Magazine writer Fox, who died last year, looks back at the sensational kidnapping saga that he started exploring four decades ago.
John Paul Getty III, 16 in 1973, vanished without warning while residing in Rome. The grandson of oil billionaire J. Paul Getty, the teenager was not attending school regularly but was following a dissolute path paved with alcohol, narcotics, women, sycophants and underworld types interested in the wealth he would inherit. From the moment of his disappearance, reports of a serious crime involving ransom demands alternated with rumors of a hoax, a setup plan by the alleged victim, perhaps with the complicity of his mother, Gail Harris Jeffries, the divorced wife of Getty II. Somehow, Fox won the trust of various players in the investigation. When Italian authorities received a severed ear that matched the ear of Getty III, the investigation heated up. The author lets the saga unfold slowly, with the disappearance not occurring until 130 pages in and the release of the young man back into society after five months of apparent captivity 100 pages later. The narrative is a mixture of Fox's voice and extended oral-history passages from Gail, a private sleuth hired by the senior Getty, and Getty III's former wife, among other characters who appear, disappear from the pages, then reappear. Fox writes that he gathered much of the material from conversations with Getty III, who wanted a collaborator for an autobiography. With the main subject and the author now dead, trying to sort among sheer fiction, unalloyed fact and the gray areas in between will be tough for many readers.
A difficult book to read, partly due to its shifting perspectives, partly as a result of its strong odor of wasted lives.