The true story behind Ridley Scott's new movie All The Money In The World is so outlandish, audiences could be forgiven for thinking artistic liberties were taken. The rebellious teen grandson of the world's wealthiest man is kidnapped off the street and held for ransom by a notorious branch of the Sicilian mafia. His grandfather refuses to pay a cent, even after the grandson's ear is cut off and sent to the family by mail. What happened to John Paul Getty III during the kidnapping is the focus of All The Money In The World, but this singular event completely shaped the rest of his brief life.
As the movie depicts, Getty's parents had divorced when he was younger, and he lived with his father and stepmother in Rome. After his father left for England following the death of his stepmother, Getty remained there on his own, partying with the likes of Mick and Bianca Jagger. He lived a bohemian life, making and selling jewelry, appearing in experimental Raoul Ruíz and Wim Wenders films. But at 3 a.m. on July 10, 1973, everything changed.
Getty, then 16, was grabbed off the street and blindfolded. Imprisoned in a remote mountain hideout, he had no idea who the kidnappers were, or that they'd sent a ransom note to his family demanding $17 million for his safe return. Initially some family members thought the note was a prank by Getty himself. It wouldn't be out of line, as he'd joked it was the only way he'd get money out of his notoriously tight-fisted grandfather, the Daily Mail reports.
The two weren't close — Getty Sr. had 14 grandchildren total, and didn't approve of Getty's hippie lifestyle or spendthrift ways. The relationship between Getty Sr. and Jr. was even worse — at the time the two weren't on speaking terms, and Jr. was addicted to heroin. According to The Daily Mail, Getty Sr. reached out to Jr. to offer the ransom money on the condition it would come out of Jr.'s inheritance. Jr. refused to speak to his father.
Eventually, Getty Sr. took matters into his own hands, hiring an ex-CIA operative to find Getty. Failing that, Sr. negotiated the ransom down to 2.9 million, paying the maximum tax-deductible amount and loaning the remainder to Jr., with 4 percent interest. When Getty was found and safely returned to his family, he attempted to call and thank his grandfather. Getty Sr. refused to even come to the phone.
A mere nine months later, the teenaged Getty married 24-year old Martine Zacher, forfeiting his share of a trust fund held by Jr. for all his children, under the condition they not marry before age 22. Estranging him further from his father and grandfather was the fact that Zacher was five months pregnant at the time of the marriage. When Getty's son Balthazar (yes, that Balthazar) was born in 1975, Getty was only 18 — famous but broke, his income coming from making and selling art, plus the occasional acting gig.
He and his wife briefly hung out with Andy Warhol's crowd in New York, and lived in Los Angeles during the mid-70s. Nine of his kidnappers were caught, and in 1977 he had reconstructive surgery to replace his sliced ear. Things seemed to be looking up for the young scion. But according to The Daily Telegraph, he suffered deeply from aftereffects of the kidnapping. He'd become addicted to the brandy his captors had given him round the clock in captivity, and suffered from insomnia and paranoia.
The stress took its toll, and Getty turned to drugs. In 1981, he overdosed on a combination of Valium, methadone, and alcohol, going into a weeks-long coma. When he came to, he was blind, unable to talk, and completely paralyzed. Though years later he was able to go out with assistance, he never fully recovered, and remained severely paralyzed the rest of his life. And tragically, Getty had to sue his own father, worth billions at the time, to get any assistance with his expensive medical bills.
In a 1981 People magazine article, Zacher said, “No one really understands what the kidnapping did to him. He came back changed. He wanted to get control of himself, but he just wasn’t able to.” In 2011, after a long illness exacerbated by the lingering effects of his stroke, Getty passed away at the age of 54. A tragic end to a tumultuous life.