John Paul Getty III was buying a comic book from a newsstand at 3 a.m. on the Piazza Farnese in Rome when he was knocked unconscious and abducted. He was 16-years-old – and he was the rebellious grandson of billionaire Jean Paul Getty.
When his father, John Paul Getty Jr. couldn’t pay the ransom of $17m, the boy’s fate fell to his wealthy grandfather, Jean Paul Getty. Indeed, J. Paul, as he was known, had been named the “richest living American” by Fortune magazine in 1957 and the “world’s richest private citizen” by the Guinness Book of Records in 1966.
Hence, J. Paul possessed ample funds to pay the ransom. However, he decided to hold off. Indeed, he suspected that the kidnapping might be a ruse. Moreover, he considered the price to be too steep – and $17m was a lot of money in 1973. When adjusted for inflation, the sum would be worth close to $100m today. So he decided to wait and see what would happen.
Born in Minneapolis in 1892, J. Paul was an oil man. He learned the business from his father George Getty on summer study breaks. After starting his own company in Tulsa, Oklahoma, In 1910 J. Paul drilled his first well. It made him a millionaire before he had turned 19 years old.
J. Paul gradually increased his fortune over the years and began to make forays into the Middle East. In 1949, he began exploring for oil near the Saudi border with Kuwait. It took four years for him to find what he was looking for but, once he did, the site was soon turning out 16 million barrels of oil annually. J. Paul became an international oil titan, with controlling shares in some 200 companies – an empire he managed from his Tudor country estate, Sutton Place in Surrey in the United Kingdom.
But J. Paul was not as successful in love as he was in business. In fact, by the time he settled in the United Kingdom, he had a string of failed marriages to his name. His fifth and final wife, Louise, left him in 1958 after their 12-year-old son, Timothy Ware Getty died from a brain tumor. Many years later Louise wrote that J. Paul had chastised her for spending too much on Timmy’s medical care.
Born Eugene Paul Getty in 1932, John Paul Getty Jr. was J. Paul’s third son and his first with his fourth wife, Ann Rork. John Paul Jr. worked for his father, managing the family’s Italian operations from Rome. He had four children with his wife Abigail – the eldest of whom was John Paul Getty III, also known as Paul Getty.
In 1972, at the age of 15, Paul was expelled from St. George’s British International School in Rome. His crime had apparently been to write an offensive message directed at the school’s principal in 6-foot-high letters in a school hallway. His stepmother – Talitha Pol – died from a heroin overdose the same year. By 1973, he was reportedly living alone, attending left-wing protests, hanging out in nightclubs and supporting himself through painting, acting and jewelry-making. He was dubbed “the Golden Hippie” by Italian media.
Then, on July 10, 1973, Getty was knocked unconscious in a piazza in Rome. He was blindfolded and taken to the mountains of Calabria in southern Italy. His kidnappers issued a ransom demand. “Dear Mummy,” Paul wrote to his mother in a subsequent message. “Since Monday, I have fallen into the hands of kidnappers. Don’t let me be killed.”
The demand went unanswered, however. Paul’s immediate family didn’t have the funds to help him, and, furthermore, many suspected that Paul might have concocted the whole story to extort money from his grandfather. Furthermore, when it came to it, J. Paul refused to help. The billionaire in fact had a reputation for being a miser. Indeed, the industrialist was reportedly so tightfisted that he placed dial-locks on the phones at his estate and installed pay phones – a temporary measure, he apparently claimed, to prevent workmen and tradesmen from calling relatives and girlfriends abroad.
Months went by with no sign of Paul. Then, in November 1973, a daily newspaper received an envelope. Inside was a human ear and some of Paul’s red hair – and a note. “This is Paul’s first ear,” the note read. “If, within ten days, the family still believes that this is a joke mounted by him, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits.”
Paul’s mother, Abigail, recognized the ear by the distinctive freckles on it. Still, J. Paul did not rush to pay the ransom. Instead, he negotiated. And in a purely financial sense, his strategy paid off. The kidnappers agreed to release Paul for $3 million, to which J. Paul contributed $2.2 million – apparently the maximum value that would be tax deductible. He loaned the remaining $800,000 to John Paul Jr., while charging a reported 4 percent interest rate.
On December, 15, 1973, 158 days after his abduction, Paul was found in a gas station in Potenza. He called his grandfather to thank him, but it is said that J. Paul wouldn’t talk to him. Later, nine men were arrested over the kidnapping, with alleged bosses of the ’Ndrangheta mafia group among them. Two of the nine went to jail but little of the ransom money was ever found.
In the year following his ordeal, Paul married 24-year-old Gisela Martine Zacher née Schmidt. For some time, they hung out on the New York art scene with Andy Warhol. Paul got work as an actor and several years later, surgeons built him a new ear. Meanwhile, Paul adopted Gisela’s daughter Anna, and then, in 1975, their son Balthazar was born.
However, on June 6, 1976, J. Paul died, passing away at his Surrey estate. He was later buried in a private plot at the Getty Villa in California. Though his reputation for meanness seems to have stuck to him beyond the grave, J. Paul himself did offer two arguments to defend his handling of the kidnapping.
Firstly, he feared that paying the ransom would open the way to more kidnappings – J. Paul had to consider the safety of all 14 of his grandchildren. Secondly, he wrote in his 1976 autobiography, As I See It, that giving into criminal demands would merely encourage the “spread of lawlessness, violence and such outrages as terror-bombings, ’skyjackings’ and the slaughter of hostages that plague our present-day world.”
Then, in 1981, something terrible happened. Paul apparently struggled with addiction, and he had been traumatized by his abduction. Five years after his grandfather’s death, he consumed a mixture of methadone, tranquilizers and alcohol. His liver failed and he suffered a stroke. It left him partially blind, incapable of speech and paralyzed from the neck down.
His mother cared for him for the rest of his life – and he sued his father for annual medical expenses of $336,000. Despite his severe handicaps, though, Paul would gradually recapture some of his freedom. However, on February 5, 2011, at the age of 54, he died.
The Getty empire survives to this day. The family has a net worth of $5.4 billion and is prominent in the U.K. and the United States, as well as in Ireland, where a number of Gettys – including Paul – became naturalized citizens in 1999.
And despite his faults, J. Paul left a significant charitable legacy behind him. The J. Paul Getty Trust is the most affluent art institution in existence and manages a host of museums. Meanwhile, his collection – worth $661m or $2.8bn in 2017 – was left to the J. Paul Getty Museum. If J. Paul was frugal in life, he was at least generous in death.