American Dynasties: Legacy of Great Wealth, Great Drama

End of the Kennedy
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John Paul Getty III, scion of one of the world's richest oil families who died at 54 this past weekend, lived on a landscape cratered by tragedy and dysfunctional relationships … familiar terrain for the Gettys and for several of this country's best known dynasties.

Kidnapped in Rome at age 16, his captors tied him to a stake for five months and cut off his ear because his distrustful and miserly grandfather would not initially pay the ransom. J. Paul Getty, considered then to be the richest man in the world said, "I have 14 grandchildren and if I pay one penny ransom, I'll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren."

After the senior Getty grudgingly paid part of the ransom, Paul was released. He soon married a woman eight years his senior and five months pregnant with his son. Then a downward spiral into drug and alcohol dependency led to a catastrophic stroke in 1981 that left him nearly blind, unable to speak and confined to a wheelchair.

Yet dramatic as these events were, they were only a few headlines of the family's misfortunes. Patriarch J. Paul Getty stumbled through five marriages. Biographer Robert Lenzner, author of "The Great Getty: The Life and Loves of J. Paul Getty --- Richest Man in the World," told ABC News that "Getty was illiterate with respect to being a father or a husband."

If so, was that trait passed on, along with sad consequences, to following generations?

John Paul Getty II, for instance, also battled drug addiction and deserted his wife and family for another woman when young Paul was only eight. Marred by the divorce, Paul was reportedly expelled from seven schools as he grew into a rebellious teen dubbed "the Golden Hippie" by the press. He had slipped into a dissolute life in the Roman demimonde even before he was snatched in 1973.

Paul's son, Balthazar, born in 1975, is now an actor on the ABC show "Brothers and Sisters." But Balthazar gained more notoriety for his 2008 affair with actress Sienna Miller that featured widely publicized steamy photos of the two cavorting nearly nude on a beach in Italy.

Gordon Getty, fourth son of J. Paul Getty, has acknowledged that he maintained a romantic relationship and three illegitimate children in Los Angeles even as he was married and raising a family in San Francisco.

Gettys Subject of Great Contributions, Gossip

But the Getty family has contributed far more to the nation's culture than gossip fodder. The Getty Museum is one of the country's finest. The news and archival photography collection, Getty Images, is a highly valued resource. Meanwhile, Gordon and wife Ann Getty are sought after as respected philanthropists, political donors and patrons of the arts.

This mix of wealth, accomplishment and calamity seems to be the hallmark of American dynasties, whether they are rooted in politics, industry, or even entertainment.

According to Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, "When you have fame, power and wealth combined in heavy doses on an individual level, you are likely to have trouble and with dynasties, we're talking about those three combining over generations. Trouble is almost guaranteed."

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.

American Dynasties: Triumphant and Troubled

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.