TYCOONS: American Original

Jean Paul Getty was one of a not-yet-vanished American breed, the lone wolf operator who, through cunning, luck and a sharp sense of timing, builds vast wealth and a far-flung business colossus almost singlehandedly. "If I were starting again," he liked to tell visitors at Sutton Place, his 16th century estate outside London, "I'd do it the same way —exploring, wildcatting. If you hit it you get rich. If you don't you go broke."

Getty hit it. When he died last week at 83, after a long illness, his fortune, built mostly around his majority interest in Los Angeles-based Getty...