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New book details the wealth and power of the former richest man in America

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Long before Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, the richest man in America was a Minnesotan whose father struck oil in 1903. The son made his first million as an oil man at the age of 23, and he turned it into billions. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg says a new biography of J. Paul Getty is an exhaustive revelation of how the rich are different from you and me.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Movies and TV have lots of perfectly dreadful rich families - the Guccis...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOUSE OF GUCCI")

LADY GAGA: (As Patrizia Reggiani) Aldo and Paolo, they're poison. They're an embarrassment to this company, and everybody knows it. They have to go.

STAMBERG: ...The Carringtons on "Dynasty"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DYNASTY")

JOAN COLLINS: (As Alexis Carrington Colby) Well, I didn't cause your accident, Krystle, just as I didn't cause your barrenness. So if you've quite finished...

LINDA EVANS: (As Krystle Carrington) I haven't.

STAMBERG: ...Nasty, deceitful, conniving. But James Reginato, author of "Growing Up Getty," says that oil-rich dynasty is different.

JAMES REGINATO: The Gettys - I really don't see any scoundrels in the family.

STAMBERG: Are they a close family?

REGINATO: They really are surprisingly tight-knit.

STAMBERG: Sounds like they won't get their own TV series. There are lots of them. J. Paul had five wives, five sons, loads of lovers, 19 grandchildren - one an in-law of Elizabeth Taylor - 47 great-grandchildren. Today, there are 57 living Gettys on four continents, and you can bet that not one of them needs to worry about college tuition. So who was this patriarch with all those big bucks? Must have been a great businessman. And, says biographer Reginato, Getty had this...

REGINATO: Good instincts, but also, he followed science.

STAMBERG: He got the best geologists he could find, made educated decisions.

REGINATO: And a lot of old-time oilmen sort of sneered at the idea that some damn bookworm could tell them where to drill for oil.

STAMBERG: J. Paul was always described as cold, mean, a tightwad, a skinflint.

REGINATO: He was cheap. That part is true.

STAMBERG: Sophisticated, Reginato says, loved art, travel, learning new things. He mastered Arabic to do business in the Middle East. You'd like him for a dinner partner. But in a BBC documentary, Getty said...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SOLITARY BILLIONAIRE: J. PAUL GETTY")

J PAUL GETTY: I always wish that I had a better personality, could entertain people better, was a better conversationalist, always worried I might be a little on the dull side as a companion.

STAMBERG: Interesting, no? Modest, self-effacing - he was not a great father, always away on business, but a doting grandfather. Here's a 1966 entry from one of the diaries he kept all his life. He died in 1976.

REGINATO: (Reading) Ronnie, Karen and baby Chris here, a fine little fellow. Chris plays with the puppies, Sugar and Spice. Valuation of Getty Oil is 2 billion 7 million dollars net. I have 79% of it.

STAMBERG: That seems the essence of J. Paul Getty, a charmed life touched by tragedy - a 16-year-old grandson kidnapped, eldest son dead at 49 from drug complications, other deaths, other drugs - but mostly golden years of success and achievement and pleasure from progeny's progeny, plus that grand diary finale - what he was worth. A billion here, a billion there - it adds up to real money, I guess.

Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Stamberg
Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.