Jean Paul Getty was the richest man in the world, worth an estimated $8.6bn
The severed ear arrived with the morning post. Gnarled and torn it was wrapped in a bloody envelope.
It had been five long months since John Paul Getty III had been kidnapped and his grandfather Jean Paul Getty – the world’s richest man – had steadfastly refused to pay the ransom demand.
This was the mafia’s way of persuading him to cough up.
The full story of the kidnapping that shook America in 1973 is told by British director Sir Ridley Scott in his acclaimed new movie All The Money In The World that opened in Britain yesterday.
The film shows how Getty repeatedly refused to pay the kidnappers and, even after his grandson had been tortured, the oil tycoon still would not pay the $17million (£12.5million) ransom.
Jean Paul Getty pictured with his secretary Robina Lund arriving at Burlington House, London in 1962
I have 14 grandchildren, and if I pay a penny of ransom I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren
“I have 14 grandchildren,” the notoriously penny-pinching billionaire told the press.
“And if I pay a penny of ransom I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”
But Getty’s refusal to pay for his grandson’s release went far deeper than that, according to some.
He suspected that the kidnapping had been faked by his grandson in a bid to extort his fortune.
In 1973 JP Getty was worth $2billion – a figure not adjusted for inflation – and valued money above family.
He had spent a lifetime trying to prove himself to his unloving father George, an austere Methodist focused more on faith than fatherhood, who believed that his son would drive the family oil business to ruin.
Paranoid that he might become a kidnap target himself, Getty had hired a squad of private bodyguards and lived in seclusion in his 16th-century English manor house Sutton Place in Surrey, where he famously installed a pay phone so that guests would not run up bills on his account.
“This is a man with a deep, gnawing sense of insecurity,” says All The Money In The World screenwriter David Scarpa.
“The money is what he thinks is going to fill it and it never does.”
This was 1973 when the “Getty Family Curse” was in its infancy. Getty’s oldest son George died that same year after taking a lethal combination of booze and pills and stabbing himself.
Jean Paul Getty III pictured with a police officer after his kidnapping in Italy, 1973
Another son, JP Getty Jr, was battling addiction and depression following the death of his wife, the model Talitha Pol, from a heroin overdose in 1971.
Yet to come were Aileen Getty’s struggles with addiction and contracting HIV, Balthazar Getty’s drug problems and Andrew Getty’s 2015 death by methamphetamine intoxication.
“The great unanswered mystery of the Getty fortune is why it has apparently devoured so many of its beneficiaries,” wrote John Pearson in his 1995 biography Painfully Rich, which inspired the new movie.
Kidnap victim John Paul Getty III, known to the family as Paul, was a 16-year-old high school drop-out living a sybaritic bohemian existence in Italy when he was snatched off the streets of Rome.
In the small hours of July 10, 1973, while walking to the flat he shared with two artists, he was pulled into a passing car by masked men, anaesthetised with chloroform and driven to a remote hideout.
What the kidnappers didn’t know was that Paul had been cut off from the family fortune because of his hippie lifestyle, which often involved hanging out on Rome’s Spanish Steps with junkies.
The same fate had befallen Paul’s father John, whose battles with drug addiction had alienated Getty.
The pair were not on speaking terms when Paul was kidnapped, leaving it to the boy’s mother Gail to reach out to the family patriarch for help.
When the demand for $17million arrived it was accompanied by a note penned by Paul pleading: “Don’t let me be killed. If you delay it is very dangerous for me. I love you.”
It seemed a small sum to ask of Getty – less than his company made in profits in a single day during the 1973 oil crisis when shortages sent prices soaring.
Paul being interviewed following the arrest of men responsible for his kidnapping
“The money’s there,” says Scarpa.
“The entire problem exists in the head of one man.”
Gail repeatedly phoned Getty but the billionaire refused to take her calls – perhaps because he really did believe that Paul had staged his own disappearance.
The kidnappers, who expected their demands to be met swiftly, were baffled by Getty’s refusal to pay.
“Who is this so-called grandfather?” said one exasperated kidnapper known as Cinquanta in one of his fraught phone calls to Gail.
Paul Getty at a party hosted by Andy Warhol in June 1976
“How can he leave his own flesh and blood in the plight that your poor son is in?
“Here is the richest man in America and you tell me he refuses to find just 10 miliardi for his grandson’s safety? Signora, you take me for a fool.”
As the stalemate dragged on his kidnappers grew restless. Several sold their stake in his ransom as if Paul was a commodity to be traded and more violent gangsters took over.
Paul was brutalised, with his captors holding a gun to his head and playing Russian roulette.
One morning the kidnappers gave him a few swigs of brandy, swabbed his head with alcohol and savagely sliced off his right ear with a cutthroat razor.
When Jean Paul Getty died in 1976, he left his son John just $500, and left his grandson nothing
They sent it by mail to a local newspaper but – in typical Italian fashion – it arrived three weeks late after being delayed by a postal strike.
“This is Paul’s ear,” read the accompanying note.
“If we don’t get some money within 10 days then the other ear will arrive. In other words he will arrive in little bits.”
Getty finally agreed to help – not by paying the ransom but by sending a former CIA agent to track down his missing grandson, a mission that ended in abject failure.
It took a US embassy staffer in Rome finally to contact the kidnappers and negotiate a reduction in the ransom to a bargain basement $3.2million. Yet still Getty refused to pay.
Paul was ultimately saved by a tax loophole: Getty’s business advisers found that he could deduct $2.2million of the ransom from his taxes.
The oil magnate agreed to loan the remaining $1million ransom to his son John to be repaid at four per cent annual interest.
“He was a genius at business but an illiterate with respect to intimacy and family,” said biographer Robert Lenzner.
With the discount ransom paid, Paul was released, weak and seriously ill, fleeing in a rainstorm to a police station.
When he phoned his grandfather to thank him for paying the ransom, Getty famously refused to take Paul’s call.
Paul later became an alcoholic and drug addict, and suffered a stroke after taking an overdose
And Paul struggled to adjust to life after his kidnapping.
“He was more angry about them taking off his ear than he was traumatised by the kid napping,” said his friend, journalist A Craig Copetas.
Paul became an alcoholic and drug addict as he tried to forge an acting career and extend his Warholian 15 minutes of fame.
At 18 he married his girlfriend Martine Zacher, who was by then pregnant with their son Balthazar.
But eight years after his kidnap ordeal Paul took a drug overdose that sparked a massive stroke that left him a partially blind, quadriplegic and unable to speak.
“His mother basically cared for him until he died,” says Scarpa.
After 29 years of being a prisoner in his own body Paul’s misery ended in 2011 at the age of 54.
“He taught us how to live our lives and overcome obstacles and extreme adversity,” said his son, actor Balthazar Getty.
But JP Getty had made his own feelings clear in his will some years earlier.
When the tycoon died in 1976 he left his son John just $500. To his grandson Paul he left nothing.