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Business Bookshelf: The Loves of a Billionaire
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March 28, 2003, 04:00 AM
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Republished on VDARE.COM on March 28, 2003

Wall Street Journal, New York Mar 27, 1986

By one of those curious coincidences so common in life in general and publishing in particular, two biographies of J. Paul Getty have just appeared, 10 years after the eccentric oil billionaire`s death at the age of 83. They basically agree on a graphic portrait: The five-times-divorced Getty was a rapacious, womanizing old skinflint whose cold self-absorption warped and even destroyed the lives of his wives, children and grandchildren. But these accounts still leave some questions about his character and his career. 

Boston Globe correspondent Robert Lenzner`s "The Great Getty: The Life and Loves of J. Paul Getty—Richest Man in the World" (Crown, 283 pages, $18.95), is already on the best-seller lists. Efficiently written, it is clearly superior to Russell Miller`s "The House of Getty" (Henry Holt, 362 pages, $17.95) in its detailed research alone. Mr. Lenzner`s publishers have thoughtfully provided potential reviewers with a savage comparison between the two books from the London Economist (which, perhaps unwisely, did not reveal that Mr. Lenzner is also one of its American contributors). The catalog of mistresses missed and stories swallowed by Mr. Miller is daunting indeed.

On the other hand, Mr. Miller`s book is in the lighter, British tradition of journalism, and his recycling of published materials does have charm and even effectiveness. For example, Mr. Lenzner obviously dislikes Getty, despite—or perhaps because of—acting for him during an earlier career as an investment banker. He describes Getty`s infancy as a horror of emotional deprivation suffered by this only child at the hands of his elderly, puritanical parents. But Mr. Miller`s more anecdotal account suggests Getty`s upbringing merely reflected the values, possibly alien but not unnatural, of Victorian WASPs. Mr. Miller is also considerably bolder in explaining just why some members of Getty`s litigious family were suspicious of the final death-bed change in the old man`s will. This change gave a board dominated by his aides control of the Getty Museum in Malibu, which (to its astonishment) received most of his personal wealth.

Two such book-length indictments naturally inspire arguments in Getty`s defense. His picaresque family life was hardly that of the American middle class, but it was not unprecedented by the standards of European aristocracy. And many rich people are neurotically cheap, although few would send a squeezed-out tube to a friend who asked for the name of a medicinal cream. Even Getty`s notorious reluctance in 1973 to pay the ransom for his kidnapped grandson—he relented only when the boy`s Italian captors sent his severed ear along with their demands—was due partly to police suspicion that the affair was a hoax and partly to Getty`s abhorrence of blackmail (a rather creditable contrast to the family of Patty Hearst).

Of course, it was irritating of Getty to remark that only business failures stayed with their wives. His pursuit of women was quite as systematic as his collection of art. But his "harem" at the English mansion where he spent his last quarter-century consisted not of interchangeable young whores but of strong-minded society ladies verging on middle age. Money may be the supreme aphrodisiac, but is it overly romantic to feel they must have been drawn into this parody of marriage by some human quality in Getty? There are, after all, real reasons why women are attracted to womanizers.

Only by reading between the lines of these books is it possible to gauge Getty`s obviously quite brilliant abilities. Mr. Lenzner derides his early ambition to be a diplomat and writer, but the fact is that Getty became fluent in French, German, Italian and Arabic—the latter a considerable help in negotiating vital concessions in the Neutral Zone between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia—and he personally spent many hours in the British Museum teaching himself about art. He had an intimate understanding of the highly complex oil business, which he literally learned at his father`s knee, as Mr. Miller shows. And he exercised long-range but minute control over his interests until weeks before his death.

Far from being a playboy, Getty spent much of his life in grinding work. His father would have approved after all. But Getty would not have become the world`s wealthiest man if he had not also been able to make the key strategic decisions. He was right to buy oil stocks in the 1930s when they were trading for less than their underlying reserves. He was right to go into the Middle East, and then to get out of the less-profitable retail end of the business. Above all, he was right to accumulate reserves in the 1960s and 1970s on the assumption that oil prices would rise, although he did not live to see their ultimate heights. That such issues emerge less clearly from these accounts than the subtleties of Getty`s sex life merely illustrates the technical disadvantages under which business journalists labor.

After J. Paul Getty`s death, many Wall Street oil analysts became critical of the professional managers running his company. Neither book contributes much to this debate. But both make it clear that, by forcing the company`s sale while oil prices were still high, Getty`s son, Gordon—apparently an amiable, absent-minded, amateur composer—displayed at least some of his father`s forcefulness and strategic sense. 

Mr. Brimelow is a contributing editor of Barron`s and the author of a forthcoming book on investment newsletters.