PIERCING THE MYTHS. James Reginato is a writer-at-large for Vanity Fair, an American monthly magazine of popular culture, fashion and current affairs. In his book, newly published by Simon & Schuster, titled GROWING UP GETTY, The Story of America’s Most Unconventional Dynasty, he has rectified many popular misunderstandings about one of the world’s wealthiest family dynasties.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
James Reginato, why did you write this book, Growing Up Getty?
Over the decades of my career I had interviewed a number of members of the Getty family, and there was a mystique surrounding them that intrigued me. I also interviewed many people in their orbit. They were so interesting too. The idea for the book came when I was having lunch with Aimee Bell, my longtime editor at Vanity Fair who then went to Simon & Schuster. When the Getty family came up a light bulb went off. I thought I had a fairly good sense of what the family was, but when I started working on the book I realised it was far more sprawling and complicated than I thought, and the book ended up taking about three years.
What is the background of Jean Paul Getty, this very rich, apparently very peculiar and eccentric businessman who made an immense fortune in oil?
When he was born his family were quite poor, but their circumstances changed dramatically when J. Paul Getty was about ten years old and his father, who had become a lawyer, struck oil himself. This gave J. Paul Getty a leg up in his teenage years, but he made his fortune in the world of business by a combination of very good instincts and intellect. Wildcatters at that time were hard-nosed independent men and prided themselves on going by their gut. Getty studied the science of petroleum geology, then a pretty new field. These old time oil prospectors sneered at the idea that some bookworm could tell them where to prospect for oil. J. Paul Getty thought there was something to this science and made his billions in an area called the Neutral Zone, a barren tract between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that no one else thought was worth anything.
This Neutral Zone is also far away from the oilfields of California and Texas.
J. Paul Getty and his family, including his parents, had a very international outlook. He was born in 1892 in Minneapolis. About ten years later, he moved with his parents to Los Angeles. The family undertook three long grand tours of Europe during Paul’s teenage years. At that time it was unusual for even a wealthy family on the West Coast to undertake that kind of travel, but European culture and art were beacons to them and that’s how J. Paul Getty’s worldview formed. He felt that America was isolationist, and he had a much larger worldview. That was in contrast to a lot of his peers. As the oil mogul Sid Richardson once said, “I don’t want to go nowhere outside Texas.” But J. Paul Getty wanted to see the world and he was very drawn to Europe. His curiosity about the world propelled him forward. I don’t think there were then many 20 year olds from California who had learnt six languages, including Arabic.
“J. Paul Getty was a one man band, never an establishment guy.”
James Reginato, several things strike me about J. Paul Getty. He had a very close relationship with his parents, especially with his mother, in whose name the Sarah C. Getty family trust that still exists today was established. In business, even before he was well known he was the kind of person who could challenge J.D. Rockefeller. And he was a womanizer who had five wives and many love affairs, and this bothered his parents.
His parents were very strict, devout people. They were brought up as Methodists, and even though they were extremely close they never were physically affectionate with their son, but they loved each other greatly. When they died J. Paul Getty was very broken up. During his lifetime, his father was upset about his womanizing.
J. Paul Getty married five very young women, soon sent most of them off to live with his parents, and then divorced them. Why did he get married so many times?
All these women enchanted him, but he felt trapped in these marriages, all of which were very short lived. As soon as they had a child the marriages fell apart. Maybe he just needed to have his freedom back, but all these women seem to be very vivacious, very clever, very pretty, and very young. He loved falling in love, but being married was a whole different thing. There’s always acrimony around the time of any divorce, but he and his ex-wives remained mutually affectionate the rest of their lives. These women would come visit him, they would write, they would call each other. Shortly after his fifth divorce a reporter asked him, “Are you going to get married again?” And he said, “If you’ve flown a plane and crashed five times you’d better give up flying, it’s too dangerous.”
Was a particular woman close to him at the end of his life?
Probably closest to him was Robina Lund. Born in Scotland, she started off as his lawyer and they had a romance until the end of his life. She’s written memoirs about J. Paul Getty and she’s still a very active woman, doing legal work in Aberdeenshire.
It comes out from your book that belatedly he was also a family man?
When his boys were young he was a completely absent father. Until they were into their twenties they rarely saw him. Most of them were in California being raised by their respective mothers, but when they became adults – and coincidentally maybe could have helped him in the business – he got interested in their lives, and he became a doting grandfather. In his diaries he’s always making references to how much he adores his grandchildren and their visits. I spoke to a number of his grandchildren and that affection was very warmly returned. Later in life he developed into more of a family man.
He became a millionaire in his own right as a young man and was friendly with billionaires like the Hearsts in California, but after the war he decided to live in Europe. Why? Because he was afraid of flying?
The fear of flying was a part of what kept him from America. In 1951 he sailed to Europe, and never came back for the rest of his life. He never set foot in his incredible museum before he died. He built it remotely.
Isn’t it very strange and eccentric that he never went back to America and so never saw the museum that he was planning for so many years?
Absolutely. He believed that art was a civilizing force and for many years his idea was to leave his personal fortune to this museum, and was planning it in his head for decades. He had bought this land in Malibu and most of the art that he was buying from the 1940s onward was shipped directly to the site, even though the museum wouldn’t be built until the early 1970s. He planned it all remotely. He’d have people in California take Super 8 movies and then fly them from Los Angeles to London. He was a micromanager who would inspect the plans and photographs from 6000 miles away, make his revisions at his home at Sutton Place in Surrey, and then send them back to California.
For many years he lived and worked in hotels. It was only in the last decades of his life that he bought a big estate in England and settled in this huge house Sutton Place?
He was a one man band, never an establishment guy. Even though he was married five times and set up homes for his wives and his children, he was usually always on the road, living out of hotel suites. He was about 65 when he bought Sutton Place, the first permanent home he’d had since he was a teenager. Finally he more or less settled down.
“Not only had the world not known how wealthy he was, his children didn’t know either.”
James Reginato, a billionaire womanizer who also liked animals and had a dog and pet lions, J. Paul Getty was also a very hard worker?
He bested the Rockefeller family and Standard Oil, and a number of the so-called Seven Sisters – the major international oil companies – by being fast and smart. He was a workaholic, and also kept strange hours. A nocturnal creature, he was at the same time very social. One of the myths about him is that he was reclusive, but he liked people. He had dinners every night in London and they would go dancing at Annabel’s until 2 or 3 in the morning; then he would come back to Sutton Place and he would stay up ‘til 4 or 5 in the morning, calling Saudi Arabia because it was daylight there. A favourite story of mine is when the curators from the Getty Museum, which hadn’t even opened yet, were coming over with photographs of the treasures they wanted him to buy. One of the curators told me she would arrive at Sutton Place and then, at 3 in the morning, Bullimore the butler would knock on her door and say, “Mr. Getty will see you now.” That was her time to go and present these pictures! Sometimes, if he was in a good mood, he would then ask her to crawl to inspect his oriental carpets in the long gallery. At 4 in the morning, they’d get on their hands and knees and examine the threads of this carpet, which J. Paul Getty thought was great fun. He would finally get to sleep around 5, then wake up around 10, have breakfast and lunch (often together), work through the entire day and then have a little walk and lift some weights. He was into physical fitness. And after dinner he would go right back to work.
The legend is that he was stingy, very careful with money. He installed a payphone in his house which guests had to put coins into because he didn’t want to pay for their phone calls?
Some of the myths are correct and some incorrect. It is true that he was a tightwad, but there’s an interesting story about the payphone. Robina Lund told me that the payphone was her idea, although Getty clearly thought it was a great idea and went with it. He said he installed it “for the convenience” of his guests, because if you were staying with a host it was rather daunting if you had to ask to place an expensive long distance call. Nonetheless, he could have afforded it.
He was secretive about his wealth, but everything changed when a big article appeared in Fortune magazine saying that he was the richest man in the world?
That was definitely a turning point in his life. He made a big show that he didn’t like it, but something tells me that it wasn’t too terrible for him. It did definitely change his life. Not only had the world not known how wealthy he was, his children didn’t know either. His son Gordon, who’s still alive now aged 88 and living in San Francisco, was brought up with his brother Paul Junior. He recollected how when they heard about that article, their reaction was “Holy Mackerel!” They didn’t have any idea.
The dynasty was later also known for a series of tragedies?
First was the death of Talitha, the wife of John Paul Getty Jr., and then very soon afterwards J. Paul Getty’s first son George died of a combination of prescription drugs and stress. Just six weeks later, John Paul III, his grandson, was kidnapped in Italy. These things started the narrative of the tragic dynasty that’s been well reported and follows the family to this day. A lot of people still think tragedy when the Getty name is mentioned, and undeniably they have had great tragedy happen to them, but it’s not accurate to call them a tragic dynasty. Most of them have ended up living productive, creative, happy, rich lives.
But John Paul III, the grandson who was kidnapped in Rome, was also very ill for many years. How has that episode affected the family?
Obviously an immensely traumatic event, it’s continued to haunt some members of the family, and understandably so. That accounts for why a lot of them try to remain very private. But many members of the Getty family still have Italy as their second home. They are all drawn to Italy and most of them still go to Italy for at least some portion of the summer, even after the trauma of the kidnapping.
What about their many problems with drugs?
Addiction is a hereditary thing and there must be an addictive gene in the Getty family. A lot of them have battled addictions; some have been decimated by drugs. But a number have managed to rehabilitate themselves and go on to lead productive lives. John Paul Getty Junior was in a completely reclusive, dark state for about 15 years, and then he managed to come out of that and the last 15 years of his life were marvellous. He became this great philanthropist. He bought this great estate, Wormsley in Buckinghamshire. He bought this splendid yacht he named the Talitha G. Other members of the family also came close to the edge with drugs, but have managed to rehabilitate themselves and go on to do wonderful things.
They are happy?
Paul Junior had his son Tara with Talitha and Tara was three years old when Talitha died. You would have thought that would have set him up for a sad life but he’s been described as “the normal Getty”. He lives much of the year in Africa where he is one of the foremost figures in animal and land conservation. He’s also a very passionate yachtsman and the other months of the year he sails around the world. He’s a lovely man.
Mark Getty, the younger son of John Paul Getty Jr., is a brilliant young man who has made his own fortune.
He revolutionized the world of images and photography. What he’s done with Getty Images really is pretty incredible.
J. Paul Getty with Margaret Duchess of Argyll, en route to his 80th birthday party in London, December 1972.
Photo: PierManevy Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Sutton Place, southwest of London, was built in the early 1500s and acquired by J. Paul Getty in 1959.
Print Collection/Getty Images
Sabine Getty and the Talitha G.
Photo: Jason Schmidt/Trunk Archive
Ann Getty departing her mansion in San Francisco, aided by footman Frank Parkes (left) and butler Francis Bullimore, photographed by Horst for Vogue, 1977.
Photo: Horst P. Horst/Vogue/Condé Nast
Balthazar, at right, with (from left) wife, Rosetta, and children Grace, Violet, June, and Cassius at the CORE Gala, Los Angeles, January 2020.
© Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Honoree Aileen at the amfAR Inspiration Gala, Los Angeles, 2013, with her sons Caleb Wilding (at left) and Alexander Wilding with his wife Alexandra.
Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images /amfAR
“J. Paul Getty has been misportrayed in a lot of ways. I came to like him.”
James Reginato, who is your favourite Getty?
One of my favourites is Aileen, a sister of Mark who aged around 20 married one of Elizabeth Taylor’s sons, then became addicted to drugs and contracted HIV in the mid-1980s, which at the time was usually a death sentence. I found a headline in a 1991 USA Today that said Aileen Getty has been told she has six months to a year to live by doctors. Imagine reading a headline like that about yourself. Fast forward to today and she’s healthy, she’s thriving, and she’s using her fortune to help combat climate change. She’s someone who really turned her life around in a good way.
Are the Gettys mostly quite private, so often we simply don’t hear about them or their interests?
Getty’s first son George, who died prematurely at the age of 48, had three daughters, Claire, Anne, and Caroline, who were nicknamed the Georgettes. They’re the most private of all the Gettys. They live in Southern California and one of them is one of the leading conservationists in the world, but she wants absolutely no attention or recognition for it. Most of the Gettys are quite private, but they are surprisingly close-knit, especially considering they live on four different continents.
The son of J. Paul Getty who is still alive is Gordon, a composer. What does he say about his father?
That he adored his father; he spoke with me very warmly about his father. He definitely has a great affection for his father. Gordon is a really dedicated composer, it’s the passion of his life, but over the years so many reviews of his work pointed out his wealth. It’s been hard for him to be taken seriously as a composer because he’s so wealthy. Now some reviewers have come around and given him some of the credit he deserves. The family Trust is still going, but I believe the way it works is that when Gordon dies the Trust will terminate and the principal will be divided up between the heirs. All these years they’ve been very handsomely provided for, and have had the freedom to do what they want, because the family oil business had been sold and so they weren’t tied to any one business.
Balthazar, the son of the kidnapped John Paul Getty III, is also doing a lot of good things in movies and music?
Balthazar is a very creative guy. He’s designing. He’s got a fashion line. He’s very energetic.
Was it challenging but fascinating to write this book?
Yes. I started it just before the pandemic and so was able to get access to archives at the Getty Center in Los Angeles and look at some of J. Paul Getty’s diaries and correspondence. Some letters that J. Paul Getty and his wives wrote to each other were so touching, and showed me he wasn’t this mean cold character that he has been portrayed as. He has been misportrayed in a lot of ways. I came to like him. Some of the reviewers of my book were surprised that J. Paul Getty wasn’t such a nasty man after all. The only myth that is really true is cheapness. That’s for sure. But otherwise he had a sense of humour, he was quite funny, and he was very social and he liked people. He did come to like his family very much, and he was a very philanthropic man.
At the beginning it wasn’t so well received, but now the Getty Villa Museum and the Getty Center are among the major attractions in California. Is the family still involved?
A great cultural asset, not just for California but for the world, the family are all very proud of it, but the way J. Paul Getty structured his bequest, the family was never involved in the running of that museum. He made it very clear that he wanted it to be professionally run. When the museum opened in January 1974 it was very harshly received by the cultural intelligentsia, mostly because this was at the height of modernism and when people saw this colorful Roman villa they thought it was kitsch and camp. There was a lot of scorn among the cultural elite, but as the years went by it’s become a beloved site. Years later, the architect Richard Meier designed that incredible campus in Santa Monica. Completed in 1997, the Getty Center is really the main Getty museum now. What a gift to the world. Something worth noting is that no one has ever had to pay a penny in admission fee. Admission has been completely free since the doors opened, by now to millions and millions of people.
At the end of the day this is what J. Paul Getty will be remembered for?
I think so.
Thank you very much.
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Photo of James Reginato: Gasper Tringale