By Anne-marie O'neill
April 13, 1998 12:00 PM

Money couldn’t shield the scarred Getty clan

WHEN HIS OLDEST GRANDSON was kidnapped by Italian gangsters in 1973, Jean Paul Getty weathered the crisis with the same hard-edged brinkmanship that made him the world’s wealthiest man. Fearful that his other grandchildren would also become targets, the billionaire oil baron, then 80, refused to cough up the demanded $3.2 million ransom for five months, at which point the kidnappers hacked off 16-year-old Jean Paul III’s right ear and mailed it to a Rome newspaper. The boy was released only after Getty grudgingly loaned the child’s father (Getty’s third and favorite son) part of the ransom—at 4 percent interest.

On a clifftop overlooking Los Angeles, the $1 billion Getty Center, which opened last December with a world-class collection of classical art, attracts 15,000 daily (its 1,200-car parking area is booked months ahead) and has been lauded as a shrine to high culture. Yet the saga of the Getty family itself is more soap than opera. Splintered over generations by divorce, drug addiction and suicide, the Gettys became a scattered string of alienated relatives too dysfunctional to be called a dynasty. At the forefront was Getty himself, an avid art collector who died in 1976 and left $700 million for the creation of the new museum that bears his name. His life was like a series of business transactions in which his wives and children were loose change. “He was a genius at business,” says biographer Robert Lenzner, “but an illiterate with respect to intimacy and family.”

Born in Minneapolis the only son of George Franklin Getty, a Christian Scientist oilman, Jean Paul was obsessed with making more money than his father. He once crowed that he “fleeced” his mother, Sarah, out of his father’s estate, though he also mourned her death in 1941, saying he felt suddenly very alone and “like an orphan.” When he became the world’s richest man by striking oil in the Middle East in 1953, he turned even thriftier with his fortune (he installed a pay phone in his 400-year-old English mansion) and his affections. A lifelong philanderer, Getty had five wives who bore him five sons, none of whose weddings he attended, and he apportioned his $1.3 billion estate among family and former lovers in such a divisive way that it touched off a slew of bitter lawsuits.

Getty’s softest spot was said to have been reserved for Timmy, his last child. Yet when the boy died of a brain tumor in 1958 at the age of 12, Getty on business in Italy, did not return for the funeral. For his other four sons (George, Ronald, J. Paul II and Gordon), growing up a Getty meant trying to find their way in the shadow of the famous father they barely knew.


As executive vice president and CEO of Getty Oil from the age of 43 and a board member of the Bank of America, George was feted throughout the business world by all but the man whose praise he most craved: the father he addressed as Mr. Getty. “George was the one who really led the company to prominence,” says his onetime employee and confidant Stuart Evey, “and his father would never reward him.” True to form, Getty skipped his son’s 1951 wedding to Denver native Gloria Gordon and only rarely saw their three daughters. After 16 years of marriage, Gloria filed for divorce, charging that her business-obsessed husband was “indifferent and insulting.” A second marriage, to wealthy widow Jacqueline Riordan, also brought little joy. “She was tough on George,” recalls Evey, “putting him down all the time.”

At work, George referred to himself as the “vice president in charge of failure” and his father as “president in charge of success.” He grew increasingly manic, pumping himself up in the morning with the marches of John Philip Sousa and, occasionally at night, with alcohol and prescription drugs. At times, out of frustration, he jabbed his arms with a letter opener. In June 1973 he died after consuming a massive blend of pills at his Bel Air, Calif., home. Just the week before, he had sent his mother, Jeanette Dumont, another in a stream of morbid notes in which he promised to see her “in the hereafter, and happier life.”


Ronald’s father snubbed him financially as well as emotionally. When Getty dumped third wife Adolphine Helmle, she and her father fought back, delaying the final settlement and thereby Getty’s impending marriage to wife No. 4, Ann Rork. In part to get back at them, he virtually disinherited Ronald, his only child with Helmle.

Like his father (referring to Ronald’s stubbornness, Getty once called him “the son that’s most like me”), Ronald set out to prove his independence, leaving the family business in 1964 to invest in low-budget films and a restaurant chain. After Getty’s death, Ronald sued his brothers for a share of the spoils; though unsuccessful, he later won $10 million in a settlement with the museum. In the 1980s a string of disastrous investments left him $43.2 million in the hole. It was only with the help of Gordon and Jean Paul II—reunited with Ronald after years of squabbles—that Ronald was able to pay his debts and purchase the house outside Munich where he now lives with his wife of 33 years, Karin Seibel. As he later told biographer John Pearson, “It was like entering the family at last.”


At 26, Eugene Paul Getty changed his name to Jean Paul II and won his father’s favor. Had he glimpsed his future, he might have chosen another name entirely. An executive at Getty Oil’s Italian subsidiary and already a heavy drinker when he split from first wife Gail Harris in 1963, J.P. II got hooked on heroin soon after meeting his second wife, Dutch socialite Talitha Pol, at a 1965 party thrown by Claus von Bülow. The couple were the toast of Europe’s glamor-hippie set, jetting to exotic spots with the likes of Mick Jagger. “J. P. II’s whole young-adult life,” says Evey, “was Marrakech and the Rolling Stones.”

The party ended abruptly in 1971, when Talitha, then 31, died of a heroin overdose. Still addicted, J.P. II “closed himself up in his house in England,” said a friend at the time, “as though in love with a ghost.” Cut off by his father (“No Getty can be a drug addict,” the patriarch once said), he found himself unable to pay when Jean Paul III, the oldest of his five children, was kidnapped two years later. It was J.P. III’s mother, Gail, who finally persuaded the senior Getty to lend some of the ransom. After his father’s death, J.P. II turned his life around, emerging from years of rehab as a Catholic and philanthropist. Last December he finally became a British citizen, and his huge donations (including $75 million to Britain’s National Gallery) earned him a knighthood.

His children weren’t so fortunate. After J.P. III’s abduction, the teenager “went spinning out of control,” says his godfather William Newsom. At 17, he wed a German, Martine Zacher, 24, thereby forfeiting his inheritance because his parents’ divorce trust forbade him to marry before 22. When J.P. III and a young woman were arrested and fined £10 each for lewd behavior in London’s Hyde Park, Zacher left him, taking their son Balthazar, now 22 and a bit actor in such films as Natural Born Killers (1994) and Judge Dredd (1995). In 1981, J.P. III overdosed on methadone, Valium and alcohol, suffering a stroke that left him blind and a quadriplegic. (Gail had to sue J.P. II to persuade him to pay his son’s $25,000-a-month medical bills.) Despite his disabilities, J.P. III still “goes out and travels more than any of us,” says his sister Aileen, 38, an artist and AIDS awareness activist in L.A. who suffers from the disease. She remains upbeat, even after swallowing 40 pills a day. “I have no problem with being knocked down,” she says. “I get right back up.”

Perhaps resilience is in the genes. J.P. II is now happily married to third wife Victoria Holdsworth, a former model, and lives in a London apartment and on his 3,000-acre country estate. “Yes, we are dysfunctional,” Aileen says of her clan, “but most people come from a dysfunctional family.”


In September 1996, 22 of the world’s wealthiest supporters of classical music donated $20,000 each to join Gordon aboard his private 727 jet for a 10-day tour of Russia. At a concert in Moscow, the Russian National Orchestra serenaded the group with works by Rachmaninoff, Britten and a lesser-known piece by none other than its most generous patron, Gordon Getty. Referring to the poor reviews many of his classical compositions garner, Gordon told London’s Financial Times: “The worst I can get is egg on my face. I can’t lose my livelihood.”

Carefree jet-setter though he may be, Gordon seems the most grounded of the Gettys. The sole family member on the board of the new museum, he writes opera, donates millions to scientific research and the arts, and loves fine Bordeaux, the San Francisco 49ers and Ann Gilbert, his wife of 33 years.

Gordon worked at Getty Oil for four years before quitting to pursue a career in music. Despite referring to his private plane as “the family station wagon,” he has made every effort to prevent his own brood from “becoming spoiled,” says the oldest of his four children, Peter, 32, a record producer.

Even Grandpa seemed sweeter by the time Gordon’s children came of age. “He used to host parties for underprivileged kids,” recalls Peter, who says Getty was no Scrooge. “After all, he could have made a gold vault to roll around in, but instead he made a museum for the people.” Indeed, were the old man alive today, biographer Lenzner believes he would have been quietly proud of the Getty Center. “I imagine he might pretend it’s too gaudy but love it secretly,” he says. That’s the kind of assessment Getty’s children might have settled for.