Trust: Revisiting George Getty’s Mysterious, Violent 1973 Death

The Getty scion’s last moments serve as the gripping opening scene in FX’s Getty-kidnapping drama Trust, which premieres Sunday evening.

Written By | Julie Miller  

Danny Boyle’s Trust, which premieres Sunday night on FX, immediately plunges audiences into the excesses and afflictions of the Getty family in the 1970s, when patriarch J. Paul Getty was the richest man in the world—worth approximately $2 billion. And his four adult sons were left to drift in the existential darkness of knowing that they would likely never match their father’s professional success.

The series opens by depicting the 1973 death of Getty’s eldest son, George—a tragedy that was forgotten by the public months later, when George’s nephew Paul was the victim of a kidnapping that made international headlines. The episode shows a Bel-Air pool party in full swing while its host George, in a Hawaiian shirt and a drug daze, locks himself in a garage and stabs himself with a long barbecue fork. Frantic women, watching this sad, sweaty act of self-destruction from behind the garage doors, try to persuade George to stop.

What actually transpired on June 6, 1973, is still a bit of a mystery—thanks in part to George’s father reportedly sanitizing the story for public consumption. At the time of his death, George had been the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Getty Oil Company since 1967. According to John Pearson’s book on the Getty family, Painfully Rich (later published as All the Money in the World), J. Paul did not think much of George’s business acumen, and made executive decisions without consulting or even informing George—which humiliated and incensed his eldest son. George is quoted as having told a colleague, despondently, “My father’s the president in charge of success, and I’m the vice president in charge of failure.”

It wasn’t George’s appointment to the family business that cooled the father-son relationship, though. J. Paul Getty was famously distant with all of his sons, so much so that George referred to his father as “Mr. Getty.” Speaking about his relationship with his father in 1960, George said, “I probably haven’t spent six weeks with Mr. Getty since I was eight or ten. I meet him in hotel rooms or receive instructions by letter. Sometimes he says he is too busy to see me. . . . ”

George, who was said to be scared of his father, had reportedly begun drinking to silence his fears and frustrations by the early 1970s. Other substances followed. “By the beginning of 1973, he was taking sedatives and speed and probably injecting something inadvisable,” writes Pearson. “On the night of June 6 he had another bitter row with [his wife], once again over Mr. Getty. Their rows were almost always over Mr. Getty. At the end of the row he flipped, all the frustrations, hatreds, impotence, and rage surfacing in one great wave of anger, and he panicked.”

“He locked himself in the bedroom of their valuable house in beautiful Bel-Air and started shouting,” continues Pearson. “He drank. He swallowed a lot of Nembutal. He tried to stab himself with a barbecue fork, but failed to pierce his stomach. Then he fell into a coma.”

Once friends broke down a door, they argued over where to take George. “No one could permit [Getty’s] vice president to be taken, in what was thought to be a drunken stupor, to the common-casualty department of the nearby U.C.L.A. hospital,” Pearson writes. Instead, they took him to “a more discreet hospital”—a process that took an additional 20 minutes, 20 minutes that George could not spare.

Variations of this story linger. In Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales writes that on the night he died, George “had been especially upset, downing many a beer, two bottles of wine, some pills, and talking about the desirability of death. Eventually, he managed to get hold of a barbecue fork and poke an inch-deep gash in his gut. As blood spewed, George threatened to shoot everyone in sight, then locked himself in the bedroom. When none of the family could coax him to open the door, the family decided the only alternative was to summon George’s executive assistant and family confidant Stuart Evey, who rushed over in the middle of the night to take charge.”

Evey goes on to explain to Miller and Shales that he called a private doctor on the Getty payroll, who joined them at George’s home, helped break down the bedroom door, deduced that George was simply drunk, and advised he be taken to a discreet hospital.

“I was protecting the company and J. Paul from a potential scandal,” Evey told the authors. He registered George at the hospital under a pseudonym. George was admitted to the I.C.U.; within the next four hours, he was pronounced dead.

The next morning, Evey phoned J. Paul to break the news himself—telling J. Paul that George had “fallen over during a late-night poolside barbecue and hit his head.” Per Evey, “Then J. Paul Getty called me back and asked, ‘Who do you think should be temporary executive vice president?’ ”

Rumors about George’s mysterious death abounded, one of which was that “a woman guest had picked up a barbecue fork and run it deliberately into George Getty’s chest.” Socialite Claus von Bulow, a family friend, has said that George did not stab himself, but “fell twice on a barbecue fork . . . He went to the bathroom. They broke down the door. And they got an ambulance. And he was taken to the hospital. They took him to a discreet place, which was out of the way, where they could put him in under a false name or something. And they just looked at the perforations of his stomach. They didn’t look at anything else. And he was lying there with a massive overdose of sleeping pills. And died of them.”

The House of Getty alleges that J. Paul Getty refused to accept the L.A. County coroner’s ruling that George’s death was “probably suicide”—a perceived mar on his legacy—and that the patriarch hired an outside party to conduct another investigation. Paid by J. Paul Getty, the party concluded that George’s death had been an accident. A family spokesperson told press that George had “suffered a stroke” and “died of a cerebral hemorrhage.”

Perhaps the saddest note about George is that the Getty son was deemed just as forgettable in death as he was in life. Over the next 45 years, the story of his father’s fortune and his nephew’s kidnapping would be retold in television, book, and feature-film formats. And when George’s story was finally related—as it was on Sunday’s Trust—it was relegated to the opening sequence.

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