From the Archives

The Great Getty: A review of two biographies

I spent a weekend in the company of J. Paul Getty in July, 1972. We were fellow-guests of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford at Woburn Abbey, England. I made allowance for Getty's creeping senility (and never was senility creepier), but he was one of the most boring people I have ever met.

He told no fewer than three times a story about the Duke of Sutherland's bath in Sutton Place, the English country mansion Getty had bought in 1959. "When I moved into the house, there was a notice above the Duke's bath, saying, 'Please run cold tap before hot.' The reason for that was that the bath was of tin, and hot-water-first both melted the paint and made the bath red-hot to sit in. So the first thing I did was to buy a porcelain bath. It didn't cost me more than 80 pounds."

As usual with Getty, the punch-line was the bottom line. I found more amusing the Duke of Bedford's suggestion that Getty habitually looked as lugubrious as he did because he had had a face-lift operation on the cheap from a ship's surgeon, and it had gone wrong. Bedford's story does not appear in either of the biographies under review, and is no doubt apocryphal; but both books confirm that Getty was every bit as miserly as he was usually depicted. His son Gordon thought he was the image of Scrooge McDuck, Donald Duck's skinflint uncle.

Both authors also give a full exposure of the other well-known aspect of Getty's character, his voracious womanizing from puberty on. After reading both books, it is hard to decide which Getty enjoyed more, penny-pinching or bottom-pinching. "All his life," said his friend and lawyer Robina Lund, "Paul could hardly ever say 'no' to a woman, or 'yes' to a man."

What does come as something of a surprise is Getty's lack of dedication to the oil industry in his youth. Many young oil men have a fling, J. R.-style--a long weekend dallying with an actress, or a regular 'love-nest.' But when Getty had made what he later claimed was his first million (it was probably nearer $100,000), he simply gave up the oil industry for several months, to the horror of his staid Methodist parents, to paint the town red.

The town in question was the city of Los Angeles. Getty moved back into the family home at 647 S. Kingsley Drive, where he had his own entrance. It was there, claimed a Miss Elsie M. Eckstrom, that he deflowered her while she was drunk. In December, 1917, when Eckstrom gave birth to a baby girl, the Los Angeles Times ran the headline, "Baby Born to Getty's Accuser." Some time between late 1917 and mid-1918, Getty retired from his retirement, his "post-adolescent hibernation," as he called it, and returned to the business that would make him, by 1957, the richest man in the world.

Of the two biographers, only Lenzner has ferreted out the Elsie Eckstrom story. His book is generally better researched than Miller's. Throughout, he gives his sources and, where possible, precise dates. With Miller, one is often not sure of the timing of events. And Lenzner triumphantly upstages Miller with a fascinating chapter about an FBI file on Getty kept during World War II. This is a real scoop. Not only was Getty regarded as a Nazi sympathizer (mainly because of his affair with Hilde Kruger, a friend of Hitler); he was very nearly jailed after Pearl Harbor: "J. Edgar Hoover personally issued approval for the custodial detention of Getty as a potential enemy. However, he wired his Los Angeles offices a few days later that Getty, and several other individuals, were not to be brought in yet." (Ironically, Getty's fifth wife, "Teddy," was almost simultaneously arrested in Italy as a suspected American spy; she was soon released.)

Getty did admire Hitler: In September, 1938, while traveling through Germany, he wrote in his diary: "Fuhrer makes great, manly speech. Crowd greets him uproariously." But as a U.S. Navy report on Getty later suggested, he had probably been "indiscreet in his choice of associates and naive in his interpretation of the political scene, rather than an avowed supporter of the Nazi or Fascist regime." Certainly Getty did his bit for the war effort, by improving production mightily at the Spartan Aircraft Co. of Tulsa, Okla.

If somebody sits down to write the history of the oil industry in the 20th Century, Lenzner's book will be of more value to him or her than Miller's. But for the casual reader, who just wants to find out what sort of man Getty was and what kind of life he led, I would still recommend Miller's book in preference to Lenzner's. It is a much more relaxing and entertaining read. Both approaches are seen at their best in the accounts of the kidnaping and mutilation of Getty's grandson, J. Paul Getty III--"the earless wonder," as Getty is alleged to have called him.

Miller's popularizing tendency sometimes leads him into cliche ("Then the unbelievable happened") and 'journalese' ("Getty contrived a clandestine social life to relieve the urgent stirrings of his seventeen-year-old loins"). But even Lenzner begins his book with something like the opening of a cheap thriller: "The coffin of J. Paul Getty, illuminated by huge flickering beeswax candles, rested in the middle of the Great Hall of Sutton Place. . . ." Personally, I could care less whether the candles were of beeswax, tallow or dried bat-droppings.

Both men address the inevitable old question--did Getty's money make him happy? (Patently, no.) But neither makes any sustained attempt at a psychological appraisal, though Lenzner writes of "teenage girls for whom his admiration amounted almost to an aberration, as if he were afraid of mature, more experienced women," and Hilde Kruger claimed Getty was "prudish," with "a very feminine attitude" and that he was "scared of women."

Perhaps biographers should refrain from amateur psychoanalysis; but there ought to be a species of consultant analyst to advise biographers. What would such an analyst make of Getty's view that "a lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you are a business failure" or his belief that women can be divided into two types--"those that you pay to stay with you, and those that you pay to stay away"?

Both books are rather weak on Getty's art collecting, though they dwell on the ruckus that his bequest to his Malibu museum has caused in the art world. But both are strong on the rivalries and jockeying for position between different members of his ill-starred family and between his lady friends at Sutton Place. Among the few people to emerge from the book with some credit are his son Gordon and Gordon's wife Ann. Gordon Getty is generous-spirited, far from a dope in business, and not without distinction as a music composer. Again it is only Lenzner who gives an account of Ann Getty's creation with British publisher Lord (George) Weidenfeld--"Lord Big" as an article in the March issue of Vanity Fair calls him--of the Wheatland Translation Fund. In its way, the Getty-Weidenfeld effort, endowed at $100,000 per annum and intended to promote literary appreciation across national borders, is as much a cultural portent as the Getty Museum's prodigal endowment.

THE LIFE AND LOVES OF J. PAUL GETTY--RICHEST MAN IN THE WORLD by Robert Lenzner (Crown: $18.95; 304 pp.)

THE HOUSE OF GETTY by Russell Miller (Henry Holt: $17.65; 362 pp.)

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times