The Kidnapping of John Paul Getty III: Background information when reading The Good Mothers

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The Good Mothers

The Story of the Three Women Who Took on the World's Most Powerful Mafia

by Alex Perry

The Good Mothers by Alex Perry X
The Good Mothers by Alex Perry
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2018, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2019, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

The Kidnapping of John Paul Getty III

This article relates to The Good Mothers

Print Review

John Paul Getty IIIAlex Perry's book, The Good Mothers, focuses on an Italian mafia family known as the 'Ndrangheta. This organization was behind the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III.

The story of Getty's kidnapping begins with the 16-year-old's grandfather, J. Paul Getty (1892-1976), founder of the Getty Oil Company in the 1940s. In spite of being vastly wealthy (Forbes named him the richest living person in 1957), he was a notorious cheapskate. Anecdotes abound regarding his penny-pinching: He did his own laundry because he didn't want to pay someone to do it; he installed a pay phone in one of his houses for guests to use; he took a group of friends to a dog show but, finding out that half-price tickets were available after 5:00, made them walk around London until they could take advantage of the offer. Getty married and divorced five times, and had five sons between all of the marriages. His third child, Eugene Paul Getty (1932-2003), was the son of wife number four; he changed his name to John Paul Getty Jr. before marrying his first wife, Gail Harris. Together they had four children, the eldest of whom was John Paul Getty III (1956-2011), who went by Paul. When John Paul and Gail divorced, John Paul moved to Rome, placing Paul in a boarding school there where he was soon expelled. John Paul returned to England, but Paul remained on his own in Rome, living a Bohemian lifestyle and becoming known among his friends as "The Golden Hippie."

Paul mysteriously disappeared in the wee hours of July 10, 1973. His mother received a letter two days later in her son's handwriting that said in part, "Dear Mother: I have fallen into the hands of kidnapers [sic]. Don't let me be killed! Make sure that the police do not interfere. You must absolutely not take this as a joke…Don't give publicity to my kidnaping." Soon thereafter the demand came for $17 million. Gail appealed to the boy's grandfather for help, but the old man refused to assist, famously replying, "I have 14 other grandchildren. If I pay one penny, I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren." In addition, Paul had joked to friends that the only way he could pry money out of his grandfather would be to stage his own kidnapping, so there was some doubt as to whether the boy was truly in danger.

The kidnappers eventually lost patience, and in November they cut off Paul's ear and sent it to a newspaper in Rome along with a note: "This is Paul's ear. If we don't get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits." Grandfather Getty finally decided to take the situation seriously and opened negotiations with the mobsters, talking them down to $2.9 million. He agreed to pay $2.2 million personally (because that was the maximum amount he could deduct from his taxes) and loaned the remainder to his son (Paul's father) at 4% interest.

He arranged for a business associate, Fletcher Chase, to take the money to the kidnappers in a car, which was followed by undercover police. When Chase pulled over the car to exchange the money, the officers also pulled over a short distance away, pretending to be tourists photographing the Italian countryside but all the while surveilling the criminals. Paul was released after the money exchange, on December 15 at a gas station, and was able to flag a passing car for a lift to a phone. Later, he called his grandfather to thank him for his help, but Getty refused to come to the phone.

Arrests began in January 1974, and nine members of the 'Ndrangheta were jailed (including Girolama Piromalli, the 58-year-old top-ranking mafia boss). Two individuals were convicted of kidnapping, and another five were imprisoned on unrelated drug and weapons charges.

Two recent portrayals of these events have reached modern culture. All the Money in the World, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Michelle Williams and Christopher Plummer, was released in 2017. FX released a 10-part limited-series drama called Trust in 2018 directed by Danny Boyle and starring Hilary Swank and Donald Sutherland. The two dramas take different tacks, with the latter indicating that Paul instigated his own kidnapping, only later becoming a victim as negotiations with J. Paul Getty deteriorated.

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Good Mothers. It originally ran in August 2018 and has been updated for the August 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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