John Paul Getty III
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John Paul Getty III

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Thu 24 Feb 2011 1:00 AM

On July 10, 1973, John Paul Getty III, the grandson of John Paul Getty, the owner of the Los Angeles-based Getty Oil Company and founder of the California museum that bears his name, then considered the richest man in the world, was kidnapped by the Calabrian mob, the ?Ndrangheta. Just 16 years old at the time, John Paul III was snatched off a street in Rome, where he was living because his father, John Paul Getty II, managed a branch of the family business there.

Wild and willful, with a freckled face and longish strawberry blond hair, he had already been expelled from seven schools. Known as the ?golden hippie’ in the Italian capital for his bohemian lifestyle, he spent most of his time hanging around Campo de’ Fiori, Santa Maria in Trastevere and Piazza Navona, where he sold tourists small objects he hand-crafted himself when he wasn’t taking drugs or crashing his expensive cars or motorbikes around town.

A notoriously tight-fisted and manipulative autocrat, Getty senior initially thought his grandson’s disappearance was a hoax, probably engineered to extort money out of him by his son, whose cash flow he had recently cut off in response to John Paul II’s own serious problems with alcohol and drugs. He therefore refused to pay the 17 million dollar ransom demanded, saying ?I have 14 other grandchildren and if I pay one penny now, then I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.’

But when the kidnapper sent a parcel containing the teenager’s severed right ear to the Il Messaggero newspaper with a note warning the family that if they didn’t pay up, soon the other ear would arrive and so would the rest of their loved one, cut up into little pieces, the family finally took action. John Paul II could raise only 850,000 dollars, so Getty senior decided to lend him the remaining 2.5 million dollars of the sum the bandits had, in the end, settled on. He did so on the condition that his son repay him in full with 4 percent interest.

On December 17, 1973, after spending five months in a cave in the freezing Calabrian mountains chained to a stake so he would not escape, John Paul III was freed by his captors and left on a roadside along the Salerno-Reggio Calabria highway. Eventually, eight people were charged with the kidnapping, but only three were convicted and almost none of the ransom money was recovered.

Following his release, feeling he had been abandoned by both father and grandfather, John Paul III no longer spoke to either man. He underwent reconstructive surgery on his ear and, less than a year after returning home, he married his then pregnant German girlfriend, Gisela Martine Zacher, without his family’s approval; they thought he was too young to take a wife. His bride, who wore black to her wedding in Siena, was six years his senior, an actress whom he had dated before his ordeal. They had a son, Hollywood actor Balthazar Getty, known as Balty, but divorced in 1993.

Although for a period he attempted to put his life back together by going to university and frequenting New York’s artists’ colonies, John Paul III struggled to overcome the trauma he had suffered. His existence continued to spiral out of control, until in 1981, at age 24, he took a near-fatal cocktail of opium, valium and methadone that provoked a massive stroke. After six weeks in a coma, when he regained consciousness, he was quadriplegic, nearly blind and virtually unable to speak.

Needing 25,000 dollars per month to pay for the around-the-clock assistance that he required, his mother, Gail Harris, sought help from John Paul Getty II, her ex-husband who, in the meantime, had inherited most of his father’s vast fortune. Living in England, John Paul Getty II had become a true Anglophile who poured millions into British ?good causes’ like cricket and the arts. He was even knighted for his philanthropy. Forgetting, however, that he himself had once been addicted to a bottle of hard liquor and a fix of high-grade heroin daily, Sir John Paul moralized that his son was to blame for his own misfortune and, therefore, declined to contribute to his medical expenses. It was only after expensive litigation that a court in Los Angeles forced him to assume his responsibilities as a parent.

Over the next 30 years, with the constant care of his mother and a team of caregivers, John Paul Getty III lived in houses especially adapted to his needs in the United States, Ireland and Northern Italy. His health crises remained frequent. Rarely seen in public as of late, on February 5, 2011, John Paul Getty III died at Wormsley Lodge, a large estate in the English countryside previously owned by his father. He was only 54 years old.

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