For those unfamiliar with the 1973 Getty kidnapping, the plot of Ridley Scott’sAll the Money in the World may seem ludicrous: the richest man in the world refuses to pay his grandson’s ransom—a paltry sum in comparison to his vast oil fortune; an Italian kidnapper is so disgusted by said action that he actually takes pity on his hostage, and finds himself reprimanding the hostage’s maddeningly slow-moving family members on their messed-up priorities; a body part is savagely sliced off and popped into an envelope as proof of life.
Alas, the major events in All the Money in the World—written by David Scarpa, based on John Pearson’s 1995 book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty—are rooted in truth. In fact, some of the scenes that unfold on-screen are even less dramatic than what happened in real life. Ahead, with help from screenwriter Scarpa, a thorough fact-checking.
In real life, 16-year-old Paul Getty had become somewhat of a fringe celebrity while living in Rome, thanks to his last name. The teenager—who had dropped out of formal schooling, dressed in bohemian clothing, and wore long, curly hair—had been nicknamed “the Golden Hippie” by the press.
As depicted in the film, Paul was walking alone to the apartment he shared with two artists in the early hours of July 10, 1973, when a car pulled up alongside him, and the driver asked, “Excuse me, signore. Are you Paul Getty?” When Paul responded affirmatively, he was pulled into the car, muzzled with a chloroform-soaked pad and gag, and driven south to a rural hideaway.
Because neither Paul nor his mother Gail had access to the Getty fortune, Paul had occasionally bartered his paintings for meals from a restaurant near his apartment. Gail suspected that someone working in the restaurant had revealed the teenager’s identity to the criminals who kidnapped Paul.
Paul was chained in several different hideaways, including a cave (which was not shown in the movie). His captors, who wore masks, gave Paul a radio to listen to, fed him, allowed him to bathe in a nearby stream, and told him that as long as he did what he was told he would not be hurt. The captors wrongly assumed that the kidnapping would be over quickly.
In real life, Paul never even saw the faces of his captors; when he and his mother later attended the trial in Italy, he did not recognize the men accused of kidnapping him. Previously, Paul had spent a night in prison after a student demonstration, but he also did not have a history of starting fires—as is depicted in the film—and did not stage an escape.
After alerting Paul’s mother, Gail, that they had her son, the kidnappers waited another 10 days before making a follow-up call. They eventually made their demand for approximately $17 million in “a colorful, artistically-done collage of letters cut from magazines.”
The kidnappers also had Paul write a letter—with no clues about his location or his captors—warning his mother not to go to the police and urging her to pay as soon as possible. “Dear Mummy, Since Monday I have fallen into the hands of kidnappers. Don’t let me be killed,” Paul wrote. He added, “If you delay, it is very dangerous for me. I love you. Paul.”
Paul’s estranged father John drifted in and out of drug addiction from his home in England. He was not permitted back in Italy, due to complicated circumstances surrounding his second wife’s death, and was not emotionally strong enough to handle the crisis—retreating so much so that Gail found herself consoling him by phone. John refused to call Getty Sr. to ask for the ransom money, on the grounds that he was not on speaking terms with his father. Gail attempted to reach the eldest Getty herself instead.
Paul’s grandfather, Getty, was a single-minded billionaire, who had spent his life accruing an oil fortune, all in an attempt to disprove his own father—who thought he would destroy the family business. Getty did not speak to John, whom he wrote off as a drug addict, and had tenuous relationships with his other sons, rotating them in and out of his will at whim. He lived an isolated life in his English manor house, Sutton Place, and had grown paranoid about his own safety, hiring a private security team. Notoriously cheap, Getty had also installed a coin-operated pay phone at his mansion for guests to use.
Scarpa points out that his grandson’s kidnapping coincided with “the oil crisis of 1973, when the price of oil skyrocketed to the point where Getty’s profits daily would’ve been enough to pay the ransom. Yet the wealthier he became, the more dependent he became on money, like an addict.” Getty was said to be worth approximately $2 billion at the time, a number not adjusted for inflation.
Though he had not seen his grandson often, Getty still disapproved of Paul, according to Pearson, because he was a hippie and because Getty “had heard enough about him to believe that he was like his father, and he wanted nothing to do with either until they changed their ways.”
For several months after the kidnapping, Getty believed that his grandson had staged the crisis to extort money from him. After realizing that his grandson had, in fact, been kidnapped by criminals, Getty still blamed the grandson—“for getting kidnapped in the first place, and thereby involving him, his grandfather, with the dreaded Mafia,” according to Pearson. “For the truth was that the old man had been terrified of kidnap even before Paul disappeared.”
Though Gail phoned Getty repeatedly, the billionaire would not pick up the phone or return her calls. He did, however, speak to press to explain why he would not pay the ransom: “I have 14 grandchildren, and if I pay a penny of ransom, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”
Like in the movie, Paul had one kidnapper—“Cinquanta”—who began to sympathize with his hostage. Tasked with making phone calls to Gail, Cinquanta could not wrap his mind around the idea that a man as rich as Getty refused to pay his grandson’s ransom.
“Who is this so-called grandfather?” Cinquanta told Gail during one phone call, according to Pearson. “How can he leave his own flesh and blood in the plight that your poor son is in? Here is the richest man in America, and you tell me he refuses to find just 10 miliardi for his grandson’s safety. Signora, you take me for a fool.”
Cinquanta pleaded with Gail to find the funds, giving her ample warning that the kidnappers would harm her son. When Gail asked for proof of life, Cinquanta asked her for questions that only Paul would know the answer to, collected Paul’s answers, and returned Gail’s call, proving that her son was still alive.
When Paul became very sick towards the end of the months-long kidnapping, Cinquanta called Gail to ask for advice on what to do to keep him healthy. She advised him to keep Paul warm.
The kidnapping took so unexpectedly long that some of the captors sold their stake in Paul—as though he were some kind of investment property. More aggressive businessmen, who were not as patient, bought out the stakes. They swiftly took away Paul’s radio, killed a bird the boy had befriended in captivity, played Russian roulette against Paul’s forehead, and eventually sliced off his ear.
Pearson writes that Paul first became suspicious that something terrible was going to take place when his kidnappers offered him brandy in the morning. (They had offered him alcohol in the past, to help keep him warm in the colder months, but never so early in the day.) The kidnappers then cut his hair, wiping alcohol behind his ears.
“They offered more brandy. He drank it. When they gave him a rolled up handkerchief to bite on, he bit it, And while he was still biting, he felt somebody behind him grab his right ear between a roughened thumb and finger and hold it tight. One swift stroke of a cutthroat razor [took off his] right ear.”
In real life, the kidnappers did not offer Paul chloroform or a doctor to do the surgery. In real life, Cinquanta told Gail that the kidnappers had cut off her son’s ear and were sending it to her as evidence that he was still alive. Gail studied pictures of her son—taking note of his ears—so that she could make sure that it belonged to Paul when it arrived, three weeks later (due to a postal strike), at a local newspaper office. Gail stoically marched into the office and identified the ear. (She was never asked to identify a body, as her character does in the movie.)
J. Fletcher Chase
Mark Wahlberg’s character in All the Money in the World is based on a real-life former C.I.A. spy whom Getty sent to Rome, five weeks after the kidnapping, to help Gail. The real Chase was an even more maddening figure. Pearson alleges that Chase—who was the only person Getty would speak to—began sleeping with a woman on the payroll of the paramilitary Carabinieri who fed his suspicion that the kidnapping was a hoax. While telling Getty not to pay the ransom, Chase slowly and singlehandedly followed dead-end leads—one of which took him to a remote town, where he was bilked out of $3,000. At one point, Chase nonsensically relocated Paul’s family to a safe house in London.
In the film, Gail is given almost comically-precise instructions about retrieving her son: she must drive a car with a suitcase on a roof rack a certain number of kilometers south of Naples where a man will throw gravel at her window, indicating her to stop. These were the real-life instructions that the kidnappers gave Gail . . . but at an earlier point in the saga, when they tried to encourage her to meet and negotiate in person. (She decided against meeting the kidnappers, only angering them more.)
Once the American government became involved, an ex-F.B.I. lawyer from the same small town the kidnappers hailed from—who worked in the U.S. Embassy in Rome—was able to make contact with the kidnappers and negotiate the ransom down to approximately $3.2 million.
It was Chase, the bumbling former C.I.A. spy, who drove alone with the ransom money to meet the kidnappers. The first attempt was a failure. The second time, he delivered the money—and, upon arriving at the pickup location, realized that Paul had fled the scene. Pearson alleges that Chase and Gail finally tracked down Paul at a local police station, though The New York Timesreports that “he was found at an abandoned service station, shivering in a driving rainstorm”—five months after he had been kidnapped.
After Paul’s ear had been cut off, and after the boy had become seriously ill, Gail’s father, a judge, was able to convince Getty to pay the discounted ransom. Getty agreed to pay $2.2 million—the amount his lawyers told him was tax deductible. He lent the difference, about $1 million, to his son John, Paul’s father, on the condition he pay it back with 4 percent interest computed annually.
These negotiations took place by phone; there was no dramatic boardroom meeting, as depicted in All the Money in the World. Gail was, however, led to believe that she had to surrender custody of her children to their drug-addict father as a condition of receiving the ransom. Pearson writes that Gail, out of desperation to get Paul back, was prepared to take her children to the airport, only to discover that John did not actually want custody of the children. (Pearson does not say whether Getty was behind this bogus condition.)
Why Did It Take So Long?
Myriad factors—including the fact that the Italian police, according to Pearson, “are rarely over-sympathetic to what they see as rich, indulgent foreigners living in their midst.” Additionally, the police, and Getty himself, suspected that the kidnapping was a hoax concocted by Paul to extort money from his grandfather, so they did not take the investigation seriously for months. Gail did not have the money to pay the ransom and, given the sexism of the era and the fact that she was not in a position of power, according to All the Money in the World screenwriter Scarpa, she was left helpless.
“Interestingly, the F.B.I. agent I spoke to while researching, who worked on the case, was actually sympathetic to Getty,” said Scarpa. “At the time this was very much a man’s world. So the men, be it Getty or Chase, felt that this was no place for a woman. Today we would assume, if a woman’s child got kidnapped, she would be in charge in a sense. Yet at the time, the attitude was, ‘Well, you can’t possibly involve a woman in all this business, right?’”
It was only after the severed ear made its way to an Italian newspaper office that Italian authorities began to take the case seriously. Despite the many phone calls Gail made, it was her father who was ultimately able to get through to Getty and convince him to pay the ransom—but only part.
After the kidnapping, Gail convinced Paul to call his grandfather and thank him for paying the ransom money. Famously, Getty refused to come to the phone.
Paul went on to marry a friend from before the kidnapping, Martine Zacher, two years later, when he was 18 years old—so young that he disqualified himself from a stake in his grandfather’s trust. He and his wife had one son, Balthazar Getty (who would grow up to become an actor). When Getty died in 1976, he left his son John $500, and his grandson, who had been kidnapped, nothing.
As he struggled to adjust to life after the kidnapping, Paul became an alcoholic and drug addict. Eight years after the tragic ordeal, as he was attempting to make a career for himself acting, he suffered liver failure and a stroke that left him severely handicapped physically—partially blind, a quadriplegic, and unable to speak—but mentally intact. He and Gail, unable to pay his monthly medical costs, sued John.
“His mother basically cared for him until he died, so he was very close to his mother. He was the center of her life for over 40 years,” said Scarpa.
Paul died in 2011 at the age of 54. Upon his death, Paul’s son Balthazar said, “He taught us how to live our lives and overcome obstacles and extreme adversity, and we shall miss him dearly.”
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