'Growing Up Getty' shakes the dust off a family's aristocratic name

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'Growing Up Getty' shakes the dust off a family's aristocratic name
James Reginato’s new book about the oil baron J. Paul Getty and his many descendants argues that the family isn’t especially dysfunctional — by the standards of the very rich.

by Alexandra Jacobs

NEW YORK, NY.- How cheap was the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, once known as the richest man in the world?

So cheap that his mistress had to eat canned sardines for dinner while she was living in New York during the Depression waiting to become his fourth wife — even while receiving invitations to Condé Nast’s penthouse parties. So cheap that in the early 1960s, Getty installed a pay phone in the cloakroom of his newly acquired mansion outside London for the “convenience” of his guests. So cheap that, most notoriously, he refused to pay ransom when his oldest grandson, John Paul Getty III, was abducted by members of an Italian crime syndicate in 1973, saying in a statement: “I have 14 other grandchildren, and if I pay a penny of ransom, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”

Well, yep, nope and not exactly, writes James Reginato, in “Growing Up Getty,” a brisk and sympathetic chronicle of the man and his many descendants. Add this to Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe’s “Vanderbilt” and Tina Brown’s “The Palace Papers,” and we may have a new pandemic escape genre on our hands: the scionography.

That phone booth, ripped out after 18 months, was actually the idea of Getty’s lawyer Robina Lund, Lund told Reginato, after news-wire correspondents racked up long-distance bills to Los Angeles of $40,000 in today’s money while covering his housewarming party, which was attended by 1,000 people. Also, an antique sugar sifter worth $11,200 (in yesterday’s money) was nicked from the bash, The New York Times reported then — soon found, in of all places, a nearby public telephone booth. Way to reward hospitality.

A distant father but a “doting grandfather,” according to Reginato, Paul I was deeply distressed about Paul III’s kidnapping and, in cahoots with journalists, projected a public image of disinterest for leverage over the perpetrators. “I shudder at the boy’s peril,” Getty wrote in his diary after the abductors mailed the victim’s severed ear to a newspaper in Rome. For context, weeks before this ordeal began, Getty’s son George — the first of five sons over as many marriages — had died after taking a combination of alcohol, uppers and downers and stabbing himself in the abdomen with a barbecue knife. “Tragic! Shattered,” the patriarch recorded in the diary. And two years before that, Talitha Pol, the beautiful Dutch actress and muse of fashion designers who was married to John Paul Jr., had perished of a heroin overdose at 30. (“Shocked and sad.”)

Though a series of dramatic calamities has befallen the perhaps overextended Getty clan (Paul I’s fourth son, Gordon, a composer who recently wrote an opera based on “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” concealed an entire second family for years), Reginato dismisses the idea that they are, as has also been suggested of the Kennedys, cursed, or even particularly dysfunctional among their kind.

The complicated estate of H.L. Hunt, he writes, “makes the Gettys seem like the Brady Bunch.”

The author, a writer-at-large for Vanity Fair and contributor to Sotheby’s magazine, has logged significant hours in the drawing rooms of the American aristocracy — and some of his pages do have the gently draped feeling of an auction catalog. But he wants to shake the dust from the name of Getty: to show that the majority are not drug-addled wastrels but productive citizens. One innovated a screw-top Cabernet that got a rare score of 100 from the wine eminence Robert Parker. One is a DJ; at least two design clothes (one brand is named Strike Oil); they all tend to throw a hell of a wedding. Others have been contributing quietly or splashily to important philanthropic causes like feminist art, LGBTQ rights and saving the whales.

Gordon’s wife, Ann, a onetime California farm girl and general dynamo, not only started a decorating business (her own bathroom had a Degas) but for a time owned Grove Press, publishing Arthur Miller’s memoir and Harold Pinter’s only novel.

His father, the towering oil baron who mined the Neutral Zone between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia — his work was his second family — is captured here in innocent Richie Rich-like moments: whooping as he invited Lund to jump up and down with him on an antique settee; kneeling down late at night with visitors to show off his Oriental carpets; fearful of flying to the end of his days. “Almost a bit of a hippie,” offers one grandson. But also deeply media-conscious, noting an episode of “I Love Lucy,” for example, when the show invoked his name. And, per his fifth wife, Teddy, who published a memoir three years before she died at 103, great in the sack.

These days, the association of the family name with oil has faded; many know only the monumental art museum Getty built in Los Angeles (where he is interred along with George and his fifth son, Timmy, who died at 12 after cosmetic surgery to heal scars following the removal of a brain tumor). It might not have completely clicked, even to the media-savvy, that the gargantuan stock-photography service Getty Images, which supplies The New York Times and others with pictures, was founded by Paul III’s brother, Mark.

At various points in “Growing Up Getty,” readers might yearn for a grid with color-coded pegs, like the one in the old board game Battleship, to keep track of all the names and relationships. Certainly some Gettys are square pegs. Many prefer to go unquoted (one, turning down Reginato’s request for an interview, called the daily events of his life “pallid and humdrum”). But there they are bobbing up and down with the rest of us on Twitter and Instagram, where one mariculturist posted of loving seaweed so much that he’ll sometimes “chew on a nice-looking frond while waiting for the next set of waves.”

The rich may be different, in Reginato’s telling, but they are not indifferent. Or as Paul I once declared: “The meek shall inherit the earth — but not its mineral rights.”

Publication Notes:

’Growing Up Getty: The Story of America’s Most Unconventional Dynasty’

By James Reginato.

Illustrated. 314 pages. Gallery Books. $28.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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