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Throwback Tulsa: Billionaire J. Paul Getty got his start in Tulsa

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Getty bunker

J. Paul Getty’s bunker near Tulsa International Airport was built with 12-inch-thick concrete walls. Getty supposedly feared that an aircraft would crash into the building. STEPHEN PINGRY/Tulsa World file

“Money isn’t everything but it sure keeps you in touch with your children.”

That statement has been attributed to the one-time world’s richest man or the world’s biggest tightwad, depending on your perspective. His name was J. Paul Getty, and he spent much of his youth as a wildcatter in the Oklahoma oil fields.

“All the Money in the World,” a movie coming out this month, was inspired by the 1973 kidnapping of Getty’s 16-year-old grandson. Initially, Getty refused to pay a ransom, saying:

“I have 14 other grandchildren, and if I pay one penny now, then I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”

After the severed ear of J. Paul Getty III and a photo of the maimed teenager were mailed to newspapers, Getty reluctantly agreed to pay for his release. But Getty only paid $2.2 million, the amount his accountants said was tax-deductible. The boy’s father, J. Paul Getty II, paid the rest of the $3 million ransom but had to borrow it from his billionaire father — at 4 percent interest.

J. Paul Getty was born in Minneapolis and came to Indian Territory at age 11 with his father, who struck it rich on an oil lease near Bartlesville in 1904. The family moved to California after two years, but young Getty was smitten.

$6-a-week hotel room

As a teenager, Getty spent his summers as a roustabout on his father’s oil lease. After college, he returned to Tulsa in 1914 and took a $6-a-week room at the Cordova Hotel and ate his meals at a nearby boarding house.

In his Model T Ford, he traveled the countryside looking for oil and gas leases he could afford on the $100-a-month allowance from his father. He also hung out in the lobby of Hotel Tulsa, where oilmen gathered to hear the latest news and gossip.

Getty paid $500 for his first lease – the Nancy Taylor Allotment in Muskogee County. The well was a gusher. Before his 24th birthday, Getty was a millionaire.

Here are a few more fascinating facts about J. Paul Getty:

Known for frugality

In the 1940s and ‘50s, he bought his suits five at a time at Vandevers in Tulsa but never paid over $75 for each, according to William Vandever.

“When Paul came in, it was my job to go over and pull the tags off the suits that he was looking at. And then, no matter what the price was, we would charge him $75,” Vandever said in an interview with John Erling for Voices of Oklahoma.

Marjorie Garrison, Getty’s personal secretary in the 1940s, spoke of Getty’s frugality in a 1976 Tulsa World interview.

“Mr. Getty did his personal laundry, I know, because I bought the clothes pins for him. His shirt cuffs would become frayed and he would trim his left cuff at his desk and ask me to trim the right one for him,” Garrison said.

In 1959, Getty bought a 500-year-old Tudor estate in Surrey, England, where he installed a pay telephone for guests, employees and workers.

“The guests won’t mind paying for their calls,” he said, “and as for the deadbeats, I couldn’t care less.”

Bunker home

When World War II broke out, Getty moved to Tulsa to take over the operation of Spartan Aircraft Co., a subsidiary of Skelly Oil Co., which Getty controlled. Spartan manufactured Navy training planes and other aviation parts. It also operated a flying school that trained 14,000 pilots for the military.

It is well known that Getty built a concrete bunker with 12-inch-thick, reinforced walls just north of the Spartan factory. Many stories say that the bunker was built in 1942 to withstand enemy bombs.

But in researching this story, we found a newspaper clipping from Jan. 24, 1946, that seems to show that the bunker was built after the war ended.

“The new home Spartan is building for Getty is on a 30-acre tract immediately north of the Spartan factory,” the story says. “A six-room bungalow, it will be constructed of concrete, with glass-brick windows, completely air-conditioned. Construction has been started and the home will be completed within 60 days.”

A 1976 Tulsa Tribune story says the bunker was heavily fortified because it was in the flight path of the old north-south runway at Tulsa International Airport, and Getty feared a plane might crash into it.

After the war, Getty retooled the aircraft plant to make trailer homes for returning GIs in need of housing. Many of the Spartan trailers, made of the finest aircraft-quality aluminum, are still around today.

Getty died of heart failure at his English manor in 1976. He was 83.

Hilary Pittman contributed to this story.

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