The Odd Mr. Getty

March 17, 1986, 10:00 AM UTC
J. Paul Getty At The Royal Academy
American industrialist J. Paul Getty (1892 - 1976) and his secretary attend a private viewing at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 28th April 1967. (Photo by Les Lee/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Les Lee/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1957 FORTUNE presented a ranking of the largest American fortunes. To the amazement of just about everybody, the list was not topped by a Rockefeller or Mellon or Whitney or Astor, but by Jean Paul Getty, a 64-year-old expatriate then living in Europe who had made his money in oil. FORTUNE credited him with a net worth of $700 million to $1 billion. A new business celebrity had been created.

At first Getty professed annoyance at his public status. “I’ll have to change my name if I expect to get any peace,” he said. Deep down, though, he seemed rather pleased. It was just that he wasn’t sure it was proper for him to say so.

For the rest of his life (he died at 83 in 1976) Getty exhibited no yearning to crawl back into obscurity. Nevertheless he remained something of an enigma and a challenge for biographers. Robert Lenzner, a correspondent for both the Economist and the Boston Globe, has now produced a solid biography, The Great Getty (Crown, $18.95). Although he did not receive formal authorization from the Getty family, several of its members agreed to be interviewed, and Lenzner also talked to dozens of his subject’s friends and acquaintances. (Some of these sources also appear to have spoken to Russell Miller, whose The House of Getty will soon be published by Henry Holt.)

Although he quit college to make his first million as a wildcatter, Getty appeared to have an intellectual bent. He read a lot and wrote several books, with and without ghosts. One of his books was a study of Europe in the 18th century (his favorite epoch). And yet he could be incredibly naive about political matters. His lack of caution about the friends he made and his spontaneous statements of admiration for Nazi Germany led to his being investigated by the FBI just before the U.S. entered World War II. After Pearl Harbor, Lenzner reveals, J. Edgar Hoover personally approved an order for Getty‘s custodial detention as a “potential enemy.” The order was never carried out, and ultimately Getty was put in charge of a defense plant making spare parts for planes.

Getty‘s phobias and eccentricities are somewhat reminiscent of Howard Hughes’s. Getty was probably the only billionaire who regularly washed his own underwear—not, he explained, to save money on laundry bills, but because he didn’t like the detergent the laundry used. He was afraid of flying and not much braver about boarding an ocean liner. And so, during the last quarter-century of his life, he never once set foot in his native land. He explained that Europe was the right place for him to be living because it was midway between the Middle East and California. But that scarcely accounts for his refusal to come back to the U.S. even for a visit.

One reason for Getty‘s decision to become an expatriate was that he would be freer in Europe to indulge his prodigious sexual appetite. This wasn’t merely a matter of having a live-in “friend” or a casual affair now and then. Wherever he went, he kept a number of women gathered around him. No precise lifetime total exists, but Lenzer mentions a report that at 61 Getty compiled a list of 100 lovers he remembered fondly. According to the author, “Getty had an extraordinary magnetism for women. It was probably the result of a unique combination of wealth, power, a well-informed and cultivated mind, impeccable manners, a wry sense of humor, and apparently, tremendous sexual prowess.”

IN THE FIRST YEARS of his self-imposed exile, when he was in his early 60s, the Getty household—including the harem—would shuttle back and forth between the George V hotel in Paris and the Ritz in London. In each city he entertained and was entertained by his friends in the international social set. Mingling with the rich and famous was one of the fringe benefits of being rich and famous.

In 1959, as he neared his 70s, Getty decided to give up this nomadic life and buy Sutton Place, one of the most historically distinguished English country mansions. Situated on 60 acres in Surrey, just south of London, it was a sumptuous residence indeed. It had, Lenzner tells us, more than a dozen reception rooms, including what is said to be the largest hall in Britain, and a dining room that could accommodate nearly a hundred guests at a 70-foot refectory table. Some 1,200 people were invited to the party Getty threw to inaugurate his new dwelling, but twice that number showed up. Black-market tickets fetched astronomical prices.

Sutton Place was to be Getty‘s home for the rest of his life. To save on taxes, it was also designated the European headquarters of the GettyOil Co. There is no clear evidence in Lenzner’s biography that Getty really enjoyed the place. Anyone else who had bought such an estate would have been likely to expound upon its comforts, the beauty of its surroundings, or its architectural charms. Not so Getty. He was proudest about the property’s bargain price ((pounds)50,000, then equivalent to $140,000), which he conservatively estimated to be “less than one-twentieth its replacement value.”

Getty‘s obsessive search for bargains colored his judgment as an art collector. “While he was genuinely excited about his purchases,” Lenzner remarks, “he always emphasized that ‘fine art is the finest investment.’ ” His friend the Duke of Bedford observed, “I don’t think he looked at things and saw they were beautiful … More importantly, was he going to get it cheap?”

Bargain-hunting served Getty well in developing a strategy for his oil business. Back in the 1920s, he used to explain, oil companies’ stocks were selling above book value and were overpriced. It was cheaper to buy leases and drill for oil, which he did with considerable success in the fields then opening up along the California coast. In the 1930s, after the stock market crash, Getty realized that he could pick up oil company shares at prices representing only a fraction of the value of the oil in the ground. He considered it “foolish to buy oil properties with 100-cent dollars when you could buy them indirectly with maybe 50-cent dollars.” Accordingly, Getty staked everything he owned or could borrow on the underpriced shares of a number of small oil producers.

In 1932 he also started quietly buying the stock of Tide Water Associated Oil, one of the most highly visible American oil companies. (It had over 1,200 service stations.) Getty‘s objective was to form a new, fully integrated oil company that would combine production, tankering, refining, and marketing. Tide Water was to be the centerpiece. It took Getty two decades to obtain voting control of the company.

Meanwhile he was plunging on a great new oil source in the Middle East. Armed with good geological advice, he obtained a concession in the so-called Neutral Zone, a 2,200-square-mile patch of desert where Kuwait meets Saudi Arabia. In exchange Getty agreed to pay the Arabs the then unheard-of royalty of 55 cents a barrel of oil. He had an explanation for this uncharacteristic burst of generosity: “I now felt I never had to run down an alley any time I saw an Arab approaching because I gave the Arabs very good terms right from the start.”

The drillers struck oil in the Neutral Zone early in 1953. Within a month the stock of Pacific Western, which then owned most of the Getty oil properties, had doubled, as had Getty‘s personal net worth. Although his fortune thereafter heavily depended on oil from the Middle East, he made only a couple of visits to the region during his life.

Getty‘s effort to build a fully integrated oil empire was derailed by a development he had not foreseen. In 1959 the Eisenhower Administration imposed mandatory quotas on oil imports. This made Getty‘s huge refining capacity and marketing organization uneconomic; these parts of the business were sold off and the remainder was combined with most of his other properties in an enterprise now known as the Getty Oil Co. It would concentrate mainly on exploration and production. But the collapse of Getty‘s original strategy did not prevent the company from prospering mightily. Despite its weird managerial arrangements, with the boss half a world away from headquarters, the company kept pumping out profits (helped, to be sure, by the OPEC price explosion). In 1975, the last full year of his life, Getty‘s dividend income amounted to $25.8 million.

But all that money couldn’t relieve the sadness of his final years, when he rattled around Sutton Place with a few devoted old friends and comtemplated the decline of his virility and the wreckage of his family life. Getty had five wives, each of whom he divorced. Considering his sexual proclivities, there was nothing mysterious about the fragility of those marriages. But what could account for his outrageous neglect of his five sons? He was at his callous worst in his behavior toward his youngest son, Timmy, who was sickly all his life, suffered painfully from a brain tumor, and died on the operating table at the age of 12. According to Lenzner, “It never entered Getty‘s head to return home” to comfort the boy by his presence; he was also too busy to go back for the funeral. As for the four older sons, Getty apparently made little effort to encourage them or train them as potential successors. Instead he disdained them as incompetents and unfeelingly let them know how he felt. George Getty II, the oldest son, died a “probable suicide” from an overdose of assorted pills. Jean Paul Jr. had a long history of drug problems. All the sons squabbled eternally with their father and among themselves—”an alienated group,” Lenzner calls them, “that could barely call itself a family.”

WHEN THE ELDER Getty died in 1976 the squabbling continued, and the ensuing discord in Getty Oil made the company ripe for a takeover. If the Getty family had been more at peace with itself, Texaco and Pennzoil might not now be at war over which of them had rightfully acquired the company.

Lenzner considers it unlikely that “J. Paul Getty would have approved the sale of his company to Texaco.” His argument is not persuasive. My own guess is that the old man would have been just as excited and delighted to see his company sell for $10.1 billion as he was to learn 29 years ago that he was the richest American.

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