Bright Side

The Story of the Richest Man on the Planet Who Refused to Pay a Ransom for His Own Grandson

When you hear the word “billionaire” you probably think about John D. Rockefeller or Bill Gates. At the same time, J. Paul Getty is less well known. He lived in the second half of the 20th century and was the richest man on the planet. He owned 80% of oil in the world. The oil tycoon was born into a very rich family and he not only gave away his fortune, but also increased it greatly.

At Bright Side, we were impressed by the history of his life, especially, his frugality. In order to highlight his most important milestones, we read 2 books: Oil: People Who Changed the World and Painfully Rich: J. Paul Getty and His Heirs.

J. Paul Getty

  • Paul’s parents believed that God gave wealth to people if they follow the rules. They raised their son in an austere and authoritarian way.
  • Their first child died, so they forbade Getty from communicating with his peers because his mother thought that this way he wouldn’t catch the same infectious disease his older sibling had died of. At the same time they explicitly conveyed that they loved him less because they didn’t want to suffer if he died too.
  • J. Paul Getty believed in reincarnation. Once he saw a photo of a statue of the Roman emperor Trajan and decided that he and the emperor looked like each other. Later he said, “I want to believe that Trajan’s soul lives in my body, and I want to act the way he would act.”
  • Despite his parents’ upbringing, Paul didn’t become meek and religious, but instead went rogue. It cost him a lot, literally. His father provided him with a humiliatingly low level of financial support and in his will he mentioned that his wife would inherit his fortune, not his son.
  • When J. Paul Getty graduated from Oxford he decided to join his family’s business. His father gave him a salary of $100 per month.
  • J. Paul Getty made his first million when he turned 23. It could have happened earlier if his father had lent him the money Paul asked for. Paul’s mother also refused to lend him large amounts of money.
  • In 1966, the Guinness Book of World Records named J. Paul Getty the richest man in the world, according to Forbes. He was worth an estimated $1.2 billion (approximately $9.1 billion by 2017 standards).
  • One of the most famous of Getty’s quotes is, “A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you are a business failure.” He was married 5 times and each of his wives was young enough to be his daughter. According to his biographers, 4 of them were virgins.

29-year-old Theodora Lynch, Getty’s 5th wife. In 2013, she published a memoir titled Alone Together: My Life with J. Paul Getty.

  • In these 5 marriages, Paul had 5 sons. One of them died during surgery at the age of 12. At this time, Paul was in Europe. He refused to fly to America because his business couldn’t wait.
  • In 1973, another of his sons, who Paul had considered his successor, also died. During this time, one of his younger sons sued him, demanding more financial support for himself and his brothers. Getty won the case, but still gave the money to his sons, though not as much as they had asked for.
  • In 1973, his 16-year old grandson was kidnapped. Paul refused to pay the ransom of $17 million for 5 months. He said, “I have 15 grandchildren, if I pay now I will immediately place my other 14 grandchildren at risk for copy-cat kidnappers.”

John Paul Getty III, the billionaire’s grandson, soon after the ransom was paid

  • When the kidnappers sent Getty a lock of his grandson’s hair and his ear and reduced their demands to $3 million, Getty agreed to pay no more than $2.2 million, $800,000 of which he lent to his son (the father of the kidnapped boy) at 4% interest.
  • When John called his grandfather to thank him for paying the ransom, Getty refused to come to the phone.
  • The movie All the Money in the World was based on these tragic events.
  • Getty bought Sutton Place in England from a broken Duke and lived there alone (not including his bodyguards). In his mansion, he had 34 bedrooms and 14 bathrooms. He never invited any of his relatives to visit him.

Sutton Place, today

  • In his later years, Getty had many aristocratic mistresses who lived in Sutton Place with him. One of them was Mary Teissier, a distant cousin of the last Tsar of Russia. Getty enjoyed the fact that an aristocrat cooked for him and indulged his desires.
  • All of these ladies had to sign a contract that they would refrain from any financial claims to Getty. Only after that, could they live in his mansion.
  • Getty’s thriftiness peaked in his later years. He even re-used stationery. He carefully saved and re-used envelopes blacking out the old address lines. He had a habit of writing responses to letters on the margins or back sides and mailing them back, rather than using a new sheet of paper. He also watered down glue so one could wash their hands with it.
  • To save money on central heating, Getty placed a few electrical heaters in his sitting room.
  • But that wasn’t all. His guests sometimes used the phone at Sutton Place to call to Australia or the USA. It wasn’t cheap. That was why Getty installed a payphone for his guests. To make a call, they had to pay.
  • Once Getty took a group of friends to a dog show in London. He made them walk around the block for 10 minutes until the tickets became half-price at 5 pm, because he didn’t want to pay the full price per head.
  • According to the U.S. tax administration, Getty’s taxes for many years were no more than $500 a year.
  • Paul was really stingy about his purchases too. For example, he never bought socks that were more expensive than $1.
  • In his old age, Getty suffered from different phobias. He was afraid to fly and pick up a phone thinking something would creep out of it. This is what his secretaries usually said to his relatives when he didn’t want to speak to them.

Getty at a party to celebrate his 80th birthday together with Tricia Nixon, Richard Nixon’s oldest daughter

  • In his 80s, Getty used an experimental drug to maintain his potency.
  • In his last interview, which he gave a few weeks before his death, when asked the question, “What else do you, the richest man in the world, want in life?” he said, “I’d want to do business further.”
  • When Getty died, his family, including his sons and devoted servants, got almost nothing. The lion’s share of his fortune went the museum in Malibu that made it the richest museum in the world. Experts assessed its active funds at $2.5 billion.
  • A news presenter made this comment on Getty’s death, “The richest, the loneliest, and the most selfish man died today. For 84 years of his life, he never gave a cent to charity.”

The most shocking thing to us was the fact that Getty refused to pay a ransom for his grandson. Which fact of Getty’s life impressed you the most? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Preview photo credit AP / East News