Benjamin Franklin said a penny saved is a penny earned, and it’s a good motto to live by! But I’ll bet that you’d agree with me here when I say there are exceptions to that rule, especially in dire situations! I’m sure you know the big billionaire names like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. But what about J. Paul Getty?
Well, in case that was before your time, Getty was the richest man on Earth back in the 1960s. With about $1.2 billion then, that’d be like having almost $10 billion today! Not bad for 50-some years ago! But the oil tycoon wasn’t only famous for his wealth but also for his extreme penny-pinching.
$17 million for my grandchild’s safe return?
And the incident that sealed his position as a legendary miser was a dark one. That was the kidnapping of his 16-year-old grandson, John Paul Getty III, in 1973… At the time of the incident, the free-spirited teen was living in Rome with his father. But an heir to the world’s richest man living among them did not go unnoticed, and the local media was well aware of who he was. Due to his bohemian lifestyle, he was dubbed “the Golden Hippie” by the press, and was made into a celebrity just because of his surname.
On one fateful day, the boy was out buying a comic book at a newsstand. It was then when the kidnappers grabbed him. The men drove him to a cave in the southern part of the country. With the kidnapping having gone smoothly, they issued a ransom note demanding $17 million for the young man’s safe return. (That would be $100 million in today’s dollars.) When the boy’s father asked his own father for the money, he was refused.
The miserly grandfather thought it was just a ploy to extract money from him. And perhaps he was right? Unfortunately, these sorts of things do happen… Even the boy’s girlfriend said that he’d toyed with the idea of faking his own kidnapping in order to get money from his grandpa. But those were the days when the young couple was struggling to make ends meet.
After they started getting modeling gigs, good sense prevailed and they dropped the idea. Well, all doubts of the kidnapping being a hoax were laid to rest when the kidnappers started making (and carrying out!) very real threats to bring harm to the young man. I’ll spare you the horrific details, but in the end, Friends, Romans, Countrymen — everybody understood that this whole ordeal was very real. But Getty, despite being a multi-billionaire, still refused to pay the ransom!
How the teen was finally released?
Left with no other option, Paul’s mother Gail decided to raise funds herself to secure the release of her son. She even talked to one of the kidnappers on the phone, who just could not believe that this family wasn’t delivering the money! How could this old man leave his own flesh and blood in the plight that her poor son was now in? They say the abductors even started sympathizing with their captive!
Or maybe they thought that their prized hostage was proving worthless to them, and their efforts had been in vain? Well, I guess we’ll never know… What we do know is that after five months, the old man finally relented but only after he’d negotiated with the abductors and brought the ransom down to $3 million (17 mil today).
Getty agreed to actually hand over no more than $2.2 million, since that was the maximum amount he could write off on his taxes. He lent the remaining $800,000 to his son (the boy’s father)…at 4% interest. Boy! Move over Ebenezer, there’s a new miser in town! The teen was finally released after the ransom was paid.
Once he was back home, at his mother’s suggestion, he tried to call his grandfather to thank him for paying the ransom, but J. Paul Getty refused to come to the phone. He later told the media that he didn’t believe in paying kidnappers. “I have 14 other grandchildren, and if I pay one penny now, then I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren,” is the way he put it.
Anyway, it might come as no surprise to you that a man who would negotiate with a kidnapper to get his grandson’s ransom down was pretty notorious throughout his life for bargaining on almost everything.
The 72-room mansion for half the price
Be it luxury suites or buying artwork and real estate, he wouldn’t purchase anything without lowering the price first. So when he started looking to buy the gorgeous English manor “Sutton Place” in Surrey County, UK all for himself, he was determined to get the best deal out of it.
And that’s exactly what he got! He managed to buy the 72-room mansion for about half the price that the owner had paid 40 years earlier when he purchased it. At this point, you can probably imagine why he decided to move from the big city to a small provincial county – it was purely financial! The cost of living in Surrey was a lot cheaper than in London.
He even told one American columnist that it cost 10 cents for a rum and coke in Surrey, whereas at the Ritz London, it was more than a dollar! Well, yeah, I’m sure he saved a lot of money living the country life! There are tons of other anecdotal stories about Getty’s reputed stinginess.
They might seem comical, ridiculous, and sometimes even stranger than fiction, but that doesn’t mean they’re not true! His secretary claimed that Getty would wash his clothes by hand because he didn’t want to pay for them to be laundered. When his shirts became frayed at the cuffs, he’d trim the frayed part instead of purchasing new ones. And on those rare occasions that he did get himself some clothes, he was miserly about that too.
For example, he never bought a pair of socks that cost more than $1. Re-using stationery was another obsession of his. He carefully saved and re-used manila envelopes, rubber bands, and other office supplies. To save money on central heating, he placed a few electrical heaters in his sitting room. Hey, why heat a whole mansion if you’re the only one living there? I can see where he was coming from on this one.
Then again, why buy a whole mansion just for yourself… When Getty took a group of friends to a dog show in London, he made them walk around the block for 10 minutes until the tickets became half-price at 5 p.m. Oh, but that’s not all his friends and close ones had to endure (the whole kidnapping thing aside, of course).
His guests would sometimes use his home phones to make international calls to Australia or the US, and those weren’t cheap. (Remember, this is before Skype or FaceTime were ever a thing!) So, Getty decided to install a pay-phone in his home for his guests. That’s right, to make a call, they had to pay! Also, he placed dial-locks on all the regular phones in the mansion so that only authorized people could use them.
Why was he so miserly?
Ok, I think you really get it by now: this guy was Scrooge despite his billions. But why is that? Author John Pearson attributed part of Getty’s extreme penny-pinching to his strict upbringing, which emphasized modest living and personal economy. He’d never purchase anything unless he was convinced that its value would increase with time.
Getty claimed that his frugality towards others was a response to people trying to take advantage of him and not paying their fair share. Well, if you can try to see it from his point of view, I guess people using you for your money would become a growing problem the bigger your fortune gets… Still though, I mean, come on! But above all, Getty’s story shows us that money can’t always bring happiness.
Maybe it sometimes can, but certainly not always. Despite all his wealth and fame, J. Paul Getty lived a solitary life. He was married and divorced five times. And despite having five sons and many grandchildren, he almost always lived alone. But it’s worth mentioning that Getty’s story isn’t just about his brutal thrift. There’s no denying that he was a hard-worker and a capable businessman.
At the age of 74, when most people are retiring and taking it easy, Getty was still working about 16 to 18 hours every single day overseeing his operations around the world. In his last interview, which he gave a few weeks before his passing, when asked the question, “What else do you, the richest man in the world, want in life?” he said, “I’d want to do business further.”
And, well, I guess that sums it all up! Why do you think Getty was reluctant to pay the ransom – out of genuine concern for his other grandkids, his upbringing, or just pure greed? Let me know your theories down in the comments! If you learned something new today, remember to rate this article “A story of Paul Getty who refused to pay for his own grandson” and share it with a friend.
Credit: Bright Side