Seven years after testing positive for the HIV virus, which she believes she contracted through a transfusion during a 1984 operation to remove ovarian cysts, and a year and a half after the onslaught of AIDS-related infections, the 32-year-old heiress wants to see some tears. As she campaigns to raise public awareness about the disease—she is scheduled to speak this week at a Washington, D.C., press conference sponsored by the National Community on AIDS Partnership—she is coping with the gradual collapse of her immune system. With the help of the antiviral drug AZT, the 5'4" Getty has been able to maintain her weight of 110 lbs., but she suffers from neuropathy, a deterioration of the nerves, and often has to walk with a cane.
Though she is the granddaughter of the late oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty and was married to Christopher Wilding, one of Elizabeth Taylor's sons, from 1981 to 1989, such celebrity has not shielded her from the sort of prejudice she encountered several years ago at a Los Angeles hospital, when she was refused physical therapy for an AIDS-related disorder of the central nervous system. "I was kicked out of there," she says, still angry and astonished. "Kicked out!"
If anything, though, this fury has redefined Getty, an unhappy daughter in a tumultuously dysfunctional family who has been plagued since adolescence by emotional problems that have occasionally required hospitalization. "It's almost like this is something she needed," says Gisela Getty, former wife of Aileen's brother Jean Paul Getty III, 35. "That sounds awful—you don't want anyone to have a sickness—but now she has a sense of her own life and this battle, a sense of individuality."
For years Aileen's identity was lost beneath the long, cold shadow of her grandfather, who left behind an estimated $3 billion fortune when he died at age 83 in 1976. "Large amounts of money are very toxic," she says. "It's a very unfortunate substance to have."
Frequently other substances have been involved: Getty has been through rehab three times for cocaine addiction. Her father, Jean Paul Jr., 59, now a reclusive art patron in London, was a jet-setting heroin addict in the '60s, and his second wife, Dutch actress Talitha Pol, died of a heroin overdose in 1971. Then there is the dismal story of Getty's brother Jean Paul III, who lives in Los Angeles near their mother, Gail. (She divorced their father in 1966. Now in her 50s, she has since married and divorced actor Lang Jeffries.) Kidnapped by Italian terrorists in Rome in 1973, Jean Paul III was released five months later, minus an ear, after a reported $2.9 million in ransom was paid. In 1981 a combined overdose of methadone, Valium and alcohol left him blind and paralyzed.
Given that sort of history, "it's very difficult for the Gettys to face another horrible circumstance," suggests family friend John Ladner, a Los Angeles judge.
That reluctance infuriates Aileen. As she wraps herself in a blanket and tries to make herself comfortable in the three-bedroom Hollywood Hills home she shares with her two children (Taylor's grandchildren), Caleb, 8, and Andrew, 7, she snaps, "I was pretty much abandoned by the people close to me." After she informed her sister, Ariadne, 29, an architectural photographer, and brothers Jean Paul and Mark, 31, a London banker, about her condition, "no one wanted to hear about the AIDS," she says.
Even after her physician called a family meeting to stress Getty's need for support, "it was kind of forgotten," she says. It didn't help, either, that her marriage to Wilding, a photographer who now works as a movie sound technician, was unraveling at the time.
At least now, she says, she and her mom will talk about how she's feeling. Last year Aileen had a warm visit in London with her father, who has been paying her medical bills, which amount so far to $500,000. And she is close to Gisela, who encouraged her to go public about her illness. "Aileen needs to talk about her fears, her hopes, her pain," says Gisela, who divorced Jean Paul III in 1990. "If it all remains private, it's too lonely."
The one person who has been invaluable, Getty says, is her former mother-in-law, Taylor, herself long involved in the battle against AIDS. Even now, there are orchids, with a note signed "Mom Elizabeth," near the front door. (Getty, who was a child when her parents divorced, calls Taylor Mom and her own mother Gail.) Recalling the day she went over to Taylor's Bel Air home to tell her that she was IIIV positive, says Getty, "She just cried and cried. If it hadn't been for her, I would have had a really, really hard time and maybe not made it. When she would hug me, I would feel she was giving me something special."
Getty has always been close to Taylor, and during the final bedridden months of her pregnancy with Andrew, she stayed with the actress. One of the few other spells of rest in her turbulent life came in the aftermath of her brother's kidnapping, when the family spent a year at phoneless mountain retreats in the Alps. "That was my favorite place in the world," Getty says. "It was no more than you need—basic, real. I was very happy." But by her late teens, after dropping out of private school in England, where she lived briefly with her father, then moving to L.A. to be with Gail, unreality began to set in—she developed a serious cocaine and marijuana problem.
"Aileen was certainly not the model debutante," says her friend Ladner. Getty, who says she experienced an "emotional overload," suffered for a time from panic disorder (since treated and overcome) and even received 12 shock treatments. "Even with AIDS," says Getty, "I'm much more emotionally stable than I was in my early 20s."
She was 22 when she married Wilding, the second son from Taylor's marriage to second husband Michael Wilding. By then Getty had already had several pregnancies. "I couldn't hold them," she says. "It was traumatic because I really wanted a child." She had seven miscarriages before giving birth to Andrew in 1984. (Caleb had been adopted the year before.)
Only six months later, Getty—alarmed by a terrible bout of flu and fever—decided she ought to be tested. When she learned she was HIV positive, she says, "I didn't know where to run or where to go." In fact, she out-and-out fled: She took the kids to New York City, where she indulged in a major cocaine binge. "I just lost it," admits Getty, who stresses that she never used needles when taking drugs.
She lost custody too, after a nanny reported back to Wilding. "That," she says, "was devastating. My children are my lifeline. But they deserved better." She followed them back to L.A. in 1989 and underwent rehab once again. (She also married a fellow rehab patient, whom she refuses to discuss. They divorced within a month.) Getty says she has been drug free more than a year now, and she has custody of the children four days a week; the rest of the time Caleb and Andrew are with Wilding and his second wife, Margie. (The kids and Wilding have all repeatedly tested HIV negative and will continue to be tested for the near future. The estimated probability of in utero infection—Getty may have been pregnant with Andrew while already positive—is about 30 percent.)
"I get my nurturing from my sons," says Getty. "They're the only ones who talk to me, ask me questions." They know that "death is something that's part of AIDS," she says, "but they realize that it doesn't have to be yet, that I'm strong. I don't want to make it worse than it already is for them, because there's nothing worse for a child than to hear his mother's dying. Nothing."
She tries, without pretense, to explain the details of her disease to the children. The boys know to dial 911 if she gets drastically ill and to wear rubber gloves it she passes out and starts bleeding. "We just kind of go on one day at a time," she says. If she is tired, the boys will curl up in bed and read. "I try to make it all OK, even though it's awkward," says Aileen. "You can't master coping with AIDS like you can with drugs and alcohol."
Her public work with the disease is one way of coping. She keeps in close contact with her own support family of AIDS patients. She visits health-care units, delivers groceries to homebound patients and hands out safe-sex kits in L.A. "Here she is with so little time, and she's willing to do so much," says Lance Kerwin, the former child star (James at 15), who is organizing a community health fair to be held next month. "Just the other night at a meeting, there were spasms of pain shooting through her, but she just grins and bears it."
Getty's AIDS campaign will perhaps be her own monument, her answer to the gleaming art museum that her grandfather built in Malibu. "My grandfather probably would have been proud that I did something," Getty says. "He had a real hard time with people not using what they had. And I didn't use what I had for years and years."
TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles