December 14, 1981 12:00 PM

As the namesake grandson of a billionaire oil tycoon, he had reason to expect a life of affluence and ease. But for Paul Getty III, 25, the legacy has been a curse. At 16, he was kidnapped in Rome, and when his family balked at paying ransom, his right ear was cut off and sent to a newspaper in Rome as a warning. The next year Paul III forfeited his trust fund by marrying a German filmmaker. Deprived of his birthright, untrained in any profession, he turned to drugs and alcohol, and last April they proved his undoing. While staying with friends in Los Angeles, according to his wife, young Paul went into a coma after consuming methadone, Valium and alcohol. When he regained consciousness several weeks later, he was blind and completely paralyzed, perhaps for life.

Last week, in a bitterly apt coda to the tragedy, his mother, Gail Harris Getty, charged in a Los Angeles courtroom that Paul III’s father, Paul Getty Jr., has refused to pay any of his medical bills. They amount to some $25,000 a month for home care. “I can only attribute his attitude to some kind of lack of perception of the situation,” says William Newsom, a judge in San Francisco who is an old family friend and Paul III’s godfather. “I am still finding it hard to believe that he doesn’t want to help with his son’s medical expenses.”

Such grim squabbles are of a piece with Getty family history. The patriarch had little time for his five wives or for the five children he sired by them. “A man that’s very successful very often doesn’t have much success with marriage,” Getty Sr. observed two years before he died in 1976 at the age of 83. “A hardworking, go-ahead sort of fellow generally winds up in the divorce courts.” Isolated as he grew older in his 72-room mansion near London, Getty devoted himself to his work and his German shepherds, leaving his offspring to cope for themselves. In that respect, at least, Paul Jr. is his father’s son. Despite an enormous personal fortune—his ex-wife estimates his income at more than $20 million a year—he lives as a recluse in London. After his 1966 divorce from Gail, he became a mainstay of Roman night life with his second wife, Dutch actress Talitha Pol. But Talitha died in 1971 of a heroin overdose, and since then Paul Jr. has rarely been seen in public. “After her death she became the only woman he had ever really loved,” one friend wryly observes. “He closed himself up in his house in England. It’s as though he is in love with a ghost.”

That fixation on the past has apparently cut Getty off from his children. Besides Paul III, he and Gail had three others: Aileen, 22, who recently married Elizabeth Taylor’s son, Christopher Wilding; Mark, 21, a student at Oxford; and Ariadne, 19, a freshman at Bennington College in Vermont. (Tara, his 13-year-old son with Talitha, now lives with grandparents in France.) Except for Mark, none of his children regularly visits Paul Jr. “I haven’t spoken to my father in a long time,” says Ariadne. “He’s playing God. I don’t know his reasoning, and it baffles and angers me. He’s hurting a lot of people through his selfishness. He’s got tons of money. I want nothing more than for my father to help Paul.”

Paul Jr. has made only one public comment on the case. “Anyone who believes I am unmoved by my son’s tragedy, or willing to see him become a public charge, simply does not know me,” he said in a written statement. Getty did not explain his refusal to underwrite his son’s medical expenses except to say: “I have never failed to meet my obligations toward my children under the legal settlements as agreed and my paternal responsibilities as I saw them.”

The youngest Getty generation has drawn close together in this crisis. Ariadne spent Thanksgiving with her mother and Paul III at their home in Los Angeles. Her sister Aileen, who lives in Santa Barbara and plans to open a dress shop there with Christopher, also sees them frequently. “I talk to Paul every day,” Aileen says. “He has trouble communicating, but he knows what you’re saying.” Aileen disputes rumors that her brother was stricken after using illegal drugs. “He’d been ill for two weeks before it occurred and was taking prescription drugs,” she insists. “He hadn’t had any alcohol in his body for eight days. The newspapers made it sound like he’d had a night on the town. People just assumed, because of the reputation he did have, that that was the case.”

Paul III’s reputation is undeniably spotty. Raised in Italy after his parents’ divorce in 1966, he dropped out of high school and drifted to the hippie community of Rome. “I think he was deeply hurt by his parents’ divorce,” says Judge Newsom. “When a 12-year-old boy who loves his father never gets to see him, that hurts.” The young man made his own situation more precarious just before his 18th birthday, and nine months after his kidnapping, when he married Martine Zacher, then 24. By that action he forfeited his $200,000 share of a trust fund that his father held for the children with the proviso that they not wed before the age of 22. “Here was this young boy with a famous name but not a famous amount of money,” Newsom recalls. “He had to make his own way.”

It wasn’t easy. Except for a brief stint as a hard hat in a Getty oilfield, young Paul worked mainly as an actor. Fitted with an artificial ear by plastic surgeons, he moved to California and found some movie jobs. He had just returned from acting in a European film when he overdosed last spring. “No one really understands what the kidnapping did to him,” says Martine, now a playwright and part-time schoolteacher in San Francisco. “He came back changed. He wanted to get control of himself, but he just wasn’t able to.”

The family’s grief was played out at a pretrial hearing last week, when lawyers for Paul Jr. argued that their client is an English resident, not subject to California law. The argument got nowhere. “Mr. Getty should be ashamed of himself,” Judge Bruce Geernaert said in an unusually impassioned ruling. “He’s spending far more money on court obligations than living up to his moral duties.” The judge’s decision to order a trial on the merits of the case will no doubt be appealed.

Meanwhile Paul III’s medical bills are being paid by Paul Jr.’s younger brother, Gordon, a San Francisco philanthropist. Other friends have offered moral support, and are cautiously optimistic about Paul III’s future. “I think there’s hope for improvement because mentally he seems to be intact, and that is miraculous,” says Newsom. “He understands everything that’s going on around him. His spirits are great.”

Should he outlive his father and uncles, Paul III could inherit a substantial fortune; until then, he must rely on his mother. “She’s very, very strong, but this thing has crushed her,” says Newsom. “She is terribly distraught, but she’s never going to let her son know that. She’s solid as a rock for him.” So is his wife, Martine, who calls him every day from their home in San Francisco so he can listen to his stepdaughter, Anna, 9, and son, Paul Balthazar, 6. On weekends they visit him in L.A. “With this kind of experience, when you see the collapse of everything you have imagined for your life, you are brought in touch with the important things,” Martine says. “I’m just waiting for him to come home.”

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