Institutional Archives, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles
In this age of inflation, where the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos need not be wary of rising costs, a new book about a Minnesota oilman and his dynasty seems timely. In his day, J. Paul Getty was known as “the richest man in America”.
His father discovered oil in 1903. J. Paul earned his first million at age 23 and turned oil into gold by the billions. James Reginato’s book, Growing up Gettyis a comprehensive account of how the rich are different from you and me.
The book reveals that the Gettys were different from some of the terrible wealthy families of film and television: the Guccis in Gucci House, for example, or the oil-rich Texas Carringtons in Dynasty.
Biographer Reginato says he “really doesn’t see any scoundrels” in the Getty family. They are very close, keep in touch and have regular family gatherings. Looks like they won’t be getting their own TV series, although there will be enough to fill various screens for several seasons. J. Paul Getty had five wives, five sons, many lovers, 19 grandchildren (including a brother-in-law to Elizabeth Taylor) and 47 great-grandchildren. Today, there are 57 Gettys living on four continents – and you can bet none of them have tuition to worry about.
Clearly, the patriarch was a big businessman, buying up small companies – and big ones too, like Standard Oil – and bringing them into the Getty Oil portfolio. J. Paul had “good instincts, but also followed science,” Reginato says. “He found the best geologists he could find, made informed decisions…and a lot of ex-oilers scoffed at the idea that ‘a fucking bookworm could tell them where to drill for oil”.
As for his personality, J. (meaning Jean) Paul has always been described as cold, wicked, miserly and stingy. “He was cheap. It was real,” Reginato says. But he was more: “He was quite charming and funny.” (You wouldn’t know that from his photographs. He looks like he’s having a hard time smiling.)
Reginato says Getty was quite sophisticated. He loved art, traveling and learning new things. he even mastered Arabic to do business in the Middle East. Sounds like you like him as your dinner partner. But in a BBC documentary, Getty said: “I always wished I had a better personality, could entertain people better, be a better conversationalist; I always worry about being a bit boring as a companion. “
Reginato writes that the driven tanker wasn’t a grandfather – he was always on business trips – but he was a doting grandfather. Here is a 1966 entry from one of the diaries he kept all his life:
This is Ronnie, Karen and baby Chris. A nice little guy. Chris plays with the puppies Sugar and Spice. The valuation of Getty Oil is 2 billion 7 million dollars net. I have 79%
This seems the very essence of J. Paul Getty. An enchanted life, touched by tragedy – 16 year old grandson kidnapped, eldest son dead at 49 from drug complications, other deaths, other drugs. But, there have been many golden years of success and achievement, and offspring offspring delight. Plus, that grand diary finale – what was it worth!