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J. Paul Getty III Dies: Oil Heir Who Lost Piece of Ear in Kidnapping Dead at 54

J. Paul Getty III Dies: Oil Heir Who Lost Piece of Ear in Kidnapping Dead at 54
J. Paul Getty III (AP Photo, file) PAUL SANCYA

(CBS/AP) J. Paul Getty III, the troubled grandson of one of the world's richest men, who lost an ear in a grisly kidnapping as a teenager and suffered a devastating stroke as a young man, has died. He was 54.

His son, actor Balthazar Getty, confirmed that his father had died last Saturday at his Buckinghamshire estate northwest of London surrounded by his family. The cause of death was not disclosed, but Getty had been gravely ill for some time.

Despite being in a wheelchair for decades, the father of two and grandfather of six "never let his handicap keep him from living life to the fullest and he was an inspiration to all of us, showing us how to stand up to all adversity," Balthazar Getty said in a statement Tuesday issued by his publicist. "We will miss him terribly."

Getty's life captured the turmoil of his times. Born in November 1956 to vast oil wealth in the billions of dollars, his life was upended when he was kidnapped at age 16 in Rome.

To press their demands for ransom, his captors cut off part of his ear and mailed it to the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero. The mutilation reportedly helped sway Getty's family, who had been reluctant to pay. Still, the teenager spent five months in captivity before being freed in 1973 for a ransom of $2.7 million.

When he finally got out, J. Paul Getty III enthusiastically embraced a life of drugs and parties, becoming a well-known member of the hippie counterculture. In doing so, he acquired drug and alcohol habits that would seriously affect his health down the road.

Pictures from that time show Getty looking like a young rock star, with tight blue jeans and ringlets of hair cascading to his shoulders. Although he made few public pronouncements, the fact that a grandson of the multibillionaire founder of the Getty Oil Company had apparently embraced the flower power ethos did not go unnoticed.

Within months, the 17-year-old Getty married Gisella Zacher, also known as Martine Zacher, in 1974, a union that produced his son, Balthazar. She was several years older than Getty and already had a daughter Anna.

While undergoing treatment for alcohol abuse in 1981, Getty suffered a life-altering stroke that left him paralyzed, unable to speak and in need of around-the-clock care. Newspaper reports indicated the stroke was drug related, but details were not released.

The Getty family has a history of drug-related woes: J. Paul III's father struggled with a well-publicized drug addition and his stepmother died from a drug overdose.

J. Paul Getty Jr. initially refused to pay for J. Paul III's steep monthly medical bills, but relented in the face of a lawsuit from his first wife, Gail Harris, with whom he had three other children.

J. Paul III is survived by his two children, Balthazar and stepdaughter Anna, and six grandchildren. He is also survived by his mother, Gail Harris, and four siblings: Getty Images co-founder Mark Getty, prominent AIDS activist Aileen Getty, Ariadne Getty and his half-brother Tara Getty.

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