"I am a poor man," Aristotle Onassis once said. "I transport oil but I do not produce it. Mr. Getty is a rich man. He transports oil, but he also produces it." There, in a thimbleful of words, is everything historically significant about the life of the late John Paul Getty, in his time the richest man in the United States and the subject of these two belated, moderately interesting, incomplete and, alas, somewhat pointless biographies: Robert Lenzner's "The Great Getty" and Russell Miller's "The House of Getty."
As it happens, both volumes are also mistitled. J. Paul Getty was not great, in the sense that he confused himself with a force of nature and thus led a life of achievement; to paraphrase William Faulkner, he pumped the oil and then he died, and that was about it.
It is true that he was married five times and in later life surrounded himself with a harem of sorts, that he collected paintings and furniture, and that he left behind a California museum whose spectacular endowment has begun to exert a distorting effect on the world's art market, but these were functions of his libido and his money, not of a shaping intellect and overmastering vision. Oil, as Getty remarked in one of his few memorable utterances, is a wild commodity; it belongs to anyone who can capture it by digging a hole in the ground, and with luck it will make him rich. However, it will not necessarily make him into a warm and wonderful human being. Despite his great wealth, J. Paul Getty remained pretty much the man he had always been. And the man he had always been was something of a small-scale nut.
Nor did Getty found a house, Russell Miller notwithstanding. He fathered four sons, who in turn produced grandchildren (a fifth son died in childhood), but the creation of a gene pool is not the same thing as the foundation of a dynasty. Like certain very rich men, he was a terrible father, an overwhelming and self-obsessed but absent figure, with results that will be depressingly familiar to students of great wealth. His oldest son committed suicide, which Miller manages to miss entirely. His third son and namesake became a heroin addict and recluse who sired J. Paul Getty III, one of recent history's more famous kidnap victims.
Of all his immediate offspring, only Gordon, the youngest, seems likely to make his mark on the world, but in a rather odd way. Depending on how the cards fall in the next few months, Gordon Getty may very well become the man who destroyed Texaco, the petroleum giant, when he sold it the family firm, Getty Oil, rather than handing his father's corporate legacy over to Pennzoil, which has (so far) successfully expressed its outrage in court. This is hardly the stuff of a great family saga, although the simultaneous squabbling over the Getty billions seems likely to provide many lucrative paydays for generations of lawyers yet unborn.
If the Getty phenomenon is meaningful in any larger sense -- if it is to instruct, enlighten and transcend gossip -- it is because of the context in which J. Paul was able to amass his wealth, and not because of the pay phone he once installed in his English manor house, Sutton Place.
Like the senior Rockefeller, he perceived that a door had opened in history, and he slipped through before it closed. He was not a self-made man -- he inherited the oil business from his father -- and if he had failed to pump the petroleum he found in Oklahoma, California and the Neutral Zone between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, someone else would have found and extracted it; market forces, and not his own ingenuity, made him rich beyond the dreams of avarice, and once his fortune was amassed, it became strangely inert. Even the odious Andrew Carnegie founded libraries, but during his lifetime, J. Paul Getty created nothing but a furniture collection.
His present biographers, however, manfully flail away at his life story as though it were actually possible to harvest a crop, forgetful of the cardinal rule that an unexamined fact is usually not worth giving. Nor has either of them assembled the entire story, small though it was; amazingly, the books have to be read in tandem. Lenzner, a newspaperman and former investment banker, is adept at examining the public record; Miller possesses greater powers of anecdote. But like Sherlock Holmes' colleague Dr. Watson, they have seen but they have not observed. The moral of the Getty fortune is that it was not worth having.