Riches to riches

John Brooks

  • Bend’Or, Duke of Westminster: A Personal Memoir by George Ridley
    Robin Clark, 213 pp, £9.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 86072 096 9
  • Getty: The Richest Man in the World by Robert Lenzner
    Hutchinson, 283 pp, £9.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 09 162840 7

‘The plutocracy in a democratic state,’ wrote Mencken in a passage Robert Lenzner has chosen as epigraph for his book, ‘tends to take the place of the missing aristocracy ... It is, of course, something quite different. It lacks all the essential character of a true aristocracy: a clean tradition, culture, public spirit, honesty, courage ... It stands under no bond of obligation to the state; it has no public duty; it is transient and lacks a goal ...’ The subjects of these two books, the second Duke of Westminster and the American oil billionaire J. Paul Getty, almost too perfectly exemplify, at least on the surface, the dichotomy pointed to by Mencken. One a British peer of ancient lineage, the other a self-made man who, through investing skill and fanatical diligence, became the richest of all Americans, in ‘essential character’ they were poles apart. True, they had certain obvious things in common: each had many marriages (four for Bend’Or, five for Getty); each was a major public figure in his country; each was accused of favouring Hitler and the Nazis during the Thirties; each was an important art-collector. But there the resemblance ends.

Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor (1879-1953), Duke of Westminster – called Bend’Or from the family coat of arms – was the product of a landed Cheshire family whose estate, Eaton Hall south of Liverpool, dated from the 15th century. The family’s first hereditary honour was a baronetcy conferred by James I in 1622, largely to raise revenue; the first baronet must have been a disappointment in that regard, as he went to prison for debt in 1629 and again in 1638. His son and heir was imprisoned for political reasons in 1646, and pardoned in 1651. The third baronet married an heiress, and as a result the Grosvenors came into possession of the core of their subsequent fortune – a great tract of London running from Marble Arch to the Thames, much of which the, family still holds. Over the next two centuries the Grosvenors climbed the rungs of the peerage (although their extravagance and open-handedness continued to lead them into debt), and in 1874 Gladstone made Hugh Lupus – Bend’Or’s grandfather, a serious Liberal politician – the first Duke of Westminster.

According to George Ridley, Bend’Or’s long-time employee and friend and eventually his estate agent and the executor of his will, Hugh Lupus was a major philanthropist, model landlord and altogether perfect duke. His son, Bend’Or’s father, died in Bend’Or’s infancy; the future Duke grew up with two father figures, his grandfather and his stepfather, George Wyndham, a Byronically dashing soldier-poet. Bend’Or’s mother, Lady Sibell Lumley, was so beautiful – although, some felt, a bit silly – she was the toast of London: her brother said that after her first husband’s early death 80 men were in love with her.

After being unhappy at prep school (where he was, as the headmaster wrote to his mother, ‘far from clever’), and happier at Eton, Bend’Or – tall and handsome as anyone could wish – was shipped in 1899 to South Africa, under the tutelage of George Wyndham, Under-Secretary of State for War. In the Boer War he distinguished himself in some of the hardest fighting, and eventually became ADC to Lord Roberts. Meanwhile, his grandfather had died and he inherited the dukedom. He came home to marry his childhood sweetheart Shelagh Cornwallis-West, and to take on ducal duties and pleasures at Grosvenor House, ‘the finest private house in London’, and at Eaton, where the chapel clock tower resembled Big Ben and the repertory of the carillon included ‘Home, Sweet Home’, which the first Duke had liked.

There followed a series of glittering parties, attended by most of European royalty, which the public loved to read about. But the story-book days seemed to end after about a decade, when Bend’Or and Shelagh became estranged. The key figure in the Duke’s life during the First World War and thereafter was Winston Churchill, with whom he had contracted in South Africa what would be a lifelong friendship. Bend’Or tended to be frivolous and easygoing – ‘a kindly, good-humoured fellow, like a great Newfoundland puppy’, according to his stepfather’s cousin Wilfred Scawen Blunt, and a lover of horses, speedboats and motor-cars – yet he distinguished himself again in that war, leading motorised troops from his private Rolls-Royce against the Senussi, North African Muslims who sided with Germany and undertook to invade Egypt. Churchill said later that Bend’Or would have been awarded the Victoria Cross if he hadn’t been a duke.

His life in the Twenties and Thirties was scarcely quieter. Grosvenor House was sold, and he associated less with royalty. A second and third marriage came and went, and between these, he had a much-publicised affair with Coco Chanel, who described him as ‘simplicity itself’, but also said that her ‘real life’ had begun with him. Near the start of the Second World War he joined a defeatist anti-war group, but quickly left it after a sharp rebuke from Churchill. His chief contribution to that war consisted of serving as an off-hours pal to Britain’s war leader. Eaton was used for a time by a spy as a signal beacon to lead Nazi bombers to Liverpool, though without Bend’Or’s knowledge. In the post-war era, his late sixties and early seventies, he was a jovial, still-handsome relic of times past, and in 1947 he contracted his last and apparently happiest marriage – to Anne Sullivan, a young, beautiful, spirited Irish Canadian almost as rich as he.

Ridley’s protective attitude toward his subject is so undisguised as to be endearing. He paints him as a model of the aristocratic ideal, and explains away or skims over the rough spots. According to Ridley, Bend’Or’s multiple marriages show his honesty, his rejection of the hypocritical ethic of ‘keeping up appearances’; his brief appeasement of the Nazis gave rise to ‘far too much fuss’. His persecution – for such it seems to have been – of a brother-in-law who became notorious is explained by an incident that left him with a strong antipathy towards homosexuals. But, even discounting Ridley’s advocacy, Bend’Or comes through as a generally upright and responsible man. There seems no reason to doubt his top staff-man’s insistence that he was unfailingly kind and generous to employees, and a fair-minded landlord. Apart from his very public peccadillos, he did what was expected of him. His worst fault seems to have been a certain upper-class foolishness – which, after all, he was bred to.

If Bend’Or’s days were gracious and jovial, J. Paul Getty’s were made bleak and acrimonious by his twin obsessions: money and sex. His third autobiographical work, As I see it, published in 1976, the year of his death, was depressing because it depicted the most oppressive sort of tightwad moneybags. By contrast, this exhaustively researched biography by the New York correspondent of the Boston Globe, which includes a great deal of arresting new material, is exhilarating because it shows – not in business matters, where Getty seems to have been luckier or shrewder, but no worse, than the average oil-speculator, but in personal matters – a vivid scoundrel.

Getty was born in 1892 to strict Midwestern Methodist parents; his father subsequently made a small fortune in Oklahoma oil. Parsimony and hostility ran strongly in the family: the son and his parents were at odds almost from his birth. Like Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, J. Paul had a shadowy, though not quite invented period of attendance at Oxford. In 1915, at the age of 23, he made his first oil killing, and was accepted as a partner by his father, who had thought him a wastrel. The following year, the young man let it be known that he had amassed his first million dollars. He went to Southern California and decided to retire on his winnings. Of course, he didn’t: he became a principal exploiter of the newly-discovered oil resources of that region, achieved a remarkable number of transient sexual conquests, and had a series of brief marriages, of which at least two, according to Lenzner, involved bigamy.

Nastiness appears to have pervaded Getty’s personal life. After a paternity suit had had to be settled, he took to requiring women he went to bed with to sign a release just before the event. Each divorce seemed to bring a meaner and more humiliating squabble over money. He tended to ignore the four sons produced by his marriages; when he did notice them, it was usually to quarrel or, later, to sue. Fearing that he would not provide financially for his sons or his fourth wife, his mother set up a trust of her own to fill the gap. After many negotiations and confrontations, the trust fell largely into Getty’s hands. Once he confided to an aide: ‘I just fleeced my mother.’

Not surprisingly, Getty’s sons had problems. One ended up dead of a drug overdose, a probable suicide. Another had chronic drug problems. A third died in New York of a brain tumour, while Getty remained in Italy with his mistress. A fourth – more despite than because of his father’s wishes – became very rich and perhaps happy, but up to now at least, has failed at what he cares about, musical composition. The fifth, the only businessman, was the victim of Getty’s revenge on the boy’s German mother and grandfather (the latter an opponent and then victim of Hitler), and to this day receives the insulting sum of $3000 a year from the Getty Trust, although in the general fall-out he too has become rich. During one of the endless family court fights, a daughter-in-law cabled to Getty: ‘Your lawyer is killing my husband.’ Getty cabled the lawyer: ‘Keep killing my son.’

Meanwhile, Getty’s fortune grew and grew. In the Thirties he bought up stock in Tide Water Oil and other ventures at Depression prices; in the Forties he entered Middle East exploration, uncharacteristically paying what was then top dollar for his concessions. (Although Lenzner’s informants say that he was a physical coward – vide Mencken – he was certainly no coward as an investor.) In 1953 his first Mideast well came in; in 1957 Fortune proclaimed him the richest American. In context, the fact that he was in trouble with the American authorities early in the Second World War as a suspected Nazi sympathiser, principally because of his friendship with a woman who had been prominent in Hitler’s entourage, seems almost irrelevant. Getty was no ideologue: money and sex were his politics.

In 1959, Getty bought (at a bargain price) Sutton Place, the Duke of Sutherland’s estate in Surrey: mentioned in the Domesday Book and owned for a time by Henry VIII, it was older and more distinguished than Bend’Or’s Eaton. He lived there for the rest of his life. He had no idea of how to act like a peer. At Sutton Place, he enlarged his reputation for parsimony, especially when he had all the phones locked and installed a coin box for the use of guests. He watched his fortune expand from the excessive to the obscene, especially after the oil price rises of 1973-4; boasted constantly about his wealth – except when he was up for a London club and feared a blackball; and engaged in a welter of quarrels and lawsuits with family members, always about money. When his grandson Jean Paul III was kidnapped in Italy, he refused for months to pay ransom on the grounds that he had too many grandsons, and paid – not immediately, at that – only after the kidnappers had delivered a lock of the boy’s hair and one of his ears. In his last years, surrounded by security men and guard dogs, the heat at Sutton Place turned down to bone-chilling level to save on fuel, he was sending paltry sums regularly to dozens of women from his past, and constantly changing his will according to whim, to reward or punish those he still had traffic with. It seems from Mr Lenzner’s book that he may have nursed a certain resentment about having so much money, because there was no way he could prevent his family from eventually getting some of it. He found at least a partial solution: in his will he left all his Getty Oil shares, the bulk of his estate, to the Los Angeles art museum he had founded in 1974. His friend and defender the Duke of Bedford said of Getty’s interest in art: ‘I don’t think he looked at things and saw they were beautiful. He was interested in technique, in the epoch in which they were made. Most importantly, he was going to get it cheap.’ Needless to say, the acrimony did not end with Getty’s death, but was carried on by the family members and others who screamed, threatened or sued to get what they believed had been promised to them.

‘Money was a curse on him,’ said one of Getty’s women. Or did the curse come first, and the money afterwards? A future duke is blessed, first by inheritance and second by a pre-ordained easy life; it seems no special achievement for him to become a relatively kindly and pleasant man. The all-too-obvious moral of Getty’s life is that, in the open society and financial jungle of America, a principal qualification for becoming a big winner is to be in human terms a bad man. Like Mr Lenzner, we should be cautious about pressing this moral. I never met Getty, but of the other American Croesuses, hereditary and self-made, that I have known, few have seemed to be bad men in personal relations. The hereditary ones usually strive, probably more than Bend’Or ever did, to be democratic good fellows, to treat friends and countrymen according to merit or good nature rather than bank balance. At a certain point, though, a quasi-ducal arrogance asserts itself: they have learned the habit of command, and do not tolerate having it challenged. Moreover, they are often unusually susceptible to approval, and thus end up surrounded by toadies. As to the self-made ones – and Getty, despite his father’s success, belongs to this group – their predominant characteristic in my observation is vulnerability. Not used to or comfortable with the power to command, they waver, in their social relations, between arrogance and apology. Gratitude or guilt often drives them to be high-minded according to their lights.

Only Getty’s greed for money – not his meanness and pettiness, coldness, customary lack of public spirit, occasional cruelty, sometimes laughable cheapness – is truly characteristic of the American rich. As for Bend’Or, I must leave it for others to testify as to his typical dukeishness or lack of it. What does seem clear is that each of these men, so bound to their respective roles, had a redeeming penchant for accidental self-parody. Bend’Or leading the charge against the Senussi in his Rolls, Getty interrupting his seductions to ask for signed releases – can they have been quite serious? Yes, they can. A tendency to appear occasionally as figures in film comedy may be the main thing the two had in common.