Was J. Paul Getty Really That Cheap?

An early scene in Trust, the new FX drama that premiered March 25, seeks to establish one singular trait about J. Paul Getty, the oil baron whose family is at the heart of the show: Despite being the richest man in the world, Getty is incredibly cheap (okay, and he's mean, too). On the day of his son's funeral, Getty seems to be more concerned with the increased price of the Times than with his son's death.
In the vastly opulent dining room of Getty's mansion, also known as Sutton Place, replete with gilded ceilings and an enormous table, Getty's butler informs him the Times is now a tuppence more expensive. "So it has, goddamnit. And has the quality of its shoddy journalism improved up by a tuppence?" Getty responds, frowning as he pens the increased price in his ledger, where he keeps meticulous track of his expenses.
This early scene encapsulates the dichotomy constantly at play in Trust: such enormous wealth, contrasted with such astounding miserliness. Getty is incredibly proud of his fortune — and just as proud of his ability to resist spending it. In the first episode, Getty shows his grandson, John Paul Getty III (Harris Dickinson), how money flows from sector to sector of his business, without being taxed. Though the Getty fortune grows, none of it is immediately available for use. "It's a self-sustaining system that never pays a cent in tax, because it never goes a cent into profit...We're so poor, we could get milk tokens," Getty says, grinning.
Getty's hesitance to give up any slice of his fortune is what leads to the to the show's inciting moment. When his grandson, John Paul Getty III, is kidnapped in Italy, Getty refuses to pay the $17 million ransom demanded for John's release. Of course, this happened in real life. Soon after his grandson was kidnapped in 1973, Getty held a press conference and declared, "If I pay one penny now, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”
Getty's money-related quirks are a theme throughout the show, just as they were a theme in his actual life. Getty developed a reputation as a miser — when people visited Sutton Place during public visits, they were more interested in seeing the mansion's famous payphone than his art collection. Supposedly, the payphone was installed when Sutton Place was undergoing renovations. People passing through racked up bills for long-distance calls that sometimes came out to a hundred pounds. As a result, Getty put lockboxes on the landlines, and installed a payphone. The payphone comes up in the show, when John Paul scrambles to find coins while calling his friends.
Similar anecdotes abound. Once, Getty and three friends arrived to a dog show in London at 4:50 p.m. After reading that the five-shilling price of admission would become half-price at 5, Getty forced his friends to take a 10-minute walk around the block so they could pay the reduced price. And part of the reason that Getty lived in Sutton Place, far out in the countryside, was he could enjoy a lower cost of living. Getty told journalist Art Buchwald that he could get a rum and coke for 10 cents at Sutton Place, whereas the same drink would come out to a dollar in the Ritz.
But his habits came at a cost to his family and his relationships, as we see in Trust. His cheapness affected his grandson, and his last son, Timmy. In 1952, at the age of 6, Timmy developed a brain tumor that quickly blinded him. Timmy and his mother Teddy, Getty's fifth wife, lived in the United States; Getty lived in Europe. Though Getty was devastated by the sickness (he wrote about it frequently in his diary), Getty still critiqued the way Teddy handled the hospital bills. “I’m glad that you realize they are enormous,” he wrote to Teddy in a letter. “You should always, if there is time, and there was in this case, have an agreement in advance as to what the charges will be. Some doctors like to charge a rich person 20 times more than their regular fee.” Timmy died when he was 12.
Trust is a show about the way the abundance of money affects a family. Without Getty's money, there'd be no legend; without his cheapness, there'd be no show.
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