Correction: An earlier version of this review included a citation that was incorrect in the book.The F. Scott Fitzgerald quotation about the rich being “different from you and me” was from his short story “The Rich Boy,” not, as the book indicated, from “The Great Gatsby.” This version has been corrected.
Charles Fox begins “Uncommon Youth,” his oral history of the events that occurred before, during and after one of the most high-profile kidnappings of the 20th century, with a quote from “The Rich Boy”: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.”
That F. Scott Fitzgerald passage serves as a preview of what’s to come in this excessively detailed account of the 1973 abduction of J. Paul Getty III. As promised, “Uncommon Youth” is a complicated story about the hard-to-relate-to members of an extraordinarily wealthy family. It’s a book that will be of great interest to anyone still obsessed with the spate of early-’70s kidnappings involving notable young elites — Getty, Frank Sinatra Jr. and Patty Hearst among them. Those who closely tracked the Getty case will be particularly intrigued by all the nitty-gritty details here, including one revelation in the book’s epilogue during an interview between Getty’s former wife and Fox, whose work has been published posthumously. (The author died in 2012 after living for many years with multiple sclerosis.)
But the rest of the reading public — particularly those who weren’t alive when Italian kidnappers placed the young Getty’s severed ear in an envelope and mailed it to his mother — will probably be lost and possibly bored by all the rambling tales of opium trips, negligent parenting and intense ransom-payment politics. One has a better chance of appreciating this book if she comes to it with a solid background in Getty history and a laser-like determination to keep track of the many key players and ancillary personalities who make appearances throughout its pages. It’s an ensemble so vast as to rival “Game of Thrones.”
The kidnapping that is central to all the drama occurred in July 1973, when 16-year-old Getty — nicknamed Little Paul to distinguish him from his father (Big Paul) and grandfather (Old Paul, the oil magnate and onetime richest man in the world) — was yanked off the streets of Rome, thrown into a car and held hostage for five months. His captors sought $17 million in exchange for his release, but the obvious resource for such cash — Old Paul, who comes across as an even crueler version of Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life” — refused to pay. After drawn-out negotiations and, of course, that nasty business involving the ear, a payout of $3 million put an end to the unpleasant, headline-generating affair.
Interestingly, Little Paul’s mother — Gail Harris, ex-wife of Big Paul — points out that two days before the funds miraculously became liquid, she sent an emotional appeal to President Richard Nixon, a politician supported generously by Old Paul. “All of a sudden the money was there,” she says. “I wasn’t about to ask any questions or make any waves.”
But that’s only one portion of the story that Fox, who first covered the Getty case in 1973 for True magazine, seeks to tell. Actually, the author doesn’t dig fully into the kidnapping until the book has nearly reached its halfway point. Instead, he uses his extensive access to Little Paul, relatives, former lovers, attorneys and housekeepers to create a portrait of a jet-setting family whose various members got sucked into alcohol, drugs, adultery and a glammed-up version of the ’60s bohemian lifestyle, often forgetting in the process to take care of themselves.
In between sections of transcribed dialogue from those interviews, Fox raises questions about the nature of Getty’s kidnapping. Was the teenager really snatched by members of the Calabrian mafia and held against his will? Or was his abduction an elaborate ruse designed by Getty himself to finally yank some money from the tight-fisted grasp of his grandfather, as some suspected back in ’73? Or was it some bizarre combination of the two?
“Uncommon Youth” ultimately concludes the latter: based on an interview with Martine Zacher, the ex-wife of little Paul, the book reveals in its final pages that the young Getty planned his own kidnapping but abandoned the plan, only to wind up getting kidnapped for real. The book doesn’t put this episode or the story of the Getty family into a broader context. The kidnapping took place 40 years ago. Why now, when the chasm between the ultra-wealthy and the economically struggling is widening daily, should we care what happened to a very rich kid who had so many advantages and still turned into such a tragic figure? Getty died in 2011, three decades after a devastating drug overdose left him paralyzed and wheelchair-bound.
While not addressing that larger question effectively, the author — who became good friends with his subject — makes clear that he believes Getty had the intelligence and energy to do something more with his life, to engage in the productive pursuits that his siblings and his only son, actor Bathalzar Getty, eventually found. But the post-traumatic effects of the abduction and the distant relations between him and both his father and grandfather turned him into a man perpetually searching for purpose.
“Paul was knocked off his feet before ever he found them,” Fox writes. “What may be said for him is that he lived the life that was presented to him.”
Maybe that’s the takeaway. In 1973 and, still, in 2013, it’s astonishing how easy it is for a bright young man to get lost.
The Gilded Life and Tragic Times
of J. Paul Getty III
By Charles Fox
St. Martin’s. 289 pp. $25.99