Philanthropist & Book Collector

John Paul Getty Jr

John Paul Getty Jr. was the professional name of the American-born British philanthropist and book collector Eugene Paul Getty KBE (1932-2003). Towards the end of the life, in 1997, he was granted British citizenship, and subsequently changed his name by deed poll to Sir Paul Getty, having previously not been allowed a full knighthood as a result of his US citizenship.

Getty happened by chance to be born aboard a ship in Italy, but his father was the American oil baron Jean Paul Getty Sr., the founder of Standard Oil, a very wealthy man who had a reputation for miserliness.

John Paul Jr. was initially raised in Los Angeles. At the age of five, his parents having divorced, Getty moved with his mother to San Francisco, where he completed his education.

He served in the US military in South Korea from 1950 during the Korean War.

In 1956, Getty married Abigail Harris, a professional water polo player who was the daughter of a federal judge, and together they had four children including Getty’s first son, John Paul Getty III, before divorcing in 1964.

After gaining employment for his brother at a petroleum pumping station that was part of the large Tidewater Petroleum corporation owned by the Getty family, in 1958 he was offered an executive role at Getty Oil Italiana in Rome by his father.

The man who comes up with a means for doing or producing anything better, faster or more economically has his future and his fortune at his fingertips.

John Paul Jr. was initially raised in Los Angeles. At the age of five, his parents having divorced, Getty moved with his mother to San Francisco, where he completed his education.

In 1966, Getty married Dutch model and actress Talitha Pol. Unfortunately, the couple became addicted to heroin, and while Getty survived, Tabitha died of a heart attack brought on by an overdose just under five years later while seeking a divorce from her husband. She had given birth to a son by him in 1968. The investigation into Tabitha’s death prompted Getty to leave Italy for the UK in 1972, never to return, in spite of his presence being requested by the presiding Italian judge.

In 1973, Getty’s eldest son, John Paul III, who remained in Italy, was kidnapped for ransom by the mafia organisation ’Ndrangheta. After the ransom demand was at first refused by Getty’s wealthy father, one of the ears of the kidnapped boy was amputated by his kidnappers and sent to the offices of an Italian newspaper with a threat that he would be chopped up into similar small pieces if the ransom was not paid. Following this, Jean Paul Sr. finally agreed to pay up, but although his grandson was released after five months in captivity, he was so traumatised by his experiences that he turned to substance abuse, culminating in a drug overdose in that left him with serious brain damage and partial paralysis and shortened his life. John Paul III died in 2011 aged just 54.

In 1976, Jean Paul Sr. died. Having lost his wife and his father and seen his son suffer life-changing injuries in close succession, Getty became clinically depressed and admitted himself to the care of an exclusive private hospital called The London Clinic in 1984, staying there until 1986. By this time, he had become a substantial donor to the Conservative Party. Having been favoured with a visit from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher while he was in hospital, he was awarded an honorary knighthood in the year of his release. A further, larger donation to the Conservative Party eventually followed in 2001.

John Paul Getty Jr. (left) with his second wife, Talitha Pol (right), at the City Hall in Rome after getting married (1966)
Keystone / Getty Images, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Upon his release, Getty purchased and restored a large country estate called Wormsley Lodge. As a keen book collector, he decided to add on to the main house a custom-designed building dedicated to his private library, which is notable chiefly on account of its rare early printed books and some illuminated manuscripts. He also installed on his estate a cricket ground modelled on the venue The Oval, and employed a succession of cricketing experts to manage his own celebrity cricket team that continued in action until after his death.

In 1994, Getty married former model Victoria Jane Holdsworth, who stayed with him for the rest of his life and took the title of Lady Getty.

Getty ultimately amassed a private fortune of £1.6 billion, chiefly thanks to inheritance arising from his father’s business interests, although he had long been favoured together with his siblings with an annual income of around £1 million from the proceeds of a family-owned trust.

Towards the end of his life, in addition to collecting books and periodically funding the political right, he donated heavily to a variety of cultural venues, including the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Imperial War Museum, Lords Cricket Ground, the British Film Institute, and multiple cathedrals.

He also gave to some compassionate causes, including famine relief in Eritrea and medical supplies to Poland. In 1985, having taken pity on the impoverished families of miners during the Miners’ Strike, he had sent them collectively £100,000.

Getty died in London from a recurring chest infection at the age of 70.