ROME, ITALY — At 3 A.M. on July 10, 1973, a car pulled up next to a 16-year-old American in the Piazza Farnese who’d come to be known as “The Golden Hippie.”
The teenager had been walking home to the apartment he shared with a couple of artist friends. He was a friendly kid, so he smiled.
A voice from the car asked, “Are you Paul Getty?” When the youth said he was, several thugs hopped out, forced him into the vehicle, and knocked him out with chloroform. When the so-called Golden Hippie next awoke, he was chained up in a rural hideout. His captors, who wore masks, explained that they had abducted him and would be sending ransom demands to his famous family.
The Gettys, at that point, were the world’s wealthiest oil dynasty. The whole drama would therefore likely be over soon, the criminals figured — but they figured wrong.
J. Paul Getty III — known simply as “Paul” — was the grandson of J. Paul Getty, founder of the Getty Oil Company, who had been named in 1957 by Fortune magazine as “the wealthiest living American.” A year later, Time deemed Getty “the world’s richest private citizen.” Circa 1973, that status hadn’t changed.
Young Paul’s father, John Paul Getty Jr., was a disaster. A miserable drug addict, Junior Getty lumbered in England as the family’s black sheep. Paul’s mother, former water polo champion Abigail Harris, lived not far from her son in Italy. About 10 days after Paul vanished, Harris received a note that read:
“Dear Mummy: I have fallen into the hands of kidnappers. 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 kidnapping.”
An additional message, in letters cut out of magazines, demanded $17 million for Paul’s return ($96 million in 2018 dollars). At first, Harris didn’t know whether to believe any of it.
In Italy at the time, Mafiosi routinely snatched wealthy targets for ransom. Still, Paul had joked more than once about staging his own abduction to bilk his grandfather. Plus, Paul had a weird history of starting fires and he’d once spent a night in jail.
On top of that, as loaded as the Getty family was, she and Paul didn’t have any money of their own, and they often had to trade heirloom paintings and jewelry to pay bills. Thus, Harris didn’t immediately put it past her son to play a prank of this nature or even fake his own kidnapping for cash.
In short enough order, though, Harris did take the threat seriously. She reached out to her ex-husband in England. Pathetically, Junior not only couldn’t afford the ransom, his own father wouldn’t take his calls.
So Harris then asked her abducted son’s grandfather — the mighty J. Paul Getty himself — to come to the abducted boy’s rescue. The oil tycoon had a succinct answer: “No.”
When pushed to elaborate on why he wouldn’t just shave off this tiny chip of his massive, multi-billion dollar fortune, Getty said:
“I have 13 other grandchildren. If I pay one penny now, then I will have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”
Getty may have espoused a “don’t negotiate with terrorists” stance, but the kidnappers also hadn’t properly researched just how profoundly cheap one of the richest men on earth was, either.
One crucial element the abductors hadn’t properly calculated thereby came to light: J. Paul Getty’s draconian penny-pinching was (and remains) the stuff of legend. One oft-cited example is that Sutton Place, Getty’s English mansion, provided no telephones. Visitors could opt to use a single, coin-operated pay phone on the first floor.
Time further detailed Getty’s miserly mania by writing:
“He once took a party of friends to a dog show in London. The admission fee was 5 shillings (70¢), but a sign over the entrance said: ‘Half price after 5 p.m.’ It was then 12 minutes to 5. Said Billionaire Getty: ‘Let’s take a walk around the block for a few minutes.’”
On top of that, Getty expressed disgust over his grandson’s bohemian lifestyle and suspected he’d end up a dope-besotted mess like Junior. Extracting millions of dollars from those clutches, then, would prove a steep order.
Paul’s abductors belonged to a Calabrian organized-crime group called the Ndragheta. Violence figured as a regular tool in their outlaw activities. Paul had charmed them, though, and he even seemed to relish the gangsters squeezing bucks out of his tight-fisted grandfather.
After four months passed, however, the mobsters decided to act like mobsters. They took away Paul’s radio, killed a bird he had befriended, and played Russian Roulette against his forehead.
Finally, the kidnappers sliced off Paul’s right ear with a straight razor and sent it along with a lock of his red hair to his mom.
A typewritten note accompanied the ear and the hair. It stated:
“This is Paul’s first ear. If within ten days the family still believes that this is a joke mounted by him, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits.”
At last, J. Paul Getty could be persuaded to pay something. He bargained the kidnappers down to $2.8 million and paid $2.2 million of it — the maximum amount he could write off on his taxes.
The rest would come from a $1 million loan the senior Getty made to Junior at an interest rate of four percent.
Just before dawn on December 13, the kidnappers dumped the now 17-year-old and one-eared J. Paul Getty III off at an abandoned roadside service station. The dazed teen flagged down a car and said who he was and the driver summoned the police.
Nine suspects got rounded up for the crime, but since Paul had never seen their faces, only two of them ever did any jail time.
Paul himself is often said to have never entirely recovered from the ordeal. He had surgery to repair his ear and he eventually married and had a son (the Hollywood actor Balthazar Getty).
Unfortunately, like his dad, Paul fell prey to substance abuse and suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed until he died in 2011. He was 54.
Years later, the strange, sad saga of the Getty kidnapping came to captivate the public anew. Director Ridley Scott chronicled the crime in his big-screen drama All the Money in the World (2017). Christopher Plummer earned an Academy Award nomination for playing J. Paul Getty.
On TV in 2018, filmmaker Danny Boyle produced Trust, a 10-part series based on the incident with Donald Sutherland as Getty and Harris Dickinson as Paul.
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Main photo: J. Paul Getty III [Getty Images]