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J. Paul Getty III: Exclusive 1974 Interview with Kidnapped Oil Heir

When the grandson of oil magnate was kidnapped, it took a severed ear for his family to pay up. We sat down with him just months after the ordeal

Exclusive Interview With Paul Getty

Grandson of millionaire J. Paul Getty.


This story originally appeared on the cover of the May 9th, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone.

It is a story told most starkly by a boy’s ear. A boy’s severed right ear – but no, “severed” is too sterile a word; “sliced off” is the truth. A prominent and delicately formed ear sliced from the head of a terrified and fully conscious 16-year-old boy with the same name as the Richest Man in the World, a boy whose adolescence had until then meandered aimlessly around teenage indulgences and post-pubescent vanities.

Cut from his head, the boy’s ear was stuffed into a plastic envelope along with a lock of his red hair and dropped in the mail to a newspaper in Rome. And while the boy lay bleeding, vomiting and in shock, his flesh was shuffled around dingy Duce-built post offices, delayed in its ghoulish transit by an interminable Italian postal strike.

The ear was but a tool, really, a grisly gambit packaged to convince the bot’s octogenarian grandfather to pay $2.9 million… before other plastic envelopes made their slow tortured way through the mails carrying other nightmarish mementos: fingers, toes, an eyeball maybe – and if nothing proved convincing enough, then perhaps a final package: a trunk, and in it… leftovers.

Most grandfathers, of course, don’t need sliced-off ears to convince them to pay for the lives of their grandchildren, but this grandfather is unlike any other. He is the croak-voiced and cadaverous oil billionaire Jean Paul Getty, 81 years old, the Richest Man in the World. And, tragically, also one of the most miserly. A semi-recluse who even keeps a pay telephone for the guests of his private castle, Sutton Place near London, once Henry VIII’s summer residence – still haunted (the boy says) by the wandering ghost of a headless Anne Bolelyn.

The ear was aimed at the grandfather and not the boy’s parents, because the parents have always claimed some comparative degree of poverty. They’ve had too many front-page problems of their own, victims both of private chaos. The boy’s father, Eugene Paul Getty, who now lives in London, has even banished himself from Rome – where he is still sought for questioning by the polizia in the bizarre sudden death of his second wife, Talitha Pol Getty, 31, a B-movie actress (“She wore the eyepatch in Barbarella,” the boy says) who died of a massive and mysterious overdose of heroin in August of 1971.

The boy’s mother, Gail Harris Getty Jeffries, 39, married B-actor Lang Jeffries after divorcing Getty and winning custody of Paul and their other three children: Aline, now 14; Mark, 13, and Ariadne, 11. Gail Getty (she still uses her husband’s name) lives in Rome, separated now from Jeffries (whom the boy sometimes sees feigning heroic deaths in spaghetti-gladiator movies).

One of the boy’s favorite relatives was his “Uncle George”: George F. Getty II, who committed suicide at the age of 48 (a Los Angeles coroner’s inquest determined in June of 1973 by taking an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol… after he failed to do the job with a knife. A self-inflicted, inch-deep stab wound which failed to penetrate the abdominal wall was found in his chest. At the time of his death George Getty, the billionaire’s oldest son, was the head of his father’s global oil empire, a corporate titan with a Bel Air palace of his own – which inspired a tabloid to call him “The World’s Richest Suicide.”

The boy without an ear camouflages his outrage these days with hair that dangles toward his thin neck. Now 17, he is a little over six feet tall, pale, lithe, and androgynous. He slinks with feline grace but his eyes lead a fitful existence of their own. They twitch furtively about like jangled nerve-endings, suspicious and scared, and subtly contradict the studied languor of his body poses. They are often bulged and bloodshot.

His real name is Eugene Paul Getty II. He is known to his friends as “Paul.” Most of the press had continually referred to him as “Jean Paul Getty III.” He is known in Rome as “The Golden Hippie” and “The Oil Prince.” “I’m not a hippie and I never was,” he says. “What is a hippie? Does anybody know what a hippie is? I don’t understand why they don’t call me the golden tomato or the golden grape of the golden balls. I don’t even have a gold watch.”

He routinely divides his life these days into two distinct periods: “Before the Ear” and “After the Ear.” The categorization makes perfect sense. The boy marks time, as do many, by a disaster – an assassination, an earthquake, a war. In his case, the disaster is acutely personal: the death of a part of himself.

Paul Getty lives with the knowledge that some people will always view him as a monstrous charlatan, the teenager who plotted his own kidnap and supervised his own mutilation to rob his own grandfather.

The backdrop is Rome, Roma, the eternal city, caput mundi, the romantic center of the universe… sleazed now in the spring of 1974 by an energy-gloomed darkness, by pickpockets, purse-snatchers, and the squalid slums of industrialization and madcap inflation. The Via Veneto is dim these nights; the Piazza Navona and the Piazza di Spagna are pitch black. And while it is still cornily true that you awake some mornings to high-tenor Italian love songs, it is equally true that you drift to sleep some nights accompanied by desperate scurrying feet and the wailsome lullabies of carabinieri sirens.

“I’m an awful snot,” he says. “I’m very rude. I don’t really like people very much. Most people don’t like me, either. I’ve always been distant from people, even as a small child. I don’t trust anybody in the world. Out of every two people, one person fucks me.”

Eugene Paul Getty II was born on the 4th of November, 1956, to Gail Harris, the socialite daughter of a San Francisco federal judge, and Eugene Paul Getty, heir to a billion-dollar fortune. “My mother and father knew each other since they were about six years old,” he says.

A year and a half after his birth the family moved to Italy – to Venice, Milan, then Rome. “From the time I was very young I was conscious of the Getty name,” he says. “I knew there was a difference between being born a Getty and being born a Smith. There are more Smiths in the world than Gettys. We had a Rolls-Royce in Rome and sometimes I would slink down in the seat so people couldn’t see me. I could see the envy in their eyes. It made me a little scared to go out.”

He treasures no childhood memories, remembers “stealing books and reading under the covers at night with a headband with a light on it. I used to love reading about flying, about Orville and Wilbur Wright. Then I fell in love with the ocean and for a while with the work of a famous oceanographer, until I found out… that, with all his love for the ocean, he had an interest in a harpoon company whose business was to murder fish.”

He didn’t know Eugene Getty, his father, “very well,” remembers doing nothing together with him and portrays him as a man who “fucked everything up… a very strange man who is a big opera fan, who binds books, is very closed, walks around unshaven, and freaks out when he notices people looking at him.”

His parents separated, then divorced, and in 1966 both remarried. Gail Getty married Lang Jeffries, “some B-film actor who played Skip on Rescue Eight. For a while he was the biggest gladiator film actor there was on this earth. He made about 40 movies.” Paul’s contact with his father, meanwhile, became more and more infrequent. “He sends me postcards and weird telegrams sometimes. I have perfect communication with him now because we never talk. That way we don’t have to fight, either.” He hasn’t seen his father since 1970.

After Gail Getty married her gladiator, she moved her children to Brentwood, an upper-crust Los Angeles suburb “where we lived in an imitation Roman villa,” Paul says. “Jeffries tired to communicate with me on a man-to-man tough-guy level, which was a disaster. My mother played a lot of tennis with her friends and I went off each day to Paul Revere Junior High School.

“I am embarrassed at being born an American. It’s such a lousy race. It makes me laugh when I’m there. Neon lights, placards, cheap dinky little building – which is really what the country is all about. Hamburgers, tacos, beer. It’s so strange – the American way of life. Some people call it the American way of death. Americans are so chummy, but it’s false. As soon as you turn your back, they call you a motherfucker. With the Italians, if they don’t like you, they call you a motherfucker to your face.”

“Altogether I was thrown out of seven or eight schools. That’s not all that much. Eleven or 20 would be much more impressive.”

After a year his mother separated from Lang Jeffries and moved the family back to Rome. Paul bounced from one school to another and sooner or later was bounced out of all of them. “I never got along well with authorities. I felt it cheeky that somebody could tell me to sit down. I used to vomit on the desk when I didn’t like a teacher. Or when one of them said something to me I didn’t like, I’d stick my finger down my throat and make myself throw up.

“I used to bring little electronic gadgets to school. Smoke bombs, little cameras, tape recorders, strobe lights. I liked history, but I wouldn’t go to the other classes. I’d steal examination papers. I was the first person in school they couldn’t control. I’d tell them – ‘I pay you to teach me and you’re screaming at me?’ They’d say – ‘This is the System and it’s been this way for a thousand years and you can’t come and change the world.’

“The other students liked me. I was funny and made people laugh. The teacher would hit me with a ruler and I’d get a ruler and hit him straight back. Once a teacher hit me with a ruler and I waited till he was eating. I sat down next to him and pulled out a ruler and went boom! I almost broke his knuckles.

“I went to an English boarding school for a year in Rome. It was like being a soldier. I was thrown out of there because I burned a billboard down. I had a new Zippo lighter. I was a little bit of a pyromaniac. I burned the billboard down and the whole school went smoky. I went to the teacher and I said – ‘Can you smell smoke? Something is burning.’ ‘Yes, by God, something is burning!’ he said. I said –’Let’s go find it.’ And then I made the stupid mistake of showing him where the fire was.

“They questioned me for something like four hours. I said –’No, I didn’t bloody well do it.’ At the end I was so tired I said – ‘Yeah, what the fuck, I did it.’ Then they threw me out. Altogether I was thrown out of seven or eight schools. That’s not all that much. Eleven or 20 would be much more impressive.”

His grandson discusses the Richest Man in the World: “My grandfather always liked me more for some reason than any of the other 14 grandchildren. He’d tell other people I was his favorite and they’d tell me. People say I’m exactly the same as my grandfather in terms of character – whatever that means.

“He doesn’t have very many relationships with family members – he’s probably closest to some of his aides. I was always very conscious of him but I’ve only seen him six or seven times. I first saw his castle when I was two or three years old. It seemed very big and very cold. He’s very regimented, you can’t just drop in on him. You have to have a formal invitation.

“Every time I saw him it was very formal, always for dinner. The butler was always there and you had to be very quiet. He’d come down for dinner. I’d help him with his chair and sit down. He’d talk during dinner and then he’d leave and I wouldn’t see him any more. That was it.

“After one of those meals was over, I’d usually go into the study and have coffee or something. He’d work. He didn’t tell me to go away but I’d know. He never tells you directly to do something. He doesn’t say – ‘Listen, get the fuck out of here!’ He never uses a word like ‘fuck.’ ‘Damn’ is about the worst thing he uses – ‘Well, I’ll be damned’ he’ll say. And he usually says that about once a year.

“He doesn’t like snotty little children and while I was snotty to everybody else I always made sure I was never snotty to him. With children less than seven or eight years old he doesn’t get along at all. He acts like W.C. Fields toward children that young.

“A few times when my father was there for dinner, too, my grandfather would ask questions. Did I know where Rio de Janeiro was? When I said ‘Brazil’ he’d go – ‘Hoog! Hoog! Hoog!’ He laughs like that.

“He’d laugh because when my father was the same age he’d asked him the same question and my father couldn’t answer it. So now after all the years he’d ask me that question just to make my father look bad.

“I’m proud of my grandfather. You have to be intelligent and clever to be what he is.”

“My father had a lot to do with the oil company until one day he suddenly left it. He and my grandfather were never never close but there was no open hostility until my father was about 30 years old. Then later my grandfather never agreed with my father’s second marriage to Talitha Pol. He thought my father was mad. I don’t know why he felt that way. She was a very beautiful woman. Maybe my grandfather was a little jealous. It’s impossible to tell what’s inside an old man’s head.

“I’m proud of my grandfather. You have to be intelligent and clever to be what he is. You can’t be drunk or something. I wish money wasn’t that important but it’s the most important thing in the world. Everything revolves around money. I wish things didn’t because it would be so much easier to go into a store and say – ‘Give me some of those eggs and some of that bread’ instead of saying – ‘Well, how much is that and how much is the tax?’

“I enjoyed going through his bookcases whenever I visited him. He has one bookcase which is about 150 yards long and another one in his study. All art books. He’s written some shitty books and articles himself. He was born at t he right time, coincidence was on his side, and he had an inheritance that he made work for him to start his empire. He wasn’t a garbage picker who came up from nothing.

“Sometimes when I’d go over there he’d talk to me about my long hair. I’d go over to his castle dressed up in star-spangled pants and Union Jack underwear with very long hair and he’d say – ‘Why do you dress like this? Why do you have such long hair?’ I’d say – ‘Why not have it?’

“I get gifts from him for my birthday and Christmas. Not from him, of course, but from some aide who’s been doing it for about 20 years. The aide would send money to my mother and she’d buy me a train set or a record and that would be my grandfather’s gift.

“He works very hard, about 12 hours a day, even though he’s so old. He’s still very productive even with the Parkinson’s that makes him shake. He’s very close to an assistant named Norris [Bramlett, Getty’s administrative assistant] and he used to be very close to my Uncle George. Norris and my Uncle George used to run the company. Now it’s almost all Norris. My grandfather is the person in the back, who kind of sits in a window and makes sure everything goes along.

“He doesn’t smoke, he drinks Bacardi and Coke about once a week, He doesn’t really relax, only when he sleeps. He watched TV a lot. Old movies. He’s very happy when there’s an old Garbo movie on. He knew them all, Garbo and all the big old stars. He used to own the Pierre Hotel in New York and saw them all the time.

“He’s very turned on by fame, by meeting famous people. There’s a room in his castle called the Red Room where where Anne Bolelyn, Henry VIII’s mistress, used to sleep. Strange things happen in that room and some people who’ve slept there say they’ve seen the ghost of Anne Bolelyn. Things move about at night. Objects. A seven-foot-high, four-foot-wide closet which needs three people to carry it. It is in once place at night and another in the morning. My grandfather takes great pride in that famous old ghost walking around his place. He’s never seen it, though. He says he’d like to but I don’t believe it.

“It would probably scare him. A lot of things scare him. That’s why he stays in his castle all the time dressed up in his three-piece suits and stuffed shirts. He’s got attack dogs patrolling his grounds and a pet lion named Nero stomping around and bodyguards and aides. The fences around the castle are electric with barbed wire on top of them. He’s even afraid of flying – so afraid he hasn’t been on a plane for about 30 years. Sometimes he’s even afraid of talking on the telephone. I don’t really understand why.”

“I mean, I was very young when I first balled a chick. Very, very young.”

While the Richest Man in the World urged him to pursue an education, his grandson blithely rejected the advice – “Who wants to be a rich old oil sheik anyway?” – and pursued excitement and danger in the corsos and piazzas of Rome.

“Anything you could break your neck with. After you live in Rome for a while the city itself doesn’t excite you. You find yourself not even looking at the fountains. I always sought adventure. Motorcycles and cars. I’ve had every kind of cycle from a litte 50 cc to 500 cc. I always wanted a Harley-Davidson chromed from head to toe.

“I was a real menace to Rome. I went really fast, had 20 or 30 accidents but have never really been badly hurt. The worst was a concussion. I went into a wall at 110 kilometers an hour. I wasn’t wearing a helmet.

“Another time in an underpass in Rome I turned over eight times, bike and all. And nothing happened to me. I got up and walked away. I had a leather jacket on and there was nothing left of the jacket. I loved the thrills. Some people like the drink, other people like to fix, I liked to go fast.”

He also started hanging around Rome’s disco scene, a celebrity groupie who learned quickly that his grandfather’s name gave him instant social entrance. “I didn’t have to introduce myself. Everybody knew who I was. There were a lot of film people there and I love films. The discos in Rome are small and refined. They don’t let anybody just walk in off the street. It was a very snobby scene and I loved it. Everything was so fitted in those discos. It was like a jigsaw puzzle and you knew immediately if one of the pieces wasn’t there some night. I liked the image of it. Image comes straight out of cinema and if everything is in the right place it’s a good scene. If it’s fuzzy it’s bad. It was pretty grotesque, too, but like a painting. A big show. Everybody was posing. The Greatest Show on Earth. Ringling Brothers would have freaked out.

“And the chicks in there. I mean, I was very young when I first balled a chick. Very, very young, but with the chicks in that disco scene – if you balled one, they all knew everything about it. What you did and how you did it and if you were any good. And in the discos all you heard was – ‘Oh, how are you? What are you doing? Come to my swimming pool.’ Or you heard somebody say to someone – ‘Oh, you do the picture and I’ll give you $50,000 to start with.’ Or – ‘We want to do a movie for the kids. We want dope, sex and violence. The kids want that stuff so let’s give them what they want.’ I guess a lot of it was bullshit.”

He met and hung around with Andy Warhol (“he’s so straight”). Paul Morrissey, Jack Nicholson (“just the way he looks, oh, his eyes”), Faye Dunaway, Roman Polanski (“he’s really evil”) and Mick Jagger. “When I was about 12 my father had a house in Marrakech. My father went through a hip period then. He got into the Stones and they visited down there. That’s how I met Mick. I sat around all day in Marrakech with a camera just filming the Stones. Not that the experience of being together brought my father and I closer at all. I saw him more and he talked to me but how does a father really talk to his son? ‘Eat your peas and wipe your asshole.’ I loved the Stones and I’ve loved them since. They’re really sacred monsters – devils. I’d love to do what they do: Get on stage, hear all those screams. It must be fantastic.”

He moved into an apartment with two friends in 1972. “My mother didn’t hassle me or anything just because I was 15.” He hung around his pop people and played at being a star. “I played some extra parts in spaghetti westerns. In one of them I played six parts. It was the kind of picture everybody got into, even the director’s son. Then some friends and I made a movie we never finished, which was a takeoff on Luis Bunuel’s ‘The Last Supper’ [scene from Viridiana]. In our movie Jesus Christ was given electroshock treatments and died that way instead of being crucified. I played Jesus Christ, which was quite a takeoff right there.”

He was also hanging around Rome’s Piazza Navona and Piazza di Spagna, one longhair in a crowd of thousands, but he achieved his ambition. He was a small-pond superstar. He tried to sell some crude paintings to the tourists from Keokuck and Kalamazoo who isolated themselves at places like the hilltop Cavalieri Hilton and made occasional hurried taxi trips to the piazzas to taste (at armlength) the spice of Rome.

The Piazza Navona is a kind of Roman Washington Square, a place highlighted by fountains, the sit in papal Rome of fetes and races, surrounded by churches and 17th-century palaces. Colorfully dressed in carabinieri patrol the Piazza di Spagna, where seas of international longhairs converge to lounge and slouch against the travertine stone balustrade. It is a magical place of lore where in olden days even papal guards were forbidden to arrest the bandits, assassins, and fierce-eyed peasants who sought asylum there.

But Paul Getty wasn’t making much money off the tourists – and money was becoming more and more of a problem. While he could look forward to a trust fund at some point in the vague future, he was at the moment a penniless Getty playing expensive jetset games, mooching off his mother’s support payments and trying to pay for the flashy leather jackets and shiny gadgets he needed for his disco roles. He also had a new and steady girlfriend, Martine Zacher, a 24-year-old German actress he met through a friend who had a bit part in a film adaptation of De Sade’s “One Hundred Twenty Days of Sodom.” His girlfriend had a twin sister, Jutta, who accompanied them everywhere – and Jutta cost even more money.

The Italian public became very aware of him in January of 1973 when he was arrested and held in jail for a few days after a wild Roman demonstration protesting the death of a Milanese Communist slain by the police. He was held on suspicion of hurling a Molotov cocktail, then cleared and released.

“That was a silly charge. I don’t get involved with politics. I was never even interested in the anti-Vietnam war movement, for example. Fuck that. It wasn’t my war. Besides that, there is so much killing going on in the world that you gradually get used to it. Killing and death doesn’t particularly bother me. As far as the condition of the poor go, I feel guilty, yes, but I don’t do anything about it. It’s the way it is and it’s the way it always will be. When I walk down the street and see a beggar I throw him some money. You have to give the fuckers something or they follow you all over the place.”

He was arrested, he says, because the demonstration took place that day on his front doorstep, outside his mother’s rented home in the Trastevere section of Rome, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. “That demonstration was like the Second World War or something. Molotov cocktails all over the place and people running up and down the street. Hundreds of cops. It was quite a scene. I heard the noise and I w