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Golden hippy became the tragic tycoon

The sad and relatively short life of John Paul Getty III, whose severed ear became a grisly symbol of the wave of kidnappings that swept Italy in the Seventies, was proof that being a grandson of the richest man in the world was no guarantee of happiness.

He was just 16 and living with his mother in Rome when he was abducted on July 10, 1973, and the arguments that followed over paying a ransom turned a spotlight on his dysfunctional family and his miserly grandfather, J Paul Getty, founder of the Getty oil empire.

After five months in captivity, the teenager was released. But he thereafter descended into a self-destructive spiral of drugs and alcohol. After a stroke in 1981, caused by a drug overdose, he spent the last 30 years of his life in a wheelchair, paralysed and partly blind.

Even before his disappearance, Getty led an unruly and bohemian existence, and was nicknamed the 'golden hippy' by the press. Expelled from several schools, he kept company with artists and left-wingers, did odd jobs as a film extra and spent much of his time in nightclubs.

At first police suspected his kidnapping was a hoax, despite an initial $17m ransom demand. and a letter to his mother in which he wrote: "Dear Mummy, I have fallen into the hands of kidnappers. Don't let me be killed."

His father and grandfather refused to pay. The oil magnate explained that he had 14 grandchildren. "If I pay one penny now, I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren."

Finally proof came, in the shape of one of Getty's ears and a lock of his reddish-blond hair, sent to a Roman newspaper in October 1973. Separately, a photo of the mutilated youth was published, along with a note from his captors saying that if the money was not forthcoming, the boy would be returned to his family "piece by piece".

Eventually a ransom equivalent to $2.8m was agreed. Some was put up by the father, but the bulk -- some $2.2m -- apparently came from the grandfather, who ascertained that that was the maximum sum eligible for a tax write-off.

The boy was finally set free, and found shivering at an abandoned petrol station south of Naples on December 15, 1973. That date happened to be his grandfather's 81st birthday, but when his grandson phoned to thank him, the old man refused to accept the call.

Getty's ear was surgically reconstructed.

He broke relations with his father and grandfather and in 1974 and, aged 18, he married Gisela Zacher, a German photographer six years his senior -- an act which led his grandfather to disinherit him.

By then, however, Getty had become a heavy user of heroin and cocaine, and in 1981 had a crippling stroke. As usual, the family fought over money: he and his mother would sue his father to pay for his medical treatment, costing some $25,000 a month at the time.

Sunday Independent