Even compared with other wealthy skinflints, Paul was strikingly parsimonious. He installed a pay phone at Sutton Place, his seventy-two-room mansion in the English countryside, to avoid paying for guests’ long-distance calls. His last wife, a singer named Teddy Getty, had to beseech him to pay for maternity clothes, pointing out that he could deduct them from his taxes, as an expense for her performing career. In one emphatic letter, she wrote, “SO HERE AGAIN YOU HAVE LOST NOTHING.” When their son, Timmy, was treated for a brain tumor, Paul declined to visit, and complained to Teddy that the doctors “grossly overcharged you.” He wrote, “Some doctors like to charge a rich person 20 times more than their regular fee.”
Getty took a similarly dim view of taxes. When he donated art works, he would value them at higher prices than he had paid and take a hefty deduction. He invited twelve hundred people to a mansion-warming party at Sutton Place and declared it a business expense. His tactics became so aggressive that President John F. Kennedy personally leaked details of Getty’s taxes to Newsweek, revealing that, in a recent year, Getty had paid a total of $504 in federal income tax. Getty was undeterred; in his 1965 book, “How to Be Rich,” he condemned an “insane hodgepodge of Federal, state, county and city levies that make life a fiscal nightmare for everyone.” Elsewhere, he derided government spending on “nonproductive and very frequently counterproductive socialistic schemes.”
Nothing exhibited his relationship to money more than his management of a family tragedy. In 1973, his sixteen-year-old grandson, John Paul Getty III, who had left school to be a painter in Rome, was kidnapped by Calabrian gangsters, who stashed him in the mountains and demanded $17 million for his safe return. The grandfather, by then known as Old Paul, suspected that it was a charade orchestrated by family members to extract money. He eventually relinquished that theory, but insisted he would never pay a ransom. “I have fourteen other grandchildren,” he told the press, “and if I pay one penny now, I’ll have fourteen kidnapped grandchildren.”
After three months, the kidnappers, growing impatient, cut off the boy’s right ear and mailed it to a newspaper, to broadcast their warning. They reduced their demand to about three million dollars, but threatened to cut off other body parts, too, if they got no reply. Ultimately, Old Paul consented to pay $2.2 million of the requested sum—the maximum, according to his biographer John Pearson, that advisers had told him was tax deductible. He made up the balance by loaning his son the money at four per cent interest.
When Old Paul died, in 1976, he was living in England but trying to avoid British taxes by claiming to be a resident of California—even though he had not been to California in a quarter century. After his death, members of the family feuded in court, and forced the sale of Getty Oil to Texaco. Eventually, four factions of the family agreed to divvy up the trust into portions of $750 million apiece, and to pay a tax bill of a billion dollars. One of the lawyers likened it to “an elaborate treaty negotiation among warring nations.”
Even the dismembered parts of the realm were vast. One son, Paul, Jr., instantly became the sixth-richest man in Britain, with interest payments alone earning him a million dollars a week. Most of Old Paul’s personal estate—his art, property, land—was insulated from taxes almost entirely, thanks to a final gesture to keep the money out of the government’s hands: he bequeathed it to a museum trust that would carry on his name forever.
The Getty Center, on a sun-drenched hilltop in the Santa Monica Mountains, is one of America’s most visited art museums. Its walls and walkways are made of pale travertine, mined from an ancient quarry east of Rome. It’s the same type of stone that you find in the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum, a material, as the museum puts it, “historically associated with public architecture.” This is a telling bit of sleight of hand: public architecture belongs to the public, a concession that Old Paul Getty fought his whole life to avoid. On a nearby stretch of coastline, with panoramic views of the Pacific, its sister museum, the Getty Villa, occupies a re-created Roman country house that is more popular with the public than with architects. Joan Didion once described it as “a palpable contract between the very rich and the people who distrust them least.”
But this kind of prominence should not be mistaken for happiness. Through the years, Old Paul’s protectors have suggested that he was the greatest victim of his own stinginess. “The only person he was ever mean with was himself,” Robina Lund, a lover and a longtime aide, once said. In 1963, a BBC documentary called “The Solitary Billionaire” featured him dining alone at a seventy-foot banquet table and performing exercises in a three-piece suit, hoisting a barbell over his head, beside a wall decorated with a Renoir. “The money is the root of the problem with the Gettys,” Gordon’s confidant William Newsom once said, according to Russell Miller’s book “The House of Getty.” “It is a ludicrous, preposterous amount of money, enough to make you wonder if anybody in the world should have that much. It taints everything.”
Marlena Sonn thought that she could help the Getty sisters expunge that taint, she told me one morning in November. We had met in a conference room of a co-working space in a converted pencil factory in Brooklyn. In a black-and-white dress and chunky glasses, with salt-and-pepper hair falling to her shoulders, she betrayed little sign of the erstwhile punk and activist. I wondered whether, working for the Gettys, she imagined herself as a sleeper cell, there to dismantle the system. “No,” she said. “I thought we could reform it.”
In the past century, the Gettys, like many American clans, have moved from a business of bare-knuckle extraction into more genteel labors; younger branches of the family extend into acting, conservation, and influence work. In 2021, Ivy Love Getty, an artist-model and a great-granddaughter of the oil tycoon, was married in San Francisco in a ceremony officiated by the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But, Sarah Getty told me recently, her “crazy family history” and abrupt transformation into an heir gave her little preparation for managing a fortune. “In exchange for the love I didn’t receive in my life, I got money,” she said. “So, at first, I always felt misery and guilt, and I didn’t know what to do with it.” Sonn was twice her age, capable and solicitous. “Our relationship was very much like mother-daughter, because my mother wasn’t very present in my life,” she said. Sonn called her “babe,” and they “would do things for fun, not just for work,” Sarah said.
Sonn had been in the job less than two years when she caught a glimpse of how complex the inner workings of the family might be. In March, 2015, Kendalle and Sarah’s half brother Andrew Getty died at his home in the Hollywood Hills—suffering, the Los Angeles County coroner’s office found, from methamphetamine intoxication, heart disease, and bleeding linked to an ulcer. Sonn flew to San Francisco, to help handle the fallout. Andrew’s death, she said, required a reshuffling of more than $200 million, as his share of a trust was redistributed among his siblings.
Sonn assisted Kendalle and Sarah as they navigated the complications of their new wealth. To oversee the Pleiades Trust, Gordon’s family office had helped establish a corporate entity for each of the sisters, named for their initials: ASG Investments and KPG Investments. The sisters were the presidents, and Sonn became vice-president. Four times a year, Kendalle and Sarah received a dense book of several hundred pages, detailing investment decisions. “What do we do with this five million, and what do we do with that five million?” Sonn recalled. “They were asked to make decisions pretty much on the spot.”