Bestowing a Look at Britain’s Benefactor : Arts: J. Paul Getty Jr. has donated millions for a variety of causes. Now, a flap over his reasons for giving has thrown the mostly reclusive oil magnate into the spotlight.
The media here are fond of describing J. Paul Getty Jr., Britain’s most famous living philanthropist, as a recluse.
They are also quick to brand some of his philanthropic gestures as slaps at an unloving and unloved father, the late J. Paul Getty Sr., whose fortune founded the Getty Museum in Malibu.
Tempers flared over just this issue this week. Getty Jr. had pledged $1.53 million to keep Antonio Canova’s neoclassical sculpture “The Three Graces” in England and away from the Getty Museum, which was trying to purchase it for about $11.6 million. But the philanthropist threatened to rescind his offer when a museum official claimed in a televised interview that Getty’s generosity was motivated by animosity toward his father. The official, Timothy Clifford of the National Gallery of Scotland, quickly apologized, and it now appears that Getty will donate the promised funds.
The dispute has brought this mostly reclusive man into a media spotlight he usually tries to avoid. Like the late billionaire Howard Hughes, Getty, 61, rarely grants interviews and rarely appears in public. Yet unlike the super-secretive Hughes, he lives openly in an apartment in London’s fashionable St. James Place, overlooking Green Park, and is driven in a Bentley to his 3,000-acre estate, Wormsley, in Buckinghamshire, 45 minutes away.
There, he watches his favorite sport, cricket, with friends such as actor Michael Caine, played on a pitch he reportedly installed for more than $1 million.
And he occasionally attends parties with his companion, Victoria Holdsworth, in black tie--sporting an abbreviated gray mustache and beard and wearing slightly tinted, aviator-style glasses.
Getty is on friendly terms with the likes of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister John Major and singer Mick Jagger. Indeed, Thatcher, then prime minister, recommended Getty for an honorary knighthood--honorary because he is still an American citizen--which he received from Queen Elizabeth in 1985. Getty has lived in Britain since 1971.
Getty only makes the papers through his philanthropies. To the increasing annoyance of the Getty Museum, those gifts are sometimes designed to keep in Britain works of art that the museum is interested in acquiring.
A public campaign already had raised about $8.8 million to match the Malibu museum’s offer for the Canova and keep it in Britain. The government last week ordered a three-month extension of the time allowed under British law to equal the museum’s offer; with Getty’s gift, only approximately $1.22 million remains to be found.
During the past decade, Getty’s philanthropy has become increasingly visible. He had previously given money to prevent a crucifixion painting by Duccio from leaving Britain for the Getty. His largest gift to date is $64.5 million in 1985, made to help London’s National Gallery finance an extension, and he has given about $25 million to the British Film Institute.
He has also contributed to areas apart from the arts: $150,000 to striking miners’ families in 1984, $4.4 million for a new grandstand at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London in 1986, $3.5 million to London’s Imperial War Museum, $750,000 to Ely Cathedral, and money to a fund for the Special Air Service regiment.
Although some of his better-known donations are publicized, Getty also gives quietly to other causes. For instance, reading in 1986 that a Royal Air Force hero was forced to auction his medals to raise funds for a memorial to his Dambuster squadron, Getty immediately offered to pick up the bill.
John Paul Getty Jr.'s history has been a troubled one. He was actually christened Eugene Paul Getty, the first child by his father’s fourth wife. His mother, Ann, married three more times, and young Getty and his brother Gordon were raised mainly by their maternal grandmother in San Francisco.
He studied at San Francisco State but did not graduate. He was drafted into the Army and served briefly in Korea. At 23, he married Gail Harris; they had four children, the eldest of whom was J. Paul Getty III. The others are Aileen, Mark and Ariadne.
Getty joined the family oil business and received his father’s permission to change his name to J. Paul Getty Jr. The senior Getty’s personal assistant, Claus von Bulow, remembers young Getty as a man of “charm, conversation and sex appeal.”
He was divorced from Gail and married Talitha Pol, of Dutch parents, in 1966 and became part of the international social set.
In May, 1968, Talitha had a son, whom they named Tara Gabriel Galaxy Gramaphone Getty. Then, while living in Rome, J. Paul Getty Jr. quit the family business in a chilly exchange with his father, who disapproved of his lack of enthusiasm for the business and involvement with drugs. The couple, discussing divorce, separated. Talitha moved to London from Rome into an exquisite house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea.
Later that year she flew to Rome in hopes of a reconciliation, but under mysterious circumstances died overnight, apparently of a drug overdose. Getty left Italy--while the case was being investigated--for the house in London. Two years later, his son J. Paul III, then 16, was kidnaped in Italy and held for $3.35-million ransom. Getty Jr. hadn’t enough cash to comply, and Getty Sr. at first refused to pay on the grounds that all his grandchildren would then be vulnerable to kidnaping.
After five months, when the abductors cut off a piece of the boy’s ear and sent it to a Rome newspaper, the oil magnate loaned his son the additional money for the release of the grandson.
In 1981, J. P. Getty III suffered a drink-and-drug-induced stroke that left him paralyzed and almost blind. He now gets around in a wheelchair.
For years, Getty Jr. rarely ventured from his Cheyne Walk home. But one neighbor remembers taking her dog walking late at night and chatting with him on a nearby park bench.
“He was very pleasant, polite and informed,” she recalls. “I never knew who he was until later.”
Another neighbor recalls him at her door early one morning, in a disheveled state, asking to use the phone because his was out of order. She tried to help him with his disintegrating address book, but he finally left without making the call. Two hours later she received six dozen roses.
In the mid-1980s, Getty entered London Clinic, where he stayed for more than a year for treatment of phlebitis. There, he pursued his main hobby of collecting antiquarian books, with particular interested in illuminated manuscripts.
He has purchased several at auction for more than $1 million each, and they form the core of a vast library of precious books that he is establishing at his country home, in a castle-like building made from flint stone.
Getty makes few statements about his relationship with his father and sons. But friends say the enmity among them has been overstated by the media--that the old man and his son did not hate each other, though they were never close.
Thus, they say, J. Paul Getty Jr. has no special interest in keeping works of art away from the Getty Museum out of spite. “It’s the other way around,” says a museum official who knows him. “He simply wants to keep the stuff in Britain.”
Getty has given an estimated $210 million away in the past 10 years. His current annual income from trusts and other sources is estimated at nearly $50 million.