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The story of the Gettys, one of America's oldest dynasties, is braided with two conflicting threads: fabulous wealth and chronic misfortune.
Tuesday's death of 47-year old Andrew Getty, grandson of Depression-era oil baron J. Paul Getty, adds another sad chapter.
The circumstances of his death remain unclear. But the news has brought fresh attention to the clan's turbulent history.
“It’s terrible to see the Getty family experience another nightmarish tragedy,” said Robert Lenzner, who wrote a 1986 biography of J. Paul Getty.
Andrew Getty’s death “warrants more deep analysis than the cliché that all the money in the world can’t buy happiness,” Lenzner said. It is a reminder, he said, that frailty often hits at both ends of America’s extreme income gap. “Great wealth doesn’t protect against tragedy in a family,” Lenzner said.
Calamity has visited the family repeatedly since the early days of J. Paul Getty, who made his fortune during the Great Depression and became the world's first billionaire. He married and divorced five times, kept a number of lovers, and developed a reputation as an irredeemable miser. One of his sons died of a brain tumor at 12. Another died in an apparent drug-induced suicide.
In 1973, one of Getty's teen-aged grandchildren, J. Paul Getty III, was kidnapped by a band of criminals and mobsters while living a bohemian life in Rome. During the ransom negotiations, the kidnappers cut off one of his ears. They demanded $17 million, which the patriarch refused to pay, saying it would prompt copycat snatchings of his other grandchildren. In the end, the old man loaned his family $2.2 million, at 4 percent interest, to get the boy back.
After being freed, J. Paul Getty III — father of actor Balthazar Getty — became a drug addict, falling victim to an overdose that left him confined to a wheelchair until his 2011 death.
J. Paul Getty died in 1976 at 83. An obsessive art collector, he left the vast majority of his fortune to the Los Angeles art museum that bears his name. But many years prior, the family had set up a trust, including large shares in Getty Oil, that would bankroll his descendants.
On of them, son Gordon Getty, was given access to the Getty trust in the 1980s, and engineered a sale of Getty Oil to Texaco for $10 billion. The trust was then split apart, with large chunks going to his family and those of the two other surviving sons.
Largely because of the sale of the company, the Getty family remains one of America's richest, with a fortune valued by Forbes at about $5 billion. Gordon Getty is the wealthiest of the clan, worth 2.1 billion, according to Forbes.
He made headlines in the late 1990s when he acknowledged leading a secret double life that included a mistress and three daughters.
Among Gordon Getty's children was Andrew Getty, whose body was found Tuesday in his Hollywood Hills home, reportedly amid a lot of blood. He'd apparently been ill for a while.
"He had a whole plethora of medical issues," LAPD Capt. William Hayes told the Los Angeles Times. "We believe it is a natural-caused death.
Andrew Getty's parents, Gordon and Ann Getty, did not say much in the immediate aftermath of their son's death. In a statement, they asked for privacy "during this extremely difficult time."