Jean Paul Getty (1892-1976) was a billionaire independent oil producer who founded and controlled the Getty Oil Company and over 200 affiliated companies.
Jean Paul Getty was born on December 15, 1892, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father, George Franklin Getty, was a lawyer, but in 1904 he moved his wife, Sarah Risher Getty, and his son to the Oklahoma territory to begin a successful career as an independent oilman. Two years later the family moved to Los Angeles, California, where young Getty attended private school before graduating from Polytechnic High School in 1909. After a European tour he attended the University of Southern California and the University of California at Berkeley; he spent his summers working on his father's oil rigs as a "roustabout." In 1912 Getty enrolled in Oxford University in England, from which he received a degree in economics and political science in 1914.
In 1914 Getty arrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, determined to strike it rich as a wildcat oil producer. Although he operated independently of his father's Minnehoma Oil Company, his father's loans and financial backing enabled him to begin buying and selling oil leases in the red-bed area of Oklahoma. Getty saw himself as a modern oil man, relying on geological data and not simply on the instinct of the experienced veterans, but he also thrived on the excitement, gamble, risks, and high stakes of the oil business. Getty's own first successful well came in in 1916, and by the fall of that year he had made his first million dollars as a wildcatter and lease broker.
For the next two years Getty "retired" to the life of a wealthy playboy in Los Angeles, but he returned to the oil business in 1919. During the 1920s he and his father continued to be enormously successful both in drilling their own wells and in buying and selling oil leases, and Getty became more active in California than in Oklahoma. He amassed a personal fortune of over three million dollars and acquired a third interest in what was to become the Getty Oil Company.
After his father's death in 1930 Paul Getty became the president of the George Getty Oil Company (successor to Minnehoma Oil), but his mother inherited the controlling interest, as his father had been upset with his son's profligate personal life. During the 1930s Getty followed several paths to both short-term and long-term success. His wells continued to produce, and profits poured in. He also bought a controlling interest in the Pacific Western Oil Corporation, one of the ten largest oil companies in California. After a series of agreements with his mother he obtained the controlling interest in the George Getty Oil Company, and he began real estate dealings, including the purchase of the Hotel Pierre in New York City.
The Getty Oil Company
Getty's ambition was to build up an independent, self-contained oil business involving refining, transporting, and selling oil as well as exploration and drilling. To that end he began in the 1930s to gain control of the Tidewater Oil Company. Getty pursued that goal in a series of complicated maneuvers, which involved tilting with the giant Standard Oil of New Jersey, until in the 1950s he had control of Tidewater, Skelly Oil, and the Mission Corporation. In 1967 these companies merged into the Getty Oil Company, the foundation of Getty's fortune. Getty had a majority or controlling interest in Getty Oil and its nearly 200 affiliated and subsidiary firms, and he remained its president until his death in 1976.
At the outbreak of World War II, Getty, a yachtsman, volunteered for service in the Navy, but his offer was rejected. At the request of Naval officers, however, he took over personal management of Spartan Aircraft, a Skelly and Getty subsidiary. The corporation manufactured trainers and airplane parts, and it later converted to the profitable production of mobile homes.
After the war Getty took a lucrative gamble on oil rights in the Middle East. In 1949 he secured the oil rights in Saudi Arabia's half of the Neutral Zone, a barren tract between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. He made major concessions to King Saud, which shocked the large oil companies, but after three years and a $30 million investment, Getty found the huge oil deposits which helped make him a billionaire.
In his business career, Getty continued to invest and reinvest; his fortune consisted not of cash, but stocks, corporate assets, and real estate. A loner, he saw himself as a solitary knight in fierce battle with the giant "Seven Sisters" oil firms, and that competitive urge fueled his desire to build a larger and larger fortune.
A "Public" Personal Life
In 1957 Fortune magazine published a list of the richest men in America. Getty's name headed the list, and the resultant publicity turned the reclusive Getty into an object of public fascination and legend. Getty complained about the fame, the requests for money, and the assumption that he would pick up every restaurant check, but he also furthered his own legends: he wrote articles on such topics as "How To Be Rich" and pretended to poverty by wearing rumpled suits and threadbare sweaters. The public was fascinated by Getty's wealth and extravagance and also by his reputed stinginess. After 1959 he stopped living out of hotel rooms and established his home and offices at Sutton Place, a 16th-century, 700-acre manor outside London. The huge estate, with its gardens, pools, trout stream, and priceless furnishings, was also a near garrison, with elaborate security arrangements. Giant Alsatian dogs had the run of the estate, and there were also two caged lions, Nero and Teresa. Numerous stories circulated about Getty's penny-pitching; the most famous incident was the installation of a pay telephone on the Sutton Place grounds. Getty offered various explanations, but the public preferred to see the phone booth as a symbol of his stinginess.
The public also seemed to like to read into Getty's life the lesson that money does not buy happiness. Getty was married five times: to Jeannette Dumont (1923), Allene Ashby (1925), Adolphine Helmle (1928), Ann Rork (1932), and Louisa Lynch (1939); each marriage ended in divorce. He had five sons, two of whom predeceased him, and his relationship with each of them was difficult. His grandson, J. Paul Getty III, was kidnapped in Italy in 1973. Although he was returned for a ransom, part of his ear had been cut off. Getty was a celebrity, and public interest, fueled by envy and admiration, focused on Getty's tragedies as well as his billions.
Besides oil, Getty's major interest was art. He began serious collecting in the 1930s—European paintings, furniture, Greek and Roman sculptures, 18th-century tapestries, silver, and fine Persian carpets, including the 16th-century Ardabil carpet from Tabriz. He housed his collection at Sutton Place and at his ranch house at Malibu, California, one wing of which he opened as the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1954. In 1969 construction began on a new Getty Museum, also on his Malibu property. The huge building is a replica of an ancient Roman villa found near the ruins of Pompeii, and the extensive Getty collection was moved thereafter his death.
Jean Paul Getty died at Sutton Place on June 6, 1976; he is buried on his Malibu estate.
Further Reading on Jean Paul Getty
Getty wrote two autobiographies, My Life and Fortunes (1963) and As I See It (1976). He wrote about his art collection in The Joys of Collecting (1965) and published such advice books as How To Be Rich (1965) and How To Be A Successful Executive (1971). A biography written with Getty's cooperation is Ralph Hewins, The Richest American: J. Paul Getty (1960); the New York Times obituary of June 6, 1976, also provides useful information. In The Seven Sisters: The Great Oil Companies and the World They Shaped (1975) Anthony Sampson discusses Getty's role as an independent oil producer. Two biographies in 1986 added little new information: The House of Getty by Russell Miller and The Great Getty: The Life and Loves of J. Paul Getty—Richest Man in the World by Robert Lenzner.