From the Archives: The Return of Gordon Getty

After five seemingly serene years composing and listening to classical music in the soundproof salon of his San Francisco mansion, Gordon Getty, the quirky, 55-year-old oil heir, has made a splashy return to the world of big business.

His last major business exposure was at Getty Oil Co., not as an executive but as a member of its board and sole trustee of the family fortune that owned 40% of the company. But he was never able to achieve his goal of becoming the company’s chairman, as did his late father, founder J. Paul Getty.

The upshot was a feud between the son and management, which was the very stuff of a “Dallas"-type television series and brought on Getty Oil’s controversial sale to Texaco in early 1984.

So it was with more than a little surprise to some Gordon Getty watchers that, after a long hiatus, his name resurfaced in the business news last Friday.


Getty’s latest incarnation is as a 40% partner in Topper LP, which has made an unsolicited $2.4-billion tender offer for Emhart Corp. The Farmington, Conn., firm manufactures hardware and sports equipment, including Price Pfister plumbing fixtures, Kwikset locks and True Temper tools and golf shafts.

Although the offering group said it was interested in a friendly deal, the move has provoked a legal battle and threatens to turn into a proxy fight for control of Emhart.

Some longtime acquaintances of Getty are surprised that the mild-mannered musician and amateur anthropologist has ventured back into the dog-eat-dog world of corporate takeovers.

So far, little light has been shed on that issue--what with Getty and his fellow investors, the Fisher real estate family, being kept firmly under wraps by the New York professionals working for them. Getty’s longtime lawyer in San Francisco, Moses Lasky, said when contacted by a reporter this week that he was unaware of the Emhart deal.

The Fisher-Getty group is represented a group of investment bankers led by First Boston Corp., so there is no question the participants are getting plenty of advice. However, representatives are making no public statements except through official filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. These documents did not reveal how the group got together or why it wants Emhart.

According to its filing, the group paid $129 million for its 8% stake, making Getty’s share $51.6 million. Forbes magazine calculated Getty’s fortune last fall at $450 million based on his income from the trust that is his inheritance.

Some Getty watchers speculate that, after lying low for five years, he once again has ambitions to prove himself in big business.

His father, the autocratic J. Paul Getty, is said to have kept Gordon out of authority after an incident in the late 1950s, when he was managing Getty Oil operations in the neutral zone between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Local authorities put Gordon under house arrest after holding him responsible for allowing the departure of a Getty employee who had caused some damage to a pipeline. His embarrassed father managed to free Gordon, who then returned to the United States, where he never was given active corporate tasks again.

Gordon, the fourth of J. Paul Getty’s five sons, has long lived with a reputation for being otherworldly, absent-minded, lacking in practical management know-how.

Stories are told about how he once forgot his car in an airport parking lot for six months and sometimes sat through Getty Oil board meetings with closed eyes.

‘Like Don Quixote’

Gordon Getty’s adjustment to such observations is indicated in the March issue of Life magazine, which was given the rare opportunity to photograph him in his mansion. Getty is quoted as saying during a break on his composing work: “I’m a little like Don Quixote. I am only marginally connected to this century.”

He also confided: “I don’t think I was cut out to be a business executive. My critics on the Getty board are right about that. We all have long and short suits. Composition (of music and economic theory seem to be my long ones and administration seems to be my short one.”

His mention of economics apparently refers to a paper he is publishing, called “The Hunt for r : One-Factor and Transfer Theories,” which a Dartmouth professor calls “one of the most original works on economics that I’ve seen in a long time.”

A former Getty Oil executive, who worked with him for more than two years, says: “I consider Gordon to be very intelligent and very creative, but he has zero business sense.”

Speaking on condition that he not be named, the executive said he still considers Getty a friend but that “he was way out of his element (at Getty Oil), and I believe he is way out on this one (Emhart), too.”

‘Didn’t Trust Them’

He described Getty as a “very gentle person and a very concerned person” but who at Getty Oil seemed “like a kid with a hand grenade--if he pulled the pin he could blow up some people with him.” He added that Getty “didn’t know where the hell he was coming from, quite frankly.”

Management tried to find out what Getty wanted done with the company and help him do it, but the heir “didn’t trust them,” the executive said.

Getty formed an alliance with Pennzoil, which made a bid for up to 20% of the Getty Oil stock not already owned by family heirs or the trust that operates the J. Paul Getty Museum. That deal was eclipsed by Texaco’s $10-billion offer to buy the whole shebang.

“I think that by mistake he sold Getty near the high of what could have been gotten, and he got a reputation of being brilliant,” said the executive.

Getty managers said the same sort of things to reporters at the time of the great Getty Oil brouhaha. Gordon Getty never responded in kind. Now he has conceded some of the same points in his self-effacing comments to Life magazine.

He lives with his wife, Ann, a prominent socialite, and their four young-adult sons, in a mansion that overlooks San Francisco Bay.

In recent years, virtually the only mention of Getty in the press has been about his music composing, at which he is said to spend long hours daily.

Despite less-than-glowing reports by music critics, he has persisted. He is reported to be reworking his ambitious opera “Plump Jack,” based on Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff. The San Francisco Symphony gave the completed work its premiere in June, 1987.

Just a year ago the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performed it.

“Business is just my avocation,” he told The Times on that occasion. “Music is my vocation.”