John Paul Getty Jr., 70; Oil Heir Evolved From Excess, Tragedy Into Patron of British Culture

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Special to The Times

John Paul Getty Jr., heir to an American oil fortune who traveled a tormented path from 1960s hippie excess and personal tragedy to become a contented patron of the British cultural establishment, died Thursday in a London hospital. He was 70.

Getty, who had endured years of poor health, including kidney failure, entered London Clinic on Monday suffering from a recurrent chest infection.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 30, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Getty obituary -- The obituary of John Paul Getty Jr. in the California section April 18 stated incorrectly at one point that he had two children from his first marriage. As the list of survivors correctly indicated, he had four children.

At the time of his death, Getty was widely regarded as the United Kingdom’s most generous philanthropist.


But his life also was a parable about the effect money can have -- for good and as a curse -- on those who have it.

For long stretches of his adult years, he used his inherited millions to finance a dizzying lifestyle of parties, alcohol and drugs, a combination that descended into paralyzing personal depression.

The extraordinary wealth provided no buffer against tragedy. His family suffered a string of setbacks, including the kidnapping of his son, John Paul Getty III, who had an ear cut off before the family paid a ransom to free him.

Yet Getty Jr.’s spirit recovered in later years. He found happiness in a third marriage to former model Victoria Holdsworth, and pleasure in a reclusive life at his 2,500-acre English country estate called Wormsley Lodge, where he submerged himself in old movies, even older books and cricket.

He also found redemption by giving away large sums of money. While associates said his personal fortune was measured in the hundreds of millions -- not the billionaire’s status usually ascribed to him -- they also suggested that he may have given away more money in his lifetime than he will leave behind.

Those who benefited from Getty’s energetic philanthropy range from institutions at the pinnacle of British art and culture -- he gave the National Gallery a onetime gift of 50 million pounds and the British Film Institute 20 million pounds -- to hundreds of smaller causes that captured his fancy and conscience.


Getty’s money aided efforts to prevent artworks from leaving Britain and joining the collections of overseas museums, including, on three occasions over a 12-year period, the Getty Center in Los Angeles, which had been muscularly endowed by his father.

In 1984, he gave $536,000 to the Manchester City Art Gallery to buy a 14th century Siennese painting of the Crucifixion by Duccio. The Getty had agreed to buy it for $2.4 million from a private collection. The Manchester gallery matched the Getty’s price and got the painting, with the help of Getty Jr.’s gift and additional funds from the British National Heritage Foundation.

Ten years later, he pledged $1.53 million to help England retain possession of Italian artist Antonio Canova’s neoclassical sculpture “The Three Graces,” made in 1815. The Getty Museum had agreed to buy the marble sculpture for $11.6 million in 1989, but a battle over its export dragged on for more than five years. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh jointly purchased the sculpture in 1994 for about $11.5 million.

In 1996, Getty Jr. contributed $155,000 to the Scottish National Gallery for the purchase of Bolognese artist Guercino’s 1650-51 painting “Erminia Finding the Wounded Tancred.” The Getty had agreed to buy the painting for $5.42 million. Thanks to a tax break related to works of art, the Scottish National Gallery got the Guercino at the reduced price of $3.1 million.

Having always considered himself more European than American in his tastes, Getty swapped his U.S. citizenship for a U.K. passport in 1997. British citizenship allowed him to use the title “Sir Paul,” which had been bestowed upon him by Queen Elizabeth II in 1986 for services to charity but which, as an American, he was not allowed to invoke.

The honorific was important to him, not for social standing, friends said, but as a sign of his love for Britain and its traditions.


“It started with school, in America, where I was captured by the romance of English history and Shakespeare,” Getty told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper in a rare interview in 1998. “To some degree it’s probably true that the Britain I love is not the Britain which exists today.

“But it’s still closer than anything else.”

He was first exposed to that culture as a boy, traveling to Britain to see his father, J. Paul Getty, who lived in Surrey, England. The senior Getty had been a dedicated playboy as a young man too, and his own oil tycoon father was so disapproving of that wild lifestyle that he left his son just a fraction of the family-owned oil business. Turning his energies to business after his father’s death, J. Paul Getty parlayed that stake into Getty Oil Co., a conglomerate of 200 oil companies that was eventually sold to Texaco Ltd. in 1984. The sale boosted the family coffers by about $4 billion.

By all accounts, the senior Getty was obsessed by money (he is credited with the quotation “If you can count your money you are not really rich”) and was a cold father to his five sons. One son died of a brain tumor; another by suicide. The relationship with J. Paul Jr. was marked by cruelty (he skipped J. Paul Jr.’s 1956 wedding to his college sweetheart, Gail).

Their turbulent relationship remained a lifelong source of pain, said friends, who noted that the son never set foot inside the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

“I don’t think he would have given it much thought,” Getty Jr. said in 1998 when asked how his father would have reacted to his becoming a British citizen. “He didn’t think much about other people.”

Getty Jr. attended the University of San Francisco and served in the U.S. Army. He worked for the family firm for a while, joining its Italian operations in 1959 at his father’s request. But he swiftly became the prodigal son, swept up in the glamour of Rome’s pleasures. It wooed him away from Gail and their two children, leading Getty into a social milieu of excess, including heroin addiction.


Divorcing Gail in 1966, he married Bali-born socialite Talitha Pol. The couple had a son, fittingly -- for the times -- named Tara Gabriel Galaxy Gramophone, and frequently visited their Moorish palace in Morocco, which became a crash pad for assorted artists and hangers-on. Legend holds that visitors included members of the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger did become -- and remained throughout -- a friend, introducing Getty to the joys of cricket and later helping him through recurrent bouts of addiction recovery.

In 1971, Pol died in Rome after a suspected drug overdose, and Getty fled Italy for London, where he would spend swaths of the next few years in rehabilitation programs or mired in depression. His bleak mood was compounded by the kidnapping of his son, Paul III, two years later, which bared the Getty family’s dysfunctional relationships to the world.

The then-16-year-old was returned for a $17-million ransom. His grandfather had originally refused to pay on the grounds that it would encourage kidnappings of his other grandchildren, but the family did finally pay for his safe return after the kidnappers cut off one of the boy’s ears and mailed it to an Italian newspaper.

Eight years later, a drug-induced stroke left John Paul Getty III in a coma, from which he emerged permanently paralyzed and nearly blind. He remains in need of constant nursing care. Meanwhile, Getty’s 41-year-old daughter, Aileen, has battled her own substance addictions.

Getty Jr. conquered his drug addiction in the 1980s as he slowly warmed to the pleasures of giving away money. The beneficiaries have matched his passions: a new crowd stand at London’s Lords Cricket Ground, new steps to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Imperial War Museum -- though he “was no militarist,” said his lawyer and friend Vanni Treves. “He laughed about what an appalling soldier he’d been.”

But they also included money for homes for battered wives among the immigrant community in Birmingham, and thousands of other small charities dealing with mental health, substance abuse, heritage and conservation groups, which receive about $1 million every year from his charitable trust, parceled out in tiny amounts. He mandated that those donations should go to “unpopular causes.”


Few are less popular than Britain’s now-stumbling Tory party, a shadow of the political Leviathan it once was under Getty’s friend Margaret Thatcher. The party received a 5-million-pound donation from Getty in 2001.

But he kept himself out of public debate as assiduously as he kept his name out of gossip columns. Only his private circle of friends got to hear his views while being regally entertained at Wormsley. Other than a London flat, Wormsley was Getty’s only home, the place he retreated to with its superb library of rare books and medieval texts -- his expertise was not so much in the books as in their bindings, Treves said -- his music and his film collections.

“Paul’s life improved as years went on,” said Treves. “It was a life of turmoil which could have easily gone very sour. But helped by a great deal of money, he found his feet, entrenched his values and became progressively happier.

“The things he got most pleasure from were simple ones: drinking beer with friends, listening to old opera recordings. Oh, and his Gutenberg Bible,” Treves added.

He was, Treves said, “temperamentally suited to live in this country.” Which is why Getty described the day he surrendered his U.S. citizenship as one of the greatest days in his life.

“I think that since I’ve lived here and been happy here for such a long time, I think it’s my duty,” he told the Telegraph when asked why he changed his nationality.


“I certainly don’t intend to live in America again. I intend,” he said, “to be buried here.”

In addition to his wife, Victoria, he is survived by his four children from his first marriage and one child from his second.

There was no immediate word on funeral arrangements.


Times staff writer Suzanne Muchnic contributed to this report.