From kidnap to drug addiction: life and death of a Getty heir

John Paul Getty III has died, aged 54 – another page in the dynasty's tragic history
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The Independent Online

The first image that the world saw of John Paul Getty III was a bewildered, mutilated teenager; a poor little rich kid, caught in a stand-off between ruthless criminals and one of the world's richest men.

He never recovered psychologically from the trauma of having an ear sliced off by kidnappers intent on extorting a ransom from his billionaire grandfather. Yesterday, it was reported that the unhappy life of the heir to the Getty fortune is over. He died after a prolonged illness, aged just 54.

He was a year old when his family name became synonymous with fabulous wealth. In 1957, Fortune magazine named the little known oilman John Paul Getty as the richest man in the United States – and therefore, the richest private individual in the world.

But the story of the three generations of Getty males bears out the cliché that money cannot buy you love.

As a teenager, John Paul III lived with his divorced mother, Gail Harris Getty, in a castle in Italy, and hung around with hippies and peaceniks, making trinkets for street sale. In January 1973 he was arrested while taking part in an anti-fascist demonstration, but the charges were later dropped.

Six months later, on 10 July 1973, he disappeared after a late night out and his mother received a phone call saying he had been kidnapped. The police thought it might be a hoax, but it became clear that he really had been seized by a criminal gang, thought to have been linked to the Mafia.

Both his parents were willing to pay a ransom, but neither had access to the kind of money the kidnappers were demanding. His notoriously tight-fisted grandfather, by contrast, could easily afford to pay, but refused. "I have 14 other grandchildren and if I pay one penny now I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren," he said.

As the ordeal dragged on, the boy's mother reportedly suffered a breakdown, but conspicuously failed to melt the old man's heart. "I haven't heard from the woman at all," John Paul I announced. "She hasn't contacted me. If she does, I'll listen to her, but I'm not paying out ransom money."

As the adults refused to communicate with each other, the teenager spent five months chained to a stake in a cave in southern Italy.

The family was finally spurred to action when a package arrived by post at a Rome newspaper, containing the boy's decomposing ear.

At last, father and grandfather met and spoke – for the last time in their lives. John Paul II had never got on with his hard-driving father. The oil business did not suit him at all, as became apparent when he was in his 20s and had been sent to Europe to run Getty Oil's interest in Italy.

Away from America, his marriage to John Paul III's mother disintegrated, and he took up with Talitha Pol, granddaughter of the artist August John. They were married in Rome in 1966, only to descend together into heavy heroin addiction.

His father sacked him from Getty Oil and cut him out of his will, leaving him with only a few dollars. The relationship with Talitha also fell apart.

She moved to London with their son, the absurdly named Tara Gabriel Galaxy Gramophone Getty, but later flew back to Rome to attempt a reconciliation. The next morning, 14 July 1971, she was found dead from a heroin overdose.

Her death cured John Paul II of his wild ways, but did not reconcile him to his family. He became a recluse, closed up in his house in England and was almost never seen in public. He spoke to his father for the last time to appeal for money, eventually extracting $2.5m – not as a gift, but as a loan, repayable at 4 per cent annual interest – which secured the teenager's release.

It is barely imaginable what the young man felt as he emerged in front of the world's cameras, his head heavily bandaged, to be reunited with this dysfunctional family that had haggled over his ransom.

He went back to living like a hippy and married a German filmmaker, Gisela Zacher, for which – like his father – he was disinherited. His behaviour became even wilder and more self-destructive than his father's had been, until in 1981, while visiting a friend in Los Angeles, he gorged himself on methadone, valium and alcohol and slipped into a coma.

For the rest of his life, he was partially blind, confined to a wheelchair and in need of constant care.

His grandfather had died in 1976, and his father was now in control of the Getty fortune and making his name as the benefactor of a wide variety of causes, including the Conservative Party, which received a gift of £5m from him when their funds were low. But he flatly refused to pay his son's medical expenses, setting off another public family rift, during which he made only one public comment, which did not explain much.

"Anyone who believes I am unmoved by my son's tragedy, or willing to see him become a public charge, simply does not know me," he said in a written statement.

"I have never failed to meet my obligations toward my children under the legal settlements as agreed and my paternal responsibilities as I saw them."