John Paul Getty III: The True Story Behind 'Trust'

When an oil scion was kidnapped in Italy, some thought it was a hoax – but when his ear arrived in the mail, his family was forced to take it seriously

The story of the 1973 abduction of billionaire oil heir, John Paul Getty III, has been turned into a new FX show, 'Trust.' Credit: Kurt Iswarienko/FX

Like so many dynasties, the Getty Family has been absurdly rich in money, but not necessarily love, health or happiness. Their misfortunes over the decades – known as the 'Getty curse' – have garnered as much attention as their financial successes, though the scrutiny has been at its most intense when tragedy has overlapped with greed.

The 1973 abduction of billionaire oil heir, John Paul Getty III, had both these elements – plus Italian mobsters, a postmarked severed ear and wild rumors about the 16-year-old's culpability. Not only is it the most glaring example of the so-called 'Getty curse,' but it's one of the most bizarre, brutal and costly kidnapping cases in history. As the 45th anniversary of Getty III's disappearance approaches, there has been renewed interest in the case thanks to two Hollywood productions with decidedly different takes on Getty III’s role in his own kidnapping.

First, on Christmas Day 2017, came Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World; the film had some early buzz when Kevin Spacey was replaced by Christopher Plummer as family patriarch and oil tycoon, J. Paul Getty, following Spacey’s #MeToo scandal. The film was based on the 1995 book by John Pearson, Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, and scored Scott and star Michelle Williams (as Getty III's mother Gail) Golden Globe Award nominations for their roles. 

The roster of talent involved in FX's new limited series, Trust, premiering Sunday March 25th, is equally impressive. Danny Boyle reunites with Slumdog Millionaire cohorts Simon Beaufoy and Christian Colson, and Donald Sutherland and Hilary Swank step into Plummer and Williams' shoes. Unlike All the Money in the World, which largely sticks to Getty III's accounting of the events, Trust revives a much discussed, but unproven, theory as its premise – that the rebellious teen (played by English actor Harris Dickinson) staged his own kidnapping in hopes of collecting the ransom, a plan that went awry once his billionaire grandfather, J. Paul Getty, refused to pony up the money.

Here, what we know about Getty III's abduction by the Italian mafia, his six months as their hostage and the miserly family patriarch whose penny-pinching almost cost Getty III his life.

Origins of the Family 
J. Paul got his start working in the Oklahoma oil fields run by his father George Franklin Getty, helping the business make its first million dollars. Yet when the elder Getty died in 1930, he reportedly was so disappointed in J. Paul's turnstile approach to marriage – he was married five times during his life – that he left him a mere $500,000 inheritance and projected that his son would destroy the family business. J. Paul would go on to spite his father, incorporating Getty Oil in 1942, securing lucrative land deals in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and acquiring competitors like Skelly Oil. He was named the Richest American by Forbes in 1957 and the Richest Private Citizen in the 1966 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, when he was worth a reported $1.2 billion at the time.

J. Paul not only kept the family business intact, he steered it towards global domination; but George's prediction about his son may have had some merit, at least as far as the family was concerned. J. Paul had five sons with four of his five wives, and his relationship with each was marred by tragedy, failed expectations and indifference. His eldest son, Getty Oil CEO George Franklin Getty II, was his heir apparent, but the two barely spoke; J. Paul reportedly skipped his son's wedding and had little involvement with his grandchildren. When Getty II committed suicide in early 1973 by ingesting a dangerous drug cocktail and stabbing himself in the gut with a barbecue fork, mourning wasn't J. Paul's priority. Instead, he was reportedly concerned with downplaying his sons cause of death, fearing it would tarnish the family business, and grumbling about which of his four remaining sons was worthy of carrying on his legacy.

That role would ultimately go to Gordon Getty, who became his father's favorite (a promotion that did not come with an increase in affection) after he relented to pressure and put aside his classical music pursuits in order to run the company. 

Gordon was ultimately rewarded for his loyalty and sacrifice when he was handed the keys to the family trust following J. Paul's death in 1976. Disloyalty, however, inspired the opposite response. Jean Ronald Getty, J. Paul's son with his third wife, was almost entirely cut out of his father's will after he took his mother's side during their acrimonious divorce. Worse was J. Paul's apathy towards those family members who were of no use to the Getty Oil empire. J. Paul's fifth and youngest son, Timothy Ware Getty, arguably had it the toughest – blind by age six due to a brain tumor, Timothy died when he was just 12, and his father didn't attend his funeral. Many years later, Timothy's mother (J. Paul’s fifth wife), Teddy Getty Gaston, wrote in her memoir that the billionaire had chastised her for spending too much money on their son's medical care.

J. Paul's frugality was notorious amongst his family and staff, who were expected to make phone calls using a payphone he had installed at his English estate, after putting dial locks on all the regular phones. But his penny-pinching became known the world over following his grandson's kidnapping.

The Golden Grandson
John Paul Getty III, known as Paul, was the eldest of four children born to Abigail "Gail" Harris and John Paul Getty Jr., J. Paul's third son. Getty III spent his childhood in Italy where his father, who had divorced his mother and later remarried, was in charge of running Getty Oil Italiana. By the time he was 16, the free-spirited redhead had been kicked out of prep school and was enjoying an aimless, bohemian lifestyle. Then, in the early morning hours of July 10th, 1973, he disappeared from Piazza Navona in Rome. The details have always been a bit mysterious, but a few days later, Getty III's mother received a note: "Dear Mother: I have fallen into the hands of kidnapers [sic]. Don’t let me be killed! Make sure that the police do not interfere. You must absolutely not take this as a joke…Don't give publicity to my kidnaping."

Taking it as a joke was the initial reaction – Getty III had reportedly talked "about solving his financial problems by arranging his own 'perfect kidnaping'" in hopes of extracting a large sum from his grandfather to pay the ransom and then keeping it for himself. He was frequently running out of money, his friends said, but a lack of funds hadn’t slowed down his partying, suggesting he might be in debt. The authorities even slowed their investigation into his disappearance awaiting further evidence that it was not a hoax – which came in the form of two more letters and a phone call to Getty III's mother from the kidnappers, who identified themselves as members of the 'Ndrangheta mafia – the criminal organization in the Calabria region of Italy, which remains extremely powerful – and demanded a $17 million ransom. But J. Paul remained unconvinced; when Getty Jr. went to his father to admit he didn't have the cash to pay for his son’' released, J. Paul refused to give him a cent.

According to a report in Time magazine, the billionaire felt it a matter of principle – paying the ransom would only encourage the practice, and, as he said, "I have 14 other grandchildren – If I pay one penny now, then I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren."

Hostage or Hoax?
Trust explores the possibility that J. Paul was right to question the validity of his grandson's abduction, but also depicts how his refusal to pony up even a penny of the ransom turned the teen's kidnapping plot into a real-life nightmare. Getty III was being held hostage by the 'Ndrangheta, at first willingly, the show suggests, but when J. Paul refused to pay, his kidnappers turned on him. In November 1973, four months after his disappearance, a lock of hair and a severed ear were delivered to a local newspaper, along with a much smaller ransom demand of $3.2 million: "This is Paul's ear. If we don't get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits."

Even this significantly reduced sum wasn’t enough to convince J. Paul to cut the kidnappers a check. He insisted on negotiating, eventually agreeing to pay $3 million for his grandson’s release – but just $2.2 million would come out of his own pocket, as that was the maximum amount that could be tax-deductible. The remaining $800,000 was a loan he gave to his son, Getty Jr., with the expectation that he would pay it back at 4 percent interest.

Getty III was finally released and turned up at a gas station in the Italian countryside on December 15th, 1973. When he called his grandfather to thank him for paying the kidnappers’ ransom, J. Paul reportedly refused to come to the phone. Just two members of the 'Ndrangheta organization were convicted for the crime. While he eventually went through surgery to reconstruct the ear that has been severed, attended college, got married and had one child – Balthazar, an actor – the six months Getty III spent as a hostage haunted the rest of his relatively short life. Getty III was plagued by alcohol and drug abuse, and in 1981, he suffered a drug-induced stroke which left him a quadriplegic without the ability to speak. His mother was his primary caretaker up until his death in 2011 at the age of 54.