Painfully Rich:John Pearson

“A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you’re a business failure.”

Author John Pearson’s non fiction account of the Getty family begins with the death of J. Paul Getty. J (Jean) Paul Getty (1892-1976) was worth billions, yet, in life and in death, he was notoriously stingy. There’s the incident of how he installed a pay phone in his mansion and then his long-time faithful servants and employees who had served him faithfully for years “received scant crumbs from America’s richest table.” For all the wealth this man had, it certainly didn’t seem to make him happier, and as the stories of his children and grandchildren unfold, we can see that money didn’t make his life less complicated. J. Paul Getty comes across as an isolated, idiosyncratic man.

Painfully rich

Great wealth is, IMO, a burden, and while we see some wealthy people such as Jeff and Mackenzie Bezos and Bill & Melinda Gates creating foundations with millions of dollars, we get the sense almost immediately that Getty was definitely all about himself.  He had a large number of love affairs and he was married five times. He had five children from four of those marriages. Perhaps you’d think that you’d hit the jackpot if you met and married J. Paul Getty, but after reading this book, I had the sense that for each of Getty’s wives, it just wasn’t their day when they met J. Paul Getty.

His real love was not for women, who were incidental, but for money, which was not. And he had proved himself a faithful and romantic partner during his lifelong love affair with wealth, jealously acquiring it, and making it increase, in massive quantities, across a period of more than sixty years.

His avarice was an incidental aspect of this love. How can one bear to waste the object of one’s adoration?

Author John Pearson takes us back into Getty’s childhood. J. Paul Getty’s parents, Sarah and George, were deeply religious, George had intended to be a schoolmaster, but Sarah, three years his senior, made him promise that he’d go to law school, using her dowry to pay the fees. It’s through J.Paul Getty’s parents that we see the drive and ambition for social improvement, but in their case it was tempered and harnessed by their strict religious beliefs. When J. Paul Getty arrived, his parents had lost a ten year old child to typhoid, and so this late-life son was born to a 40-year-old indulgent mother. Yet even this wasn’t simple:

Paul, though cosseted and protected, had a lonely and loveless childhood. His mother actively discouraged contact with other children from fear of fresh contagion. And while over protective with her son, she was careful not to show him too much love in case she lost him as she had lost his sister.

Years later, Paul told his wife that as a child he was never cuddled-nor did he have a birthday party of a Christmas tree. 

As the Gettys’ wealth grew from oil, the family relocated to Los Angeles. J. Paul Getty showed an early predilection for amorous adventures and could not apply himself to formal higher education. I loved the story of how he set sail to attend Oxford in August 1912 and arrived in November, armed with a letter of introduction from the President of the United States. Exactly what Getty achieved academically is muddied (he says he got a diploma). This period was the root of Getty’s love affair with England–a love affair second only to his love affair with money, and a love affair that lasted far longer than any relationship with a woman.

It took J. Paul Getty’s father putting the squeeze on his dilettante son to turn his son from a man who spent money to a man who made money. And when J. Paul Getty’s mother got a whiff of her son’s misbehaviour (“marital fever,”) and as she saw it, his risky business tactics, she set up the “irrevocable spendthrift trust” in order to protect the “interests of his children against the possible results of his business speculation.” 

The trust sounds like a good idea, and it certainly had its tax advantages. (At one point the author states that J.Paul Getty bragged he never pay more than $500 a year in taxes.) But the trust treated the children from Paul’s various marriages unfairly with unequal division and also stated that the grandchildren would not inherit their share until the last of J. Paul’s sons were dead.

The book details the way J. Paul Getty basically ignored his children as he moved on from marriage to marriage, love affair to love affair, and how then when they were grown, he slotted them into various positions within his empire, creating rivalry and division amongst his sons.

Of course, there’s also space given to the scandals. The eldest son, George, stabbed himself  with a barbecue fork and died of a drug overdose. There’s there’s the hippie period of Eugene and the mysterious death of his second wife. And then of course, there’s the kidnapping of Getty’s grandson, John Paul Getty III. His kidnappers underestimated his grandfather’s stinginess

I have fourteen grandchildren, and if I pay a penny of ransom, I’ll have fourteen kidnapped grandchildren.

The kidnappers sent Paul’s ear to his mother, and negotiations for a $3 million ransom gelled with Paul’s grandfather kicking in a loan of $800,000 to his son to be repaid at 4% interest.

Painfully Rich conveys the idea that Getty’s fortune served as a curse on the family. Who wouldn’t want billions, and yet with the Gettys, it came with a price. But one final thing… J. Paul Getty can’t have been all bad. Mention is made of the Getty Museum, and I’ve been there. It’s fantastic and if you’ve never been and you get a chance, go.

Review copy

 

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13 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction, Pearson John

13 responses to “Painfully Rich:John Pearson

  1. He sounds like a complex and complicated man. Funny how the overly rich can also be incredibly stingy, but maybe that’s how they got to be rich: watching every penny!

    • Well he wasn’t stingy on everything. He had three face lifts for example. But he was also stingy when it came to art: he always wanted a bargain.
      But I think you have a point, I know, have known, some very rich people and yes they have been stingy but in weird ways (a bit like Getty’s payphone type of thing). In other ways they blow money.

  2. Lending money at interest to pay for your grandson’s ransom is pretty breathtaking!

    It often seems to be the third generation where the problems created in these mega-rich families really kick in. And as for bragging about paying little tax, we had a repulsive mega-rich businessman in Australia, Kerry Packer, whose son Jamie (as in Mariah Cary’s love life) is cut from the same cloth, who famously said to a Senate enquiry, “If you pay a cent more in tax than you need to, you’re a mug”. Like Getty, he paid far less tax than an ordinary working man.

    • You wonder how they get away with it, don’t you?
      “Aristocracy has three successive stages: the age of superiority, the age of privilege, and the age of vanity. Once through with the first, it degenerates into the second, and dies out in the third.”(Chateaubriand)

  3. On that formula, is it on its last legs?

  4. Jonathan

    What a great book. And that Chateaubriand quote is brilliant.

  5. I always wanted to visit the Getty museum.
    I think it would be challenging to have that huge amount of money. Charities would be the way to go for me.

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