The most breathtaking example of course is the Kennedy clan, which has produced one president, three senators, four representatives, and a cabinet member. The American public has grieved with the family over its horrific misfortunes and has been absorbed by its scandals.
Using political achievement as his main criteria for ranking American dynasties, former presidential adviser Stephen Hess compiled a top 10 list for the Washington Post a few years ago. The Kennedy family was first, followed by the Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Harrisons, Adamses, and Bushes.
Several of these power families have suffered almost as much as they have contributed. William Henry Harrison's death on just the 32nd day of his presidency is just one of many examples.
Last September, when Richard M. Daley announced he would retire as Chicago's mayor, after holding the seat just longer than the 21 years his father did, Time Magazine took the occasion to list its version of Americas Top 10 Dynasties. The magazine used broader measures of what makes a powerhouse and included the Barrymore family of actors and even the Manning family of famous quarterbacks.
But dynasties built on vast wealth and business success may be the most favored category, if only because they offer such frequent and emphatic proof that money does not buy happiness.
Starting with John Jacob Astor in the 18th century, the Astor family amassed a fortune in American real estate. But when his oldest descendant, Brooke Astor, died in 2007, and her offspring went to war over her fortune, it was the family's legal battles not its legacy in business and finance, that captured media attention.
The Coors family became as famous for its conservatism as for the vast wealth it accumulated selling the beer of the same name. And although it was also extremely secretive, its dysfunction became evident with two suicides (including that of patriarch Adolph Coors), a kidnapping, a murder and several estranged children, according to the book "Citizen Coors" by Dan Baum.
While descendants of the Vanderbilts may be considered American royalty, one of them, Arthur Vanderbilt, called his own book on the family a "portrait gallery of extravagant crazies''. The dynasty built America's early railroads and some of this country's most famous mansions. Now, many of those palaces have been torn down or have passed into other hands, as has much of the family fortune.
John Paul Getty III's death may have shined a floodlight on the darkness in his family history. But the lesson that a great fortune does not mean good fortune remains a common thread in the pantheon of American dynasties.