J. Paul Getty - Philanthropist, Art Collector - Biography
J. Paul Getty

J. Paul Getty Biography

Philanthropist, Art Collector (1892–1976)
American businessman J. Paul Getty built his fortune as president of the Getty Oil Company. His J. Paul Getty Trust funds the J. Paul Getty Museum and other artistic endeavors.

Who Was J. Paul Getty?

Born in Minnesota in 1892, J. Paul Getty was introduced to the oil industry through his father's investments in the early 20th century. He took over his father's company in 1930, and by the time of his consolidation of multiple businesses into the Getty Oil Company in 1967, he had been dubbed the richest man in the world. Also a renowned art collector, Getty established a museum on his California property before his death in 1976, which later came part of of the J. Paul Getty Trust. His grandson John Paul Getty III was famously kidnapped and held for ransom in 1973, a saga captured in the 2017 feature film All the Money in the World and the 2018 FX series Trust.

Early Years

Jean Paul Getty was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on December 15, 1892. In 1903, his father, former attorney George Franklin Getty, founded the Minnehoma Oil Company in Oklahoma. He soon moved his wife, Sarah Risher Getty, and son to Oklahoma, but within a few years they packed up again to relocate to Los Angeles, California.

J. Paul Getty graduated from Los Angeles' Polytechnic High School in 1909. He went on to attend the University of Southern California and the University of California at Berkeley, before transferring to Oxford University in England. In 1914, Getty graduated from Oxford with a degree in political science and economics.

Oil Empire

Following graduation, J. Paul Getty returned to the United States and began working as a wildcatter, buying and selling oil leases in Oklahoma. By 1916, the younger Getty had made his first million dollars from a successful well, and he teamed with his father to incorporate the Getty Oil Company. With his new fortune, he briefly retired to a life of leisure in Los Angeles, before returning to the oil business in 1919. 

Throughout the 1920s, J. Paul Getty and his father continued to amass wealth through drilling and lease brokering. When George passed away in 1930, J. Paul received a $500,000 inheritance and became president of his father's oil company, though his mother retained the controlling interest.

In his new position, Getty set out to restructure and expand the company into a self-sufficient business—one that did everything from drilling to refining to transporting and selling oil. He began buying and taking control of other companies, including Pacific Western Oil, Skelly Oil and Tidewater Oil. Following World War II, Getty also took a risk by investing millions in the "Neutral Zone" between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. His gamble paid off in 1953, when oil was struck and began to flow at a rate of 16 million barrels a year.

In 1957, Fortune magazine named Getty the richest man in the world. Ten years later he consolidated his business interests into the Getty Oil Company, and by the mid-1970s, it was estimated he had built a personal fortune of $2 to $4 billion.

Family Life and Kidnapping

The frequent subject of tabloids both in the United States and abroad, Getty's personal life was a tumultuous one. He married and divorced five times: His first wedding, to Jeanette Demont in 1923, produced his first child, George Franklin Getty II. He married Allene Ashby in 1926, and two years later took on wife No. 3, Adolphine Helmle, with whom he had son Jean Ronald.

Getty married starlet Ann Rork in 1932 and fathered two more sons, Eugene Paul (later John Paul Getty Jr.) and Gordon Peter. Getty's fifth and final wife was singer Louise "Teddy" Lynch. They married in 1939 and had one son, Timothy, before their divorce in 1958.

Additionally, the Getty family found its way into the news due to the misfortunes that fell on his offspring. Diagnosed with a brain tumor at an early age, Timmy Getty died at age 12 in 1958. George II passed in 1973 after overdosing on pills.

In 1973, the billionaire's 16-year-old grandson, John Paul Getty III, was kidnapped and held for ransom in Italy. J. Paul famously refused to pay the ransom, saying, "I have 14 other grandchildren. If I pay one penny, I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren." After the kidnappers cut off the teenager's ear and mailed it as evidence they meant business, the magnate finally agreed to a reduced ransom. John Paul Getty later developed a heavy drug addition that led to a stroke, and spent the final three decades of his life in a wheelchair.

Art Collection, Death and Legacy

Having made his first art purchases as a teenager, J. Paul Getty established a significant collection by the 1930s. He began donating part of the collection to the Los Angeles Museum of Art by the late 1940s, and established the J. Paul Getty Museum Trust in 1953. The following year, the J. Paul Getty Museum opened at his ranch house in Malibu (later part of Pacific Palisades), California. He later developed a replica of a Roman villa on the property, where he reestablished the museum in 1974.

In 1959, Getty took up permanent residence at a massive 16th-century estate known as Sutton Place in Surrey, England, and made it the center of his business operations. He died of heart failure there on June 6, 1976, and his body was buried on his Malibu grounds. 

Upon his death, Getty bequeathed $1.2 billion to his charitable trust. The J. Paul Getty Trust, which oversees the Getty Foundation, the Getty Research Institute and the Getty Conservation Institute, set about expanding the museum and its contributions to the art world. In 1997, it unveiled the Getty Center complex overlooking Los Angeles.

'All the Money in the World' and 'Trust'

In 2017, Hollywood turned its attention to the saga of the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III. Directed by Ridley Scott, All the Money in the World stars Michelle Williams as Gail Harris, John Paul's mother, and Mark Wahlberg as James Fletcher Chase, the ex-CIA operative hired to find the missing grandson.

It was originally filmed with Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty, but less than two months before its scheduled December 22 release date, when reports of sexual harassment allegations against Spacey surfaced, Scott cut the actor from his film and began reshooting scenes with Christopher Plummer, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for his impressive last-minute performance.

The kidnapping also was the focus of The Trust, which began airing on FX the following spring. This time, Donald Sutherland took on the role of the reluctant tycoon, with Hilary Swank as Gail Harris, Harris Dickinson as the troubled heir and Brendan Fraser as Chase. 

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