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Getty, Jean - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Jean Getty, Social and Economic Impact

oil company business world

Getty Oil Company


J. Paul Getty, as he preferred to be known, was an oil producer who defined the way that the oil business would operate. He was educated to understand geological data for finding the location of oil. He took a step away from the veterans of the business in that regard. Yet, Getty became the key player in the risks and high stakes of oil production. He entered a new century as a young man when the world was only beginning to get a hint of the powerful role oil would come to play. His skill in business and economics captured the real fortune, however. Getty bought and sold oil leases. He sought out other companies and pursued controlling interests. Eventually, his Getty Oil Company stood among the largest oil producers and distributors in the world.

Personal Life

Jean Paul Getty was born on December 15, 1892, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was the only child of George Franklin Getty and Sarah Risher Getty. His father was a lawyer by profession but in 1904 he sought out a new career. George Getty moved his wife and son to the Oklahoma territory and began a life in the oil business, forming the Minnehoma Oil Company.

J. Paul Getty attended Harvard Military Academy, and then went on to graduate from Polytechnic High School in 1909. Both of these schools were in Los Angeles. Following high school, as was often the tradition of wealthier families of the time, Getty toured Europe. He attended both the University of Southern California and the University of California at Berkeley. During the summers Getty worked on his father’s oil rigs. In 1912, he enrolled in Oxford University in England and obtained a degree in economics and political science there in 1914.

Much of Getty’s adult life was spent in the public eye. His five marriages, all ending in divorce, became legendary. He married Jeannette Dumont in 1923 and the couple had one son, George Franklin II. After his divorce from Dumont, he married Allene Ashby in 1925. Divorced a year later, Getty and his second wife had no children together. Adolphine Helmle married Getty in 1928, and she gave him a second son, Jean Ronald. His marriage to Ann Rork in 1932 produced two more sons, Jean Paul II, and Gordon Peter. Getty had one more son with his fifth wife, Louisa Lynch, whom he married in 1939. He was Timothy Christopher.

Getty outlived two of his sons and at the time of his death, he was survived by three sons, sixteen grandchildren, and one great grandchild. His family relationships were difficult and surrounded by tragedy. The most famous incident occurred in 1973 when his grandson, J. Paul Getty III, was kidnapped in Italy. His cut-off ear was sent to Getty as proof that his grandson was being held. Much speculation circulated at the time that his grandson had been a willing accomplice to this, thus furthering the family horror. He was returned soon after Getty paid the ransom.

Getty fascinated everyone. His reputation for extravagance and for stinginess never ceased to be subject matter for news stories. Getty once indicated he had three principal grievances about being rich. They were: 1) People beseeched him for money. 2) People overcharged him or expected him to tip generously. 3) He could never be certain that he was liked for being himself. On the other side of the topic, however, Getty was asked when he reached the age of seventy-three, if being rich was worth it. Of himself and his wealthy counterparts, he said, “Though our rewards may be small, we are, if our society is to remain in its present form, essential to the nation’s prosperity. We provide others with incentives which would not exist were we to disappear.”

Getty’s interest in art climbed to the level of his interest in oil, beginning in the 1930s. His extensive collection included European paintings, furniture, Greek and Roman sculptures, and other works of art from all over the world. Two of his most prized pieces were the legendary Ardabil Persian Carpet made on the royal looms of Tabriz in 1535, and Rembrandt’s painting, “Martin Looten.” In 1959 Getty purchased an estate outside London, Sutton Place, which was built in the sixteenth century and sat on seven hundred acres. Getty established his offices there as well. He also had a ranch house estate at Malibu, California. His art was kept in these two residences and the home in Malibu became a permanent gallery when he opened one wing as the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1954. In 1969, Getty began construction on a new museum. Renovations and additions in 1998 continued his predominance in the art world, long after his death. Getty provided financially for the museum to continue as the best endowed in the world.

Getty died of a heart attack at his English country estate on June 6, 1976, at age eighty-three. He had been in failing health for several months. Getty had hoped to return home to California one more time before his death, but he did not.

Career Details

Getty did not begin his career in the oil business officially until he was almost twenty-two, in 1914. However, he believed that his life in the oil business began with his father’s decision to head to Oklahoma when he was twelve. Getty credited his oil empire to his father’s lead, as well as to his own luck and cleverness. In a quote attributed to him in the New York Times following his death, Getty offered an interesting outlook on his success when he said, “In building a large fortune, it pays to be born at the right time . . . If I had been born earlier or later, I would have missed the great business opportunities that existed in World War I and later.”

Getty returned to Oklahoma following college and he immediately started buying oil leases in September 1914. His father disagreed with his purchases of what were known as the red-beds, thought to be barren of any oil. Because of this, he bought many leases for very little money. These purchases turned out to be investments that paid off richly. In 1916, after he acquired his first million, Getty left the oil business for over two years and he returned to Los Angeles and lived the life of a playboy. He went back to work in 1919, however.

Wealth began accumulating quickly for Getty during the 1920s. His genius became apparent when he began buying and selling oil leases with great energy. By the time his father died in 1930, Getty was worth $3 million, a remarkable amount of money in that first year of the Great Depression. Getty’s father left him $500,000 when he died. The elder Getty was impressed by his son’s business sense but he was shocked by his personal life. His son had already divorced three wives.

Getty acquired oil leases and companies avidly during the Depression. He bought the Pacific Western Oil Corporation early in the 1930s. This was a holding company with large oil reserves and a big cash balance. Getty eventually persuaded his mother that he should gain a controlling interest in the family company, too. In 1949, he continued to negotiate for influence of worldwide oil interests when he secured oil rights in Saudi Arabia’s half of the Neutral Zone, a barren tract of land between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Other oil companies were shocked at the concessions he made to King Saud but three years and a $30 million investment later, Getty found his oil deposits. They made him a billionaire, but Getty did not quit. He continued to maneuver patiently and by 1953, he had gained control of the Mission Corporation and its holdings in Tidewater Oil and Skelly Oil Company. These all went toward the building of his empire, atop of which stood his own Getty Oil Company. He maintained an eighty percent interest and control in Getty Oil. In 1967, Getty merged Tidewater and Mission Development into the Getty Oil Company, consolidating assets of more than $3 billion.

Getty’s business interests were not only in the oil industry. In 1938, he purchased the Pierre Hotel in New York City and in the late-1950s he built the twenty-two story Getty Building off to the rear of the hotel. This was owned through the Getty Oil Company along with a skyscraper in Los Angeles, an office building in Tulsa, and the Pierre Marques Hotel near Acapulco, Mexico.

Getty surprised his friend, Under Secretary of the U.S. Navy, James V. Forrestal, with a telegram the day the United States entered World War II. It read, “I am 49 but in good health, have owned three yachts and am experienced in their care and maintenance. If Navy can use me in any capacity, please advise . . . .” The Navy rejected him. Navy Secretary Forrestal, however, suggested Getty do something with the Spartan Aircraft Company, a Getty holding, in Tulsa. During the war, Spartan manufactured trainers and plane parts under Getty’s personal leadership. After the war, Getty turned the company into a profitable producer of mobile homes.

Getty set out to prove that he could keep up with all of the other major oil companies, a feat he accomplished until his death. When he died, he had holdings in oil, an entire fleet of oil tankers, real estate, trailer homes, and hotels. He also had interests in the Minnehoma Insurance Company, the Minnehoma Financial Company and the Spartan Cafeteria Company, all in Oklahoma.

Chronology: Jean Getty

1892: Born.

1904: Moved to Oklahoma territory with parents.

1906: Moved with family to Los Angeles, California.

1909: Graduated from Polytechnic High School, Los Angeles.

1914: Received degree in economics and political science, Oxford University, England.

1914: Arrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma to begin career as oil producer.

1916: Struck first successful oil well. Made first million dollars as wildcatter and lease broker. Retired from oil business.

1919: Returned to oil business.

1930: Became president of George Getty Oil Company after the death of his father.

1949: Secured oil rights in Saudi Arabia’s half of the Neutral Zone.

1957: Identified by Fortune magazine as the richest man in America.

1973: Grandson, J. Paul Getty III, kidnapped.

1976: Died.

Getty not only lived his life and pursued his career but he also spent a great deal of time reflecting on it and writing about it. In books and in several magazine articles for mass-circulation publications such as Playboy, Getty wrote about everything from his and his father’s history in the oil business, to collecting art, to success. His best-known book, My Life and Fortunes, was published in 1963. How to Be Rich, published by Playboy Press in 1965, was composed of a series of articles Getty wrote for, “young executives and college students,” who read Playboy.

Social and Economic Impact

Getty and his fortune remained a phenomenon to the world during his lifetime. If he had not been smart enough to take risks, and to buy up lands and oil leases nobody else wanted, Getty’s name might never have been known. His driving force behind the oil business for most of the twentieth century affected not only oil but also affected government, politics, and Wall Street. He successfully rode his luck at being “born at the right time,” and never saw an end to the opportunities his good fortune afforded him. His son, George, who died in 1973, said of his father, “Mr. Getty is the smartest businessman I know. Coming to see him is like visiting Mount Olympus.”

Getty’s love of art will keep his name recognized for, perhaps, centuries to come. The legacy he left through his Getty Art Collection and Museum has touched the world in a way he was never able to do in his personal life. Money might not have bought happiness for Getty during his life but his keen foresight ensured that it might bring joy to others in theirs.

Getty agreed with his son, George, in his estimation of his power. However, Getty said, “I’m a bad boss. A good boss develops successors. There is nobody to step into my shoes.” Getty represents the power and determination of the American dream.


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