Kidnapping, Drugs and Scandal: Inside the Billionaire Getty Family's ‘Curse’
A summary of the Getty dynasty's most infamous family misfortunes
Once the richest dynasty in the world, the Getty family has weathered enough suffering and scandal over generations to earn their reputation for being cursed.
The most infamous example of the Getty misfortune — the brutal kidnapping and mutilation of John Paul Getty III in the ’70 — is the subject of Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, starring Christopher Plummer as the family patriarch J. Paul Getty, and Michelle Williams as Getty III’s devoted mother Gail Harris who fights to save her son.
“The great unanswered mystery of the Getty fortune is why it has apparently devoured so many of its beneficiaries,” wrote John Pearson in his 1995 biography Painfully Rich, which inspired the new movie about the Getty kidnapping, All the Money in the World. “It’s a sad story,”
Who Is Getty?
The richest man in the world at the time of his grandson’s kidnapping, Getty made the bulk of his eventual billion-dollar fortune extracting oil from the Middle East. A notorious playboy, he married and divorced five different women throughout his life, and was rumored to have countless other affairs. The miserly patriarch “was a genius at business,” biographer Robert Lenzner once told PEOPLE, “but an illiterate with respect to intimacy and family.”
All the Money in the World screenwriter David Scarpa said of Getty, “This is a man with a deep, gnawing sense of insecurity. The money is what he thinks is going to fill it, and it never does.”
However, after his death, a bulk of his estate was put into the J. Paul Getty Trust, now the world’s wealthiest art institution. His heirs have also donated a substantial part of the family fortune to charitable causes.
The first personal tragedy to strike the billionaire’s family was the untimely death of his youngest son, Timothy Ware Getty, who died of a brain tumor at the age of 12 in 1958.
In the early ‘70s, his son John Paul Getty Jr. became a drug addict while living in Morocco, and divorced his wife, Abigail Harris. Soon after, he married actress Talitha Pol, who died of a heroin overdose in 1971.
Two years later, Getty Jr.’s son Getty III was kidnapped by Italian gangsters while living in Rome. The 16-year-old was already using drugs at the time, according to Getty Sr.’s friend and former chief executive Claus von Bülow.
“Paul was living more or less on the Spanish Steps together with other kids shooting up when it happened,” said von Bülow. “When he disappeared they just assumed he was on a binge somewhere. Let’s just say he did not disappear out of his childhood bedroom.”
The kidnappers demanded a $17 million ransom, but his father didn’t have the resources to pay. Getty Jr. and Harris begged the boy’s billionaire grandfather to save their son, but the family patriarch refused, reasoning that negotiating with terrorists would put his other 14 grandchildren at risk.
“The problem could have been solved instantly,” says Scarpa. “The money’s there, the entire problem exists in the head of one man.”
Only when the kidnappers mailed his grandson’s severed ear and a lock of hair to an Italian newspaper, did Getty agree to get involved, negotiating a deal to pay a total of $2.9 million. He put up the first $2.2 million with no strings attached, as that was the maximum amount of money that was tax deductible. The remaining sum was given to Getty Jr. as a loan, which he was responsible to repay at 4% interest.
Coincidentally, the same year of the kidnapping, Getty’s oldest son, George Franklin Getty, died of a cocktail of drugs and alcohol, in addition to an self-inflicted stab wound.
Despite being saved from abduction, Getty III never fully recovered from the experience. In 1981, when he was his 20s, he suffered a stroke after a drug overdose, leaving him partially blind and quadriplegic. He died in 2011 at the age of 54 following years of illness.
After his son’s kidnapping, Getty Jr. sunk deeper into depression, and eventually checked himself into a London rehab in 1984. During his stay, he received a personal visit from then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Eventually, he learned to manage his depression and died at the age of 70 in 2003.
Even the most respected and accomplished heirs to the Getty fortune became mired in controversy.
Getty’s son Gordon was an esteemed musician living in San Francisco when it was revealed in 1999 that he had three children out of wedlock. Gordon is still married to his wife, Ann Gilbert.
The Family Curse
“Large amounts of money are very toxic,” Getty’s granddaughter Aileen, a recovering addict turned philanthropist, told PEOPLE in 1992. “It’s a very unfortunate substance to have.
Although he rarely speaks of his famous family, Gordon opened up about his father and the family curse in the 2016 documentary Gordon Getty: There Will Be Music.
“It’s neither a curse nor a blessing,” he said in the film of his family name. “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.”
In 2015, Gordon’s son Andrew died at the age of 47 due to intestinal bleeding. His ex-girlfriend Lanessa DeJonge discovered his body. The death was ruled accidental, with methamphetamine use and heart disease listed as contributing factors.
All the Money in the World is now in theaters.