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The tragic legacy of Getty

By Judy Martel · Bankrate.com
Friday, February 11, 2011
Posted: 2 pm ET

I've heard many people made wiser by wealth say that money by itself doesn't promise happiness, nor is it the root of all evil. It simply magnifies the qualities already present in a person's character. It's the great enabler.

That brings us to the heartbreaking, tumultuous life of J. Paul Getty III, the grandson of oil baron J. Paul Getty, once considered the richest man in the world. The younger Getty died this week at the age of 54. He became notorious more than 30 years ago, when, as a 16-year-old, he was kidnapped by Italian bandits and held for ransom for three months. During that time, his ear was severed and sent to the family as proof that they meant business, and was delivered with a note threatening to send him back in pieces if the ransom demands were not met.

Getty's family publicly appeared to dither. His father claimed not to have the money to pay the ransom, and the family patriarch, Getty's grandfather, refused to pay. An article in the New York Times says the eldest Getty justified his refusal by explaining that he had 14 grandchildren and "If I pay one penny now, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren." Eventually, after the ransom was reduced to $3 million, the elder Getty contributed $2.2 million, and loaned the rest to his son at 4 percent interest.

Once freed, Getty's addiction to drugs and alcohol led to a stroke that left him partially blind and quadriplegic.

Would his life have been different without the legacy of wealth? Certainly, he wouldn't have been kidnapped under those circumstances if he had come from a poor family. But perhaps the tragedy most central to his story is that the family fortune couldn't protect him from harm from himself or others, and likely intensified the kind of miscommunication, mistrust, and dysfunction that takes generations to heal.

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