At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Friday, 15 December 2017

John Paul Getty III released

Heir to world’s biggest fortune held by kidnappers for 158 days


John Paul Getty III was left severely disabled after a stroke in 1981
John Paul Getty III was left severely disabled
after a stroke in 1981
A story that dominated the Italian press and newspapers around the world ended on this day in 1973 when police responding to a tip-off found a shivering, malnourished and deeply traumatised American teenager inside a disused motorway service area in a remote part of southern Italy.

John Paul Getty III, grandson of the richest man in the world, the oil tycoon John Paul Getty, had been held in captivity for more than five months by a kidnap gang who had demanded $17 million for his safe return.

The boy’s 80-year-old grandfather, whose personal fortune would equate today to almost $9 billion but who was notoriously mean, at first refused to pay a penny and stuck to that position until late November, when a letter containing a lock of hair and a human ear arrived at the offices of a daily newspaper in Rome.

After a further letter arrived containing a photograph of John Paul Getty III minus one ear, the octogenarian’s representatives made contact with the kidnappers and negotiated his release for $3 million.

Even then, John Paul Getty Senior refused to pay more than $2.2 million, which his lawyers allegedly told him was the maximum he could claim as a tax-deductible expense. The other $800,000 was paid by the boy’s father, John Paul Getty II, then usually known as John Paul Getty Junior but later as Sir Paul Getty.

The 17-year-old John Paul Getty III speaks to members of the press following his release
The 17-year-old John Paul Getty III speaks to members
of the press following his release
The story not only shocked Italy but exposed many rather unsavoury secrets about the world’s richest family.

The early life of John Paul Getty III had been fairly unremarkable, as far as is possible for one born into wealth and privilege.  He was one of four children to emerge from John Paul Getty Jnr’s marriage to Gail Harris, a water polo champion.

Although born in Minneapolis, he spent much of his childhood in Rome, where his father was head of Getty Oil Italiana. Life began to unravel for him when his parents divorced and his father took up with a beautiful Dutch actress and model, Talitha Pol, and rejected his former life.

The couple, famously photographed in Marrakesh by the society snapper Patrick Lichfield, led a dissolute lifestyle, flitting from Rome to London to Morocco until Pol died of a heroin overdose in 1971 and her husband, an Anglophile, returned to London.

John Paul Getty Snr at first refused to  consider meeting the ransom demand
John Paul Getty Snr at first refused to
consider meeting the ransom demand
His son was left alone in Rome and his own lifestyle began to follow a similarly Bohemian path. With no senior male figure to guide him, he fell into a life of excess, partying hard and taking drugs. He was arrested for throwing a Molotov cocktail at a left-wing demonstration and reportedly expelled from no fewer than seven schools. By 1971 he had given up on the prospect of an education and decided he would make a living as an artist. He began selling his paintings to local trattorie, and made extra cash by modelling nude for life classes.

It was when his was 16 and sharing an apartment with a couple of other artists that he was seized by a gang led by members of the notorious Calabrian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta. They had clearly noted his nocturnal lifestyle and were able to snatch him fairly easily in the Piazza Farnese in central Rome at three o’clock in the morning on July 10, 1973.

He was blindfolded and chained up in a mountain hideout while the gang issued their ransom demands. At first, even his mother and father had doubts about the authenticity of the kidnap, remembering that their son had joked about faking a kidnap to extract money from his miserly grandfather.

Eventually it became clear it was not a hoax, however. When Gail Harris, the gang’s first point of contact after they had made her son write her a desperate letter, told them she had no money, they demanded that she “get it from London”, implying that her ex-husband or his father should be made to pay.

John Paul Getty III died at his father's estate, Wormsley Park, in Buckinghamshire, which has its own cricket field
John Paul Getty III died at his father's estate, Wormsley Park,
in Buckinghamshire, which has its own cricket field
Although John Paul Getty Jnr would in time inherit a substantial share of the family’s wealth, at that moment he was still relatively poor and it fell to John Paul Getty Snr to decide his grandson’s fate.  Having first reasoned that to settle one ransom demand would simply turn his 13 other grandchildren into kidnap targets, he was finally persuaded to pay up, albeit at a much-reduced figure.  He gave John Paul Getty Jnr a loan to pay his share, charging him interest at four per cent.

Once the money was paid the teenager, who had turned 17 during his captivity, was dumped by his abductors at a motorway service area near Lauria, in the province of Potenza, more than 400km (250 miles) south of Rome.  He was in a poor state of health but while he recovered physically, with his missing ear rebuilt, he was left with deep psychological scars that never healed.

He married a German photographer, Gisela Zacher, and had a son – now an actor, Balthazar Getty - when he was only 18. They moved to New York, where he became part of Andy Warhol’s hedonistic set in Greenwich Village.

In 1981, addicted to Valium and methadone and drinking heavily, he suffered liver failure and a stroke, which left him quadriplegic, almost blind and unable to speak.  His father, who had by then become a philanthropist while battling his own drug addiction, at first refused to pay his son’s medical bills but eventually relented.

John Paul Getty III managed to survive for another 30 years, living in what were effectively his own private hospitals in California, Ireland and at Wormsley in Buckinghamshire, where his father had a building in the grounds of his mansion converted so that his son could live there.  It was at Wormsley in 2011 that he died at the age of 54, having survived his father by eight years.

The Palazzo Farnese houses the French embassy in Rome
The Palazzo Farnese houses the French embassy in Rome
Travel tip:

The Piazza Farnese is the square in front of the Palazzo Farnese, one of the most important High Renaissance palaces in Rome. Owned by the Italian Republic, it was given to the French government in 1936 for a period of 99 years, and currently houses the French embassy.  Built in the 16th century for the Farnese family by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, it was extensively redesigned by Michelangelo when Alessandro Farnese became Pope Pius III. In 1900, the composer Puccini chose the Palazzo Farnese as the setting for a major scene in his opera, Tosca.

The tumbledown ruins of the Saracen castle in Lauria
The tumbledown ruins of the Saracen castle in Lauria
Travel tip:

Lauria is a picturesque medieval walled town built on the side of a steep hill in Basilicata, about 110km (68 miles) southwest of the large city of Potenza. The main sights include the remains of a Saracen castle, once the home of a famous 13th century admiral, Roger of Lauria. The actor and film director, Rocco Papaleo, was born in Lauria in 1958.

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