John Paul Getty: a life of miserliness, mistresses and hotel hopping

To prepare for her role in All the Money in the World, Olivia Grant followed in the footsteps of the famously frugal billionaire

I grew up watching re-runs of ‘Thelma and Louise’ on VHS and mouthing Geena Davis’s line, ‘I don’t remember ever feeling this awake’, in the bathroom mirror, so when my agent rang to tell me that Ridley Scott had ‘responded’ to my audition tape I was a little excited.

The audition in question was for the part of John Paul Getty’s mistress in Ridley’s new biopic, All the Money in the World, about the aforementioned oil billionaire who was initially played by the substantially younger Kevin Spacey in full prosthetics. Just a few months later there I was in full 70s costume shooting in Hatfield House, blissfully unaware that the film would become a huge talking point, even before its release date. After shooting had ended and only weeks before the film was due to close the AFI festival in Los Angeles, Ridley and the producers recast the role of John Paul Getty. This decision had one substantial upside for me: I was able to reshoot with Christopher, whose performance in The Sound of Music I have been obsessed with for more than two decades, and discuss the whole tumultuous affair in bulky warm coats over hot tea.

The film, however, was fascinating not only because of the controversy surrounding it, but also because John Paul Getty, or ‘Big Paul’ as he was called within his family, was quite a character to research. All the Money in the World focuses primarily on the infamous kidnapping of Getty’s grandson in July 1973 and the achingly long period during which his mother Gail Getty, played by Michelle Williams in the film, attempted to drum up money for his release.

Yet, my interest in Getty, particularly as I was playing one of his many mistresses, lay with how this financial genius spent his time and energy away from his family. Money, the accumulation of it, and his corresponding obsession with frugality is probably Getty’s most commonly known character trait. Particularly in light of the fact that he agreed to only contribute $2.2 million of the $17 million dollar ransom after being reassured by his accountants that only that sum would be tax-deductible. He reached that decision seemingly unmoved by the fact his grandson had had his ear removed while incarcerated in the wilds of Calabria.

A lesser known foible, perhaps, was Getty’s obsession with women. Ever since his adolescence in Los Angeles, he had scandalised his God-fearing parents, and particularly his father, a converted Christian Scientist, with his seemingly insatiable sex drive. 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. After five doomed marriages to inappropriately young women, he spent his last four decades pursuing as many socialites, stars and aristocrats as he possibly could, keeping meticulous records of his conquests in a small black address book.

Olivia Grant (Getty)

It is this desire for women which leads me on to a passion Getty and I share… hotels. And really fabulous ones at that. Eschewing family life, Getty spent almost all of his middle age conducting his business and personal affairs from the cheapest suites he could find in some of the best hotels around the world. Although hotel-living doesn’t seem to fit the image of this miserly billionaire he contented himself that he was being in no way a spendthrift by eating frugally off the hotel menu and saving money by washing his own underwear in the wash-hand basin (his excuse being that laundry washing powder irritated his skin).

Getty’s love for both a bargain and hotels would be satisfied simultaneously in 1938 when The Pierre hotel came up for sale after going bankrupt during the Great Depression. Buying it for $2.35 million despite it having cost around $15 million to build made The Pierre one of the biggest single bargains of this period and one of Getty’s favourite assets. It goes without saying that finding myself in New York over late summer, I felt it would have been almost rude not to stay for at least a night at the hotel once owned by my fictional lover. I was hoping for old school New York luxury and The Pierre, now owned by the Taj group, did not disappoint.

The Getty suite, named in honour of Big Paul, is one of the more beautifully appointed I’ve seen with a living room-cum-dining room lined with French windows onto a Central Park-facing garden terrace that was about the size of my entire flat in London. I, unsurprisingly, plumped for a deluxe room, as a night in the Getty suite will set you back $950, but felt content that I would have scandalised Getty’s hotel habits by lavishly ordering both an eggs Benedict and a stack of pancakes with bacon from The Pierre’s breakfast menu just for the hell of it.

A room at The Pierre

But I didn’t stop there. It only took a few weeks to convince myself that it would be remiss of me not to explore the grand hotels of Europe, and particularly Rome, a city that Getty had become increasingly infatuated with after visiting with his fifth wife Louise ‘Teddy’ Lynch, a buxom, 23-year-old night club singer in 1939. It was with this in mind that I checked into the Westin Excelsior in Rome which was beautifully adorned with Christmas lights. Nestled in the legendary Via Veneto, I found myself padding around one of the Excelsior’s large chandelier-bedecked rooms thinking of Getty continuing to direct his multi-million dollar empire from the hotel telephone while quietly washing his socks, playing ‘teach yourself Arabic’ records and entering his day’s expenses into his diary.

Although it is unclear from the script which of his mistresses my character was based on, it is perhaps telling that the mistress who seemed to have navigated his rapacious desire most successfully was Penelope Kitson. A glamorous and self-possessed upper-class Englishwoman with three children and an unsatisfactory marriage, she saw from the beginning that behind his womanising was an inability to endure the normal bonds and responsibilities of a family and refused to let herself fall for him despite him often telling her, ‘Pen, you’ll always be my number one.’ As for Christopher Plummer, we didn’t have any scenes of an amorous nature, but when I walked onto set I introduced myself to him with the slightly clumsy line, ‘Hello Christopher, I’m your glamorous lady.’ He replied seamlessly with the phrase, ‘Well, it’s always nice to have a glamorous lady, let alone my glamorous lady,’ with all the octogenarian charm befitting an actor playing one of the most covert womanisers of his generation.

The Pierre Hotel, New York, 2 East 61st Street, New York, NY 10065, USA

The Westin Excelsior, Rome, Via Vittorio Veneto 125, Rome, 00187, Italy

All the Money in the World is released on January 5


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