Museum Director Musings on J. Paul Getty and “All the Money in the World”

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

We walked in the auditorium for the 1:30 showing of Ridley Scott’s new film, All the Money in the World, and immediately doubled the attendance—from three to six people.  Another group walked in and increased the crowd by 50% and then one person left part way through.  So, only eight of us were there to see Scott’s interesting take on the family of J. Paul Getty, centered around the 1973 kidnapping of his grandson, J. Paul Getty III.

It isn’t a superhero flick, a romcom, an action film, or other picture expected to draw large crowds and box office receipts, and, after about six weeks the movie has yet to match the $50 million budget.  Even with the expected best supporting actor Oscar nomination of Christopher Plummer, who replaced Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty after the film was completed and Spacey was charged with sexual harrassment of minors and others, it is unlikely the film will perform that much better, though a win might help move the needle some.

Getty family
George F. Getty, left, his wife Sarah Risher, right, and their only surviving child, J. Paul Getty, right, with Sarah’s niece, ca. 1906.  Note the bricks between family members and the stiff stance of young J. Paul–this might mean something!

I had a professional reason, as well as for personal interest, to see All the Money in the World.  For nearly twenty years, I’ve been a featured lecturer for an Elderhostel (Road Scholar) program on art collectors in Los Angeles, including a historical overview of Henry Huntington, Norton Simon, Eli Broad and J. Paul Getty.

In going through the backgrounds of these prominent captains of industry, I look at how their entrepreneurship in their various fields of business was reflected in their establishing the museums that bear their names.  While all, obviously, had their particular personal characteristics in how they approach their work, their collecting and their institutions, each, as would be expected, had Type A personalities.  Work and collection could, in fact, be all-consuming or addictive.  This was certainly true of Getty.

Born in 1892 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Getty was the only surviving child of Sarah Risher and George F. Getty, who were 40 and 37 at the time of J. Paul’s birth.  George Getty was a successful attorney in the Twin Cities, but joined an oil syndicate in Oklahoma in the early years of the 20th century that hit it big.  The Gettys moved to Los Angeles in 1906 and J. Paul graduated from a Methodist college that was unknown outside of the area, this being U.S.C.

Getty 1942
A 1942 portrait of J. Paul Getty.

George Getty’s namesake oil company was a successful operator in the booming greater Los Angeles oil industry, in which Walter P. Temple became a small player after oil was found on his Montebello-area ranch in 1917.  Yet, J. Paul envisioned what he called the “well to consumer” approach, in which a fully integrated firm would do everything from drilling the wells to selling the refined gasoline in company service stations.  George did not want to go in that direction and the two bickered about the firm’s fortunes until the elder Getty died in 1930.

In a surprise move, George left the company to his widow, who was nearing 80, rather than to his son, who did become president.  It was said that the elder Gettys highly disapproved of their son’s bohemian youth of fast cars, drinking and parties, and relationships with women.  When in his one of his autobiographies later in life, J. Paul referred often to his dear and loving parents, that could be interpreted as the opposite of how things really were in what was, by many accounts, a puritanical home.

J. Paul hounded his mother for years to relinquish the firm to him, finally succeeding in the late 1930s, a few years before her death.  Through his implementation of his “well to consumer” approach, the aggressive acquisition of other firms, his acumen in exploring and finding massive pools of oil in Saudi Arabia, and in other ways, Getty achieved staggering financal success and rose to be the world’s wealthiest person.

Getty in Kuwait ca 1948
Getty with members of the Kuwait royal family, probably late 1940s.

Stirred to an interest in art as a young man traveling in Asia, J. Paul hit his stride as an art collector in the Great Depression years and amassed a formidable collection over the decades.  While there has been considerable commentary on the quality of his collection, as well as on the insatiable bargain-hunting that drove him, he achieved significant renown.

In the early 1950s, he acquired a hillside estate in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles for his last wife, Teddy Lynch, but she preferred a Santa Monica beach house.  In 1954, he opened the home in the Palisades twice-a-week for public viewing of portions of his collection, even as he eventually settled in England at his Sutton Place estate, where he became more reclusive in his later years.  In the early 1970s, he constructed the J. Paul Getty Museum at his Palisades property, but never saw it, as he always cancelled plans to come out to see it, even when it opened in 1974.

Largely estranged from his family (his eldest son, George, who was groomed to succeed him, committed suicide in 1973, just prior to the kidnapping), secluded in his mansion, but amassing huge sums of money during the OPEC oil embargo years in the early Seventies, Getty was thrust into the spotlight when his grandson was kidnapped.  Unhappy with the boy’s father, J. Paul, Jr. and his drug-fueled escapades, which were apparently being mimicked by the grandson, the billionaire refused to entertain the idea of paying a ransom.  Gail Getty was rebuffed in her efforts to sway the aging oil titan and, after five months, the young man’s ear was cut off and mailed to the family with the warning that more horrors were to follow.

Getty Sutton Place 1960s
Getty in front of his palatial estate, Sutton Place, near London, 1960s.

Finally, Getty, Sr. was persuaded to pay $2.2 million, the limit of what was tax deductible, and loaned another $1 million to his son at 4% interest, to free the teen.  This took place at the end of 1973 and members of a Mafia organization in the Calabria region of southern Italy were arrested and tried.  Two were convicted, several acquitted and most of the ransom money went unlocated.

J. Paul Getty died a little more than two years later, in June 1976, leaving a vast fortune, most of which went to the art trust established in his name.  His namesake son received $500 and his grandson nothing.  Another son, Gordon, managed to manuever the family’s 40% stake, actually from a trust established by J. Paul’s mother Sarah in the 1930s, in Getty Oil into a sale of the firm to Texaco and distribution of that family trust that yielded a huge financial bonanza to the several heirs.  Of the extended family, a grandson, Mark, struck out on his own to form Getty Images, which was a prominent stock photography firm sold to investors several years ago.

Getty Museum 1970s
The J. Paul Getty Museum opened in 1974, but its founder never saw the institution, having cancelled many flights to Los Angeles as he became more reclusive and paranoid in his later years.

As to J. Paul III, he married soon after his release and had two children, including actor Balthazar Getty.  His use of drugs, however, led to a stroke in 1981 that rendered him paralyzed, largely blind, and hardly able to speak clearly.  He died in 2011 at age 55.

As to All the Money in the World, it uses the standard disclaimer “Inspired by True Events,” to mix many fictional elements into the story of the kidnapping as part of a broader statement about the poisonous atmosphere surrounding greed and its priority above family and all else.  Some Gettys have spoken out, saying that J. Paul wasn’t quite the parsimonious, ruthless money-grubber portrayed in the film and critics have had some mixed views of the film, including its length, pacing and mix of fiction and fact.

RPPC View Of Fire At Getty Well 17 2012.355.1.1
This real photo postcard from the Homestead’s collection shows a fire at the George F. Getty Oil Company’s well #17 at Santa Fe Springs, probably around 1923.

I thought the film was very well-made, the acting uniformly excellent, and didn’t mind the length or the use of artistic license.  By most accounts, Getty was driven first, foremost, and always by business and obsessed with the amassing of extreme wealth as the ultimate barometer of success.

Maybe he wasn’t quite the figure cut by Plummer, whose acting is brilliant and who should probably get a special Oscar for his achievement in filming everything in something like nine days around Thanksgiving for a Christmas Eve release!

Williams, who I’d not seen much of before, was especially compelling as Gail, even if, again, her portrayal was not quite reflective of what really happened forty-five years ago.  She conveys steely determination, perseverance and a mother’s anguish very well.  Again, we’ll see what happens come 4 March when the Oscars are handed out and whether Plummer nabs the best supporting actor statuette.

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