Uncommon Youth: The Gilded Life and Tragic Times of J. Paul Getty IIIby Charles Fox
The glamorous life, gilded family, and tragic times of J. Paul Getty III, whose kidnapping made headlines in 1973
J. Paul ("Little Paul") Getty III, the grandson of Getty Oil founder J. Paul Getty, may have been cursed by money and privilege from the moment he was born. Falling in with the wrong people and practically abandoned by his famous family, Getty was a
The glamorous life, gilded family, and tragic times of J. Paul Getty III, whose kidnapping made headlines in 1973
J. Paul ("Little Paul") Getty III, the grandson of Getty Oil founder J. Paul Getty, may have been cursed by money and privilege from the moment he was born. Falling in with the wrong people and practically abandoned by his famous family, Getty was a child of his international jet set era, moving from Marrakesh to Rome, nightclubs to well-appointed drug dens. His high-profile kidnapping defined the decadeand was permanently memorable for the ear that was mailed to his mother as evidence of the kidnappers' intentions.
Uncommon Youth is richly reported, and includes many interviews with Getty himself conducted from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, that raise new angles about the case. How much did Getty acquiesce to the kidnappers? Why wouldn't his rich-as-Croesus grandfather pay the ransom, which began at the equivalent of $550,000 in lire and bulged to 3.6 million as the months dragged on? Charles Fox began following and researching this story since the days shortly after Getty's disappearance. Fox's writing captures the voices of models and maids, mistresses and mothers, carabinieri and club-owners, drug dealers and drivers, alongside the Getty family members themselves to paint an evocative portrait of an era and one of its most misunderstood participants.
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The Gilded Life and Tragic Times of J. Paul Getty III
By Charles Fox
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Charles Fox
All rights reserved.
It began for me on San Francisco's Telegraph Hill the morning of Friday, July 13, 1973. I walked down Green Street to the Chinese grocery at the corner and bought things for breakfast and a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle. Its front-page headlines brought the news that Nixon had been hospitalized with viral pneumonia, Perón was going to be reelected in Argentina, and right below that:
YOUNG GETTY VANISHES — "KIDNAP" CALL
J. Paul Getty III, 16-year-old grandson of the American oil billionaire, has been missing from home for two days and may have been kidnapped, Rome police said Friday.
The youth's mother ... said the caller did not specify any amount of ransom. He did not call again, she told police. Police did not rule out the possibility of a hoax, and Mrs. Getty commented: "I think the phone call was some sort of joke."
It was a small story, interesting. The rich and famous sell magazines, but it was going to be too fast-moving for True ("The Man's Magazine"), with its ninety-day lead time. True magazine was then my principal source of income as a freelance writer. It was essentially a Midwestern "book." When you went into the Midwest and people there heard you were from True magazine, they shook your hand, even if you had long hair. It was a stretch for them, but they did it.
Five days later I was in New York to see my editor about an assignment in London and read in The New York Times:
MOTHER OF GETTY'S SON IN TOUCH WITH KIDNAPPER
The mother of J. Paul Getty III said today that her 16-year-old son had definitely been in touch with her and that "We are ready to negotiate his release ... We have asked police not to interfere and we are now asking the press to help us. We want them to carry the message that the contact has been made and the family is ready."
So the drama was settling down, as I thought. True's editors agreed. On the flight to London I picked up a copy of Newsweek. Inside was a photograph.
Paul's hair was cut short, long face dominated by the straight nose, eyes close, concentrated, and astute, from a well-known face, his grandfather's face, the face of the world's richest citizen. This boy was a Getty all right. This story was clearly gathering momentum too quickly for us at True.
After my assignment was wrapped, I drove down to the Black Mountains in Wales to see my mother. She ushered me in, put on the kettle, and as she did so, said, "I've been saving some clippings for you on this Getty boy business. I thought it might be an interesting story for your magazine." She handed me three clippings — all from London's Daily Mail, July 13, 14, and 20. On July 13 the Mail claimed that Gail, the mother, had reportedly said, "I beg on my knees that the life of my child will not be endangered." Asked if ransom had been demanded, she said, "I can't tell you now. It was all so peculiar." On July 14 the Mail reported that police believe that Getty is "more likely to be in the hands of a bewitching French-woman than ransom-seeking gangsters. According to his hippy friends, Getty has fallen in love with Danielle Devret, a twenty-five-year-old 'blond Go-Go dancer with honey-gold skin' and ... has run away with her." Detectives were searching the chic Italian haunts of Amalfi, Positano, Gaeta, and San Felice. On July 20 the Mail reported that the police were now "going to investigate the financial situation of Mrs. Gail Getty Jeffries."
So the story really was flaring up.
My mother told me, "I've asked my newsagent to set aside papers for me while you're here, in case there's more. The Mail and the Telegraph are covering the story."
On the weekend I drove back up to London.
When I telephoned my editor in New York to tell him the assignment was in the mail, he said, "While you're there I want you to go down to Rome and find out what's happened to this Getty boy. Has he been kidnapped, or is he staging a hoax?"
"That's the super-rich. I don't know any of those people."
"You'd be surprised," he said.
Owen Summers, veteran crime reporter for the Daily Express, suggested I talk with the paparazzi in Rome. "The king of the paparazzi," Summers told me, "is a Russian émigré with a name like Crochenkov. Ask any hotel doorman, and he'll tell you where to find him. Crochenkov will know what's going on, if anybody does. You may have to slip him a quid or two."
Looking among my London friends, I made contact with Olivier Bertrand, a Chelsea antiques dealer. He was a friend of the missing boy's father, J. Paul Getty Jr., who also lived in Chelsea. Getty Jr. was forty and had once been a leading figure in society but was now a recluse. His second wife, Talitha Pol, renowned for her beauty, had been the stepgranddaughter of Augustus John. She had died in Rome, and though the circumstances of her death were hazy, the coroner had listed an overdose of heroin as being the cause. Possession of heroin carries a mandatory seven-year prison sentence in Italy and, whatever the details, Paul Jr. had left Italy and taken refuge in London rather than answer to Italian magistrates. Olivier agreed to try to arrange a meeting. He said Paul Getty Jr. had retreated to No. 26 Cheyne Walk, known as Queen's or Tudor House, once owned by the pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He had bought the house for Talitha in 1964, as a wedding gift. Bertrand agreed to try to get me an interview.
A couple of days later he called back. "Charles, I had a long talk with Paul. I know absolutely everything, and can tell you absolutely nothing other than that Paul said he won't talk to you. I'm awfully sorry. But look, try getting hold of the photographer who took the nude pictures of Little Paul that Playmen magazine, a sort of Italian Playboy, ran in its August issue. I can give you the name of his agent in Milan."
I made contact with the photographer, but the phone number he had for Little Paul was no longer in use. However, I found the photograph.
One afternoon, I met a contact in the Chelsea Potter and after a fruitless encounter was standing outside the Chelsea Public Baths on the King's Road, wondering what on earth to do, when an African-violet Testarossa Ferrari pulled out of the traffic and stopped before me at the curb. At the wheel sat Harri Peccinotti, a fashionable London photographer I'd once worked with. He leaned across the empty passenger seat looking up at me, bronzed aquiline face, wispy Solzhenitsyn beard, black Viet Cong pajamas. "Get in."
I did, grateful to have somewhere to go. In doing so I fell, like Alice down the rabbit hole, into another world. A fashionable world of success and excess, a world that swept aside convention, allowing you to paint your Ferrari not the de rigueur Italian racing red, but African violet. Harri suggested we drive around the corner to the Chelsea Arts Club and play a game of snooker.
As he chalked his cue, eyeing the break, I told him of the Rome assignment. "They want me to find out what happened to this Getty boy. I don't have a clue where to begin. These people have to be well insulated."
Harri looked up. "Evidently not well enough."
"There's no sense going to Rome without a lead. It's got to be standing-room only down there."
He took his shot. "A photographer friend of mine, Bob Freeman, was with Paul's girlfriend's sister the night he disappeared. They were in a flat in Rome. I'll ask him for the address."
I lost the game and we left the club.
I called Freeman. He was in New York, photographing a rock concert at Madison Square Garden.
He said, "I spent the week in Rome with Paul before he disappeared. I don't know what happened. Come to my studio when I get back to London and I'll give you an address for the twins. From what I know of Paul," he went on, "I don't think it's a hoax. He didn't seem to have the determination, stamina, or personal organization to pull off a thing like this. I mean, he's a really nice guy, but not terribly together. What's odd is that he was talking casually about wanting to make a film on the perfect kidnapping, with an Italian actor friend. You should get a hold of Roman Polanski. Getty was spending a lot of time at his place while I was there. Maybe Roman knows something."
Polanski was working at 20th Century-Fox in Los Angeles. I telephoned. He recalled, "When I first met Paul in Positano, he was playing the hippie. Later, when I saw him in Rome, he had cut off his long hair and seemed to have changed his outlook. We had a large house in Rome with a garden and a swimming pool, and he often came there to swim and lie in the sun. He seemed like a very nice young boy, well mannered and highly intelligent. I find it very unlikely that he organized his own kidnapping in order to collect a ransom. The boy didn't seem that interested in money. Like most of his peers, he seemed to have rejected it as a curse. He wasn't the adventuresome kind to get involved in something like this. Although that's the first thing people might suspect, I think it's very unlikely. I'd like to know what is really going on."
Polanski had several contacts in Rome. "But I think," he said, "that you should knock on doors gently and expect to get some of them shut in your face."
Freeman had a studio on Fulham Road. Its walls were covered with his photographs. Portraits of the Beatles, famous actors, celebrities of one stripe or another — it was all about success. Slim and tanned, he wore a denim shirt and pants, and a piece of turquoise on a silver necklace. He said he had left Rome the morning of July 9 and had not had contact with anyone there since. He gave me a piece of paper. On it were the names Martine and Jutta Zacher, and an address: Via Di San Onofrio, 24.
* * *
On the edge of the Campo dei Fiori in the Tiziano Hotel, the desk clerk, a fleshy, smooth-faced young man, left his cage and showed me up the staircase. My room was large with a tall window. For all its white walls and high ceiling, ubiquitous Italian brown predominated. When the clerk had withdrawn, I went to the window and stood looking out across the Via Vittorio Emanuele to the church that backs onto the Piazza Navona. The boy's grandfather had married his fifth wife, Teddy, here in Rome in 1939 after the war broke out. Earlier, at the turn of that century, wishing to return to some simpler life, J. P. Morgan had wandered these streets, mingling anonymously with ordinary citizens. Getty had been more fascinated by the business opportunities that arose in the exodus of wealthy Jews faced with mounting fascism. He spent a lot of time in Berlin in the 1930s.
When I came down, the clerk was sitting in his elegant cage reading a newspaper. I told him why I had come. His eyes brightened; he gave me a conspiratorial look, evidently happy to be taken into my confidence.
I showed him the address on the photographer's notepaper. He pointed to the name "Zacher" and gave me a glum smile. "All Romans are trying to find those women. The paparazzi will pay fifty million for a picture of these. A photograph of the boy will sell for much, much more. Every day there is something in the newspapers. Today there is the mysterious American."
He turned the pages of the newspaper he was reading to show me a photograph of a severe-looking man scowling at the camera, evidently caught off guard. The man was tall with short-cropped gray hair. He wore a raincoat, the collar turned up.
"Who is he?" he asked. "This man was asking many questions about the Golden Hippie to people in the cafés."
"I wonder who he works for," I thought aloud, and then asked him where I could get a taxi.
The taxi took me down across the river and turned up a cobblestone street that climbed the hill on the far bank. I got out into a warm night. Two men passed by me down the hill, engrossed in conversation, the liquid sound of Italian floating in their wake. The girls' names were not on the panel. However, it was the right address, or at least the one the London photographer had written down. One call button was gouged out; an empty brass socket stared like a blind eye. This was the apartment the paparazzi were looking for.
For some time I waited beneath the trees, out of the shadow, so that I would not surprise anyone. No one came and no one went. At last I rose and, treading on uneven cobblestones, made my way to the foot of the hill and took a taxi back to the hotel. The clerk sitting high up in his cage was eager to know what had transpired in the big world beyond the revolving front door. He plainly admired my effort even as, in his great worldliness, he was not surprised to hear about the empty socket.
He looked sternly but not unkindly at me, as if he wanted me to know that in the end we were together in this adventure, he and I. "I tell you, everyone wants them. What can we do?"
"I'll write to them." I was not ungrateful to have a partner in this affair, even if, by and large, a silent one.
In my room I wrote to Martine Zacher on True stationery, telling her that I came from New York and Bob Freeman had given me her name and that my magazine would make a deal in exchange for her story. Once more the clerk called for a taxi. As we waited, he told me how much he approved of this strategy. Back at the twins' apartment I slipped the letter through the mail slot and returned to the hotel. As I came in the clerk beckoned and handed me a sheaf of clippings. "I made these for you," he said.
He took me by surprise. "I am most grateful."
"I am here for to help you. I will tell you what they say."
Between the two of us, with me correcting his English, we read the clippings. It was a quiet evening in the hotel and we were scarcely interrupted.
It was immediately clear that the Italian journalists were having a field day with this story. On July 14 Il Messaggero asked, WHO IS THE BOY WHO HAS VANISHED?
Who is J. Paul Getty? "He's only 16," cries Martine Zacher, 24, a German girl and last flame of the young Getty, "but already at this age he was thinking like an old man of 69. He has the tormented soul of an old artist. He is a strong character. He likes to live day to day, to make his own money ..."
The article explained that they were living like many of the other hippies in Trastevere, demonstrating against capitalism, against Vietnam. He had once been arrested at one of these demonstrations for fighting with police. According to another friend, "The only time he ever went to a nightclub was when he managed to sell one of his paintings." Then he'd invite all his friends and treat them and spend all he had. He gave no thought to tomorrow. She said that he refused to take money from his father and grandfather. The article reported that he had lots of women: not one constant companion, until Martine Zacher. She was described as tall with curly hair, very much like the actress Maria Schneider. He had been living with her in Vicolo della Scala 50, in a small apartment on the first floor. In addition the article quoted a crying Martine Zacher saying, "He is a boy with a heart. He has talent. He is intelligent, with a mature vision of life and he scorns the useless things. He's much older than his age. I don't believe that this is a joke."
If these twins were as hard to find as the desk clerk suggested, then they had said what they had to say and gone underground. If they had nothing to hide, why disappear? Probably to avoid the paparazzi. It was odd that the newspaper would say that he was uninterested in the family money and at the same time speculate it was a hoax to extort money from his family.
On July 19 and 20, Momento Sera focused on the boy's absent father in an article entitled "Paul Getty II Between Talitha and the Great Old Man." It explained that J. Paul Getty II, heir to probably the largest fortune in the world, grew up at Sutton Place in England, in immense rooms of his father's mansion hung with paintings of the Renaissance masters. It speculated that "the limitations of his father have become his own and are probably the reason why his marriages fail." It reported that he met Talitha Pol in Rome and lived with her in a palazzo in Via Venezia, but she died "in strange circumstances," after which Paul returned to London. Since his son had been kidnapped in Rome, if he returned, he would have to face some very difficult legal questions about Talitha's death.
From what I knew, Paul Junior was raised in San Francisco by his mother, Ann Rork, after a brief marriage to the patriarch had ended in the mid 1930s, but a cold English castle is a more dramatic setting. The beautiful Talitha Pol was one of those legendary characters from London's Swinging Sixties.
Excerpted from Uncommon Youth by Charles Fox. Copyright © 2013 Charles Fox. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
CHARLES FOX began reporting on the Getty kidnapping in 1973 and was contacted by J. Paul Getty III himself in the early 1990s to work on his autobiography, leading to much of the reporting in Uncommon Youth. Fox's award-winning journalism has been published in a variety of publications, including Esquire, Harper's, and Playboy. He has also written two novels. He lived in California until his death in 2012.
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I read this book in two days, i could not put it down. I was so sad to read of the authors relatively recent death. The book is very well written!