Sir Paul Getty

Quiet billionaire and philanthropist

Friday 18 April 2003 00:00

Eugene Paul Getty (John Paul Getty), collector and philanthropist: born 7 September 1932; KBE 1986; married 1956 Gail Harris (two sons, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1966), 1966 Talitha Pol (died 1971; one son), 1994 Victoria Holdsworth; died London 17 April 2003.

Paul Getty loved England and English things, but most of all he loved English cricket.

During the season, he could spend all day watching it on television in the elegant drawing room of his London flat in St James's Place. When he renovated his beautiful Berkshire estate, Wormsley, Getty built a magnificent library that would house his collection of rare manuscripts and bindings, and also a private cricket ground, the first country-house cricket pitch to be built since the Second World War. On the wall of the thatched pavilion was a small brass bell inscribed with the letters MFWOGP. The bell had been a gift to Getty from an old friend, Brian Johnston, the cricket commentator, who would occasionally interrupt his broadcasts to send his good wishes to My Friend Who Overlooks Green Park.

It was on the day before Brian Johnston's memorial service in the summer of 1994 that Getty's cricket team, the J. Paul Getty XI, won a match on their home ground for the first time. "Brian will be in heaven pouring himself a great jay of nectar," Getty laughed as he offered the team his congratulations.

For a great deal of his adult life in England, Getty had been known as an unhappy reclusive man who drank a lot and was often cranky. But the end of that happy summer day highlighted many of Getty's exceptional qualities; his child-like love of jokes, his passion for cricket as the embodiment of fair play, his loyalty, his gift for friendship and his enormous generosity.

The same sentiments, on a larger scale, infused his relationship with Britain, where he lived for most of the past 40 years. The quiet billionaire was regarded with great affection by the British public, who sensed just how much he esteemed Britain's best qualities and how generous he was prepared to be to help people less fortunate than himself. "Paul is a much-loved figure," the then Prime Minister, John Major, said of Getty in 1994. "And when I say much-loved, I mean for what he is – not just what he's been able to give."

Often anonymously, and without seeking anything in return, Getty became Britain's greatest private philanthropist, giving away well over £200m in the last 20 years. His best-known gift was the £50m he gave the National Gallery in 1985, since when he gave to such causes as the British Film Institute (over £20m), St Paul's Cathedral (£5m to clean the West Front), the Conservative Party (£5m after it lost the 2001 general election), Canova's Three Graces (£1m), the Churchill Papers (£1m) and The Oldie (he eventually bought the magazine). But it was his unstinting support for small, often struggling, charities that brought him to the attention of thousands of people around the country.

His Cheyne Walk Trust gave according to a set of guidelines Getty had drawn up himself; it favoured the north of England over the south, small projects over big ones and schemes that helped to rehabilitate prison inmates and young offenders, preserve old churches and small village cricket clubs, and help women driven by stress to self-mutilation. His J. Paul Getty Jr Charitable Trust advertises itself simply as "Supporting Unpopular Causes".

The Queen bestowed on Getty a knighthood; the public afforded him a measure of privacy few other billionaires could expect in Britain. His wife, the former Victoria Holdsworth, whom he married after a long friendship at the end of 1994, was a guiding hand into the outside world that Getty often found so frightening. In marked contrast to the case of Mohamed al-Fayed, Paul Getty's successful application in 1997 for a British passport, which enabled him to use his 1986 title, was an occasion for joy.

Life, for Getty, had not always been so happy. His mother, the fourth Mrs J. Paul Getty Snr, attempted suicide for the first time when she was pregnant in 1932 with her son Eugene Paul, nicknamed "Pabby" and later known as J. Paul Getty Jnr. (He was born at sea.) The marriage to J. Paul Getty Snr, the Oklahoma oil baron she had met when she was 14 and he nearly 40, lasted only three years. After the divorce, she lived with her two sons in California. Their father had little to do with their upbringing, though he would correct the boys' letters for spelling and grammar and send them back. Paul junior studied English at San Francisco State University, but never graduated. Instead he was drafted and served in the Korean War.

In January 1956, at the age of 23, having returned to the US, he married his college sweetheart, a water-polo champion named Gail Harris. Getty senior did not attend the wedding, and sent a gift only when his English mistress, Penelope Kitson, insisted. The newly weds' first son, J. Paul Getty III, was born later that year. Three more children – Aileen, Mark and Ariadne – followed.

It wasn't until October 1957, when Paul junior was 25, that Fortune magazine announced for the first time that the richest American, and later the richest man in the world, was an oilman by the name of J. Paul Getty. At the time, Paul junior was a serious young man, painfully thin and, with his horn-rimmed spectacles, rather scholarly in appearance. He was not always stable, and already drank so much as a teenager that his mother felt obliged to tell his would-be in-laws about it before his marriage to Gail.

The sudden exposure of his father's wealth jolted the soft-spoken youngster. Paul junior had been working in the family business, pumping petrol for $100 a week. Soon after, his father summoned him to Europe and within two years named him director of Getty Oil's new Italian interests. To take on his new role, Eugene Paul asked his father's permission to change his name to J. Paul Getty Jnr. Federico Fellini was filming La Dolce Vita as the young Gettys arrived in Rome; Rome at that time was to prove a less than ideal training ground for a young businessman.

Paul junior's life would have been quite different if his father had, say, made him responsible for the J. Paul Getty Museum, rather than insisting he follow him into the oil business, which Paul junior hated. Getty's marriage to Gail soon began to disintegrate. And in 1965, at the London home of his father's personal assistant, Claus von Bülow, Getty met a striking young woman with almond eyes. Her name was Talitha Pol. Born in Java of Dutch parents, she had spent her first years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp with her mother while her father was in another camp. After the Second World War, she moved to Britain when her father remarried.

Talitha Pol and J. Paul Getty Jnr married in Rome in December 1966, he in a psychedelic tie and she in an ivory velvet ensemble, complete with hood and miniskirt edged in white mink. They lived in a magnificent rooftop apartment, where they entertained such friends as Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful. By the end of the 1960s both Gettys were drug addicts. In May 1968, Talitha gave birth to a son, whom they named Tara Gabriel Galaxy Gramophone Getty, but their lives were already spinning out of control. Paul junior quit his father's business soon after, and in July 1971 Talitha Pol died in their Rome apartment. Months later, an inquiry concluded that the cause of death had been an overdose of heroin.

After Talitha's death, Getty senior announced that he was making arrangements for three-year-old Tara to be cared for by Gail Harris, Paul junior's first wife. He also added a 14th codicil to his will, removing Paul junior as an executor of the estate and banning him from inheriting any Getty Oil shares. The father's only bequest was a derisory $500. (Paul junior's income derived entirely from his grandmother's Sarah C. Getty Trust.)

Paul junior never returned to Italy, though the inquiry into Talitha's death was only part of the reason. Two years later, his own son Paul was kidnapped in Rome. For five months, he was chained to a stake in Calabria while his family dithered over whether to pay the ransom. To force their hand, the kidnappers cut off the boy's ear and sent it to a newspaper.

Negotiations with the kidnappers were hampered by the suspicion that Paul III had engineered the crime himself to raise funds. The young hostage's grandfather was remarkably unsympathetic. Getty senior spent $6m on art at Christie's in a single morning at the same time he was refusing to contribute to Paul III's ransom. Getty senior kept all his children on a short lead financially, and even on occasion cut off disbursements to them from the Sarah C. Getty Trust. As a result, Paul junior did not have the 1.7bn lire the kidnappers were demanding. In the event, he put up $850,000, and his father lent him the remaining $2.5m. The loan, Getty senior insisted, would be repaid from annual deductions Paul junior was entitled to from the Sarah C. Getty Trust. The two men never met again. Getty senior died in 1976. In 1981, Paul III took a near-lethal cocktail of prescribed drugs and suffered a massive stroke. He is completely paralysed and nearly blind. Getty's oldest daughter, Aileen, has Aids.

After Talitha's death and his son's kidnapping, Paul junior withdrew almost completely. For many years, he lived alone in a tall house on Cheyne Walk, leaving on occasion only to go into hospital. He drank heavily and ate little. He developed circulatory problems, and for a long time could walk only a few yards with great difficulty. He had cirrhosis of the liver and signs of impending diabetes. Mentally and spiritually exhausted, he eventually came to more or less live in the London Clinic. When Margaret Thatcher went to visit him to thank him for his donation to the National Gallery, she sat down on his bed and said, "Now, Mr Getty. What is the matter? We really must get you out of here."

If there was one reason Getty recovered, it was the loyalty of his friends. Money or no, the support he received from Christopher Gibbs, Christopher Logue, Mick Jagger and Claus von Bülow, whose defence in the trial of the attempted murder of his former wife, Sunny, was paid for by Getty, was unflagging. This was true of no one more than Victoria Holdsworth, the daughter of a Suffolk farmer who had been a Commander in the SOE in Italy, who became his third wife.

Holdsworth was a presence already in Cheyne Walk, but her influence over Getty increased in the 1980s. It was she who helped persuade him to sell the gloomy Chelsea house and buy the sunny flat overlooking Green Park where a cushion in the hall was embroidered with the words, "Money isn't everything, but it sure keeps you in touch with your children."

She also encouraged him to travel once more and was an enthusiastic supporter of his plan to restore a sleek motor yacht that had been commissioned in the late 1920s by the chairman of the Packard Motor Car Company, and which Getty renamed the Talitha G. In April 1994, Getty left England for the first time in nearly 20 years, travelling to Barbados to watch the English cricket tour and sail aboard his new yacht. Victoria Holdsworth and her mother were with him.

The future Lady Getty was also instrumental in persuading him to buy the 2,500-acre Wormsley estate and build the knapped-flint library for his collection of rare bindings and illuminated manuscripts that may become his most important legacy to his adopted country.

Begun in earnest, with the help of the antiquarian book dealers Maggs Brothers, when he moved to Britain, Paul Getty's library is now probably one of the greatest private libraries in Britain. It contains what may be the earliest English manuscript, the seventh-century Historia Ecclesiastica by the Bishop of Caesarea Eusebius Pamphili, and also four leaves from the only remaining medieval illustrated biography of St Thomas à Becket, as well as a number of rare British and continental 20th-century bindings.

A memorable exhibition of the Wormsley Library's most interesting works was mounted to great acclaim in 1999 by the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Getty pledged that the Wormsley collection would not be broken up and would remain in Britain, and his wife, a trustee, wants to ensure that scholars, and perhaps even later the public, have generous access to it.

Dogged by ill-health in his later years, Paul Getty would winter in the Caribbean if he was able. But always in the summer he returned to England – to talk cricket with old cricketers, to look over the cricketing empire he had built after buying Wisden exactly a decade ago, or to watch the game itself, on his home ground at Wormsley, or from his box in the handsome Mound stand at Lord's that would never have been built had it not been for a £4m donation from the gentle philanthropist.

"He loves England," his friend Lord Rothschild once said. "He's happy here and he's been unhappy everywhere else."

Fiammetta Rocco

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in