Born into George Getty's family in the petroleum business in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he was one of the first people in the world with a fortune estimated at over one billion U.S. dollars. He was an avid collector of art and antiquities, and his collection forms the basis of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California.
He enrolled at the University of Southern California, then at Berkeley before graduating in 1914 from Magdalen College, Oxford with degrees in economics and political science. He spent his summers between studies working on his father's oil fields in Oklahoma. Running his own oil company in Tulsa, he made his first million by 1916. However, in 1917, he announced that he was retiring to become a Los Angeles-based playboy. Although he eventually returned to business, Getty had lost his father's respect. Just before George Franklin Getty died in 1930, he believed that Jean Paul would destroy the family company, and told him so.
After taking a few years off from the money-making grind to enjoy spending his earnings on women, Getty returned to Oklahoma in 1919. During the 1920s he added about $3 million to his already sizable estate. His succession of marriages and divorces (three during the 1920s, five throughout his life) so distressed his father, however, that J. Paul inherited a mere $500,000 of the $10 million the senior Getty left at his death in 1930.
Shrewdly investing his resources during the Great Depression, Getty acquired Pacific Western Oil Corporation, and he began the acquisition (completed in 1953) of the Mission Corporation, which included Tidewater Oil and Skelly Oil. In 1967 the billionaire merged these holdings into Getty Oil.
Beginning in 1949, Getty paid Ibn Saud $9.5 million in cash and $1 million a year for a 60-year concession to a tract of barren land near the border of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. No oil had ever been discovered there, and none appeared until four years and $30 million had been spent. From 1953 onward, Getty's gamble produced 16 million barrels a year, which contributed greatly to the fortune which made him one of the richest people in the world.
Getty increased the family wealth, learning to speak Arabic which enabled his unparalleled expansion into the Middle East. Getty owned the controlling interest in nearly 200 businesses, including Getty Oil. Associates identified his overall wealth at between $2 billion and $4 billion. It didn't come easily, perhaps inspiring Getty's widely quoted remark -- "The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights."
He moved to England in the 1950s and became a prominent Anglophile. He lived and worked at his 16th-century Tudor estate, Sutton Place near Guildford; the traditional country house became the centre of Getty Oil and his associated companies and he used the estate to entertain his British and Arabian friends, (including the British Rothschild family and numerous rulers of Middle Eastern countries.) As a dedicated Anglophile, he lived the rest of his life in the British Isles, until he died of heart failure at the age of 83 on June 6, 1976.
He was later quoted as saying, "A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you are a business failure."
Getty acknowledges this in his autobiography:
Getty placed dial-locks on all the regular telephones, limiting their use to authorised staff, and the coin-box telephone was installed for others.
However, when speaking in a televised interview with Alan Whicker, Getty simply said that he thought guests would want to use a payphone.
In November 1973 an envelope containing a lock of hair and a human ear was delivered to a daily newspaper, with a threat of further mutilation unless $3.2 million was paid: "This is Paul’s ear. If we don’t get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits." At this point J. Paul Getty agreed to pay a ransom, subject to him negotiating the fee, and Paul II repaying the sum at 4% interest.
Still reluctant to part with the ransom, Getty senior negotiated a deal and got his grandson back for about $2 million. Paul III was found alive in southern Italy shortly after the ransom was paid. His kidnappers were never caught. Paul III was permanently affected by the trauma, and himself became a drug addict. In 1981, Paul III was rendered speechless, blind and paralyzed for the rest of his life by a cocktail of drugs and alcohol.
Getty defended his initial refusal to pay the ransom on two points. First, he argued that to submit to the kidnappers' demands would immediately place his other fourteen grandchildren at the risk of copy-cat kidnappers. He added: