John Paul Getty III was born into a wealthy family. His grandfather was oil baron, Jean Paul Getty, and Getty III was the oldest of four children. He was expected to carry on his grandfather’s and father’s footsteps, but he rebelled. He grew up in boarding schools in Rome and England, and was expelled as a teenager for painting the hallway walls. Rather than return to England, he chose to stay in Italy, where he basically lived like a hobo, selling art and occasionally appearing in Italian films in bit parts.
While hanging out in Rome in the wee hours of July 10, 1973, he was kidnapped by a group of men. They delivered a ransom note to his father, by post, requiring $17 million for Getty III’s release. John Paul Getty, Jr., asked his father for the money, but was refused. Getty, Sr. didn’t want it to seem like he would pay astronomical sums to get his family members back. He had 14 other grandchildren and he didn’t want to set that precedent. After his refusal, a second letter arrived with hair and a human ear in it. The note accompanying the grisly items said, “This is Paul’s ear. If we don’t get some money within 10 days, then the other other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits.” They demanded a reduced sum of $3.2 million. Getty, Sr. loaned his son $2.2 million (approx. $21.2 million today) with the understanding that he would be paid back at 4% interest. He was only willing to give $2.2 million, as that was the largest amount that was tax deductible. John Paul Getty III was subsequently released. Nine of his kidnappers were later captured, but only two served time.
In 1977, Getty had an operation to rebuild the ear that had been cut off by his kidnappers
Getty was an alcoholic and drug addict. In 1981, he imbibed a valium, methadone, and alcohol cocktail which caused liver failure and a stroke, leaving him a quadriplegic and nearly blind. He never fully recovered and remained heavily handicapped for the rest of his life. By 1987, however, a daily regime of exercise, physiotherapy and speech therapy during which he reportedly showed “extraordinary willpower”, had helped him regain some degree of autonomy. He could again visit concerts and cinema, and was even able to ski, when strapped to a metal frame.
On 5 February 2011, aged 54, Getty died at Wormsley, Buckinghamshire following a long illness. He had been in poor health since his 1981 drug overdose. He was survived by his son and his mother.