The Billionaire Who Refused To Pay Kidnappers To Save His Grandson’s Life

“All the Money in the World” the upcoming film has been garnering lots of buzz for the scandal around it.  The filmmakers decided to erase star Kevin Spacey, who is now tainted by accusations of sexual misconduct dan replaced him with Christopher Plummer.

billionaire refuses save gandson life

J. Paul Getty and John Paul Getty III

The movie is due in theaters on December 22. Plummer was still filming in Italy as recently as this past week.

billionaire refuses save gandson life

Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty


The movie is based on  John Paul Getty III, the 16-year-old grandson of oilman J. Paul Getty, then said to be the world’s richest man, worth some $1.2 billion (around $9.1 billion today), when he was kidnapped in Rome in 1973. His abductors demanded $17 million, which his family wouldn’t pay, leading his captors to cut off his right ear.

Because of the ordeal, and terrible neglect, the kidnapping ruined this life. When he was just 24, he ended up paralyzed as a result of a drug overdose.

It turned out that all the money in the world could not save him.

Getty was born in 1892 to Minnesotan parents in the petroleum business, J. Paul Getty turned mere wealth into billions by buying oil-rich land in the Middle East.

However, “Old John,” as he came to be called, was a notorious tightwad. He was so cheap that he kept a payphone at Sutton Place, his 75-acre estate in Surrey, England, so as not to get stuck paying for guests’ calls.

Old John was equally parsimonious about showing love to his family. “Raising kids . . . would have gotten in the way of his mistresses,” John Pearson, author of “Painfully Rich,” on which the movie is based.

Old John had accumulated five wives and as many sons. He particularly disdained his third boy, John Paul Getty Jr., and viewed him as a dope-addled hippie. “John Paul [Jr.] was cultured,” said Pearson. “But he was a drug addict and a layabout.”

billionaire refuses save gandson life

J. Paul Getty in the dining room of Sutton Place

Old John did not even meet his grandson, John Paul III, the oldest of four children that John Paul Jr. had with first wife Gail, until the boy was 11 years old.

When Old John and his grandson met four years later, he was less impressed. It was 1971 and the 15-year-old boy, known as Paul, had evolved into a bellbottoms-wearing hippie. His father, John Paul Jr. divorced Gail in 1966 and been living a bohemian existence with his new wife, model Talitha Pol. They traveled around Rome and Morocco, hung out with the Rolling Stones, and smoked opium.

At the age of 15, Paul had already been exposed to the likes of Andy Warhol, Jack Nicholson, and Mick Jagger. According to the 2013 biography of Paul, “Uncommon Youth,” by Charles Fox, Gail suspected that Paul “had a 24-hour really bad trip on whatever it was that [John Paul Jr.’s mistress] had given him.”

Pol fatally overdosed during a 1971 heroin binge.

“But [Paul] idolized his father, though he was a cool guy — even though he was dysfunctional and an emotional wreck,” said Pearson.

Believing that freedom would help her son, Gail allowed Paul to quit school and live in an apartment in Rome so he could pursue a career as a painter. At 16, he was mostly known for partying and nude modeling. Local media dubbed Paul “the Golden Hippie.”

On July 10, 1973, around 3 a.m. the Golden Hippie was drunk and strolling home along the Piazza Farnese. He stopped at a newsstand to purchase the next day’s paper and a Mickey Mouse comic book.

billionaire refuses save gandson life

John Paul Getty Jr.

When a car pulled up and three men jumped out, brandishing pistols, they whisked Paul into the car. He told writer Joe Eszterhas, during a 1974 Rolling Stone interview, “I didn’t know if I had f – – ked somebody’s chick or whether they were the cops or whatever.”

Paul was then chloroformed and smacked in the head with the butt of a gun before passing out.

The men were part of a rag-tag group that included mafia members, a carpenter, and hospital orderly, then drove Paul to a cave in southern Italy where he was tied to a stake. A captor said, “Listen, kid, you’re going to be here a long time. Don’t do anything stupid.”

Gail, his mother, received a phone call asking for a ransom of $17 million a day after the abduction.

She wondered at first if the police were right in their assessment that he had himself “kidnapped” to bilk his family for money. Paul had bragged to friends about a plan for the perfect fake kidnapping. Even the Italian media billionaire refuses save gandson lifeheadlined it a hoax.

In the meantime, John Paul Jr., was in London to escape Italian drug charges related to the death of Pol, was oblivious. “He lived on heroin and chocolate-chip cookies,” said Pearson. “He was out of it and useless.”

Gail spun her wheels trying to raise the money for weeks. Meanwhile, Old John provided a cold statement to the media: “I don’t believe in paying kidnappers. I have 14 other grandchildren and if I pay one penny now, then I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”

Paul was drunk the entire time on cheap cognac in the cave and rural huts. The kidnappers gave him a radio and a pet bird, while each day he was unchained for an hour of walking and smoking. He tracked days by making small scratches on a rock. After 50 days passed with no action, the kidnappers became increasingly agitated.

It was early one October morning, around three months into his ordeal, when Paul received a haircut from his kidnappers. The next morning he was fed a meal of five steaks and pressed to eat as much as he could. Afterward, he was blindfolded and a handkerchief was placed in his mouth. He bit hard as the men secured his arms, legs, and head.

Then they sliced off his right ear with the single sweep of a razor-sharp blade.

billionaire refuses save gandson life

Piazza Farnese

“I was vomiting,” Paul said, recalling how the wound became badly infected and the penicillin he was given poisoned him. “I didn’t even move for about 10 days. I pissed myself all the time.”

His ear was then wrapped in a bag, along with strands of his hair and a note that said unless the ransom was paid within 10 days, “we shall billionaire refuses save gandson lifesend you the other ear.” It was sent to Il Messaggero newspaper in Rome. However, a national postal strike meant the gruesome parcel took three weeks to reach its destination.

Once it arrived, Gail and lawyer Giovanni Jacovoni raced to the paper’s office. She took one look at the ear, recognized the freckles, and said that it belonged to her son.

After sending Polaroids of Paul, showing his emaciated body and missing ear, reporters for Il Messaggero were sent to retrieve from the side of a highway, the family negotiated the ransom down to $2.9 million.

Old John begrudgingly, put up $2.2 million, the maximum that could be tax deducted, and loaned the remaining $700,000 to his son, providing that the sum is paid back at 4 percent interest. Pearson suspects that the debt was never repaid.

Five months after Paul was nabbed, on December 12, money changed hands at a rendezvous in the Italian countryside and three days later, he was released. He began walking and was soon picked up by the police and his mother.

While at the police station in Rome, a mob of reporters awaited the teen’s arrival. Paul described the homecoming as “absolute insanity.” A week later, he was back in Rome and was as famous as a Rolling Stone, complete with screaming girls and fan mail: “All the letters,” Paul said, “basically said, ‘Give me your c–k.’”

He tried calling his grandfather to thank him for putting up the money, but Old John would not take the call. Through an intermediary, his final words to Paul were, “Good luck.”

billionaire refuses save gandson lifeSoon after Paul’s release, he met with Eszterhas in Berlin and Rome. Paul demanded $500 for the interview and $2,000 for a photo session, reportedly. “I heard that he was doing cocaine, lots of cocaine,” said Eszterhas. “He carried himself like a rock star, but he needed money. I had to put cash down on the table when we started the interview and more when we finished it.”

Eventually, nine men associated with the Ndrangheta organized crime group were arrested for the kidnapping, and two were ultimately convicted. Only $85,000 of the $2.9 million was recovered.

In 1974, at age 18, Paul married photographer Martine Zacher, 24. His grandfather disinherited him because he did not like the fact that Zacher was older and five months pregnant. The couple’s son, Balthazar, now 42, went on to become a successful actor in films such as “Lord of the Flies” and the television series “Brothers and Sisters.” (They also had a daughter, Anna.)

Fatherhood did very little to mellow Paul. His family lived in a house behind the Whisky a Go Go on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. Author Fox wrote of him being jumpy and doing speedballs (a mix of heroin and cocaine), and by this time, Paul had no money himself, but various family members covered all the checks he bounced.

After a night of methadone, valium, and alcohol, Paul, 25, in 1981, he suffered a stroke that left him a quadriplegic. Nevertheless, billionaire refuses save gandson lifeEszterhas recalled hearing about him being rolled into Carlos and Charlie’s nightclub in his wheelchair.

Paul and Gail eventually sued John Paul Jr. for $28,000 per month to cover Paul’s care. He died after a long period of poor health, in 2011 at 54. By that time, his father and grandfather had both passed on.

The Getty name endures on gas station signs across the United States, as well as through Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Villa, both rankings among the world’s finest art museums. The family oil business was sold for $10.1 billion to Texaco in 1984. In 2015, Forbes magazine estimated the Getty fortune to be a diminishing $5.4 billion and made them the 56th wealthiest family in America. They were rich but a far cry from Old John’s former top-of-the-heap status.

Pearson thinks Old John would not have been pleased by Hollywood making money off his name.

“The old man would have had the script rewritten for his own ends; he would have tried to shift blame from himself,” said Pearson. “I also think Getty would want to get whatever money he could out of it. That was his nature.”

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