Getty passed away Saturday at his family's country home in southern England. The cause of death was not disclosed.
His tragic, short life could be read as a parable, a familiar tale proving that money and fame can't buy you happiness. But John Paul III -- grandson of reclusive oil billionaire John Paul Getty, who was named America's richest man by Fortune magazine in 1957 -- had long been aware of that lesson, and spent much of his life trying to escape the obligations of his family's wealth.
While in Rome, John Paul III followed a similar bohemian path. By the time he turned 15, he was living a life of hard drugs, fast cars and endless parties. His wild-child behavior saw him expelled from seven private schools, and in 1971 -- after being booted out of the final establishment, St. George's British International School in Rome -- he decided to become a professional painter. He sold his works to local restaurants and earned extra money modeling for life drawing classes.
Then on July 10, 1973, the then 16-year-old vanished following a long night out. Two days later, his mother received a ransom request. No longer married into the Getty family, she told the kidnappers that she had little money. "Get it from London," she was reportedly told over the phone, a reference to her former father-in-law, or ex-husband, who had both relocated to England.
The criminals demanded $17 million, but police dismissed the idea that the young Getty had been kidnapped. They suggested the oil heir was simply trying to extract money from his notoriously tight-fisted family. Investigators stuck to that story even after Gail received a letter from her son begging, "Don't let me be killed" and a phone call from a kidnapper saying he would mail her a severed finger.
Getty Sr. initially refused to hand over any cash to the kidnappers, saying it would simply encourage future snatchings. "I have 14 other grandchildren, and if I pay one penny now, I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren," he told reporters gathered at his stately home in the southern English county of Surrey.
Getty Jr., meanwhile, said that he couldn't afford the ransom.
Three months into the abduction, the kidnappers -- thought to have been linked to the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian Mafia -- decided to up the stakes. They hacked off one of John Paul III's ears with a razor, as well a lock of his golden hair, and mailed them to Rome's daily newspaper Il Messagero. "This is Paul's ear," read a letter included in the package, which also set a new ransom of around $2.8 million. "If we don't get some money within 10 days, the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little pieces."
After spending five months chained to a cave wall in southern Italy, the teenager was released on Dec. 15, 1973. The young Getty -- bruised, hungry and missing his right ear -- was found at an abandoned service station some 100 miles south of Naples. He had been soaked by a rainstorm, and his first words to the police officer who arrived on the scene were, "I am Paul Getty, captain. Give me a cigarette. Look, they cut off my ear." When he returned home, John Paul III phoned his grandfather to thank him for paying the ransom. Getty Sr. refused to take his call.
Nine men were eventually arrested for the kidnapping, but only two of John Paul III's captors were jailed for their part in the crime. Several other defendants, including a man prosecutors alleged was the boss of the 'Ndrangheta and the brains behind the snatching, were set free due to a lack of evidence.
Scarred by his experiences inside the Calabrian cave (his ear was sliced off without anesthetic) and the knowledge of his family's petty squabbles over the ransom, John Paul III dropped out of mainstream society. He married German filmmaker Gisela Martine Schmidt when he was 18, a union that led him to be disinherited from the Getty fortune. The couple lived in New York for a while and hung around with the art set at Andy Warhol's Factory studio.
Like his father before him, John Paul III became increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol. In April 1981, while visiting a friend in Los Angeles, he quaffed vast quantities of methadone, Valium and alcohol and fell into a coma. He suffered a stroke and, when he woke up, was paralyzed from the neck down.
Once again, tragedy exposed his family's divisions and spendthrift ways. The now crippled Getty needed $25,000 a month to pay for 24-hour nursing care. But his father -- who had inherited a vast fortune following the 1976 death of Getty Sr., and was now known in Britain as a generous philanthropist -- refused to help with the medical bills.
With that financial aid, John Paul II was able to pay for intensive physiotherapy and speech therapy. He reportedly displayed a fierce desire to improve his condition, and within a few years was able to visit concerts and cinemas again. One night in the mid-1980s he even turned up in his wheelchair at Tramp, a nightclub in west London, the Daily Mail said.
His only child with Gisela, actor Balthazar Getty, said in a statement today that 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 added that his father died surrounded by his family, and said, "We will miss him terribly."