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‘Trust’ and the True Stories of the Getty Kidnapping

The FX miniseries, premiering Sunday, joins December’s ‘All the Money in the World’ in reliving the 1973 abduction of J. Paul Getty III in Italy. But how much of the story is fact?

A side-by-side photo illustration of J. Paul Getty and Donald Sutherland as J. Paul Getty in ‘Trust’
J. Paul Getty and Donald Sutherland as J. Paul Getty in ‘Trust’
FX/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 2016, the life and criminal trial of O.J. Simpson became a pop culture fixation, with the FX miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and Ezra Edelman’s 30 for 30 documentary series O.J.: Made in America both premiering that year. Though it’s perhaps a bit strange that an iconic moment from the ’90s was, once again, a cultural fixture more than a decade later, both the FX series and the documentary series were speaking less about Simpson himself than about the ramifications of his trial: how it helped birth modern reality television (the Kardashians!) and celebrity; how racial discrimination by the police impacted Simpson’s trial, regardless of his culpability; how media misogyny affected our perception of certain figures from that spotlight. Years later, Simpson has become a symbol of these issues—a reflection, and condemnation, of America past and present.

Once again, a headline-grabbing incident from an earlier era is making headlines in 2018. Between Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, which hit theaters in December 2017, and the FX miniseries Trust, premiering Sunday, pop culture is suddenly reliving the 1973 kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III in Italy, and the cutthroat, calamitous negotiation with his kidnappers by billionaire oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. (Let’s call Getty III “Paul” and Getty, uh, “Getty” from here on out.) A chilling tale about how immense wealth and power dehumanizes people might always feel prescient in America, but it certainly resonates right now.

So how much of Paul’s kidnapping and Getty’s harsh negotiations are played up for the cameras? Ahead of Trust’s premiere, let’s separate the fact and fiction in the portrayals of the infamous kidnapping—though, fair warning, you might be surprised by just how much of it is actually true.

Fact: Getty Initially Refused to Pay the Ransom

Paul was first reported missing in July 1973, when he wasn’t seen at his home in Rome for two weeks. The initial, lackadaisical response to the kidnapping was at least partially attributed to Paul’s lifestyle: constant late-night gallivanting made him an aloof figure, with press dubbing him the “Golden Hippie” because of his family’s wealth.

Even Paul’s mother, Gail Harris, told police she thought the first phone call from Paul’s captors was “some sort of joke.” In Trust, however, Harris (played by Hilary Swank) is immediately concerned about her son’s whereabouts, sensing the precariousness of her son’s situation before any other members of the family—or the police—are genuinely concerned.

When it became clear that Paul had, in fact, been kidnapped, Getty refused to pay any kind of ransom. “I love the boy,” he said, “but I’m against paying any money. It only encourages kidnappers.” Getty cited the fact he had 14 grandchildren—and said that paying Paul’s ransom would put the rest of his family in danger by proxy. This plays out much in the same way in Trust, as Getty (played by Donald Sutherland) says he refuses to pay “one solitary cent,” in a flex-heavy press conference at his opulent estate in England.

Meanwhile, the Italian police suspended their investigation into Paul’s kidnapping six days after the he was reported missing—the kidnappers alleged that they would kill Paul if there was any police interference. “Don’t let me be killed,” a letter addressed to Harris said, which she confirmed was in her son’s handwriting. “Arrange things so that police don’t intervene. You must absolutely not take this thing as a joke.”

Fact: Paul’s Girlfriend Believed the Kidnapping Was Staged

Paul’s girlfriend at the time, Martine Zacher, believed that Paul had staged the kidnapping to collect a hefty ransom for himself. Zacher told police that Paul had talked about planning a “beautiful, simulated kidnapping, organized to perfection” months before the actual kidnapping took place. Harris, however, believed the idea was too “far-fetched” to be true.

After Paul was finally freed by his captors in December 1973, he wasted no time in marrying Zacher: They wed in 1974 and remained married until 1993. In marrying Zacher, Paul actually cut himself out of his grandfather’s will, which didn’t permit early marriages for Getty family members. Paul and Zacher’s lone son, Balthazar Getty, is an actor—best known for a leading role on the ABC series Brothers & Sisters. (He also appeared as the enigmatic drug dealer “Red” in Twin Peaks: The Return last year.)

Fiction: Paul Did Not Stage His Own Kidnapping—As Far As We Know

Trust’s interpretation of Paul’s kidnapping is that he orchestrated the early stages of it before things went way, way south. The TL;DR version is that Paul thought this would be a good way to pay an outstanding debt in Rome, and then amass a small fortune for himself so he could move to Morocco with Zacher. Paul’s sister, Ariadne Getty, is threatening legal action against the network because of the series and its “cruel and mean-spirited defamatory depiction” of her family.

Indeed, what Trust posits doesn’t hold up in the tangible evidence from the case. There’s not enough information to suggest that Paul was behind the kidnapping, despite Zacher’s initial claims that he could’ve orchestrated it.

Scott’s All the Money in the World takes a different route—that Paul was not complicit in the kidnapping and became an unfortunate victim of circumstance when his grandfather refused to pay the ransom for months. Interestingly, that interpretation is being refuted by Michael Mammoliti, son of Saro Mammoliti, one of Paul’s main kidnappers. According to Mammoliti, Paul did plan the kidnapping. “It started off with great intentions,” he told Variety. “It was a quick way to make a buck on both sides. It turned into a mess because of the grandpa not wanting to pay.”

It’s all a bit he-said, son-of-kidnapper-said, but the fact remains that no one has conclusively proved that Paul planned the kidnapping.

Fact: Getty Was Cheap AF

Though Getty claims he didn’t want to pay the ransom for the sake of his other grandchildren, the oil magnate was notoriously stingy. In Trust, Getty’s estate has a coin-operated payphone installed that guests have to pay to use—and that was a real thing!

Getty negotiated for months with the kidnappers, who initially asked for $17 million from the billionaire, before finally agreeing to pay $3.4 million for the return of his grandson … but only after Paul’s captors mailed Harris her son’s right ear. Ultimately, Getty paid only $2.2 million—the amount that his accountants said would be tax-deductible. He lent the difference to his son and Paul’s father, J. Paul Getty II, on the condition that he would pay it back with 4 percent interest.

When Paul was finally rescued, Getty also refused to talk to his grandson on the phone. This makes Getty [inspects thesaurus] an absolute savage.

Fact: Getty Had a Harem of Women at his Estate

Trust’s pilot spends most of its time in the lavish halls of Sutton Place, Getty’s mansion in England, with a harem of women who live at his estate. Getty treated them with all the nuance and compassion you’d expect from an old billionaire who refused to pay his grandson’s ransom for months—when he takes some Viagra, he taps one woman on the shoulder and says “20 minutes,” giving her a countdown for when he’s prepared for sex. So romantic!

While the real Getty did have plenty of women in his life at different times—all told, he was married and divorced five times and had a dozen women written into his will—in his later years he boasted about having as many as five women at Sutton Place at once. So yeah, it was basically a harem. In Getty’s opinion, women could be divided into two types: “Those you pay to stay with you and those you pay to stay away.” Yikes.

At least he doesn’t have a pee tape.

Unclear: Paul’s Relationship With His Kidnappers

Paul’s dynamic with his kidnappers is where Trust, All the Money in the World, and the real-life kidnapping tend to diverge the most. In Trust, Paul knew his initial captors (before things go sideways, which I’d rather not spoil in detail) while in All the Money in the World, he didn’t know the people that abducted him. Further, in Scott’s movie, one kidnapper who goes by “Cinquanta” takes a liking to Paul and sympathizes with his situation—as one might sympathize with someone whose granddad is notoriously rich and refuses to save your life.

But according to John Pearson’s book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, there was a real captor who went by “Cinquanta” and frequently called Harris about the ransom, shocked by Getty’s behavior. “How can he leave his own flesh and blood in the plight that your poor son is in?” he told Harris. “Here is the richest man in America, and you tell me he refuses to find just 10 miliardi for his grandson’s safety? Signora, you take me for a fool.”

Cinquanta’s sympathy notwithstanding, the kidnappers did cut off Paul’s ear and ship it to Harris, promising that they would continue to mutilate her son until their demands were met. “We amuse ourselves cutting your son up piece by piece to send to you,” the captors wrote in a letter in November 1973. “We are not sadists, but the family insists on dealing with us as if we were little boys and, in their opinion, ignorant.” (Being amused by removing body parts from someone and then saying you aren’t sadists is … completely contradictory?)

Let’s just call this relationship what it was: ambiguously messy.

Despite Trust (and All the Money in the World) dramatizing certain events from the Paul kidnapping—which is also fine, these aren’t straight-up documentaries—much of the events played out on screen were plucked from the headlines. Paul endured a brutal captivity for the better part of six months, while Getty’s machiavellian negotiating tactics and Hall of Fame–level stinginess were truly stranger than fiction.

Ultimately, having all the money in the world is no substitute for a bit of humanity.