During Sunday’s premiere of FX’s Trust, a teenage Paul Getty (Harris Dickinson) arrives at the sprawling Sutton Place estate belonging to his grandfather J. Paul Getty (Donald Sutherland), then the richest man in the world. He asks the four pretty brunettes playing cards, “Which one of you is [my grandfather’s] girlfriend?”
“I am,” they respond in unison.
One of the women, Penelope Kitson (Anna Chancellor), explains in euphemism, “Your grandfather has adopted some of the Middle East’s more arcane customs.”
J. Paul Getty is remembered for his vast oil fortune, his miserliness (he famously installed a payphone in his mansion for guests to use), and the cold-hearted way he reportedly handled his grandson’s 1973 kidnapping. A lesser known quality of the billionaire’s was his obsession with sex, which explains why FX’s Trust features so many scenes of Getty indulging in bedroom extracurriculars that seem, frankly, shocking for an 80-year-old.
“It is hard to decide which Getty enjoyed more, penny-pinching or bottom-pinching,” wrote Bevis Hillier of The Los Angeles Times in her 1986 review of two Getty biographies. Getty’s friend and lawyer Robina Lund explained Getty’s duality another way: “Paul could hardly ever say ‘no’ to a woman, or ‘yes’ to a man.”
“Ever since his adolescence in Los Angeles, [Getty] had scandalized his God-fearing parents, and particularly his father, a converted Christian Scientist, with his seemingly insatiable sex drive,” recapped actress Olivia Grant, of the research she did on Getty’s sex life to play one of the miser’s mistresses in last year’s All the Money in the World. “Described by Lord Beaverbrook as ‘priapic’ or ‘every-ready’, Getty consumed vitamins in massive doses, together with the so-called sex drug H3, to maintain his potency well into his 80s [and kept] meticulous records of his conquests in a small black address book.”
“Women had been the one luxury the old miser had never denied himself,” wrote John Pearson in his biography of the Getty family, Painfully Rich (later published as All the Money in the World). And Getty was not very discerning—he enjoyed the company of women “young and old, fat and fashionably thin, drum-majorettes and duchesses, streetwalkers, stars, and socialites.” Getty had married and divorced five times, but the serial-philander eventually realized that casual sex came at a better value.
“It took up far less time, cost less, was infinitely less demanding, and actually added to one’s prowess as a businessman,” wrote Pearson. “As he put it once, ‘Business success generates a sexual drive, and sexual drive pushes business.’”
“Despite his advancing years, Getty’s sexual appetite was undiminished—he boasted of having five different women in a single day when he was sixty—and he had many girlfriends all over Europe,” reported Russell Miller in The House of Getty. “‘I have an appointment,’ he once said to the writer Bela von Block, ‘with a young lady who is an absolute master in the art of oral intercourse. She has a friend. Would you care to come along?’”
By age 61, Getty had compiled a list of 100 lovers he remembered affectionately, according to Robert Lenzner’s The Great Getty. Savvy businessman that he was, Getty also allegedly presented women with a document before having sex that absolved him from any financial responsibility should they became pregnant.
Getty seemed to have traded women like he did oil stocks—rotating an assortment of female companions through his Sutton Place estate. (Before acquiring the property, according to Fortune, “the Getty household—including the harem—would shuttle back and forth between the George V hotel in Paris and the Ritz in London.”)
One of the only real-life female companions of Getty’s to be name-checked in FX’s Trust is Penelope Kitson—and that might be because Kitson was the smartest of the bunch, refusing to become romantic with him.
“[Getty] loved and admired her because she was the only woman who would stand up to him,” explained Kitson’s ex-husband Patrick de Laszlo. “He wanted to marry her, but she told him she was not prepared to be trampled on like his other wives, nor was she prepared to be his mistress.”
According to a fascinating Esquireprofile of Getty’s household published in 1969, Kitson was “a tall, slim Englishwoman in her middle forties, intelligent and humorous, with a charming voice, a light, lovely laugh, and an easy informality in speech and manner [which made her] an odd contrast to Getty’s cheerless mien.”
Getty hired Kitson as the interior decorator of his many properties and to occasionally christen Getty’s oil tankers. He housed her in a cottage on Sutton Place’s 700-acre grounds. Though Getty was famously distant with his sons, he hosted a 1964 debutante ball for Kitson’s daughter Jessica and 700 of her friends that featured an extravagant buffet and lasted until sunrise.
By the summer of 1962, according to The House of Getty, Kitson was joined at Sutton Place by Mary Teissier—a temperamental French art expert who was the granddaughter of a cousin of a Russian tsar; Lady Ursula d’Abo, an English socialite who was the Queen Mum’s maid of honor at the coronation of King George VI; and Rosabella Burch, a Nicaraguan widow who enjoyed watching TV shows like Upstairs, Downstairs, and Kojak with Getty.
Burch’s introduction to Getty’s harem drew the “undisguised fury” of Tessier and d’Abo, “each of whom claimed to be the one true love of Getty’s life,” according to The House of Getty. “Kitson, who would be witness to much of the brawling between these three ladies in the years to come, had no time for any of them. ‘One was a drunk,’ she said, ‘one was totally unbalanced, and the other was a trollop.’”
Getty further stoked his girlfriends’ jealousies and insecurities for sport.
“Another old Getty habit,” wrote Pearson, “was that of playing off his women against each other, and watching them fighting for his ancient favours. He would sit now viewing television in the evening, lost in thought and pointedly ignoring them; then, when he’d seen enough, he would stagger to his feet and thoughtfully select that night’s companion.”
“[Getty] ended his life with a collection of desperately hopeful women, all living together in his Tudor mansion in England, none of them aware that his favorite pastime was rewriting his will, changing his insultingly small bequests: $209 a month to one, $1,167 to another,” wrote the New York Times.
The Esquire profile points out that the billionaire hired “pretty women,” for his professional needs as well: “He has three secretaries at Sutton Place, all in their twenties: Miss Tier, his business secretary. . .Mrs. Evans, his art secretary, a mini-skirted beauty with long dark hair and green eyes. . .and Miss Neville, his social secretary, a slim blonde. . .One of her duties is to accompany her employer to weddings, dances and other functions.”
In Getty’s final days, however, according to Miller, “only Penelope Kitson was assured regular access to the dying man; she spent hours with him in the study, reading aloud his favorite G.A. Henty stories while he sat wrapped in his favorite armchair, sipping rum and Coke.”
When Getty died in 1976, he named 12 women in his will. Kitson received the largest inheritance: 5,000 Getty oil shares valued at $826,500, plus $1,167 a month for life. Tessier, the temperamental mistress he tortured, received 2,500 shares valued at $413,125, plus $750 a month for life, while ladies d’Abo and Burch received smaller lump sums.
Per People, Getty “bestowed lesser amounts on an astonishing variety of women about whom little is known: Countess Marianne von Alvensleben, 54, of Düsseldorf, West Germany; Karin Mannhardt (another German); Hildegard Kuhn, 69, of West Berlin; Gloria Bigelow of Los Angeles; Mary Maginnis of Malibu and Belene Clifford of West Covina.”
Though the reclusive Getty did not speak much about his romantic life, he did once offer a clue to press as to why he kept women at a controlled distance: “I’ve tried to avoid being hurt. It doesn’t do you any good, letting a woman get to you that badly.”
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