Jean Paul Getty (December 15, 1892 – June 6, 1976) was an American industrialist, the founder of the Getty Oil Company. He built an oil empire that was vertically integrated, controlling all parts of the business from the oil well to the retail gas station. This made him the richest man of his day, one of the first people in the world with a fortune of over 1 billion U.S. dollars. Getty was also an avid collector of art and antiquities, and his collection forms the basis of the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. The remainder of his fortune has been dedicated to philanthropic enterprises, including the museum, funding a diverse range of projects that promote the understanding and conservation of the visual arts.
The Getty family serves as a good example of the old saying that "money does not buy happiness." The family was struck by several tragedies, including the infamous kidnapping of Getty's grandson. Many of his children and grandchildren were addicted to drugs. Getty's own suspicious personality contributed to his misfortunes. He lacked the ability to trust others, or to be trustworthy to them, and often complained that people pretended to be his friends but only loved him for his money. Early in his life his parents disapproved of his lifestyle, and the resultant lack of trust and respect continued through all the relationships in his life.
Jean Paul Getty was born on December 15, 1892, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, into a family already in the petroleum business. His father, George Franklin Getty, originally a lawyer, moved with his family to Oklahoma and became successful in the oil business. In 1906, his family moved to Los Angeles, California, where young Getty attended school. He graduated from Polytechnic High School in 1909, and attended the University of Southern California and the University of California at Berkeley. During summers he worked on his father's oil rigs as a "roustabout.” In 1914, he graduated from Magdalen College, University of Oxford, with degrees in economics and political science.
After his graduation, Getty moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and started his own oil company. He made his first million dollars by 1916. His father’s Minnehoma Oil Company helped him significantly in loans and financial backing on the stock market.
In 1917, however, Getty announced that he was retiring to become a Los Angeles-based playboy. Although he eventually returned to business, Getty had lost his father's respect. In 1920, Getty started to buy and sell oil leases with his father, amassing an even greater fortune. He spread his business to California and acquired a one-third interest in the company that later became known as the Getty Oil Company.
In 1930, George Franklin Getty died and Paul became president of the George Getty Oil Company (successor to Minnehoma Oil). His mother, however, kept control of the company, as she and her husband did not approve of the personal life of their son. By the end of the 1930s, Getty managed to increase the wealth of his business, and bought a controlling interest in the Pacific Western Oil Corporation, one of the largest oil companies in California. He finally persuaded his mother to turn over to him the controlling interest in the George Getty Oil Company. By the same time, he had also started with real estate dealings and purchased the Hotel Pierre in New York City. He taught himself Arabic to assist in his expansion into the Middle East.
In the 1940s, he obtained control of the Tidewater Oil Company, and merged with Standard Oil of New Jersey. After the outbreak of the World War II, Getty volunteered into the service, but was rejected. He, however, personally took over the management of Spartan Aircraft, which produced parts for airplanes, as a service to the Navy.
After the war, Getty engaged in a risky business in the Middle East, but managed to achieve a vast profit from it. He purchased oil rights in a barren strip of land between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In the early 1950s, he found a vast deposit of oil there, which would make him a billionaire. In 1953, he founded the J. Paul Getty Museum near Malibu, California.
In 1957, Fortune magazine pronounced Getty the richest man in the world. Getty purchased a sixteenth century, 700-acre Tudor manor, Sutton Place, in Surrey, England, featuring beautiful gardens, pools, and luxurious furnishings. In 1959, he entirely moved to England, where he mainly stayed for the rest of his life.
Getty died at Sutton Place on June 6, 1976, and was buried on his Malibu estate.
Getty wrote a very successful book entitled, How to be Rich. His oil business was handed to him by his father, who started the business. Getty, in fact, fully acknowledged this in his autobiography:
I enjoyed the advantage of being born into an already-wealthy family, and when I began my business career I was subsidized by my father. While I did make money—and quite a bit of it—on my own, I doubt if there would be a “Getty Empire” today if I had not taken over my father's thriving oil business after his death (Getty  2003: 336).
Getty successfully continued the family business, becoming the richest man in the world.
Unlike other oilmen of his time, who relied on instincts and experience in searching for oil, Getty utilized modern geological data and contemporary technology. He liked the thrill of the gambling nature of the oil business, and the possibility of being able to "strike it rich." When he was 24 years old, he earned his first million, working as a wildcatter and oil-lease broker.
Getty had the vision to build up an independent, self-contained oil enterprise, which would involve the whole circle of oil business—from exploration and drilling, to refining, transportation, and selling of oil. He proceeded with his plan step by step, first gaining control of the Tidewater Oil Company in the 1930s, and then Skelly Oil and the Mission Corporation. Getty saw his company as David fighting against Goliath (the giant "Seven Sisters" oil firms), which dominated the oil industry at the time. He wanted to win that battle, and that was his internal motivation for pushing to build a larger and larger fortune.
In 1949, Getty purchased rights to drill oil on a seemingly barren piece of land in Saudi Arabia. He initially spent over $30 million in investments, but was able to find the huge oil deposits which eventually made him a billionaire. In 1967, Getty’s companies merged into the Getty Oil Company, which became the central pillar of Getty's fortune.
Getty never kept his fortune in cash, but continued to invest it and reinvest. He kept stocks, corporate assets, and real estate. By the time of his death he had a controlling interest in Getty Oil and 200 other affiliated and subsidiary firms.
Jean Paul Getty was a famous art collector. He was particularly interested in European paintings, rare watches, furniture, and Greek and Roman art. In his collection were also eighteenth century tapestries and fine Persian carpets, including the sixteenth century Ardabil carpet from Tabriz.
Getty initially kept his art collection at both Sutton Place, London, and at his ranch house at Malibu, California. He turned one wing of the house in Malibu into the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1954. In 1969, constructions began on both places, and were completed in 1974. The huge building in California was a replica of an ancient Roman villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, near the ruins of Pompeii. The largest part of Getty’s collection was moved there after his death.
In 1997, the main part of the museum moved to its current location in Brentwood, California, to become the “Getty Center” and the original Malibu museum, renamed the "Getty Villa," was closed for renovation. The “Getty Villa” became an educational center, dedicated to the study of the arts and cultures of ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria.
Reopened on January 28, 2006, the Getty Villa now holds Greek and Roman sculptures once housed in the Getty Center. The Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities are arranged by themes including Gods and Goddesses, Dionysos and the Theater, and Stories of the Trojan War, housed within Roman-inspired architecture and surrounded by Roman-style gardens.
Controversy has arisen surrounding the Greek and Italian governments' claims that 52 objects in the collection were looted and should be repatriated.
Getty was famous for his extravagant lifestyle, but also for his stinginess, reclusiveness, and uncompromising attitude. He was an object of public fascination and legend, envy, and gossip. Nevertheless, he seemingly did not enjoy the fame, objecting that people “only wanted money from him.” He thus pretended to be poor, wearing wrinkled suits and worn out pants. With this attitude, people perceived him as a particularly miserly man. On the one side he lived in luxury, surrounded by gardens, pools, trout streams, expensive furniture, and even two lions, Nero and Teresa. On the other, he had installed a pay telephone in his Sutton Place manor, so that his guests could not make long-distance charges on his bill.
In Getty's own autobiography, he justified this move:
Now, for months after Sutton Place was purchased, great numbers of people came in and out of the house. Some were visiting businessmen. Others were artisans or workmen engaged in renovation and refurbishing. Still others were tradesmen making deliveries of merchandise. Suddenly, the Sutton Place telephone bills began to soar. The reason was obvious. Each of the regular telephones in the house has direct access to outside lines and thus to long-distance and even overseas operators. All sorts of people were making the best of a rare opportunity. They were picking up Sutton Place phones and placing calls to girlfriends in Geneva or Georgia and to aunts, uncles, and third cousins twice-removed in Caracas and Cape Town. The costs of their friendly chats were, of course, charged to the Sutton Place bill (Getty  2003: 319).
However, in an interview, Getty explained his action by suggesting that guests would want to use a payphone, adding to the suspicion that the real reason was his miserly character. His attitude during his grandson’s kidnapping has particularly contributed to this aspect of his image.
It is said that the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III was one of the most infamous kidnappings of the twentieth century. He was kidnapped at age 16, on July 10, 1973, in Rome, Italy, and a ransom of $17 million was demanded over the phone for his safe return. As Paul III was so rebellious, when the first ransom message arrived, the family suspected a ploy by the teenager to extract money from his miserly grandfather. A second demand was delayed by an Italian postal strike. John Paul Getty II asked his father for the money, but was refused due to his father’s disapproval of his son’s hippy lifestyle.
Finally, in November 1973, an envelope containing a lock of hair and a human ear was delivered to a daily newspaper, with a threat of further mutilation unless $3.2 million was paid over: "This is Paul’s ear. If we don’t get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits." At this point J. Paul Getty agreed to pay a ransom, subject to him negotiating the fee, and Paul II repaying the sum at four percent interest. Still reluctant to part with the ransom, Getty senior negotiated a deal and got his grandson back for about $2 million. Paul III was found alive in southern Italy shortly after the ransom was paid. His kidnappers were never caught.
Getty defended his initial refusal to pay the ransom suggesting that he was protecting his 14 other grandchildren from similar attempts. He also argued that he refused on principle:
The second reason for my refusal was much broader-based. I contend that acceding to the demands of criminals and terrorists merely guarantees the continuing increase and spread of lawlessness, violence and such outrages as terror-bombings, “skyjackings” and the slaughter of hostages that plague our present-day world (Getty  2003: 139).
While such rhetoric sounded rational, even noble, this argument was undermined by his known attitude of disapproval towards the teenager.
Getty is often seen as a typical example of the saying that “money does not buy happiness.” His joy came through the thrill of his business ventures, but when they succeeded they demanded excessive amounts of his time. He yearned privacy, but his wealth made him famous, attracting people but not friends.
His family life, from his relationship with his own father onwards, was filled with unsuccessful relationships. He was married five times, to:
Getty had five sons, two of whom died before him (one possibly from a suicide). His third son, J. Paul Getty, Jr., was a reformed drug addict, who turned to charitable work and eventually donated more than $200 million before dying of a chest infection in April 2003. Getty’s grandson, J. Paul Getty III was so traumatized by the experience of his own kidnapping that he became a drug addict, eventually destroying his health. Several others of Getty’s grandchildren also became drug addicts.
Jean Paul Getty was once the richest man in the world. He created a huge oil empire, with the Getty Oil Company as the center of it. However, his legacy in this business did not continue, as he himself once remarked, he was "a bad boss" having trained no one to step into his shoes. Getty Oil was bought in 1984, by Texaco, and in 2000, what was left of the Getty company was purchased by Russia-based Lukoil.
The rest of Getty’s fortune remains in the Getty Trust, under which are the J. Paul Getty Museum; the Getty Conservation Institute; the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities; the Getty Education Institute for the Arts; the Getty Information Institute; the Getty Leadership Institute of Museum Management; and the Getty Grant Program. The Getty Trust funds a diverse range of projects involved in the promotion of the understanding and conservation of the visual arts, and the Getty Leadership Institute, provides continuing professional development for current and future museum leaders. These organizations are the positive legacy of this somewhat enigmatic man's life.
All links retrieved December 12, 2013.
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