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The No-Holds-Barred Story of Power, Ego, Money, and Vision that Transformed a Culture
By Stuart Evey, Irv Broughton
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2004 Stuart Evey and Irv Broughton
All rights reserved.
Intimations of Mortality
Stu, you better get over here quick. George is acting crazy, and I think he's trying to kill himself," the voice said over the phone. "He's out of control, Stu, but I think he'll listen to you ... if he's still alive."
I'd been awakened from a sound sleep, and now I was standing balanced against my bed, gasping to claim some air.
"Please hurry, Stu, hurry ... hurry." The voice was of desperation.
"I'll be there," I said. "I'm on my way." Then I turned to my wife, Shirley. "Something's wrong at the Getty's. Hurry and go with me." I grabbed for a shirt — any shirt — and as I ran out the door of my North Hollywood home, I felt my usually clear-eyed take on things begin to cloud. I usually wouldn't worry when an emergency call came in off hours because George Getty — or someone associated with Getty Oil Company — had a tendency to call at all hours, day or night. An emergency here, an emergency there, more company business, high-stakes company business. But this time, it was his wife, Jackie. I knew her well enough to know she didn't yield easily to panic and rarely betrayed anything more than a controlled formality, though she might be carried away now and then by whatever was the latest vogue among the wealthy.
This time, I recognized from her first breathless utterance that this was no hoax, and I shuddered at the vision of a doomsday scenario for this man George Getty, a deeply troubled man somehow always groping for the edge. I had glimpsed more than once his dark side.
The date was June 6, 1973, in Los Angeles, California. The call had come in the middle of the night.
Still, I clung to some notion it was a false alarm. Getty and his wife did fight a lot. And normal for George Getty was not normal for anyone else, but it sounded like this time he had found the edge and had gone over. Getty had suffered from periodic depression, often the result of binge drinking or excessive use of uppers and downers — or both. He didn't drink often, but when he did, he'd down 16 beers in a matter of an hour. I'd seen him do it. He popped heavy doses of diet pills at the slightest hint of weight gain. Sometimes all these conditions arrived simultaneously, and perhaps this was one of those times, I thought, as I raced to locate my keys. I had to collect my thoughts to formulate contingency plans and be ready for whatever circumstances I found when I arrived. I knew, deep down, that that level of preparedness was impossible.
But I told myself I could handle the situation. If Getty was alive, I would talk to him. It had to be all right. The powerful Getty family, led by George's father, J. Paul Getty, the richest man in the world, had depended on me to produce solutions, no matter what the conditions. So far I had never failed them — likely the dominant reason underlying my corporate success at Getty Oil. But what in hell awaited me tonight?
Like an old buddy, I was ready to curse Getty out for being put upon by his ruckus, and then to quickly forgive him the youthful folly. I might remind him that tomorrow was a horrific day for me. I had to negotiate a real estate project, a deal that would cost the company $2.5 million. I couldn't afford to be out all night just to get him to apologize and tell him to be a good boy and keep the peace. Could it be so easy? No, not likely.
As I sped through the Los Angeles night, taking well-known side streets to avoid police and their radar, I thought of Getty, my friend, my colleague, my pillar of support. I thought of our years together. All the fun and craziness, all the earnestness, and, yes, the pain. A slight fog crept through the oaks and hung in the ravines like an enormous, fallen, white balloon. The fog forced me to slow down at times — more than I wanted.
I pulled up in front of the mansion, part of a gated community called Bel Aire, a prestigious residential area where the palatial estates and sweeping landscapes of the rich and famous stood. Recently, the community had seen the newly affluent move away into more glamorous surroundings, like Benedict Canyon above Beverly Hills or the yawning beaches of Malibu.
I jumped out, still buttoning my shirt. My wife, Shirley, followed me closely. Frantic, Jackie Getty flung open the door, and I entered the house feeling lost, as though I had never been there before. She told me she and Getty had planned to cook on the barbecue that night, but instead of a quiet dinner at home on the maid's night out, the evening had devolved into drinking and arguing. She said that Getty had become mad and mean, and then morose. He told her to "get out of his life or he would kill himself." She had taunted him, she admitted with a trace of guilt, saying that she "didn't think he had the nerve."
I scowled at her words, the brutal arrogance of them. And I could tell she knew the implications.
"Where is he now?" She pointed to their bedroom suite, situated upstairs at the back of the house, suspended there by a swirl of a staircase. "We've got to get into that room. Is he alive?"
"I think he's dead," she said. She inhaled deeply. "He could be."
My jaw dropped. We were both using words that came so naturally, "Oh yes, he might be dead." I glanced about, looking for a phone. I started to ask why she hadn't called the police. I caught myself because I knew.
I raced up the stairs with Getty's wife at my heels. She said, "He grabbed a knife from the barbecue and sliced himself across the stomach."
I turned away, put my ear to the door, knocked with the back of my hand. "George, it's Stu. George, please open the door. I need to talk to you." Brief pause — no answer. "We can work this out, George. George? Come on, old buddy. You're in there. I know you're in there. Don't do this." I turned to his wife and lowered my voice, "When did you last speak to him?"
"I haven't heard anything for a while."
I looked down at the carpet, saw the blood droplets tracking under the door, shut my eyes tight, opened them, and could feel my own body pulsing blood as if I were about to explode. I pounded on the door, pushing hard with my 165 pounds, trying to force it. "George! George, old buddy, you've got to open the door!"
He did not respond. I leaned close to the door and listened. I could hear him on the other side, snoring loudly. Maybe that was sleep, maybe just a drunken stupor.
"Oh no! Someone's outside," his wife said, apparently hearing a car pull up on the secluded driveway.
I leaned toward the upstairs window and saw the lights of a patrol car flashing in front of the house. "Let me handle this," I said, turning to her. Down the stairs I ran. I knew my role well. I was always in charge of chaos when it reared up in the Getty family business and in its family affairs. This would be no different, and I relied on that thought. Besides, Jackie couldn't — even in her urbane manner — explain away this one. She was weeping, her eyes red.
I longed to be home in my own bed, but as a kind of utility man on this team, I'd go in anytime, especially when the game got tough.
I hesitated for a moment at the door and worked to regain my composure. Then I opened the front door and stood face-to-face with two community patrol service officers. Apparently, they were required, at the time, to investigate everything when responding to unusual, late-night activity. A neighbor must have called in something.
"We've got a report about this place." The officer was short, bald-headed. Like a couple of wannabe detectives, he and his partner were taking stock of me.
"It's just a little family disagreement," I said.
"Family disagreement?" he repeated. The other guy — taller, leaner, circumspect — was quiet.
"You know how that can be, nothing unusual." I could feel the perspiration rising on my forehead, even though it was one of those rare cool Los Angeles nights.
"We got reports of yelling and screaming," the short officer said. I saw that Getty's wife was edging closer, and I beckoned behind my back for her to stop, which she did. By now, I was sweating and my face must have looked like I had emerged from my own bad, drunken evening.
"Probably the television," I said. "Must have jacked up the volume too much. You know, it's nothing. Just a husband and wife thing." The taller officer smiled knowingly.
"Well, I hope you understand we have to respond to any call," the short one said. The officers looked at each other, nodded agreement, and hustled down the front steps to their car in the driveway, sitting there with its still-flashing red, white, and blue lights. "Sorry if we bothered you," the tall one said, turning.
"No bother, officer," I said. They were within earshot when I acted querulous and chastised Jackie for coming out. We shut the door and returned to our post at the top of the stairs. I could still hear Getty snoring. I'd never had to deal with a drunk like this, but I'd heard of drug overdoses, some lethal. The victim would black out and then pass deeply, irretrievably, into a coma. No evidence was present that would indicate that possibility.
"We better call Dr. Smith." We went to the kitchen, referred to the posted list of emergency numbers, and dialed the doctor's number. "Stay here and listen," I instructed her.
The phone rang, and a drowsy voice cut into the silence. "Dr. Smith? This is Stu Evey calling from the Getty house. We've got an emergency situation with George. Can you come over?"
"What is it?" he said.
"He's alive, but he's bleeding from what appears to be a self-inflicted wound."
The doctor seemed to snap to. "I'll get there as soon as I can."
Dr. Kendrick Smith was a partner in the medical clinic Getty Oil retained for employees. He had been Getty's personal doctor for years. While we waited desperately for him to arrive, I tried to figure out how I could climb up the walls and break in through a window. It didn't look possible, and when Dr. Smith arrived, I was confident that together we could break down the bedroom door.
When the doctor finally arrived, we dispensed with any greetings and went to the bedroom. "Shall we give it a try?" Dr. Smith asked. We drove our bodies against the door, and finally, on the third try, the two of us were able to break it down. A pathetic sight greeted our success: Getty, as pale as his white boxer shorts, was lying on the floor, blood dripping down his stomach and onto the shorts. Then I saw the knife beside him. It, too, was stained with blood. He was still snoring loudly. How could he have survived that long? It reminded me of the character Neff in Double Indemnity, who bleeds to death over several hours while he dictates into a recorder his confession of murder.
The doctor stopped the bleeding. Getty shifted several times, and his breathing, once reason for hope, now portended the end of a man who would have the last laugh in an ongoing dispute with life — probatum est.
"Well, Jackie said he'd been drinking heavily — at least two bottles of wine and several beers. With that much, I would guess he's beyond drunk. Should we take him to UCLA?" I asked.
The doctor was surprisingly sanguine. "I don't know if we need to do that, particularly if you want to avoid publicity." The UCLA Medical Center was not far from Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles, and it was the chosen hospital for celebrities from those areas. As a result, the press had ready access to the personalities, especially those arriving by ambulance. Dr. Smith was affiliated with the Queen of Angels Hospital in central Los Angeles, and suggested we take him there, where we could take control of the admittance procedure. But I knew the call was mine: it was my corporate job to make this decision. I was worried about the very unfavorable publicity for Getty — my boss, my friend — the Getty family, his father, and the company. I could just imagine the lurid stories in the tabloids, the insidious gossip, the inquiry by the company board of directors. I had to figure a way to feed the press a story, anything that took the bitter focus away.
We called an ambulance, but before it arrived, I took the knife, wrapped it in a towel, and gave it to my wife, Shirley, to clean. I told her to then return it to its proper place in the kitchen drawer and to ditch the towel. When the ambulance arrived, a couple of EMTs in white jackets got out and loaded Getty's barely living body in back. I rode along to Queen of Angels Hospital. The streets were all but deserted.
Once we reached the admittance area, I still had to try to control things. Getty couldn't be George Getty. At my insistence, Dr. Smith admitted him under an assumed name. I don't know why, but the name of my friend, Heisman Trophy winner Glenn Davis, came to mind. No questions were asked, and I gave Getty's home address as that of my own in North Hollywood. The plan developing in my mind was that when he awoke and was strong enough to talk, I would encourage him to leave town immediately to spend some time in a remote location with an excuse that he had an acute viral infection or some plausible illness, the treatment of which demanded uninterrupted rest. We could then develop the next strategy to deal with the matters at hand, both at home and at the company. I hated that I seemed worried more about others' reaction to the situation than with Getty himself. But I was trained that way. I got over it — fast.
"Have you arranged for a private room?" I asked Dr. Smith.
"Yes," he responded. His mouth was a straight line. Over the rim of his reading glasses, he looked mildly put out. In the private room I observed that a heart monitor, IV, and oxygen were hooked up to Getty. Thinking he was stabilized for the moment, I went to sleep on the floor next to the bed. There was no couch and the floor was certainly more comfortable than a metal chair. It was now close to two in the morning. I don't know how I slept, but I was drained and fell to sleep in probably just a few moments.
The next thing I remembered was being jolted out of a deep sleep by a commotion in the room. Nurses, doctors, and attendants were walking over me and surrounding him. They told me he had fallen into a coma. It was shocking news. A few minutes later, a doctor informed me that Getty's heart had stopped for a lengthy period, and there could be damage to his brain. He was very guarded about the chance of recovery.
I had no choice but to call his father, J. Paul Getty, in England. In my confused state, I still could calculate that the early morning time in Los Angeles meant late afternoon in England. It would be easy for me to tell him his son had suffered a minor stroke, that it was still too early to determine the degree of seriousness. I decided I had to do just that. It's like having too much bad news to give all at once; the human tendency is to soft-pedal; it was my tendency. This white lie was certainly not the first I had told, nor would it be the last.
My first call to Mr. Getty went to Sutton Place, his home near Guildford, England, about 35 miles outside London. I was informed by his secretary, Barbara Wallace, that Mr. Getty could be reached at the home of longtime friend, the Duchess of Argyll, in London. I was given the number, and I placed the call. The duchess herself answered. I introduced myself and asked if I might speak to Mr. Getty on a matter of great importance. J. Paul Getty took the phone, and I began: "Mr. Getty, I've got bad news about George. He suffered a stroke early this morning at his home and was taken to the hospital. It is too early to determine the extent of his illness, but I wanted you to be the first to know."
From the tone of his voice, it was obvious he was shocked and dismayed at the news, and he asked that I keep him informed of further developments — whatever the time of day. He knew I would. I then mentioned that he might want to consider an acting replacement at the company for George, until such time as he recovered and returned. "Who should that be?" he responded.
That comment really took me aback. Here I was, being asked by J. Paul Getty to recommend an acting executive to replace the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the seventh largest oil company in the world. This decision could have far-reaching implications, knowing what the doctor had just told me a few minutes before, that Getty's recovery was questionable.
Excerpted from ESPN by Stuart Evey, Irv Broughton. Copyright © 2004 Stuart Evey and Irv Broughton. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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