Teddy Getty Gaston, who wrote an unflinching memoir about her marriage to J. Paul Getty, dies at 103

He was one of America’s richest; she was a crimson-haired dinner club singer in New York who aspired to be in opera.

Together, J. Paul Getty and Teddy Lynch forged a complex and intermittently stormy relationship that survived a world war, long stretches of separation and imprisonment, but was ultimately undone by the cruelest of events — the death of a child.

Decades after Getty died, Teddy Getty Gaston retraced their marriage in the 2013 memoir “Alone Together: My Life With J. Paul Getty,” a story of glamour and pain in early 20th century America that pulled back some of the mystique from one of America’s best-known billionaires.

Gaston, who continued to live near the couple’s onetime Pacific Palisades villa that eventually became part of the J. Paul Getty Museum, died April 8 at the age of 103.

Gaston, her daughter said, remained mentally agile until her death and — her fondness for opera still in full bloom — listened to the entirety of “Madame Butterfly” a week before she died.

Born Sept. 13, 1913, in Chicago, Gaston grew up in Greenwich, Conn., before going off to New York to work as a singer. Her first job singing at a dinner club paid $25 a week plus a free meal, decent enough — she felt — for the Depression era.

When Getty met Gaston — then Teddy Lynch — she was singing at a New York nightclub. Getty told her she had a nice voice. They danced. They became a couple, there to be seen at the Stork Club or the Russian Tea Room, drifting through the night with Bette Davis and Henry Fonda.

When Gaston decided to take opera singing lessons, Getty agreed to foot the bill if she paid him 10% of her future singing earnings. In a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times, she said the financial arrangement was actually her idea. But with Getty’s lasting image as a penny-pincher, some wondered.

When the two later married in Rome in 1939, Getty had her sign a prenuptial agreement, commonplace in Hollywood now, but almost unheard of then.

Gaston studied opera in England and Italy, staying on even when Getty returned to the United States and the drumbeat of war grew louder in Europe. As tensions abroad began to build, Gaston extended her visa by signing on as a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. She was eventually accused by Italy’s ruling National Fascist Party of being a spy and jailed, freed only when her employer vouched that she was a journalist.

When she returned to the United States in 1942, Getty had moved to Oklahoma to run an aircraft business, his contribution to the war effort. While it may have been an act of patriotism on Getty’s part, she preferred their beach house in Santa Monica.

By 1951, Getty had largely planted himself abroad, negotiating oils pacts in the Middle East and pushing his fortunes skyward. On the homefront, their son Timmy was undergoing surgery after surgery for treatment of a brain tumor. In her memoir, Gaston said Getty rarely saw his son and complained about the mounting medical bills.

When Timmy died at the age of 12, Gaston was with him at a New York hospital. Getty was in Europe. And when the boy was buried at the family’s villa, Getty did not attend the services.

“Oh, my God, he was so far away,” she said in the 2013 interview. “It was horrible to go through it alone.”

The couple separated and then divorced. For Getty, who’d already been married four times, it would be his last marriage. And his longest. He died in 1976, then one of the richest men in America.

Gaston later married a longtime friend, William Gaston. Together they had a daughter, Gigi, an L.A. filmmaker.

Gaston had a career of her own, too. In addition to the memoir, she co-wrote “The Mark of an Eagle,” a 1990 novel that tells the tale of a priest-turned-fortune-hunter, and had an uncredited role singing opera in Billy Wilder’s movie “The Lost Weekend.”

While the stories of Getty’s tightfisted nature were nearly legendary — he had reportedly refused to pay a ransom demand for a grandson, even after the kidnappers severed the boy’s ear and mailed it to the oil tycoon — Gaston’s daughter said he had an emotional and sentimental side that was overlooked.

Gaston and Getty, she said, had a complicated relationship that she likened to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, whose high-drama on-again, off-again relationship seemed to set the gold standard for tortured courtships. Still, Gigi Gaston said since she was a child, she remembers her mother faithfully putting flowers on Getty’s grave.

In her memoir, Gaston seemed to recognize that her husband was a deeply nuanced character, brilliant yet difficult, a man who loved his family, but ultimately left them behind to chase power and wealth.

In a 2013 review, the New York Times said Gaston’s book was “the kindest, most understanding memoir of a narcissist you’ll ever read.”

Late in life, Gigi Gaston said, her mother reflected on who had been the love of her life. J. Paul? the daughter asked. “I sure hope so,” her mother replied.

Gaston is survived by her daughter.

steve.marble@latimes.com

Twitter: @stephenmarble

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