In deepening solitude, like some melancholy Dickensian recluse, Jean Paul Getty offers the frailest of shoulders on which to rest the title of World's Richest Man. At 81, he speaks in a low, croaking monotone, his face a sunken mask of old age. When his left hand trembles violently from Parkinson's disease, his right must come quivering to restrain it. And his conversation, fitful and laborious, trails off into lingering silences.
But the fertile brain that assembled one of the oil world's great empires has lost neither its cunning nor its grasp. During the current energy crisis—in which the value of Getty's oil leases spirals astronomically as great ships laden with his liquid treasure bear it to the oil-parched industrial nations—the gnome of Surrey paces his Tudor palace, monitoring the nerve centers of the financial world.
The son of a prosperous Minneapolis lawyer who moved to Oklahoma and promptly struck oil, Getty was only 21 when he began buying and selling oil leases himself. He made $40,000 his first year, and his first million a few months after that. When the Depression hit he had enough to buy millions of shares of collapsed oil stocks, acquiring fortunes in oil reserves and fresh cash. In 1949, just before seizing control of the giant Tidewater Oil Co., he arranged a deal with Saudi Arabia's King Saud, predecessor of the present King Faisal, obtaining half-interest for the next 60 years in a raw swath of land called the Neutral Zone. The area was considered bleakly unpromising, but, typically, Getty brought in the gushers. Moving to London to be nearer his Middle East operations, he has never returned to America.
Today, with enormous personal holdings in stock in the parent Getty Oil Co. and a controlling interest in nearly 200 other concerns, the octogenarian billionaire has accumulated wealth beyond precise calculation. Yet until 1957, when Fortune named him the richest living American, he was virtually unknown to the public.
One reason, perhaps, is that he has never been inclined to philanthropy. No foundation bears his name, and he has indicated that when he dies his fortune will be plowed back into his businesses.
"Money is like manure," Getty once said. "You have to spread it around or it smells." Often, in his case, this has been a dictum observed in the breach. Though he paid a modest fortune for Sutton Place, his 72-room mansion outside London, he prudently outfitted it with a pay telephone. "The guests won't mind paying for their calls," he said, "and as for the deadbeats, I couldn't care less." He never accepts mail with postage due and rarely carries more than $25 in pocket money. He has been known to wait five minutes in order to get into a dog show at half price, and to avoid a restaurant rather than pay a cover charge. "I pay the going rate," he explained, "but I don't see any reason for paying more than you have to."
Getty's legendary parsimony extends even to eminent friends of long standing. He and the Earl of Warwick have lunched together regularly for 35 years. Lest either pay a bill out of turn, the two share a little black book in which they keep track of all their meetings, the cost of each lunch and whose turn it is to pick up the check.
Unabashed by his reputation, Getty doesn't hesitate to preach the gospel of thrift. Once, in an essay in the British motoring magazine Drive, he offered a few helpful hints on caring for cars and warned against reckless intemperance. "The man who tips a shilling every time he stops for petrol," he cautioned, "is giving away annually the cost of lubricating his car." Often, even his most discreet concessions to charity make a public splash. When a Roman Catholic nun in Australia received a $10 check from Getty in response to her plea for a donation, she was offered a $100 bid for the check itself as a souvenir.
Others have found Getty more generous. He reportedly contributed $50,000 to the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, and recently donated a $50,000 prize to the World Wildlife Fund to be awarded for outstanding service to conservation. His biographer, British author Somerset de Chair—whose book will be published this fall—claims Getty hasn't the faintest interest in the conservation movement, but was pressured into making the endowment by a group including Britain's Prince Philip.
Sometimes, of course, Getty hasn't had to be pushed. Several years ago Los Angeles socialite and benefactress Buff Chandler was in Paris trying to interest him in signing a $25,000 founder's pledge for her city's Music Center. She aroused hardly a flicker of interest and even had to pay for her own tea. Surrendering, she explained that she had another appointment nearby. "Where?" asked Getty. Balenciaga's," Mrs. Chandler replied. "Ah," beamed Getty. "Beautiful clothes! Don't be late!" Later, seeing what she'd bought, he seemed spellbound. He sent her a check for $25,000, then another the following year. "I think he just happened to like the dress," shrugged Mrs. Chandler, feeling somewhat hard put to explain the largesse.
A bachelor for the last 17 years, Getty has been married and divorced five times. (His last wife was American socialite Louise Dudley Lynch.) He has never been able to reconcile domesticity with his passion for piling millions on millions. Women are attracted by failure, he has concluded, and repelled by a man's drive to succeed. "You rarely see a successful man with a happy marriage," he observes. "I envy my parents. They celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. But you have to decide what you want, and I haven't regretted putting business first. I'm not available for fun and games when I've work to do. But I get my fun and games." Getty once offered to write a series on women for Playboy, but was turned down and wrote about business instead.
If commerce is Getty's obsession, then art is his ardent diversion. He has underwritten a lavish new museum at Malibu in California—at a cost of $17 million—but has never troubled to see it. His collection, much of it transferred there from England, has been valued in the hundreds of millions. A shrewd collector, who buys art because he likes it but also as an investment, Getty doesn't shrink from putting price tags on the priceless. "I think it's hypocritical to talk about art objects as if they have no commercial value," says Getty. "Most people go to look at paintings because they know they're expensive."
His most satisfying buy by that measure would have to be the grimy canvas of the Holy Family he spotted at Sotheby's in 1938. He liked it, thought it looked like a Raphael and bought it with a bid of only $112. "I was prepared to go much higher," he said later, "but it was just one of those days." Getty shipped the painting to New York where it languished in a warehouse for 25 years. Finally, after cleaning and analysis, the work was judged to be the original of Raphael's priceless "Madonna
di Loreto." A speculative value of $1.4 million was put on the painting, but Getty furiously vowed not to sell it. "The money isn't the important thing," he announced. "This is an addition to civilization." At today's market prices, of course, such a Raphael's value is more than $2 million.
Getty's most frustrating purchase was Titian's celebrated "The Death of Actaeon," for which he paid $4 million. Getty planned to remove it to Malibu, but an uproar in the British art establishment caused the government to prohibit its export. Finally, at the urging of the National Gallery, the government helped put up the money to buy back the painting. To Getty's way of thinking it was a most unhappy arrangement. "In effect," he complained later, "I was obliged to lend the painting to the National Gallery, interest free, for a year. At six per cent, my loss was more than £100,000 (about $240,000)."
Although Getty has spoken of retiring in a year or two and returning to the U.S. to live, the possibility seems truly remote. For one thing, Getty is morbidly afraid of airplanes and hasn't been near one in 32 years. Moreover, he is intensely suspicious of nearly every other form of transportation, including elevators and chauffeur-driven cars. Once a frequent visitor to Paris and his houses in Italy, Getty now rarely ventures even the 29 miles to London. Especially since the kidnapping last summer of his grandson, Jean Paul Getty III, he seems to have withdrawn within his guarded estate. He is, according to associates, obsessed with the idea that he could be the next to be carried away. Biographer de Chair, however, insists it would be totally inaccurate to picture Getty as a paranoid, lonely old man. "I don't think he thinks he is lonely, and that is what counts," says the writer. "He has what he wants, and at this stage in life he considers it unnecessary to be married and is not looking for tiring company. He likes just walking around and looking at his beautiful things."
Whatever his eccentricities, no one denies Getty's crisp competence. He religiously puts in a full business day every day, and his routine is anything but casual. Although he normally sees no one but his two personal secretaries, he habitually wears a dark three-piece suit, starched white shirt, and a tie. He rises each morning around 10, then breakfasts and reads the papers before descending to his ground-floor office suite, where he immerses himself for the rest of the day. His only relief until evening is a half-hour walk with his dogs. Later he stops for the evening news on television, then works again before dining alone. Afterwards, returning to his office, he is often on the phone until the early hours of the morning. Equipped with a battery of Telexes to business offices around the world, his private communications system might beggar an embassy. Even at 81, says de Chair, Getty still exerts the same encyclopedic mastery of detail that has been so vital in his drive for success. "The setting has worn a little loose," the biographer concedes, "but the mind is absolutely clear—hard and sharp and brilliant as a diamond."
The setting, of course, is what one notices first. Not merely the withered face and the shrunken body too small for his clothes, but his mansion's mausoleum-like ambience. Seeing the old man in his castle, sealed behind electric gates, ringed by double fences topped with barbed wire and surrounded by bodyguards, 25 prowling attack dogs and a motley, silent retinue of servants, it is hard to remember that Getty is not really a prisoner. Isolated from his family—his oldest son, George, died last year in Los Angeles, and he rarely sees his three other sons—he seems starkly and strangely alone. The 450-year-old mansion itself is drafty, coldly formal and uninviting. Getty's friends try to avoid staying overnight. One unwary visitor who rose during the night to go to a bathroom down the hall was nearly set upon by the guard dogs roaming the corridors.
Lately the mood around the place has seemed even gloomier than usual, reflecting the master's fears and suspicions. Getty was deeply hurt, say his friends, by the publicity given his announced refusal to pay his grandson's estimated $2.8 million ransom. He actually had offered to put up the money, they say, providing he was never revealed as the source. Eventually he did pay, but not until he had thought it through carefully. Not long after the kidnapping Getty was walking through his gardens with an associate. "You don't suppose the boy and his mother did this as a way of getting money out of me?" he asked. The associate was stunned. "Sir," he replied, "wouldn't it be wrong if they had to go to those extremes just to ask money from you?" "You're right," the old man said and walked on.