No Longer With Us: John Paul Getty

In 2003, the year the great John Paul Getty died, the Spectator ran a piece containing, in its words, ‘the only interview he ever gave’.

I had in fact interviewed him in 1998, for the Oldie magazine, and wrote to the then editor Boris Johnson accordingly. Mr  Johnson replied, most courteously, a few days later, thanking me kindly for ‘setting the record straight’.

My original interview, in full, is reproduced below.

You seem to have achieved almost mythical status in your adopted country. Is this a cross to bear, or is it something you are comfortable with?

I’m very proud of it, to tell you the truth, although I do find it sometimes a bit of a cross. As you can imagine I get enormous bags of mail after every exposure in the  newspapers. I really don’t like any publicity -I think it’s an invasion of privacy – but as you can see, I can sometimes be made to cooperate. On the whole I would welcome  privacy laws. I don’t believe the public has the right to know what everyone is doing in their private lives.

Have you ever been hurt by publicity?

Of course I have/ on behalf of my children particularly. I myself can take it but I don‘t like the way it affects the people I love. Your parents divorced when you were only four years old and you were brought up mainly by your mother.

It. seems to be the convention to describe one’s childhood as either happy or unhappy … which was yours, would you say?

Mine was very happy. I wouldn’t want to live it over again, but it was happy yes. My mother wasn’t a particularly good mother in the posturing sense she left that up to my grandmother, who bossed us about and got us ready for bed when my mother was off doing other things. But my mother was always very good company and had a great sense of humour. I think I was her favourite child, which isn’t fair to my brother and sister, but it was true, and I basked in her approval.

It is notoriously difficult for the sons of famous fathers have you also found it so yourself?

It’s monstrously difficult. I never felt I had any of the genius of my father and although I loved him very much he was always a remote figure and I only saw him once or twice a year when I was a child. I wish I had been able to see more of him. When I did see more of him I was working for him and I used to regret that he treated me more like an employee than like a son, although I know that he loved me. Indeed, for much of the time I was his favourite, but it didn’t last. It was my fault, not his.

Whenever there is mention of your father he is usually described as a colourful entrepreneur who took most of the policy decisions himself, and also a man of legendary miserliness. Do you think this is an unfair portrait?

It is unfair, because it only shows one side of him. He was very careful about money, just as most American millionaires have been, but he had many other sides to his character. He had a huge personality and he could be very funny, although he had a few favourite jokes that I must have heard hundreds of times over the years.

Your father was, like you, a great art collector … was he also a lover of art as you are, or merely an investor?

He loved art, but he never divorced it from the investment side. He started his collection in areas of art that were at that time cheap – French furniture and classical art, both considered to be undervalued. So he was certainly always conscious of the value of what he was buying. He wasn’t impulsive about buying things, but he knew a great deal about his art, and he was a serious collector.

Did you inherit your aesthetic sense or is it completely your own, would you say?

I must have inherited my father’s genes, although my own interests are very rarely in the same field as his. I don’t really like French furniture and I have no desire to collect in the areas he collected in. In any case I’m not a serious collector in comparison to him.

When did you start collecting things?

When I was about sixteen, I suppose. I started with gramophone records. I was at a girlfriend’s house and her father was playing a record in the background, and I heard this marvellous voice coming from some corner of the house. I asked what it was, and was told it was Caruso. I had no knowledge whatsoever of opera at the time, but I had heard of Caruso, though I didn’t know that he’d lived in recent enough times to have recorded. It was a great sound, and so I immediately became fascinated by him and started to collect his records. Then I extended it to early recordings in general After that, I fell in love with the writer Scott Fitzgerald, and – would you believe it – when I was about seventeen, none of Scott Fitzgerald’s works were in print, and so I had to go to second-hand book shops to buy them. Before long I couldn’t stay away from second-hand book shops, and I’ve collected books ever since.

You have been described not simply as knowledgeable about art, but also erudite. How and when was this learning acquired?

That’s a difficult question. Just over the years, by looking at art… just by osmosis.

You followed your father and grandfather into the oil business but you hated it. Was there no opportunity to choose your own career – as an art historian for example?

Well if I had my life to live over again, I might have been a marine biologist. I often think I might have done that, and my life would certainly have been very different.

You were not born a Catholic but you went to a Jesuit school. How did this come about?

Like many American boys I had been sent to military schools. I don’t think they exist anymore, certainly not outside of the United States as far as I know, but when I was about fourteen I decided I no longer wanted to go to military school, nor to any kind of boarding school, so my mother investigated the schools in our area of San Francisco where we were living at the time. I’m very glad to say she selected Saint Ignatius, a Jesuit school, and I’m grateful for the education they gave me.

I’ve read that you very much liked what you learnt from the Jesuits. Would you care to expand on that?

I liked the slant on classical education, and I liked the Catholic service, the Latin, the incense, the smells and bells. Before, I had always gone to boarding schools where they would take us off to the nearest Protestant service and so I sat through endless Sundays at churches of various denominations of the Protestant faith. That helped turn me into a Catholic.

Are you still a Catholic?

Yes, I am, though I very much regret the Second Vatican Conference and the loss of the Latin mass.

The Jesuits famously believe in the moulding of children… give us the child and we will give you the man… do you think that applied to you at all?

I was more than seven years of age of course, but I suppose it applied to me just the same.

Your youngest half brother, Tim, died after surgery on a brain tumour. How old were you when this happened? Were you deeply affected by it?

I must have been in my 20s. I was working for my father in Milano at the time, it must have been about 1959, and although I didn’t know Timmy well – I’d only seen him as a very young child – I was very moved by his death.

I’ve seen it reported many times that after this tragedy you became your father’s favourite, and equally I have read that you and he never got on well. What is the truth?

Well, we got on as well as we could. I always felt ill at ease with him since he was such a grand figure and he didn’t make himself available to his children. For example, I remember when I. was about 14 I wrote him a letter, actually the first letter I’d ever written him. I waited anxiously for an answer and after some weeks the answer came, but it was just my own letter with the spelling corrected. So I saw him more as a criticiser than as a loving and helpful father, though I’m sure that isn’t what he meant in his heart. He was a remote and lofty figure, and I was very much in awe of him. He was very careful about his things which we weren’t allowed to touch. He loved maple sugar candy, which is a Canadian speciality, and he used to have it in the deep freeze, the first deep freeze I’d ever seen. It was absolutely full o f maple sugar candy, but there were notes in the chest, saying DO NOT TOUCH. (laughter) It was his own private stock and we were forbidden to go near.

You were not born in America, but in Italy I believe…

I was born on a boat. I was supposed to be born in Paris, at the American hospital, but unfortunately my parents were on their way by boat from Naples to Genoa when I came along. I  was taken off the boat in my mother’s hatbox, before proceeding by train to Paris. That was my birth.

Did the knowledge of this, the fact that you were not born in America, have any bearing on your desire to live away from the USA? Did it make it easier to renounce your birthright?

No it had nothing to do with it. I came to love Europe when I first visited in 1949, and in 1951 our mother brought Gordon and me to Europe for the summer, and I loved it. From then on I always had Europe in the back of my mind until I finished up in Europe and never got back to the Sates except for short visits.

You recently confessed that handing over your American passport, which you were obliged to do in person, was traumatic. Was this because of the solemnity and finality of the act itself?

Yes i was very conscious of the importance of American citizenship and I didn’t give it up lightly, but since I have no intention of ever going back to America to live, it made things easier to get rid of that part of my past. It’s not that I dislike America, it’s just that I live here because I love it here and my family is here.

Are there any aspects of the American way of life that you still miss?

No, I don’t think so. I have American friends whom I still se. They come over here, and I shall be going to America in January if they give me a visa. When I gave up my Passport they rather harangued me in an attempt to dissuade me from renouncing my citizenship. I was told that I might never be allowed to go back to America again and I wouldn’t see my family, but I felt strongly that I would deserve a visa as much as any other British citizen would.

Do you take any interest at all in present day American politics?  Do you think it is right, for example, that President Clinton should be so relentlessly pursued for hid sexual peccadilloes when he seems to be doing well otherwise?

I don’t take any more interest in American politics than any other British citizen would, but I do think that it’s absurd to harass Clinton about his sexual peccadilloes. That’s really between him and his wife and has nothing to do with the press or the American public. I don’t greatly admire him myself, but I know he’s kept the country on a good financial keel.

You served in the US army for a short stint during the Korean War. Did you see any action?

No. I’m glad I had the experience of the army, though I didn’t enjoy it at the time. I very much wish that my boys had had the opportunity of serving their nation. It certainly taught me a lot that I wouldn’t otherwise have learned, and I met whole strata of sodety that I wouldn’t otherwise have met. It can also be character building. I don’t advance myself as an example of that, but I can’t help thinking that my son Paul might have benefited from some discipline that he didn’t get from his family.

I have seen a photograph of you demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. Did your army experience help you to form anti-war feelings or was it just all part of the mood of the time?

The latter. It was just the Zeitgeist. I wouldn’t march for nuclear disarmament now.

Your interest in English history and your admiration for English culture are well known, but it is sometimes said that you have a rather idealised picture of England, that you see it in a romantic light. Would you agree with that?

Yes, I would. I see England as I would like it to be, I’m afraid. I’m very much against this government, for example, and what they are doing. I think they are very trivial in many respects, and also authoritarian. Telling us not to eat beef on the bone – that kind of thing is just absurd.

But the old Tory government in the end were not very impressive…

Oh absolutely, I couldn’t agree with you more. They had to go, no question about it, and I actually wanted to see Labour win -I just didn’t want them to get such a huge majority. That’s a great mistake, and I think this country will regret it.

Tony Blair is pledged to reform the House of Lords, but only as far as depriving the hereditary peers of their right to vote. Most Americans would see this as elementary democracy … do you?

I don’t think they should get rid of the hereditary peers entirely. Many of them do a great job of work and have areas of knowledge that no MP has, and that is very important for the rest of us. Labour doesn’t like being outnumbered by hundreds of conservative hereditary peers,  but I wouldn’t scrap them. What are they going to replace them with?

Elected ones, I suppose.

That sounds terrible to me.

What are your views on the monarchy? Do you think it can last very far into the next century?

I certainly hope so. I think Prince Charles will make a fine king, and I look forward to his firstborn son becoming king in his time. The system of monarchy works in this country.

Is it better than, say, the American presidential system?

I think, it suits us-I certainly don’t want to see a President Blair. We’re very lucky to have the monarchy, and I think we should stop complaining about it and get on with it. And the royal family shouldn’t be too accessible – that’s where all the troubles have come from.

In spite of your efforts to shun publicity, everybody has heard of you as a public benefactor on a grand scale, but your generosity extends beyond the big causes to quite maverick examples of largesse – rescuing a homeless dog, for instance. Do these causes, large and small, seem to you to be equally worthy, equally important?

I don’t think for a minute they are equally important, but I derive equal satisfaction from them, while recognising they are of a different order.

You once said: ‘Everything is motivated to some extent by my religious beliefs.’ Do you see your own philanthropy as perhaps just a way of fulfilling your Christian duty to be charitable – in other -words, the principle remains the same, only the degree to which it is applied differs?

It’s much more than that, really. We take a lot from society and from history and we should give back what we can, and that’s what I try to do. It’s more than just paying my tithe; it’s to do with compassion and being humane.

You are now very much a practising Catholic and have emerged from the years of ill health and loneliness which followed the death of your wife and your son’s kidnapping. Did your faith help you to recover from that terrible time?

It had more to do with friends and Victoria, my present wife. I had largely abandoned my faith in those days. It was only when I started to get back on my feet that I started practising again.

How do you feel when you look back on those bad days?

I regret the waste of time.

You mentioned some changes in the Catholic Church. Do you think it will have to go further? Would you like to see celibacy, for instance, becoming an option for the priesthood rather than an obligation?

I think it must. Vocations are falling off so badly that they’re going to have to do something in order to get priests back in the parishes. There simply aren’t enough people out there who are willing to be celibate any longer.

How important is sex in the scheme of things?

I think it’s great, but I don’t think it’s vital. I know celibate people who appear to me to be happy and well adjusted and living a useful life and serving the common good.

Yet in your time you have been very attracted to women…

Yes, well, I myself don’t intend to be celibate [laughter] But I think one can live without it. One does have periods when one does; on the other hand there are other periods when one can’t…

Did any of your children have a Catholic education?

No, I’m sorry to say they didn’t. It is a matter of considerable regret to me.

They don’t seem to have a religious aspect to their lives, but I hope that might come.

What do your American friends think of your love for cricket, a game which other nations find totally baffling, or boring, or both?

I think I have actually managed to convert a couple of them to it, at least to the point where they understand it. I suppose most American friends think I’m eccentric, but I don’t mind, what they think. I am fanatical about cricket. It’s given me a lot of pleasure, both in watching the game and in the friends I’ve made through cricket.

It has been suggested that cricket is like jazz, in often having particular appeal to intellectuals … would you agree?

It seems to be the case. Let’s face it, cricket is a very complicated sport and it takes a fairly good brain to manage it. I tell my American friends that the difference between baseball and cricket is the difference between draughts and chess – chess being the more intellectual game, and cricket being the more intellectual sport.

England’s women players have enjoyed a great deal of success in international contests, more perhaps than their male counterparts in recent times. Have you ever invited the women’s team to play at Wormsley?

Actually I haven’t, but we have had one woman bowler, an Australian, play at Wormsley for a team called the Crusaders, and I was very amused when she trooped off with the lads into the showers afterwards.

Did you vote for women to be admitted to Lords?

I voted against it, I have to say, because I felt there was a political correctness element to the question. I hate political correctness in all its forms. But I wouldn’t vote against it again. They’ll bring it up again in a year or two and I expect I’ll support it.

In the libel case brought by Imran Khan against lan Botham there was much speculation in the press that the jury had been swayed in Khan’s favour, that the handsome, Oxford educated aristocrat could not be guilty as charged by the rather lowborn Botham. What was your reaction to the affair in cricketing terms, and to the influence of class in English society in general?

That’s a terrible question, really diabolical, [laughter] Come back and ask me that another time, will you?

OK, let me ask you this: does the class aspect of cricket worry you?

It doesn’t worry me so much as the fact that the comprehensive schools don’t have any place to play cricket, don’t have any time to play it, don’t have any staff to teach it, coach it – that’s what concerns me about cricket. I deeply regret the fact that all youngsters are not being given the chance nowadays to play the game and learn from it. It shouldn’t be elitist, it should be available to everyone.

I note that you think that the appointment of Tony Banks as sports minister is the government’s way of putting two fingers up to cricket. Is it not simply the realisation that the overwhelming majority of people in Britain equate sport with football perhaps?

Again I’m deeply sad to see football becoming the middle class sport. I also hate to see it eating into the time available for cricket. It wasn’t so long ago that a man could play both sports professionally, and that’s no longer possible because the football season overlaps into the cricket season. I regret that a lot.

The prohibition of drugs in almost every civilised country has totally failed to curb their use. Would you add your voice to those who call for their use to be made legal, to defeat the drug barons, even if that meant an increased demand at first?

Absolutely, absolutely. I am one hundred percent in favour of that, yes. It would be much better to put the drug barons out of business and make drugs available to those who would keep them under strict control.

You and your family have been afflicted more than most by the effect of drugs, together with the dangers of great wealth. How far would you say you were victims as opposed to architects of your own troubles?

Oh, I think we make our own problems. I can’t blame anybody else for my problems.

You’re philosophical about that?

I guess so.

Your life has been touched by deep tragedy; indeed many people describe it as a curse. on your family. Do you see it at all as a curse?

I see describing it as a curse as superstitious nonsense.

In literature, tragedy poses questions about the nature and purpose of life, and yet it stresses the redeeming aspects, such as nobility in suffering, or those lessons we can learn from disorder and breakdown. In your experience, would you say that life imitates art in this sense?

That’s a very difficult question. I wish you’d submitted that one in advance. [Laughter] Certainly literature is based on human experience, so to that extent tragedy is part of human experience, but whether we actually learn from it is another matter.

You are regarded by most people as a man who has overcome the unhappiness and tragedy of earlier years to become the greatest philanthropist of all time. Are you happy to be regarded in this light?

Well, I’m certainly not the greatest philanthropist of all time. The great American philanthropists – Carnegie and so on – were in a different league altogether. It would make life a lot easier if I wasn’t known as a philanthropist. I often wish that I could just quietly do it and not have it known, but that just isn’t always possible.

It’s natural to see your life as a success story … but perhaps you have paid a high price for success ?

Nothing I wasn’t willing to pay. No, I’m glad I’ve got this far.

How would you like to be remembered by all your friends?

I leave that to them…

Modern theologians have more or less watered down the idea of Hell and are increasingly vague about Heaven. Do you have any vision of an afterlife?

No I don’t. I believe there is such a thing, in that I don’t think life ends here, but I don’t know what it’s going to be. I don’t think we’re going to sit on clouds strumming harps. But I do believe there’s something else out there.

Do you feel at ease with your faith, at peace with yourself?

Life is not always easy. But I don’t think my faith has done me any harm. It’s served me well, and I’m glad I have it. I think I can die peacefully now. After all, I’ve had the Australian cricket team playing at Wormsley so I have nothing left to live for…. (laughter)

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