A 1973 Italian postal strike meant that by the time the severed ear of John Paul Getty III reached a Roman newspaper it was putrid. ‘This is Paul’s ear,’ the accompanying ransom note read. ‘If we don’t get some money within ten days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits.’
It was more than six months before Getty eluded his captors. By the age of 24, he was paralysed, unable to speak and almost completely blind after a stroke brought on by a drug overdose. In 2011, aged 54, he breathed his last, bringing to an end the lamentable life of billionaire oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty’s grandson.
This year marks 42 years since the kidnapping, and the saga of the doomed house of Getty. Was the family’s obsession with wealth, image and power, the value placed on those things above all else, little more than a lurid tabloid tale from the past, or a real-life parable that modern counterparts have failed to learn from?
Getty’s grandfather was, at the peak of his powers, the richest man in the world. His father, John Paul Getty II, had managed the family’s business interests in Italy. When he was abducted, the young Getty was living alone in Rome. Just 16, he enjoyed a bohemian existence. Expelled from a string of private schools, he kept company with artists and activists including the Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol. He spent his days selling dope and diamonds to the rich and famous, and most evenings in nightclubs. He was fond of drink and drugs, carried machine guns, totalled several cars and motorbikes and posed naked in a magazine. The very picture of a posh-boy rebel.
“I realised a car was stopping alongside me,” Getty later said to Charles Fox, author of Uncommon Youth: The Gilded Life and Tragic Times of J. Paul Getty III, a book on the saga. “These men were coming out of it. They grabbed me and wrestled me to the floor behind the front seats. There were three guys: two in the front, one in the back – I could feel his heels resting on me. I slept and we drove south for hours.
“I woke feeling like s***. So thirsty. I said: ‘Water, water!’ They would only give me whisky. I must have drunk a bottle and a half on the trip. I didn’t realise at all what was going on. I was just so f***ing drunk. I thought [they were] the cops. When I woke again, the car had stopped. It was getting light. Outside, I heard them talking. They blindfolded me. I was carried out. Feet and hands. They laid me on to the grass.”