring. I wish you were here to go on a long walk with me and the dogs. I think often of you and the many years of unbroken friendship.” Over the forty-three years since Paul’s divorce from Allene, and his three subsequent marriages, his fondness for the Ashby sisters had persisted.
Before getting to the story of J. Paul Getty’s fifth and final wife, let’s rewind to 1920, and go back to the subject of business.
Getty began his career as a wildcatter—an independent operator—and he kept that mentality all his life. He usually went against the grain of prevailing trends, fashion—and big corporations. In the twenties, while many were feverishly buying stocks as values soared, Getty sank his money into buying leases on lots, betting that he would strike oil.
On the question of where to drill, Getty certainly had good instincts, but he put his faith in science—petroleum geology, to be specific. It was a field of study then in its infancy. Many old-time oilmen sneered at the notion that “some damned bookworm” could help them find oil. While Getty didn’t consider this branch of study an infallible science, he realized its potential. “I felt that, as with all things in nature, there must be some logical order to the manner in which petroleum was distributed within the earth’s surface,” he noted. “I was convinced that geology provided the oil prospector with certain generally fairly reliable guides and indicators to aid him in the search for oil.”
When the Depression came, Getty, not freighted with collapsed stocks, was in an advantageous position. He went from strength to strength, now snapping up stocks at a fraction of the value of the oil in the ground.
He began assembling holdings in a number of companies, then sought to gain controlling interests in them. Among the first was Pacific Western, one of the largest oil producers in California, which he acquired in 1931. The ultimate prize would be Tide Water Associated Oil, then America’s ninth-largest oil company, with over 1,200 service stations as well as refineries, storage, and marketing arms. It would provide the centerpiece of his master plan to become a fully integrated oil company. But in the first decades of the twentieth century, the idea of Getty acquiring Tide Water was akin to David slaying Goliath.
He began circling it covertly, his great white whale, buying up Tide Water stock quietly so as not to alert its management to a takeover threat or drive up the share price.
Concurrently, he had to deal with his mother. To Getty’s shock, his father had left virtually his entire $15 million estate in her hands. Ironically, while Paul became a world-famous tightwad, his father felt he was a spendthrift; he also disapproved of his son’s multiple divorces. Thus Paul had to contend with Sarah as well as with the board of George Getty Inc. At Christmas 1933, she offered to hand over her shares to him. A letter from mother to son illustrates the businesslike way in which Gettys communicated amongst themselves:
This offer shall remain open to and until 12 o’clock noon, December 30, 1933, and if not accepted by you in writing on or before that date and hour shall be considered as withdrawn by the undersigned and shall be wholly terminated and at an end.
Very truly yours,
Sarah C. Getty.
Soon after, he succeeded in easing her out of the company and gaining full control. In return, she insisted that they establish a family trust. “I want to be certain that you and your sons are financially secure and protected against the possible catastrophe which may result from speculation,” she reasoned. The paperwork was drawn up in December 1934; she contributed $2.5 million and he put in about $1 million. The Sarah C. Getty Trust commenced its work.
While the trust was meant to provide for all her descendants, there was one glaring inequity: Ronald was virtually excluded from it (he would receive just $3,000 a year—though his children would eventually share in the trust) because Paul, bitter at his former father-in-law for his role in the divorce from Fini, felt that the wealthy Helmle could shoulder the financial care of Ronald. But the loss of the Helmle fortune during World War II put Ronald at a great financial disadvantage compared to his brothers.
By the terms of the trust, Paul, its sole trustee, could borrow from its funds for purposes that would grow his business, such as buying stocks. In turn, he plowed his profits back into the trust. The capital grew and grew.
Days after signing the trust’s documents, Getty boarded a train traveling up the California coast, bound for America’s Valhalla, San Simeon, where press baron William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies, had invited him to a house party to ring in the New Year. On January 1, 1935, Getty received a long-distance call from New York that gave him the most momentous stock tip of his life. Though at first it sounded like a disaster.
A friend, Jay Hopkins (later the founder of General Dynamics Corporation), broke the news that the Rockefeller-family-dominated Standard Oil of New Jersey was transferring its large block of Tide Water shares to a new holding company, Mission Corporation, through which shares would be distributed to its own stockholders. Effectively, that would put gaining control of Tide Water out of Getty’s reach forever.
But Hopkins had an inside track: he knew that John D. Rockefeller Jr. was somehow unaware of the reasons behind Standard’s transfer, and that he was willing to sell his Mission shares. Having committed a fortune to building Rockefeller Center in Manhattan just as the economy collapsed, the Rockefeller family was then stretched a bit thin—for them.
Getty was only too eager to buy John D.’s shares, but he assumed that Standard’s management would quickly talk Rockefeller out of selling.
“Not a chance,” Hopkins told him. “He’s aboard a train bound for Arizona. They can’t reach him, and I have his authorization to sell.”
Getty closed the transaction on the spot, which gave him his breakthrough leap forward in his quest for Tidewater (now one word), though he would not gain clear-cut control until 1951.
(In the 1970s, Getty slyly recalled what happened after Rockefeller debarked from the train and Standard Oil managers got hold of him: “They said, ‘Oh, Mr. Rockefeller, we were very anxious to get in touch with you. We wanted to tell you to be sure not to sell your stock in Mission Corporation because we’re in a big proxy fight.’?” Informed that he had, they pressed him for the identity of the buyer. “?‘I understand he’s a very nice young man, but I can’t remember his name,’ said Rockefeller. And they all said: ‘His name wasn’t Getty, was it?’ He replied: ‘Yes, I think it was.’ They answered: ‘Oh my God.’?”)
Fresh from his triumph at San Simeon, Getty had yet to work out the details of his divorce from Ann. Amicable as she might have been, her lawyers were less accommodating. Legal proceedings, which Paul described as “noisome,” dragged on in Los Angeles. It must have seemed a good idea to get out of town. So, breaking one of his old habits, instead of moving back in with his mother postdivorce, he opened a new chapter of his life in New York.
Flush as he was, he opted for once to splurge, taking a sublease on one of Manhattan’s most palatial apartments. Its address was prophetic: 1 Sutton Place South.
The furnished penthouse he rented there would become a pivotal influence in his life, for it belonged to a great connoisseur, Mrs.Frederick Guest. One of Getty’s fellow Fortune listees some decades later, the former Amy Phipps was the daughter of industrialist Henry Phipps, Andrew Carnegie’s partner, and the wife of English aristocrat Freddie Guest, a cousin of Winston Churchill. In 1947, Amy and Freddie’s son married Lucy “Sissy” Cochrane—C. Z. Guest, who became a celebrated style icon.
The 6,400-square-foot aerie atop Sutton Place—the building itself had been commissioned around 1920 by Amy’s father—featured wraparound terraces and seventeen rooms, including a pair of boiserie-lined forty-foot drawing rooms. But it was the contents of the apartment—Amy Guest’s magnificent collection of eighteenth-century French and English furniture—that so inspired Getty.
“This, I suppose, more than anything, motivated me to begin… my own collection,” Getty explained. “I suddenly became aware that fine furniture was no less fine art than a painting or a piece of sculpture.… It wasn’t that a spark was struck. It was rather like a blazing torch was applied, and my collector’s urge flared high.”
It was a propitious time to embark upon a collecting career. In the depths of the Depression, there were great bargains to be had. Getty became well-acquainted with the leading art dealers and auction houses in New York and Europe and methodically studied art history and the art market. He began to acquire museum-quality pieces of fine and decorative art, items that propelled him on the road to the museum he founded decades later.
During this New York interlude, he picked up another trophy, the Pierre Hotel. A forty-two-story tower at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Ninth Street, it had been lavishly erected in 1930 at a cost of $6 million. In the distress of 1938, Getty snapped it up for a relative song, paying only $2.35 million.
Romance returned to his life one night in May 1935, when friends brought him to the New Yorker, a smart supper club on East Fifty-First. They’d just been ushered to a ringside table when a raven-haired chanteuse appeared in the smoky spotlight and hit it with “Night and Day.” It was the future fifth Mrs. J. Paul Getty, Louise Dudley Lynch, age twenty-two. “I was hopelessly smitten,” he said.
Teddy, as everyone called her, was no nightclub vamp. Born in Chicago to a prosperous merchant family, she’d been raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, and her name was listed in the Social Register. Financier Bernard Baruch was an uncle. Unbeknownst to the patrons at the New Yorker and most anyone, she harbored serious ambitions to become an opera singer.
As soon as she finished her set and the applause died down, she found herself looking into “the bluest eyes of an immensely charming man,” she recalled.
“This is Paul, my friend from California,” said her friend Betzi Beaton, who happened to be one of Getty’s tablemates.
Dispensing with further chat, he swept Teddy into his arms. “Let’s dance,” he said.
“I closed my eyes and let my body follow his. We moved as one,” she remembered. “He was a fabulous dancer.”
“You’re very beautiful, Teddy, and your voice is too,” he said when the music ended, in the semidark. “You know, you should study opera. You’d be a great Carmen, or Tosca.”
Transfixed by this mysterious stranger, she caught her breath and asked, “And what do you do, Paul?”
“He’s in oil,” Betzi cut in.
“Oil? What show is that?” Teddy asked.
Within months, they were engaged. In January 1937, when he brought her to meet Sarah in Los Angeles, she passed muster.
This time, it was his fiancée’s schedule as much as his that delayed the wedding. At his encouragement, she threw herself into serious vocal study, which he paid for in exchange for a promise of 10 percent of her future earnings—her idea, she maintained. She also began traveling to give concerts and recitals. At last they sailed to Italy and were married in November 1939, in the Palazzo Senatorio, Rome’s palatial city hall in the Campidoglio overlooking the Forum.
But there was no honeymoon. She wanted to stay on in Italy to continue her studies, and he had business in California. So, after a postwedding lunch at the Ambassador Hotel, he rushed for the train to Naples, where he boarded the Conte di Savoia to New York.
Although World War II had begun, Italy was then still neutral. After Italy joined the Axis, Teddy extended her visa by signing on as a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune—which the National Fascist Party cited as the grounds for her arrest in December 1941. Suspected of being a spy, she was interned in Siena. In June 1942, she was released and repatriated aboard the Swedish boat Gripsholm, along with a group of American diplomats.
In her absence, Paul and his eldest son had joined the war effort. Paul moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he revved up production at the Spartan Aircraft Corporation, an asset of one of the many companies he had bought. George enlisted in the army. Commissioned as an infantry second lieutenant, he served in the Pacific theater.
The year 1941 ended on a sad note. At Christmastime, Sarah died, age eighty-nine. How I miss her! No one ever had a better mother, Paul wailed in his diary. Decades later, he observed, The years have done little to lessen my sense of loss.
Following Teddy’s arrival on the Gripsholm, she reunited with Paul in Tulsa, moving into his stucco bungalow near the Spartan factory. Her first morning, she woke to find a note in a familiar scrawl: “Darling… I’m at the factory.… Have a good breakfast. Love.”
But he was a tiger in bed: “He was as demanding and passionate as I. Strong and well-built from years of weight-lifting.… But it was also his mind, his sensitivity, that aroused me. I could never say no to this man… who so perfectly satisfied me sexually,” she recalled in her memoir, Alone Together: My Life with J. Paul Getty, published in September 2013, days before her one hundredth birthday.
After the war ended, she set up housekeeping in a beach house in Santa Monica that Paul acquired. “Paul was always leaving, for somewhere,” she recalled. But when he was home it was lovely. Sometimes they went over for dinner with their next-door neighbors, Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst. Just the four of them, and “WR” would run pictures too—often Marion’s old films.
About this time, another great bargain came to Getty’s attention: 64 oceanfront acres in Malibu (now Pacific Palisades), part of an old Spanish land-grant ranch. Snapping up the property, he drafted plans to rebuild the two-story cottage standing on the grounds, which came to be known as the Ranch House. While he never lived there (he stayed only a few nights), it was where his increasingly large shipments of art and antiques were sent. In the 1970s, the J. Paul Getty Museum rose on the site.
In June 1946, Teddy gave birth to Timothy. Two months premature, Timmy, as he was known, weighed five pounds and suffered from anemia. “I rejoiced at his arrival,” wrote Paul in his first memoir. At fifty-three, he had his fifth son.
“But this pleasant, peaceful interval did not last long, for in 1948 I was on the threshold of seizing the greatest opportunity and taking the biggest gamble of my entire career,” he later reminisced. Getty was not being hyperbolic. For he was about to enter… the Neutral Zone.
To almost everyone else in the world, the Neutral Zone was nothing but a barren wasteland—a 1,500-square-mile tract of desert between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. No evidence existed that oil lay underneath it. Once again Getty relied on his instincts and science. He commissioned the finest geologist he knew, Dr. Paul Walton, to make an aerial survey over the territory. After landing, Walton sent Getty a terse cable: STRUCTURES INDICATE OIL. In 1949, Getty offered the king of Saudi Arabia unheard-of terms for a sixty-year concession on the Saudi side. In addition to $9.5 million in cash, Getty agreed to pay $1 million per year for the entire term, whether or not oil was struck, plus the hefty royalty of 55 cents a barrel. Most of the oil industry laughed, predicting that the expenditure would be Getty’s ruin.
Four nerve-racking years passed before he saw a drop of oil. During that time, to facilitate the drilling operation, he had to invest another $18 million building infrastructure where absolutely none existed. The longed-for first strike came in 1953, and with it the stunning realization that vast deposits were waiting to be tapped. Still, before a dime could be made, Getty had to solve the massive challenges of how to transport and refine all this petroleum. He spent $600 million building an entire fleet of supertankers and state-of-the-art refineries. As the Neutral Zone assets began to be exploited, Getty’s fortune doubled.
Back in Santa Monica, Teddy made a reluctant choice. “I’m the kind of woman who needs a husband,” she told Paul. “But, Teddy, you do have a husband. It’s just that I can’t always be home,” he responded.
She asked for an end to the marriage in January 1951. That June, when he sailed to Europe for his annual European stay, did he have any idea he would never see America again?
The couple attempted a reconciliation in 1955, in Paris, but it didn’t take; their divorce decree was issued in 1958. Later that year, she married a long-standing friend, William Gaston, with whom she had a daughter, Louise “Gigi” Gaston, before the marriage ended in divorce in 1966.
For the remainder of the 1950s Getty was a true nomad, operating out of one hotel suite after another, from which he oversaw his empire, and occasionally his children. Number-one son George, who had been summoned in 1949 to the Neutral Zone, was sent back to America, where he became president of Tidewater and seemed destined to one day ascend his father’s throne. (Tidewater finally merged with Getty Oil in 1967.) In 1951, George married Gloria Gordon, a pretty brunette debutante from Denver, the granddaughter of a Colorado senator. The following year, their daughter Anne Catherine was born—Paul’s first grandchild. Her sisters Claire Eugenia and Caroline Marie followed in 1954 and 1957.
Ronald graduated in 1951 from the University of Southern California, where he studied business, then became Tidewater’s vice president of marketing before being sent to Hamburg, where he utilized his German skills running Veedol, Tidewater’s motor fuel operation.
Paul Jr. and Gordon both graduated from St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco, then enrolled at the University of San Francisco, another Jesuit-run school. Life in their mother’s house on Clay Street was relaxed. But the “madcap” Ann was not always the most stable parent. The brothers spent a good deal of time on nearby Jefferson Street at the home of William “Bill” Newsom III, their St. Ignatius classmate. It was the start of an intimate family friendship, spanning generations, between the Gettys and the Newsoms, including Bill’s son, Gavin, who became the fortieth governor of California in 2019.
During the Korean War, Paul Jr. served in the army, stationed in Seoul. In the wake of the conflict, Gordon was called up for active duty at Fort Lee, Virginia. Both sons subsequently entered the family business, at the bottom. They pumped gas at Tidewater stations before entering the Tidewater training program. In January of 1956, Paul Jr. married his childhood sweetheart, Abigail “Gail” Harris, a swimming champion and the adored only child of a prominent federal judge, George B. Harris.
During their younger years, none of J. Paul Getty’s sons had grown up in luxury in their respective maternal households; their absent father had paid just reasonable alimony and child support. So when the October ’57 issue of Fortune appeared with its list, the brothers were as stunned as anyone, if not more. “Holy mackerel!” said Gordon. “Paul and I were surprised. We didn’t have any idea.” The following year, their father planned to send Paul Jr. to the Neutral Zone; but after meeting Gail and one-year-old Paul III, he reconsidered sending the new father off to that harsh clime. So Gordon got shipped there instead, while Paul Jr. was dispatched to Getty Oil Italiana.
Timmy had been enduring a long series of painful operations after the diagnosis of a brain tumor. After some six years, the cancer was cured, but he was left with severe facial scars. Doctors suggested cosmetic surgery. In August 1958, the twelve-year-old underwent an operation in New York, which was supposed to be routine. Instead, it was fatal. Teddy flew home to Los Angeles with his body. Getty was in Lugano, Switzerland, at the villa of his good friend and fellow art collector Baron Heinrich “Heini” Thyssen-Bornemisza.
Getty has been widely castigated for not returning to America to see his son during his illness, or to attend his funeral. Getty never again boarded a plane after 1942, when a harrowing trip from St. Louis to Tulsa instilled in him a morbid fear of flying. (In later life, boarding an ocean liner became almost as daunting to him.)
Eventually, in the 1970s, Timmy’s body was moved to a grave site on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, on the grounds of the Getty Museum, where he was interred next to his father and eldest brother. Not a mausoleum, it is a simple, low slab of marble engraved only with their names and dates. In the first paragraph of his book, Russell Miller described the burial plot as “forlornly unvisited.”
Yet a number of Getty grandchildren and great-grandchildren have described it as an especially meaningful place, which they visit regularly. Getty Museum employees have considered it a very special spot too. “It’s a small space at the end of a quiet, tree-lined path,” said one curator. “It is so modest—there is no structure, no religious symbols. But with its view to the ocean, the feeling of tranquility and peacefulness is utterly magical. I used to take people there because it was so beautiful, and we had so much to thank [J. Paul Getty] for. When I worked there, many of the staff had known him and bore him in mind.”
However, as the image of J. Paul Getty as Scrooge solidified, the narrative of his family as a little-loved “cursed dynasty” took root. To what extent were these depictions anchored in fact? For some insight, it is enlightening to read Getty’s diaries from the last sixteen years of his life—the Sutton Place years. When he moved in in 1960, his sons ranged in age from twenty-seven to thirty-six. Six of his grandchildren had already been born. According to the journals, all of his progeny visited Sutton Place regularly in these formative years. Getty wrote about them with affection.
The journals also provide entertaining snapshots of daily life for the richest man in the world. Typically, Getty stayed up until three or four in the morning, strategizing and placing calls to the Middle East. Rising around 10 a.m., he worked through the day, breaking only for lunch and for a walk or a weight-lifting session in the late afternoon. Evenings were social. He hosted dinners at Sutton Place, or frequently drove into London. An average evening—a Tuesday in March 1963—began with drinks at the Ritz, followed by dinner at the fashionable Mirabelle, dancing at the groovy new Garrison Room, and nightcaps back at the Ritz at 2:30 a.m. The cast included Aristotle Onassis, Drue Heinz (wife of condiment magnate H. J. Heinz II), the Marquess of Blandford (the future Duke of Marlborough), Bindy Lambton (the future Countess of Durham), and a member of the Livanos shipping dynasty. Wonderful music. We did the Twist and enjoyed it. Live bands are out. Records are better, JPG noted. (Once back to Sutton Place, his nocturnal phone calls to the Middle East would begin.)
In the mid-sixties, his preferred hangouts included the 400 Club in Leicester Square and Trader Vic’s, the Polynesian-themed tiki bar in the basement of the Hilton on Park Lane, where he was partial to the mai tais. On October 26, 1967, he noted a new favorite: I like Annabel’s. It is the best nightclub in London.
His close companions included the Duke of Bedford and members of such dynasties as the Guinnesses, the Rothschilds, and the aforementioned Lambtons and Mannerses. Today, Getty’s heirs socialize with many of theirs. “Our families are part of the same landscape. So we’re sort of wrapped up with each other,” said fashion icon Daphne Guinness of her family and the Gettys.
Snobbish as English aristocrats can be, they’re practical. So Getty’s reception in England contrasted with his initiation in Italy earlier in the decade. A number of Italian blue bloods had been welcoming enough, prompting Getty in 1965 to purchase La Posta Vecchia, a palatial sixteenth-century seaside villa at Palo Laziale, close to the Italian capital. He launched an extensive renovation, but his ardor for Italy cooled the following year, when he hit a Roman roadblock.
Charming as those Italian princes and counts could be—with their ancient titles but often-depleted bank accounts—they had limits on how far foreigners could get, even the richest (especially the richest, perhaps). Getty had been a guest at the inner sanctum of Italian nobility, the Circolo della Caccia, housed in the Palazzo Borghese in Rome, but when he made a bid for membership in 1966, he was blackballed. The rejection stung.
In England, the Queen Mother and other members of the royal family and the aristocracy congregated at Sutton Place. Getty also enjoyed the full spectrum of London’s social and cultural offerings. An avid movie buff, he attended seemingly every gala premiere, including Cleopatra (he noted: I thought Elizabeth Taylor good, Harrison, excellent as Caesar), Dr. Strangelove, The Night of the Iguana, My Fair Lady, Doctor Dolittle, and Funny Girl (Barbra Streisand is terrific).
An animal lover, he never missed a Crufts show, the premiere international dog competition. The subjects of some of his most loving diary entries are his fearsome canines—Shaun, above all. He also doted on his lions, Nero and Teresa, who were kept in large cages on the grounds of his estate. Scratches and bites from these animals often sent guests and staff running to the local hospital, where the attendants automatically asked, “Sutton Place?” when the wounded turned up.
In the course of each year, Getty unfailingly noted the anniversaries of the births and deaths of family members: Walk and think of Timmy. Timmy! Papa was born 116 years ago. Mama was born 112 years ago. How I still miss her! In another tribute, he named one of his supertankers after her. The 80,000-ton Sarah C. Getty was christened in Dunkirk in 1963. Shaun’s passing was dolefully acknowledged as well. I pick two roses and put them on Shaun’s grave. I was devoted to him. Gone 3 years.
His ex-wives and girlfriends pop up frequently—on the phone, in the mail, at the door.
Dear Belene ph at 8am.
Sent red roses to Jeannette.
Fini and Marion arrive. Both look well. To Annabel’s for dinner, but I never saw it look so empty.
Ann Light ph from Palm Beach, inviting me for Xmas.
SP [Sutton Place], to lunch, Ann looking well and is chic. Her last husband left her 30 million.
Teddy, her 8 year old daughter, Gigi, her sister Nancy and Nancy’s daughter for lunch. Teddy looks as well as she did in 1955.
Getty’s sons and their growing families appear often. Although he was surely an absentee dad when his boys were young, he established relationships with them as they reached adulthood. And he became a doting grandfather.
George and Gloria’s brood beguiled him on their visits. Charming girls, he notes of Anne, Claire, and Caroline. He is very glad to see them, and always regretting when it’s time for them to leave. My 3 girls leave for Los Angeles at 11:05. Sad.
Following George’s 1967 divorce from Gloria and his subsequent 1971 marriage to Jacqueline “Jackie” Riordan, a wealthy widow with two sons and a daughter, the new blended family was welcomed into Sutton Place. Geo and his bride arr. I like her, he wrote in the fall of 1971. The next spring, there’s a visit from Jackie and the Riordans. By this point, George’s girls are reaching their teenage years and moving with the times: Geo’s daughters dress in hippy style and are pretty.
In October 1964, Ronald, then thirty-four, married Karin Seibel, the blond, twenty-one-year-old daughter of a businessman from Lübeck, Germany. Fini was a witness in the civil ceremony at that Baltic seaport, which was followed the next day by a wedding mass at the Maria Grün Roman Catholic church outside Hamburg. The honeymoon couple began paying visits to SP, including one during which Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. joined them for lunch. The diary notation of a visit with Ronald and Karin’s firstborn, Christopher, who came into the world in 1965, is classic Getty: Ronny, Karin, and Baby Chris here… a fine little fellow.… Chris plays with the puppies, Sugar and Spice. Valuation of Getty Oil is 2 billion, 7 million dollars net. I have 79% of it.
News of the couple’s first daughter, Stephanie, was also noted enthusiastically, in 1967: Ronny and Karin have a baby girl! Cecilia and Christina followed in, respectively, 1970 and 1975.
Meanwhile, Paul Jr. and Gail embraced parenthood too. Following the birth of Jean Paul III in 1956, Aileen, Mark, and Ariadne were born over the next six years.
Diary, December 27, 1963: Father Albion baptizes Ariadne Joanne Noel Getty, 18 months old… Mary [Teissier] and I were godparents. Touching ceremony. The little girl is very good and pretty.
Her parents’ marriage did not last, however. To SP. My dear son Paul here. He flew from NY. Gail has left him, Getty writes sadly on June 6, 1964.
Getty became fond of his son’s second wife, Talitha Pol, a stunning Dutch beauty whom Paul Jr. married in 1966. They paid visits to SP, along with their son. Born in 1968, he was christened with three middle names: Tara Gabriel Galaxy Gramophone. Paul, Talitha, and Tara my 15 month grandson here. He is a fine platinum blond.
But as Paul Jr. and Talitha succumbed to heroin addiction, a particularly common scourge at the time among members of their class, their marriage unraveled—beginning the cycle of tragedies that would befall the family.
Mckno [Getty’s right-hand man] here. He tells me Paul Jr has a dope problem.
Gordon ph I tell him about Paul’s weakness.
Papa’s birthday.… Talitha arrives.… Dinner at SP. Talitha complains that Paul is idle and always about the house.
Ph that the lovely Talitha is no more. [She died of a heroin overdose in Rome.] Shocked and sad. Ph McKno. Paul phs and I try to comfort him.
Paul ph from Palo [Getty’s Italian villa] and lost his temper. I didn’t know this side of his character. I ph back and Gail replied. I think Paul is mentally ill.
Shortly after, Paul Jr. fled to a house in London that he had acquired, where he became a virtual recluse. Through this stormy time, the valiant Gail watched over the children, including Tara, whom she took into their apartment in Rome. Gail and the children continued to pay visits to SP. In April 1972, Getty’s eldest grandson, Paul III, arrived for a stay on his own. They watched a Spencer Tracy and Kate Hepburn movie (a great pair, Grandpa noted). But a concerning note was registered: Dinner and supper with Paul III. I don’t approve of his smoking cigarettes.
Gordon, Getty’s youngest son, was the last to marry and begin a family. Before he did, he gave his father a run for his money—literally.
Disgusted with Gordon, the old man veritably spat into his diary, uncharacteristically, on February 13, 1963. He cables he will sue for declaration of his rights to the 1934 trust.
Gordon, considered the most absent-minded son, with the worst head for business, was the one who challenged his father by requesting an increase in the then relatively meager income he was receiving from the trust. The trust had always paid its dividends in stock, thereby sheltering its funds from taxation. Gordon wanted cash. If he succeeded in changing the terms of the trust, severe penalties could be levied on the Getty fortune.
While Gordon’s lawsuit against his father dragged on for seven years, normal family relations carried on, per the Getty way.
Talked NZ [Neutral Zone] with Gordon.
Cable from Gordon in Squaw Valley that he married Ann Gilbert [the daughter of a Sacramento Valley rancher]. She is unknown to me. I hope they will be happy. Jeannette ph last night.
With Paul and Gordon to National Gallery to see my Raphael and Veronese. Robina joined us.
Ann, Gordon’s bride arr. She seems a nice girl. Gordon and she seem happy and devoted to each other. Wish them a happy marriage.
Snow still covers the ground. Talk business with Gordon, Claus.… Walked a mile with Shaun.
Read business reports. Played tennis for 25 minutes with Gordon.
Gordon Getty Jr. born today. Ph. Gordon in NY to congratulate. [After the birth in 1965 of Gordon Jr., known as Peter, came three more boys: Andrew Rork, born 1967; John Gilbert, 1968; and William Paul “Billy,” 1970.]
Usual mail.… Gordon files trust suit. Ph Hayes, Maltby.
To London, excellent dinner at Wilton.… Then went to Annabel’s. Gordon, Ann, Papamarkou [Alexander “Alecko” Papamarkou, a Greek-born stockbroker, who figured prominently in the later life of the clan].
Then to SP. Watch the men on the moon. Dinner with caviar, gift of the stunning wife of Gordon.
Ann ph that Gordon might drop his suit.
Gordon Ann and 2 children arr.
Ann Getty and Mr. and Mrs. Pelosi here.
Gordon and Ann ph yesterday. He said he is dropping his claim re stock dividends and he thought it best to do so.
That December, some two hundred guests gathered at the Dorchester Hotel in London to celebrate J. Paul Getty’s eightieth birthday. The gala was hosted by his close friend Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. The daughter of a wealthy Scottish industrialist, “Marg of Arg,” as she became widely known, was one of the most fascinating and alluring women of her time. The 1930 Debutante of the Year, she was wed first to golfer Charles Sweeny; soon after, Cole Porter immortalized her in his most famous song, “You’re the Top.”
You’re Mrs. Sweeny,
In her 1975 memoir, Forget Not, Margaret reflected on Getty. “Paul has been my very dear and staunch friend for many years… and has been unwavering in his loyalty,” she wrote, alluding no doubt to the many people—including her own child, Frances—who shunned her following her scandalous 1963 divorce from the 11th Duke of Argyll, wherein the judge excoriated Margaret for being “a highly sexed woman.” (Frances, who Margaret had with Sweeny, became a duchess herself upon her marriage to Charles Manners, the 10th Duke of Rutland—a brother of Lady Ursula d’Abo. Though Margaret and Frances held sway as one of Britain’s rare sets of mother-and-daughter duchesses, the ladies remained permanently estranged.)
When Paul’s milestone approached, “I felt that he deserved the best possible birthday,” Margaret recalled. Although her friend was “essentially gentle and shy” and “fundamentally a modest man,” she nonetheless pulled out all the stops for a splendid evening.
It began when Richard Nixon phoned from the White House to extend his congratulations. His daughter Tricia came to the Dorchester in his stead. Other attendees included Umberto, the former king of Italy, Ambassador Walter Annenberg, and Getty’s fellow oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt, as well as Ann and Gordon.
At midnight, as a giant birthday cake was wheeled into the ballroom, bandleader Joe Loss launched into a custom rendition of Porter’s classic:
You’re the top, you are J. Paul Getty
You’re the top, and your cash ain’t petty
You’re a Franklin Fellow with a Paris medal as well,
Got your own museum, let’s sing a Te Deum to such a swell
You’re the top, you are like Jack Benny,
You’re the top, wouldn’t waste a penny.…
The evening was the pinnacle of a life of extraordinary accomplishment. From here, it was downhill for J. Paul Getty—not financially, but emotionally and physically. His annus horribilis was about to begin.