He was the most beautiful boy. Not like the rubbery-faced Mick Jagger, as is repeated endlessly, but rather more like JFK Junior - during his Brown University years before he bulked up. In his youthful photos, all post-kidnap, J. Paul Getty III or Paul as I believe he was known, appears aristocratically slender with deep, widely set eyes - delicate, aloof and haunted.
Mr. Getty died recently of an undisclosed illness and in doing so emerged for a time back into the world from his thirty-year gilded confinement as a seriously debilitated stroke patient.
The obituaries drip tragedy, softening the edges of salacious details that obscure who Paul Getty might really have been. He is described as having been an out of control teenager who was kidnapped after a Dolce Vita night on the town in Rome where he lived. He is called a "hippie" - a quaint, now historical term that suggests a stylish, faux rebellion by a privileged boy against his family's fortune. But we don't know that it wasn't a principled stand.
By the time Paul Getty was kidnapped at 16 he had already been traumatized -- abandoned by his father (JPII) who was remarried to the beautiful Talitha Pol with whom he had set up house in Marrakesh to do some serious counter-culture partying himself. She was already dead of a drug overdose when a criminal gang grabbed Paul. Is it a wonder this wounded teenager may have rejected his family lineage and everything he felt it stood for?
The kidnapping itself was brutal. Getty was tethered to a stake and tortured. Some photos show him in a fetal position, curled up in a pit or perhaps it is the dirt floor of a cave. And there he stayed, month after month, waiting for his family to save him. His mother desperately tried to raise the funds but it took five months and the slicing off of the young man's ear, (without anaesthetic) before Paul's grandfather paid a ransom. He was released on a rainy Italian morning to wander alone beside a country roadway.
In a letter to Paul's frantic mother, the kidnappers had hinted at the toll waiting for rescue was taking on their captive. "We like cutting up your son bit by bit and sending him to you. It is not we who are the sadists." A plea from the boy himself to his wealthy grandfather promised submission, "I will do what you want from now on". Young Getty must have thought his grandfather had decided he wasn't worth saving.
A year after the kidnapping Paul married the beautiful dark-haired filmmaker he had been seeing before he was snatched. He was only eighteen but his need for a committed and secure love makes perfect sense.
It is implied that the stroke Getty suffered six years later was his own fault. A catastrophic neurological event - after a night of drinking and drugs - disabled Paul to the point he needed permanent round-the-clock medical care. His father refused to pay for it because he believed that Paul brought the stroke on himself. I disagree. Thirty years later we know that the kind of mental trauma Paul suffered from the kidnapping often leads to substance abuse. But there are also hints Paul was actually trying hard to clean up - and that medicine he was prescribed to help may have caused the stroke.
Either way, after that, the handsome but haunted young rebel virtually disappeared from public view -- into the custody of paid caregivers and his devoted mother, wife, children and grandchildren.
Paul Getty's son, the actor Balthazar Getty said his father "taught us how to live our lives and overcome obstacles and extreme adversity and we shall miss him dearly." It sounds like maybe in those years of total dependency, Mr. Getty had a chance to learn that despite his family's early torments, he was in the end, much loved.