Having heard that J. Paul Getty was interested in classical Greece, I took occasion to send to him through a mutual friend a copy of the elegant publication of our Press which reproduced and interpreted the Carrey drawings of the Parthenon, the drawings that are the most significant pictorial record of the way the Parthenon looked before the explosion that wrecked it in 1687.
This was a publication which had been commissioned by Mr. Eli Lilly for which he provided a substantial subsidy because it was an expensive book to publish. Professor Theodore Bowie and the late Professor Diether Thimme, both members of our Fine Arts faculty, edited the scholarly volume. The printing was done by the Lakeside Press in Chicago with fine workmanship and taste, making it an impressive book.
Getty sent word of his appreciation and pleasure in receiving the book, and in due course I received an invitation to have lunch with him at his sixteenth-century country residence called Sutton Place, located a few miles from London. I readily accepted because I wished to have an opportunity to tell him of our new Fine Arts Museum and perhaps enlist his interest in it. He was interested but unfortunately died before I had an opportunity to visit with him again and perhaps obtain his financial aid. The Royal Manor of Sutton was granted to Sir Richard Weston by King Henry VIII. It was Sir Richard who, from 1523 to 1525, built the mansion in which Getty eventually resided. It consists of a central great hall, an east wing with adjoining room, small halls and offices and bedrooms above, and a west wing with two long galleries of over one hundred and fifty feet each. The whole is furnished with period pieces from all over Europe and adorned with objets d’art and paintings.
In addition to being a magnificent historic mansion, Sutton Place served as a gallery for a part of his great collection of pictures and as the headquarters for his worldwide enterprises. On the grounds hidden by shrubbery were smaller buildings in compatible style which housed the offices of his secretariat. There were also a number of houses on the grounds. A few of them were occupied by top executives of the Getty oil empire, but several were residences of some of Mr. Getty’s ex-wives. He had been married a number of times, and apparently the separation-divorces were often amicable, and he continued to look after the ladies by providing an elegant place for them to live. The grounds were beautiful, and I remember particularly a magnificent rose garden, a large flower-filled greenhouse, a beautiful English lawn, and a private zoo which contained among other species some lions—symbol of power and authority.
My visit was only a few months prior to Getty’s death. His grandson had been kidnapped in Italy two or three years before that, and he had become pathologically afraid of kidnapping. On the grounds were several vicious looking dogs, huge beasts that were chained but could be readily released to protect their master.
Getty, although in his eighties, was still an uncommon figure of a man. His eyes had a penetrating gaze; his craggy face was deeply etched, yet very expressive; and his slightly stooped shoulders seemed not to subtract from his tall, slender stature. He was a delightful and charming conversationalist. I was received first in a small sitting room with a bright fire in the fireplace and family pictures on the wall. Here the guests for the luncheon that day gathered: a former secretary of his many years ago from San Francisco; Lady d’Abo, a neighbor of his who frequently acted as his hostess—a charming woman; and Carleton Smith, who assisted Mr. Getty and was also my longtime friend. These were the sole luncheon guests.
After we had gathered, Mr. Getty made his appearance, greeting us each cordially. He dominated the room, although his manner was quiet and mild, but his presence was so vivid that it outshone the rest of us. Sherry was served and there was some small talk. He had spent the hour before in his study looking at the cables received overnight from around the world about his oil enterprises. In due course we adjourned to the dining room down a long hall. Throughout the house there were bouquets of fresh flowers. It was said that one man spent his entire time cutting and arranging flowers. The dining room was truly baronial. The table, at one end of which we sat for luncheon, could have seated sixty easily. The luncheon was excellent, served impeccably by a suave English butler, and consisted as I recall it of four courses, each course being excellent. There were two wines of top quality. Mr. Getty sat at the head of the table. Lady d’Abo and I were at his right and his secretary and Carleton Smith were at his left. He ate very little, was served something special for his diet, and took the pills which then were prescribed for him. After lunch we went back to the small sitting room where he spent an hour in delightful talk about his pictures, the oil business, and his love of classical art. He expressed again his deep appreciation for the Parthenon book which was lying on the table in his small sitting room along with other volumes which he particularly liked.
I remember speaking to him about an editorial that had run in the Economist (London) a few months before which predicted the coming glut of oil by the year 2000.
According to the writer, this excess would result because the increased price of Arabic oil would drive the industrialized countries of the world into finding substitute sources of energy. The tongue-in-cheek article went on to say that, when that time came, the Arab oil-producing states would be bankrupt, but they would come to New York and the Jewish bankers would bail them out. I asked him if he’d read this editorial and what did he think of it? He replied that in general he thought it was true, leaving out the tongue-in-cheek part about the bankers. “In fact,” he said, “although I’ve been in the oil business all of my life, I think we’re soon to see the end of it as we’ve known it. In fact, I’m of the opinion that by the year 2000 the only place you’ll see an oil rig is in a museum of science and industry.” I’m inclined to believe that while his remark might be a slight exaggeration, the prediction he made will eventually be realized.
When it came time for Mr. Getty to take his nap he excused himself, and Lady d’Abo took me up to the great gallery on the next floor, which was filled with beautiful paintings destined eventually for his museum in California. Then she drove me in a little golf cart around the grounds, relating the history of the house and the people who had been in it. It was a very happy conclusion to the visit.