“A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you are a business failure.” Despite lousy pickup lines like that, J. Paul Getty had—and lost—five wives. Maybe it was because he was rich? Actually, he wasn’t just rich. Fortune magazine named him the richest living American in 1957. He is rumored to have made his first million in 1916—two years after completing college—and subsequently pseudo-retired in 1917 to live the high life in sunny L.A.
George Getty, his father, apparently never much approved of his son’s lifestyle and told him he expected him to destroy the family company before he died. His father was wrong about his son’s business acumen, but the fractured relationship did pass from George to J. Paul, then to his six sons. True to form, J. Paul Getty refused the initial request of his son, Jean Paul Getty, Jr., for ransom money when his grandson, Getty III, was kidnapped. “The boy’s grandfather only changed his mind after one of the boy’s ears was cut off and sent to a newspaper,” reported the BBC News. Some legacy.
Contrast that with the scene I witnessed at the funeral of a close friend’s father in 2008, in the middle of the darkest days of the financial crisis. The room was filled with friends, family, and employees of the deceased, and I recall feeling as though time had stopped for that couple of hours. No one looked down to check the BlackBerry to see which bank had failed that morning or how far the market had tumbled. Real life had taken over. Honor and respect were paid by all to this man who’d left such an impression on so many. Even the priest conducting the service shared stories of what he had learned from this man, but the indelible impression the experience left on me was the sight of his adult children.
Arms locked with his sisters, my friend shared a number of stories that tactically recognized the love that his father had for each of the subgroups that came to honor him that day. But the eulogy concluded when the son and daughters publicly recognized that there was never any doubt that, above all, the chief love of his father’s life was his wife, their mother. There may never be an article in Fortune chronicling this man’s collection of material possessions, but his legacy has already taken hold. I met him only once, very briefly, but after attending his funeral, I want to live up to his legacy.