He’s the son of oil billionaire J. Paul Getty – one of the richest men in the world, whose unimaginable wealth and the misfortune that followed led many to believe the family was cursed.
Gordon Getty, 83, rarely speaks of his famous family, but in a new documentary, Gordon Getty: There Will Be Music, now playing at Cinema Village in New York City, he opens up about his father and how music became his salvation from the fabled curse. The family’s most famous drama was the 1973 kidnapping of J. Paul’s grandson John Paul Getty III – whose ear was cut off in captivity and whose grandfather refused to pay the full ransom for his return. The documentary also chronicles numerous tales of the Getty clan’s drug addiction, excess and scandal.
Most recently, the family was thrust into the spotlight again after the untimely death of Gordon’s 47-year-old son Andrew last April.
“For children, I do think you can gag on a silver spoon, and my father thought that way and I always felt the same,” says Gordon in the film. “I think that more than just a little is a curse. If you have ideals, and the ideal is something bigger than you – music is something bigger than me, it’s a mountain I’m trying to climb – then you might escape the curse.”
At a screening of the documentary in December, Getty, a classical composer who lives in San Francisco with his wife, Anne, and has seven children, told PEOPLE of his family name: “It’s neither a curse nor a blessing. It’s an influence and if you have something bigger – and music is bigger than me – you might escape the curse. You make the best of what you are.”
Getty says he didn’t realize his father was the richest man in America until he was a university student in the late ’50s. “We all knew my dad was rich and everyone at school knew that – but we all thought other kids in the class had richer dads than I did,” says Getty. “Because, you know, how rich is rich?”
His father, who had five sons with five different wives, was an absent dad who rarely saw his children. “I didn’t see my father terribly often until I began working for him after I finished school,” says Getty, who attended boarding school from a young age. “He and my mother [Ann Rork] were separated after the time I was born and so we would get together about once or twice a year, usually at the holidays.”
Still, he credits his father for encouraging his lifelong love of music.
An accomplished composer of such works as the one-act operas Usher House, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall Of The House of Usher, and Plump Jack, based on the adventures of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, along with various orchestral, vocal and chamber music works, Getty says his father encouraged his music – in addition to his business studies.
“He had played the piano, and he thought [when I played] it was the cat’s pajamas,” Getty recalls. “He certainly encouraged my musical interests but he wanted me to spend some time in business too. He knew I was going to have responsibilities soon and I needed to be prepared.”
While he’s often portrayed as an absent-minded composer, Gordon, the billionaire’s fourth son, assumed control of the massive $2 billion Getty trust after J. Paul Getty’s death in 1976. He is credited for its eventual sale to Texaco Oil for $10 billion, and multiplying the family’s fortunes.
“I think Gordon, if he had to do it all over again, would rather have the recognition of his place in American music than all the money in the world,” says Rosen. “As Gordon says, there is a deep spiritual connection that people have to music and the power of that, [which] he says has helped him overcome the curse. I hope it shows the power of music over the tabloid-like family issues and tragedies that have followed the family.”
With reporting by SUSAN YOUNG