The Price of Wealth: A Tale of J Paul Getty, Once the Richest Man on Earth

J Paul Getty

To some, he was everything they aspire to be – wealthy, successful, famous, a conquering hero in the business world and a sophisticated art collector. To others, he is a stereotypical miser and a cautionary tale of the price extreme wealth can exact on one’s life.

In the end, J Paul Getty fits both of these profiles. He is both the man who was one of the earliest American oil tycoons and the billionaire who refused to pay his grandson’s ransom as depicted in the Oscar-nominated film, All The Money In The World.

This duality is what makes examining Getty’s life not just fascinating, but also instructive for anyone trying to find success in the business world. There is no doubt, much to be gained in studying his business techniques, many of which would still be relevant a century later. But just as important are the social and emotional lessons to be taken from the life he carved out for himself.

Lest one thinks these are merely the thoughts of non-business people who could never understand the no-regrets mindset of a ‘Master of the Universe’ like J Paul Getty, one need only look to the words of the man himself from late in his life. “I hate and regret the failure of my marriages,” he once wrote. “I would gladly give all of my millions for just one lasting marital success.”

His shoddy track record at marriage was not for a lack of trying. He was married and divorced five times. To understand why those marriages couldn’t work is to understand how he came to be J Paul Getty.

Making His First Million

Jean Paul Getty born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Dec. 15, 1892. His father was Franklin Getty, a lawyer who made the extremely fortuitous decision to go into the Oklahoma oil business around the turn of the 20h century.

Years later he would acknowledge the good fortune he enjoyed in when and to whom he was born. According to his obituary in the New York Times, Getty was quoted as saying, “I suppose it takes a long time and it takes extraordinary circumstances to be born at the right time and have cash money available at the right time. I was fortunate due to my father’s foresight and my good luck.”

In 1905, the family moved to California where J Paul would spend his teenage years. Rather than simply rely on his father opening the door to the family oil business, young J Paul took his education seriously. He attended the Los Angeles based Harvard Military Academy and Polytechnic High School. Upon his graduation in 1909, he studied at the University of Southern California and UC Berkeley before going off to study politics and economics at Oxford.

When he was 21, he joined his father’s Minnehoma Oil Company determined to make his first million within two years. Perhaps the first lesson one could take from J Paul Getty’s early experience is to trust your own instincts. His first key decision was to go against the conventional wisdom.

“I did what the experts said one should not do. I was a very big buyer of oil company stocks.”

With the backing of his father, he bought and sold oil leases, leading to his first million dollars earned by 1916. In 1919 he backed the drilling of wildcat wells leading to even more revenue.

Post-Depression Boom Period

Where the Great Depression sank many a fortune, J Paul Getty may have been spared by his miserly ways. His shrewd spending kept the company afloat and put him in a position to acquire Pacific Western Oil. He would acquire other oil companies along the way, eventually merging them under the name Getty Oil.

Once again, his maverick tendencies would pay off for him in a significant way. In 1949, he paid for the mineral rights on a stretch of land near the Saudi Arabia–Kuwait border. Previously no oil had been discovered here but Getty could not be dissuaded from the move. Within a few short years, the oil production coming out of the region would lead to his Guinness Book of World Records recognition as the richest private citizen in the world.

The Infamously Miserly Getty

If you put out a casting call for a 20th Century Ebenezer Scrooge, it would be hard to imagine anyone filling the role than J Paul Getty. Of course, he is most infamous for refusing to pay his grandson’s ransom after his 1973 kidnapping. Over months the ransom was whittled down to $3 million although it is unclear if J Paul gave any money himself. The Getty family raised the money and it was reported that the family patriarch lent his son $800,000 to pay off the kidnappers.

When asked why he would not pay the ransom, Getty offered with a cold logic, “I have 14 other grandchildren and if I pay one penny now, then I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”

The stories about his frugality know no bounds. He installed pay phones in his London mansion. He would stay in nice hotels but always get the smallest, cheapest room. When on the road, he would ash his own socks so he didn’t have to pay for the service. He lent his then-wife Theadora “Teddy” Getty Gaston money for vocal lessons with the stipulation that she repay him from future earnings. Perhaps most shocking of all, he once berated Teddy over the medical bills for their seven-year-old son who was being treated for a brain tumor.

There is a school of thought regarding miserly tendencies that explains both his business success and his inability to make a relationship last. It is believed that those who are compulsively stingy with money are also compulsively stingy with their emotions and affection.

According to the article The Miser and His Inner Prison, “It is very difficult to live or establish a deep and lasting bond with a stingy person. Just as they feel they must protect their “savings” from the siren songs of the market, they also believe that they can be emotionally “coaxed” by others.”

This would explain not only his multiple failed marriages but also why he did not attend his own child’s funeral.

The Personal Price of Wealth 

While we all might find ourselves fantasizing about being the wealthiest person on the planet, for J Paul Getty it brought a lot of loneliness and sadness.

In 1965 he reflected, “I can’t remember a single day of vacation in the last 45 years that was not somehow interrupted by a cable, telegram or telephone call that made me tend to business for at least a few hours. Such work schedules and the need for devoting the majority of my time to business have taken a heavy toll on my personal life.”

Over the course of his life, he had grievances that his fortune brought upon him. Even the simple act of going out to dinner with friends was a no-win proposition. He resented the fact that the bill was automatically brought to him and no matter how he handled the tip, he would be judged harshly for it.

“If I tip well, someone is certain to accuse me of showing off. If I don’t overtip, that someone will be the first to sneer “penny-pincher!”

Lasting Legacy

For all his infamy over his massive fortune, those who knew him best believed he was not driven by wealth but simply by the need to succeed at business. One of Getty’s wives once remarked, that business was his “first love” and that wealth was merely a by-product.

This is a notion Getty himself supported. “I don’t think there is any story in being known as a moneybag. I’d rather be considered a businessman.”

As a businessman, there were few who were better. But can the man stand as someone emerging businessmen and businesswomen should aspire to? Is the price one pays for unparalleled wealth and success worth it in the end?

Getty himself believed he and men like him did serve the greater good in at least one way. “Though our rewards may be small, we are, if our society is to remain in its present form, essential to the nation’s prosperity. We provide others with incentives which would not exist if we were to disappear.”