J. Paul Getty was not nice, according to the first two biographers of the man who many people believe--wrongly--was the world’s richest person.
He was a liar, a cheat, a bigamist and just plain mean-spirited, according to both authors.
But ex-wives spoke fondly of him to one of the authors, old mistresses described him lovingly and those of his descendants who talked to both authors spoke coolly, but not negatively, of the legendary oil man. One friend called Getty “the happiest man I ever met,” filled with pride in his achievements.
Getty and Hitler
Getty, who was 79 when he died in London in 1976, greatly admired Adolf Hitler, according to one of the books, “The Great Getty” (Crown; $18.95) by Boston Globe reporter Robert Lenzner, who quotes extensively from Getty’s diaries and FBI documents.
When a screaming and wild-eyed Hitler delivered his infamous Sportspalast speech before 15,000 cheering Nazis in 1938, threatening war unless Czechoslovakia turned the Sudentenland over to Germany, Getty was in the audience, apparently as a guest of the Nazi government.
According to Lenzner, Getty wrote in his diary that Hitler “made a speech in favor of peace.”
Quoting extensively from the billionaire’s diaries, Lenzner reveals how one month later Getty sought bargains from the treasures of a Jewish multimillionaire who had been imprisoned by Nazis. Lenzner hints at other such episodes but does not cite them.
On Oct. 24, 1938, Getty’s diaries show that he traveled to Vienna to inspect the art, silver and furniture that the SS seized after imprisoning Baron Louis de Rothschild and holding him for ransom.
According to Lenzner’s book, Getty visited the Rothschild mansion at 22 Prinz Eugenstrasse, which was guarded by the SS. Then Getty hopped a train to Berlin, where he met German actress Charlotte Susa, who had access to top Nazis, including Hermann Goring.
Susa, Getty wrote in his diary, “reported a new law in re the Jews; and that the Rothschild furniture may be sold in January (1939). She will keep me posted.”
Lenzner, 50, also suggests that Getty was a coward who solicited a U.S. Navy officer’s commission in World War II, but then had it withdrawn when he was not promised duty ashore in the United States.
Despite this, Getty ran an exceptionally efficient airplane factory during the war, spending most of his time in a bunker-like office in Oklahoma and paying close attention to detail, Lenzner said.
Getty and Women
The other author, Sunday Times of London profile writer Russell Miller, also paints a mostly unflattering picture of Getty in his new book, “The House of Getty,” (Henry Holt; $17.95).
Miller--whose previous book, “Bunny,” took a hard look at playboy Hugh Hefner--describes Getty as a relentless womanizer “who boasted of having five different women in a single day when he was 60.”
According to Lenzner, Getty once showed his fourth wife--Ann Rork, the mother of San Francisco composer Gordon Getty--a document that he made other women sign before having sex with him. The elder Getty’s money proved such an aphrodisiac that neither an unromantic interruption to sign a document nor its absolving him from responsibility in the event of pregnancy interfered with his affairs.
All this about a man whose name in death has become synonymous with fine art through the Getty Museum in Pacific Palisades, part of the United States’ most richly endowed arts philanthropy, the $2.6-billion J. Paul Getty Trust.
Miller and Lenzner both say the way Getty disposed of his money--creating an operating foundation that spends its income on its own programs in Los Angeles rather than making grants to support the arts--has had a destructive effect on the world art market. The Getty Trust, by law, most spend nearly $100 million annually and its budget has helped escalate world prices for some types of art works.
Jillian Wilson, a Getty Museum curator, said the museum long has been aware that Getty sought art bargains in Europe in the late 1930s.
In order to gain their freedom, Lenzner writes, the Vienna Rothschilds were forced by the Nazis to relinquish most of their possessions, but did get some to the United States. Lenzner reports that Getty obtained two ornate desks, or secretaires --which cost the Rothschilds $200,000 in 1930--through Lord Duveen’s gallery in New York for $72,000.
Wilson said Getty Museum records show that two secretaires from the Rothschild’s Vienna mansion were purchased for $72,000, but in 1950 and from the Rosenberg and Stiebel Galleries in New York. “To be polite, I believe he’s got it wrong,” Wilson said.
J. Paul Getty was an obscure oil man whose parents lived in the Hancock Park mansion--now Mayor Tom Bradley’s official residence--while he lived in suites at Europe’s finest hotels, handling his oil business by cable.
The Forture Article
Then came the October, 1957, Fortune magazine article that made Getty a household name by proclaiming him the richest man in the United States.
Lenzner and Miller tell very different versions of how Fortune magazine, a monthly diary of the American dream of limitless wealth, came to describe Getty as “richer than a Rockefeller” as well as any Du Pont, Astor, Whitney or Mellon.
Miller, 46, who writes authoritatively but cites few sources, reports that “Getty knew nothing of the Fortune article until one afternoon he found the lobby of the Ritz Hotel (in London) suddenly full of journalists, all of them clamoring for an interview with the ‘richest American.’ ”
Lenzner, whose book contains extensive chapter notes and relies mostly on named sources, suggests that Getty assiduously courted Fortune magazine, planting facts to make sure he would be portrayed as the richest man in the United States, which he may or may not have been since the value of wealth can be determined in many ways, depending on whether one wishes to display or hide assets.
Fortune magazine, Lenzner writes, sent a long questionnaire to 175 U.S. multimillionaires, then got 50 of them to agree to an interview.
“It would hardly have been in character for Getty to turn down the opportunity for top billing,” Lenzner writes, adding that soon after the Fortune magazine article appeared, Getty told columnist Art Buchwald:
“It was rather amusing in a way that the story should come out in Fortune because they’ve ignored me for 21 years. I kept reading about other people in the magazine with large businesses, and I always thought since mine was larger they’d get around to me. It looks like I’ll probably have to change my name if I expect to get any peace.”
The Getty Family
In separate interviews, Lenzner and Miller expressed similar conclusions about how money has affected the Getty family. Both authors recount how violence, alcohol, drugs, affairs and fortune seekers have plagued the Getty descendants.
Lenzner describes Getty’s fortune as “the American dream become the American nightmare.”
“We should care about the Gettys,” Miller said, “because their story proves the destructive influence money can have, especially if there is so much that it’s obscene, it’s incomprehensible.”
“Few people who knew Getty say he was a happy man,” Lenzner said, “but I think he enjoyed himself and he enjoyed playing people off against each other.”
Others enjoyed playing off their rivals in vying for Getty’s money and affection, Miller said.
One example Miller cited in an interview was what happened when Mary Teissier learned the design of the dress that another of Getty’s mistresses who lived at his mansion, Penelope Kitson, had made in Paris to wear at the housewarming at Sutton Place, Getty’s London mansion.
“Teissier got a sleazy-looking woman invited and got her a dress identical to the one Penelope Kitson was going to wear,” Miller said, “and then stationed her at the bottom of the stairs. Others who were in on it waited to see what would happen. But when Kitson came out and saw the other woman she just turned around, went back to her room and put on another, and equally elegant, dress.”