The story of America’s most unconventional dynasty
By James Reginato
Illustrated. 314 pages. Gallery books. $28.
What was the price of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, once known as the richest man in the world?
So cheap that his mistress had to eat canned sardines for dinner while living in Depression-era New York waiting to become his fourth wife – even receiving invitations to Condé Nast penthouse parties. So cheap that in the early 1960s, Getty installed a payphone in the dressing room of his newly acquired mansion outside London for the “convenience” of his guests. So cheap that, most notoriously, he refused to pay a ransom when his eldest grandson, John Paul Getty III, was kidnapped by members of an Italian crime syndicate in 1973, saying in a statement: “J I have 14 other grandchildren, and if I pay a penny in ransom, I will have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.
Well, yes, no, and not exactly, writes James Reginato, in “Growing Up Getty,” a lively and sympathetic chronicle of the man and his many descendants. Add to that Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe’s “Vanderbilt” and Tina Brown’s “The Palace Papers,” and we might have a new kind of pandemic escape on our hands: scionography.
That phone booth, ripped off after 18 months, was actually the brainchild of Getty lawyer Robina Lund, Lund told Reginato, after news correspondents racked up long-distance bills in Los Angeles of $40,000 in money today while covering his housewarming party, which was attended by 1,000 people. An old sugar sifter worth $11,200 (in yesterday’s money) was also stolen, The New York Times reported at the time – soon found, in all locations, a public phone booth nearby . Way to reward hospitality.
Distant father but “adored grandfather”, according to Reginato, Paul I was deeply upset by the kidnapping of Paul III and, in cahoots with journalists, projected a public image of disinterest in influencing perpetrators. “I shudder at the boy’s peril,” Getty wrote in his diary after the kidnappers sent the victim’s severed ear to a Rome newspaper. For context, weeks before this ordeal began, Getty’s son George – the first of five sons in as many marriages – had died after taking a combination of alcohol, highs and lows and beating himself. stabbed in the abdomen with a barbecue knife. “Tragic! Shattered,” the patriarch noted in the newspaper. And two years earlier, Talitha Pol, the beautiful Dutch actress and fashion designer muse who was married to John Paul Jr., died of a heroin overdose. at 30. (“Shocked and sad.”)
Although a series of dramatic calamities have befallen the perhaps overextended Getty clan (the fourth son of Paul I, Gordon, a composer who recently wrote an opera based on “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, hid an entire second family for years), Reginato dismisses the idea that they are, as has also been suggested of the Kennedys, cursed or even particularly dysfunctional among their kind.
HL Hunt’s complicated succession, he writes, “makes the Gettys look like the Brady Bunch.”
The author, a writer in her own right for Vanity Fair and a contributor to Sotheby’s magazine, has spent many hours in the salons of America’s aristocracy – and some of her pages have the loosely draped feel of an auction catalog. But he wants to shake off the dust of Getty’s name: to show that the majority are not drug-guzzlers but productive citizens. We innovated a cabernet à vis that earned a rare 100 from wine eminence Robert Parker. One is DJ; at least two designer clothes (one brand is called Strike Oil); they all tend to have one hell of a marriage. Others have quietly contributed or splattered to important philanthropic causes like feminist art, LGBTQ rights and saving whales.
Gordon’s main wife, Ann, a former California farmer and general dynamo, not only started a decorating business (her own bathroom had a Degas), but also owned Grove Press for a time, publishing the memoir by Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter’s only novel.
His father-in-law, the imposing oil baron who exploited the neutral zone between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – his job was his second family – is captured here in innocent moments a la Richie Rich: screaming as he invites Lund to jump up and down with him on an antique couch; kneel late at night with visitors to show off his oriental rugs; afraid to fly until the end of his days. “Almost a bit hippie”, offers a grandson. But also deeply newsworthy, noting an episode of “I Love Lucy,” for example, when the show invoked her name. And, according to his fifth wife, Teddy, who published a memoir three years before his death at 103, big in the bag.
Nowadays, the association of the surname with oil has faded; many know only the monumental Getty-built art museum in Los Angeles (where he is buried with George and his fifth son, Timmy, who died aged 12 after cosmetic surgery to heal scars from the removal of a tumor to the brain). It may not have completely clicked, even for media geeks, that the gargantuan stock photography service Getty Images, which provides images to The Times and others, was founded by the brother of Paul III. , Mark.
At various points in “Growing Up Getty,” readers might yearn for a grid with color-coded pegs, like the one in the old Battleship board game, to keep track of all names and relationships. Admittedly, some Gettys are square pegs. Many prefer not to be quoted (one, declining Reginato’s interview request, called the daily events of her life “pale and monotonous”). But there they are hopping up and down with us on Twitter and Instagram, where one mariculturist posted that he loves seaweed so much he “sometimes chews on a nice slingshot waiting for the next set of waves.”
The rich may be different, according to Reginato, but they are not indifferent. Or as Paul I once said, “The meek shall inherit the land, but not its mineral rights.”