The kidnapping of John Paul Getty III

Playboys, mafiosos and severed appendages: the cautionary tale of John Paul Getty III.

February 23, 2015

A 1973 Italian postal strike meant that by the time the severed ear of John Paul Getty III reached a Roman newspaper it was putrid. ‘This is Paul's ear,’ the accompanying ransom note read. ‘If we don't get some money within ten days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits.’

It was more than six months before Getty eluded his captors. By the age of 24, he was paralysed, unable to speak and almost completely blind after a stroke brought on by a drug overdose. In 2011, aged 54, he breathed his last, bringing to an end the lamentable life of billionaire oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty's grandson.

This year marks 42 years since the kidnapping, and the saga of the doomed house of Getty. Was the family's obsession with wealth, image and power, the value placed on those things above all else, little more than a lurid tabloid tale from the past, or a real-life parable that modern counterparts have failed to learn from?John Paul Getty IIIGetty's grandfather was, at the peak of his powers, the richest man in the world. His father, John Paul Getty II, had managed the family’s business interests in Italy. When he was abducted, the young Getty was living alone in Rome. Just 16, he enjoyed a bohemian existence. Expelled from a string of private schools, he kept company with artists and activists including the Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol. He spent his days selling dope and diamonds to the rich and famous, and most evenings in nightclubs. He was fond of drink and drugs, carried machine guns, totalled several cars and motorbikes and posed naked in a magazine. The very picture of a posh-boy rebel.

“I realised a car was stopping alongside me,” Getty later said to Charles Fox, author of Uncommon Youth: The Gilded Life and Tragic Times of J. Paul Getty III, a book on the saga. “These men were coming out of it. They grabbed me and wrestled me to the floor behind the front seats. There were three guys: two in the front, one in the back – I could feel his heels resting on me. I slept and we drove south for hours.

“I woke feeling like s***. So thirsty. I said: 'Water, water!' They would only give me whisky. I must have drunk a bottle and a half on the trip. I didn’t realise at all what was going on. I was just so f***ing drunk. I thought [they were] the cops. When I woke again, the car had stopped. It was getting light. Outside, I heard them talking. They blindfolded me. I was carried out. Feet and hands. They laid me on to the grass.”

A ransom of $18 million (AED 66 million) was asked in what would prove to be one of the most high-profile kidnapping cases in history. But Italian police were sceptical. Getty had spoken to friends about faking an abduction to extract money from his prodigiously tight grandfather – a man who famously insisted guests use a payphone he'd installed in his Surrey mansion. John Paul Getty III “If I pay one penny now,” the eldest John Paul said, “I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”

The oil baron was as miserly with his money as he was with his love. His son, also known as Big Paul, was, in turn, an absent and neglectful father. A heroin addict, living in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, he had greater affection for his collection of rare books than his teenage boy.

“Do you realise that if I have to pay the ransom,” Big Paul said to his mistress, “I’d have to sell my entire library for that useless son?”

Getty's mother, Gail Harris, no longer married or rich, took things more seriously. She received the original letter of ransom, handwritten by her son. But it was not until three months after his kidnapping, once his ear and a lock of his hair was mailed, along with a reduced ransom of $3 million, that the rest of his family followed suit.

As written in John Pearson's 1995 book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, John Paul Getty paid $2.2 million – the maximum his accountants said would be tax-deductible. The teenager's dad came up with the rest, money he borrowed from his father – at four per cent interest. This came only after a succession of ludicrous inter-family negotiations – in which, among other things, the custody of children was used as a bargaining tool – and a letter was written to then US president Richard Nixon.John Paul Getty IIIThe beat-up boy, malnourished and missing an ear, was found half-dead in the driving rain at a petrol station on December 15, 1973. Of the nine men arrested for his kidnapping, only two were eventually convicted. The others, including a man believed to be the head of the Calabrian Mafia –the Ndrangheta – the brains behind the abduction, were acquitted due to lack of evidence. Just $85,000 of the $2.8 million ransom was recovered.

Following the ordeal, young Getty slipped back into his old ways. He married. Partied. Moved to New York and fraternised with Andy Warhol. Had a son, the actor Balthazar Getty. Got deep into drink and drugs. After his drug-induced stroke, in 1981, he had to sue his father to raise the money to cover his medical expenses.

Perhaps the most elegiac scene from the house of Getty comes not long after the kidnapped boy was released by his captors. He called his grandfather to thank him for paying the ransom. The eldest Getty refused to come to the phone.John Paul Getty III Many believe that, in joking about faking his abduction, Getty planted the idea in the heads of the miscreants he associated with. Whether or not there's any truth in this doesn't really matter. The heir's ultimate undoing lies in the lust he and his family had for excess: his grandfather, consumed by the senseless accumulation of wealth, and an almost sociopathic unwillingness to use his riches for anything that didn't directly benefit him; his father, though charitable in later life, fixated on image and reputation; the youngest John Paul gripped by self-entitlement and self-destruction.

Aldous Huxley, one of the authors found in Big Paul's vast literary collection, once said: "That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach."

Gross power and wealth failed to insulate the Getty family from the tragedies that fell upon it; more than this, it was its mania for power and wealth that both propagated and amplified the misery that peaked but didn't end with the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III. And the ghost of the boy Getty has echoed through a thousand headlines since.