23 SEPTEMBER 1995, Page 37

Getting and spending

Claus von Mow

PAINFULLY RICH: J. PAUL GETTY AND HIS HEIRS by John Pearson Macmillan, £17.50, pp. 309 The late J. Paul Getty, the principal subject of this book, liked a good bargain, and would probably have approved the price per page of John Pearson's diligent research. Price is always a matter of comparison with alternatives and Pearson compares well with his rivals. The late Mr Getty published seven books himself, all but one wholly or partly autobiographical. Since his death in 1976 there have been further biographies, a politically biased one by Robert Lenzner, then the much better House of Getty by Russell Miller, and finally the brilliant Oil & Honor by Thomas Petzinger, which concentrated on the dramatic sale of Getty Oil Company.

Do we really need another tome about a man who made a great deal more money than most of us would want, and who, in the same acquisitive spirit, laid more women than less fortunate contributors to the media approve of? Sadly the answer is yes. Every parent knows that their children never tire of hearing the same bedside stories night after night. Every tabloid pub- lisher knows that his equally infantile read- ers never tire of reading about randy royals and the raunchy rich.

De la Rochefoucauld claimed that peo- ple (meaning the French) take pleasure in the misfortunes of others. It is certainly true that this pleasure is immeasurably increased if the misfortunes are visited upon those who are better looking, more intelligent and richer than us. Hubris and Nemesis inspire favourite plots. But since Mr Getty had four sons, who reached maturity, and their descendants have been equally prolific, I am not sure that the tragedies which have occurred were not in this sad life statistically probable. King Lear's probate problems were not really the prerogative of monarchy, but have been known by every man. For this reason I regret that Mr Pearson has found it neces- sary, once again, to cater to the public's insatiable appetite for suicides, divorces, drug and alcohol addiction, kidnapping, comas, and one case of Aids.

Like the Rockefellers and the Melons before them the Gettys really have two tremendous stories worth telling. That of the founder, J. Paul Getty, and his philan- thropist third son, Paul Getty Jr. The author credits me with the theory that J. Paul Getty's obsession with money (which incidentally would not be recog- nised as an obsession in his native Ameri- ca) was solely motivated by his need to prove that his father had judged him wrongly.

True, but a little simplistic. We all get to enjoy playing the games that we play well.

Mr Getty would apply his very considerable intellect towards collecting and analysing the facts that would show him where the economy and his particular industry would be ten years down the road. Unlike his rivals he would then ignore such diversion- ary objectives as the payment of annual dividends. He also almost invented the idea that if an actual barrel of oil costs $1, but the stockmarket values the oil reserves of a quoted company at seven cents you should just buy the company. It sounds simple.

I have yet to read a characterisation of the late J. Paul Getty, which shows the man I knew and loved for many years. He was such fun underneath the mask of the lugubrious undertaker. An unusual brain, he could make most self-satisfied American business executives (the 'Flying Cowboys' he called them) look like utter fools. Mr Pearson made me wince a few times. He describes Getty's purchase of the great Tudor mansion, Sutton Place, in 'bijou Surrey'. He calls the patrician banker, J. Pierpont Morgan, 'self-made'. He falls into the prototypical trap of assuming that Getty's Saudi oil field 'struck it rich'. It was the worst concession in the Middle East, so bad that the Saudis couldn't even be both- ered to nationalise it! The oil was horrible. I know. I had to sell it.

Pearson's worst omission is his failure even to mention Jack Forrester, Getty's closest friend and business associate after he moved to Europe. On one occasion, I recall, Getty's eldest son, George, wailed, `If you think Jack Forrester is so great, why don't you give him my job?'. 'Don't think I haven't offered it to him', was the father's laconic response. Men with exceptional qualities, in whatever field, frequently have commensurate faults. Like Faust they have made a bargain and pay the price.

The Younger Pitt is remembered better than his father, Chatham. In the same way I hope that, at least in this country, which they both adopted, the great philanthropist, Paul Getty Jr., will be remembered when his father is long forgotten. I see it already.

The accountants and lawyers who take over the founder's estate, corporation or chari- table foundation show such ego-trip arro- gance towards the founder's family that they ride for a fall. This happened with Getty Oil Company, so Gordon Getty, who fortuitously had become the sole trustee of the controlling family trust, quite rightly sold the Company.

I have a soft spot for Gordon. Pearson describes him as an absent-minded innocent, pre-occupied with his music. A year after Gordon had sold the Company crude oil prices crashed, and so naturally did oil shares. Everyone claimed that Gor- don had shown his father's prescient genius. One of the most popular cartoon figures in America was Mr Magoo, who was so myopic that he could not see the tip of his nose, but nothing bad ever happened to him. It would be nice to think that God looks after the good and the innocent.

Paul Getty Jr. has certainly inherited his father's remarkable intelligence, but has largely applied it in his sensitive apprecia- tion of all the arts. In some of these fields his friend Christopher Gibbs has had a seminal influence for the good, which in partnership with the love of his last wife, Victoria, has led to what seems an almost Dostoievskian salvation.

Paul Jr. has certainly encountered more personal tragedies, some self-inflicted, than anyone I know. Britain is fortunate in hav- ing such a charitable friend, and so is this reviewer. I owe him my liberty and my daughter owes him her inheritance, so I have to be restrained in my eulogy. But a billionaire philanthropist who is taught cricket by Mick Jagger and who cracks jokes with Spike Milligan can't be all bad.