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 Oil Co., stood at more than $1 billion. Like that other billionaire loner, the late Howard Hughes, Getty started out with inherited wealth. But he was certainly less like Hughes, the eccentric playboy-pilot, than like the original Mellons and Rockefellers, a crusty, supremely self-disciplined original who determinedly set out to build a business empireand succeeded even beyond his own expectations.
He lived a life of contradictions. He traveled widely, but feared flying. He was a confidant of the rich, and a lifelong miser. Early in his career, he typically operated out of hotel suites, carrying business documents along with him in string-tied boxes. When he decided to make Sutton Place his "liaison center" in 1959, he decorated it with old masters from his huge collection, which includes a museum in Malibu, Calif, containing works worth $200 million; but he also cut back the Sutton Place gardening staff and had a pay telephone installed for his visitors' use. Said Getty: "My friends will understand, and, as for the spongers, well, I just don't care." Three years ago, when Italian gangsters kidnaped his grandson, Getty refused to pay ransom; the kidnapers cut off the boy's ear.
Heavy shouldered and seemingly taller than his 5 ft. 10 in., he drank little, exercised religiously and was partial to health food and pretty women. He was contemptuous of ordinary businessmen, including those who worked for him. Once, when a Getty executive ventured a suggestion, Getty dismissed it abruptly, saying that he was not about to listen to "a goddamned office boy." Modern corporate managers, he scoffed, were no more than "promoted clerks, engineers, salesmen."
Getty got a good start toward his fortune, but it was his own drive and peculiar genius that elevated him to the ranks of the world's wealthiest. The son of a prosperous Minneapolis lawyer who decided to wildcat for oil in Oklahoma (then Indian Territory) in 1903, Jean Paul spent two years at the University of California and another two years at Oxford before he reported to work in his father's firm. By that time, buoyed by a lucky early strike, George F. Getty had made several million and formed a thriving company. With his father's backing, Jean Paul at 21 began buying and selling oil leases. He made $40,000 the first year, and cleared his first million by the time he was 23. The steady accumulation of wealth was not to falter for the rest of his life.