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Book review: Chorus of accounts on the 1973 Getty kidnapping

A meticulously researched book about the abduction of a billionaire's grandson is a look at the vastly different versions of what happened that summer in Italy, writes Steve Donoghue

John Paul Getty III leaving a police station in Italy after the arrest of his kidnappers. Keystone / Getty Images
John Paul Getty III leaving a police station in Italy after the arrest of his kidnappers. Keystone / Getty Images

The kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III on July 10, 1973, made headlines immediately and gave thousands of morbidly curious newspaper readers a glimpse into the world of the super-rich - a glimpse that both challenged and reinforced their stereotypes about that world. The only way historical footnotes such as private kidnappings can resonate beyond their own narrow confines is as moral lessons of some kind, and in that sense the Getty kidnapping thwarts easy evaluation and always will. Anthony Burgess once called Hamlet a tragedy without a catharsis, and the description applies with four-point exactness to the sordid story that unfolded in Rome that autumn.

John Paul Getty was the grandson of oil tycoon JP Getty, one of the world's wealthiest men. The teen's father, John Paul Getty II, had been managing the Italian branch of the family's sprawling commercial empire until he remarried (having divorced JPG III's mother Gail in 1964), at which point he moved to England and left his pampered son (whom people referred to as "the Golden Hippie") footloose in Rome, where he tended to behave exactly as a handsome, well-funded, responsibility-free teenager could be expected to behave. Thanks to the vigilance of the Italian paparazzi (then, as now, the most energetic members of their profession), the young Getty's hedonistic antics were the stuff of tabloid fodder even before his kidnapping brought him to international attention.

That kidnapping is the subject of award-winning journalist Charles Fox's book Uncommon Youth. Fox, who died in 2012, was one of the first reporters to be assigned to cover the story when it broke in 1973; he became a friend of the family, and in the 1990s he approached Getty and Getty's lawyers about writing a book about the kidnapping. The project was approved, and Fox spent many days interviewing as many of those involved as were willing to talk to him, including (in addition to Paul himself) Gail Harris, Paul's mother, Martine Zucher, his girlfriend (and later wife) Jutta, Martine's twin sister, Victoria Brooke, the grandfather's mistress (and later wife) and James Fletcher Chase, the agent hired by the family to go to Rome and oversee the investigation when the boy went missing.

What emerges from all this first-hand testimony (a great deal of it self-serving, as first-hand testimony tends to be) is a complicated oral history that sometimes contradicts itself and often befuddles the reader. By assembling all this primary material, Fox performed an invaluable service for future historians of the crime, but since some of the participants are allowed to talk for pages at a stretch, non-historians may find themselves wishing for a stronger sense of overview.

What they get instead is a multifaceted - and often extremely interesting - chorus of accounts, a Rashomon-style kaleidoscope view of what happened that summer and autumn 40 years ago.

Getty was taken in Rome's Piazza Farnese by a mixed group of desperate locals and Calabrian gangsters who hid the boy in a series of mountain hideouts and initially demanded the rough equivalent of half a million dollars from the Getty family. Getty Sr (referred to by Fox and most of his interviewees as "Old Paul") wasn't the only member of the family to suspect that the kidnapping was an elaborate ruse staged by young Paul himself - either as a way of getting his hands on some ready cash (a scenario he'd mentioned to friends in earlier months) or simply for quick notoriety ("He liked to play with who he was and who people perceived him to be," his wife would later reflect). Initially, the grandfather refused to pay; to the newspapers he contended that if he paid out ransom money for one abducted grandchild, soon all his other 14 grandchildren would be abducted.

For the next six months, young Paul was as much a hostage of that clear-headed but inhuman pragmatism as of his actual kidnappers, with most of whom he developed a sympathy and fellow-feeling akin to that which the later kidnapping of Patty Hearst in 1974 would make famous, although in Getty's case there was never any blurring of roles: he was always the property of his captors, with no say in when and where he was moved about during the months of his captivity (sometimes being installed in filthy farmhouse poultry rooms, other times in hillside caves too small to sit up in).

During those months, harried and scattershot negotiations went on with the Italian authorities and with Chase, whose flamboyant style and thirst for publicity, according to Fox, repeatedly complicated the situation for both the Getty family (when Fox quotes him as saying "A lot of people wanted to be heroes in those days," he's obviously intending the quote to reflect back on Chase himself) and for Harris, whose life in Rome became a bewildering mixture of guilt and freedom. "Oh you poor thing," people would say to her, and she'd think, "Me? Me, the poor thing? Here I am, surrounded more or less by everything I know, except I'm forced to fight. What does he have? I have a bed to sleep in. Nobody is hurting me."

As the Getty family stalled, the ransom demand grew to over US$3 million (Dh11m), and the kidnappers grew more disillusioned - and more desperate. Eventually, they took the step that fixed the Getty case in the public imagination: after a great deal of hesitation (in Fox's account, some of the kidnappers seem like fairly decent men) and with Paul's frantic acquiescence ("Is it going to hurt?" he asked; "Of course it's going to hurt," they answered), his captors cut off one of his ears and mailed it, along with a lock of his hair, to an Italian newspaper along with the promise to cut off the boy's remaining ear unless their demands were met. Although Gail's identification of the ear was met with yet more resistance from the Getty family ("She wouldn't know the difference between an ear and a piece of prosciutto," the boy's father snarled), the move worked: Old Paul finally agreed to pay. The accounts of Fox's various interview subjects make it clear how complicated and error-prone the process of assembling the money and making the exchange could be, given the dodgy state of the Italian mail and phone service and the severity of the winter then in full swing. Eventually Paul was found, maimed and head-bandaged, wandering along a country road - remarkably, a few of the first people he encountered seemed not to care about the claims he was making ("My God," he later recalled, "after all this, I have come back to this indifference?"), but once he was installed in a clinic and recovering, the paparazzi swarmed. The kidnappers were caught and some were jailed. Most of the ransom money was never recovered.

When he was well enough to travel, Paul went to the family's home in London and saw his father ("Big Paul"). "It was really nice as long as you didn't talk about anything to do with responsibility," Paul told Fox, but the topic of responsibility was bound to come up. Paul had already thought about what he wanted to do with his life now that his ordeal was over, but when he broached the subject of the family possibly financing a movie-making project he'd like to start, his father countered with the idea of making a full-length porn movie. Paul objected, and his father told him he was still certain Paul had orchestrated his own kidnapping to bilk the family. When Paul started to cry, his father said, "Why are you crying? What is there to cry about? Go up to your room. Leave tomorrow."

The sequel takes little time to tell. Paul married his girlfriend Martine (their son is the actor Balthazar Getty) and fell into a life of drifting and drugs. A massive overdose in 1981 left him a partially deaf quadriplegic stroke victim. He died in 2011 at the age of 54. The kidnapping had been the defining event of his life.

Since that's the case, Uncommon Youth can't really function as a proper biography, and it doesn't. Even so, all the interviews Fox conducted can't help but provide new views of these familiar players, and these views are fascinating, although almost always repulsive. The petty venality of Old Paul and Big Paul, so appalling even back in the 1970s, is here clarified to an almost excruciating degree, of course - no revisions there. Paul himself is full of wry quips ("People who work for Getty Oil are completely devoted to the old man," he says at one point, "Sad cases, really"), but he remains an irreducible paradox at the heart of his own story, feckless but driven, ambitious but weak. Marcello Crisi, Paul's roommate in Rome, refers to him as "sixteen going on forty", but the boy's clearly disaffected mother says he was "lazy, slovenly" and "full of being a Getty".

Fox's own conclusions on his main subject are distinctly unconvincing. "Paul was knocked off his feet before he ever found them," he tells us. "What may be said of him is that he lived the life that was presented to him." But drug dens in Marrakech didn't present themselves to Paul, he went in search of them. He was heir to immense wealth, privilege and ease, but he managed to wreck his own body by the age of 24 and at no point seems even to have considered the kind of backstage philanthropy that so filled, for example, his grandfather's life.

And most damning of all, every open-minded reader will put down Uncommon Youth with the same dead certainty when it comes to the kidnapping itself: Paul's father was right.


Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.