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The Sad, Tragic Life of J. Paul Getty III

“A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you are a business failure.”

~Jean Paul Getty, Sr.

by Seth Eisenberg

J. Paul Getty III in 1973

A young J. Paul Getty III talks to reporters after the arrest of his kidnappers in 1973. The one-time favorite grandson of the world's richest man and heir to the Getty Oil fortune died this week in England. He was 54.

J. Paul Getty III suffers no more. He died Saturday at the age of 54. The sad life and death of the once favorite grandson of the world’s richest man shows even unimaginable wealth is no match for the lasting consequences of family breakdown, a boy yearning for his father’s love and attention, and families whose riches can buy everything but an anchor to each other.

It’s tempting to imagine the life of J. Paul Getty III if his parents hadn’t broken up when he was eight. What could have been possible if his fabulously loaded grandfather, once the richest man in the world, hadn’t decided even earlier that business success and love mix like, well, oil and water, famously saying after his fifth divorce: “A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you are a business failure.”

Behind a fortress of unimaginable wealth, Grandpa Getty showed equal disregard for family, most evident when he dragged his feet for nearly six months refusing to pay the ransom demanded to free his 16-year-old grandson from the Mafia gang that kidnapped him until they cut off his ear and sent it to an Italian newspaper with the promise of more body parts to come. He negotiated a lower fee and then refused to take his grandson’s phone call after the teen was found shivering and alone along an Italian road, forever traumatized from the ordeal.

Years later, after Paul’s father, the oldest son of industrialist Jean Paul Getty, Sr., inherited over a billion dollars, his mother had to sue him in a Los Angeles court for money to pay for Paul’s medical bills, including around-the-clock care after complications of a drug overdose five years after the kidnapping left him paralyzed, partially blind, and unable to speak. Meanwhile, Paul’s father contributed hundreds of millions to English sports, arts, and the Conservative Party, earning him an official British Knighthood. In 1998, he legally changed his name to Sir Paul Getty KBE.

Paul’s only son, actor Balthazar Getty, appropriately remembered his father by saying in a statement that he “never let his handicap keep him from living life to the fullest and he was an inspiration to all of us, showing us how to stand up to all adversity.”

With all due respect, I suspect it’s more likely Paul Getty died before he ever really lived.

In the end, the script of a sad, tragic life that was most likely written long before his birth is now over. Paul Getty no longer needs bottles of booze, pills, and the help of others to sip a bowl of soup or sleep peacefully through the night.

While obituaries throughout the world eulogize Paul Getty’s life in the context of money, the real story is very much the opposite. His family’s billions never came close to making up for the consequences of growing up without a father in a family in which family itself appears to have often come a distant second, third, fourth or fifth to their drive to have even more of everything else.

In an Obituary to Paul, the London Telegraph writes that as a teenager, “Paul missed his father badly, and without his influence also fell into a life of excess; by his 15th birthday he was partying hard, taking drugs and crashing expensive motorbikes and cars. He was reportedly expelled from no fewer than seven schools, the last being the staid St George’s English School in Rome in early 1971.”

Like many children of divorce, the vast resources of the Getty Oil fortune offered little protection from the pain, anguish, searching and suffering that can define a child’s life long into their own adulthood, especially when the end of a marriage leads a father to significantly abandon obligations to actively love, nurture and protect his children. For Paul, it became a crossroads from which he would never recover.

Over the years, observers have written that Paul Getty’s life was defined by the Mafia gang who kidnapped the teenager and brutally cut off his ear and the impact of being born an heir to vast fortunes, yet the situation that led to his early vulnerability and rebellion had nothing to do with either. Paul Getty’s story is much more about the lasting legacy of a family without an anchor to each other.

Rosetta-and-Balthazer-Getty

Rosetta and Balthazer Getty

Paul’s grandfather married and divorced five times. His own father divorced his mother in 1964 and lost his second wife to a heroin overdose in 1971.

Balthazar Getty, married in 2008, is now himself a father of four. He’s known for his roles in Alias and ABC’s prime-time drama Brothers & Sisters. In 2008, Balthazar was photographed kissing a topless model aboard a boat and on a hotel balcony in Italy. Balthazar Getty responded with a statement that he and his wife had separated. A year later, after the affair reportedly ended, the couple said they had reconciled.

As he buries his father, Balthazar Getty and the many other descendants of Jean Paul Getty, Sr. throughout the world have a chance to also bury the legacy against which unimagined wealth and resources have been no match.

Rest in Peace, Paul Getty.

Seth Eisenberg is President of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation in Weston, Florida, an industry leader in relationship and marriage education.

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