Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, into a family already in the petroleum business, he was one of the first people in the world with a fortune of over $1 billion U.S. dollars. He was an avid collector of art and antiquities, and his collection forms the basis of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California.
He enrolled at the University of Southern California, then at Berkeley before graduating in 1914 from Magdalen College, Oxford with degrees in economics and political science. He worked during the summers on his father's oil fields in Oklahoma. Running his own oil company in Tulsa, he made his first million by 1916. However, in 1917, he announced that he was retiring to become a Los Angeles-based playboy. Although he eventually returned to business, Getty had lost his father's respect. Just before George Franklin Getty died in 1930, he believed that Jean Paul would destroy the family company, and told him so.
Jean Paul Getty, who in 1957 sadly philosophized that "a billion dollars isn't worth what it used to be," was born in Minneapolis on Dec. 15, 1892. His father was a lawyer who made millions in Oklahoma oil. J. Paul was educated at the University of Southern California, the University of California at Berkeley, and Oxford, from which he went to Tulsa (site of his father's Minnehoma Oil Company) in 1914 determined to make a million dollars within two years. He bought and sold oil leases with great success and--true to his resolve--was a millionaire by 1916.
After taking a few years off from the money-making grind to enjoy spending his earnings on women, Getty returned to Oklahoma in 1919. During the 1920s he added about $3 million to his already sizable estate. His succession of marriages and divorces (three during the 1920s, five throughout his life) so distressed his father, however, that J. Paul inherited a mere $500,000 of the $10 million the senior Getty left at his death in 1930.
Through shrewd investment during the Depression, Getty acquired Pacific Western Oil Corporation, and he began the acquisition (completed in 1953) of the Mission Corporation, which included Tidewater Oil and Skelly Oil. In 1967 the billionaire merged these holdings into Getty Oil.
His most daring business venture began in 1949, when he paid Ibn Saud $9.5 million in cash and $1 million a year for a 60-year concession to a tract of barren land near the border of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. No oil had ever been discovered there, and none appeared until four years and $30 million had been spent. But from 1953 onward, Getty's gamble produced 16 million barrels a year, which contributed greatly to the fortune that made him the richest person in the world. He died on June 6, 1976.
In fact Getty increased the family wealth, teaching himself Arabic to assist in his expansion into the Middle East. Getty owned the controlling interest in nearly 200 businesses, including Getty Oil, and associates put his overall wealth at between $2 billion and $4 billion.
He moved to England in the 1950s, where he lived and worked at his 16th-century Tudor estate, Sutton Place near Guildford, until his death at the age of 83.
Getty was married five times:
- Jeanette Dumont (1923-25); one son George Franklin Getty II (1924-1973)
- Allene Ashby (1926-28)
- Adolphine Helmle (1928-32); one son Jean Ronald Getty
- Ann Rork (1932-35); two sons John Paul Getty (1932-2003) and Gordon Getty (born 1934)
- Louise Dudley Lynch (1939 -1958); one son Timothy Getty (died aged 12)
He was later quoted as saying, "A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you are a business failure."
Views on His Own Success
Getty wrote a very successful book entitled How to be Rich. Note that it was not "How to get Rich." His oil business was handed to him by his father, who started the business.
Getty fully acknowledges this in his autobiography, I enjoyed the advantage of being born into an already-wealthy family, and when I began my business career I was subsidized by my father. While I did make money - and quite a bit of it - on my own, I doubt if there would be a 'Getty Empire' today if I had not taken over my father's thriving oil business after his death. (Getty, 1976, pg.336).
Common ideas about Jean Paul Getty
It is true that Getty had a pay phone installed at Sutton Place manor. However, the reason behind it is fairly simple. In Getty's own autobiography (Getty, 1976, pg.319):
- "Now, for months after Sutton Place was purchased, great numbers of people came in and out of the house. Some were visiting businessmen. Others were artisans or workmen engaged in renovation and refurbishing. Still others were tradesmen making deliveries of merchandise. Suddenly, the Sutton Place telephone bills began to soar. The reason was obvious. Each of the regular telephones in the house has direct access to outside lines and thus to long-distance and even overseas operators. All sorts of people were making the best of a rare opportunity. They were picking up Sutton Place phones and placing calls to girlfriends in Geneva or Georgia and to aunts, uncles and third cousins twice-removed in Caracas and Cape Town. The costs of their friendly chats were, of course, charged to the Sutton Place bill."
Hence, the only solution was to place dial-locks on all the regular telephones, limiting their use to authorised staff, and the coin-box telephone was installed for others. However, when speaking in a televised interview with Alan Whicker, Getty simply explained it by saying that he thought guests would want to use a payphone.
Getty's Initial Refusal to Pay Ransom
At age 16, on 10 July 1973 in Rome, John Paul Getty III was kidnapped and a ransom of $17 million was demanded over the phone for his safe return. As Paul III was so rebellious, when the first ransom message arrived, the family suspected a ploy by the teenager to extract money from his miserly grandfather. A second demand was delayed by an Italian postal strike. John Paul Getty II asked his father for the money, but was refused. Finally, in November 1973 an envelope containing a lock of hair and a human ear was delivered to a daily newspaper, with a threat of further mutilation unless $3.2 million was paid over: "This is Paul's ear. If we don't get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits." At this point J. Paul Getty agreed to pay a ransom, subject to him negotiating the fee, and Paul II repaying the sum at 4% interest.
Still reluctant to part with the ransom, Getty senior negotiated a deal and got his grandson back for about $2 million. Paul III was found alive in southern Italy shortly after the ransom was paid. His kidnappers were never caught. Paul III was permanently affected by the trauma, and himself became a drug addict. In 1981, Paul III was rendered speechless, blind and paralyzed for the rest of his life by a cocktail of drugs and alcohol.
J Paul Getty defended his initial refusal to pay the ransom on two points. Firstly he argued that he had fourteen other grandchildren, and to submit to the kidnappers' demands would immediately place his other fourteen grandchildren at the risk of copy-cat kidnappers.
Secondly: "The second reason for my refusal was much broader-based. I contend that acceding to the demands of criminals and terrorists merely guarantees the continuing increase and spread of lawlessness, violence and such outrages as terror-bombings, 'skyjackings' and the slaughter of hostages that plague our present-day world" (Getty, 1976, pg.139).
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