I forgot to say Lawrence Chazen was my father’s private lender, and Christine’s partner in the Crossroads Gallery. All in the family – aye?
Now, if I can just prove we are kin to those Greek warriors who poured out of the Trojan horse!
In horse and norse…..there is a rose!
Time to apply for a grant.
Talitha became the second wife of John Paul Getty, Jr. on 10 December 1966. She was married in a white mini-skirt, trimmed with mink. The Gettys became part of “Swinging” London’s fashionable scene, becoming friends with, among others, singers Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and his girl-friend Marianne Faithfull. Faithfull has recounted her apprehension, through “ingrained agoraphobia”, about an invitation to spend five weeks with the Gettys in Morocco (“but for Mick this is an essential part of his life”) and how, after splitting from Jagger, she took up with Talitha Getty’s lover, Count Jean de Breteuil, a young French aristocrat (1949–1971). Breteuil supplied drugs to rock stars such as Jim Morrison of the Doors, Keith Richards, and Marianne Faithfull, who wrote that Breteuil “saw himself as dealer to the stars”. For his part, Richards recalled that John Paul and Talitha Getty “had the best and finest opium”.
Print designer Celia Birtwell, who married designer Ossie Clark, recalled Talitha Getty as one of a number of “beautiful people” who crossed her threshold in the late 1960s, while couturier Yves Saint Laurent likened the Gettys to the title of a 1922 novel by F Scott Fitzgerald as “beautiful and damned”.
John Paul Getty, who has been described as “a swinging playboy who drove fast cars, drank heavily, experimented with drugs and squired raunchy starlets”, eschewed the family business, Getty Oil, during this period, much to the chagrin of his father. However, in later years, he became a philanthropist and (as a US citizen) received an honorary British knighthood in 1986. His luxury yacht, built in 1927 and renovated in 1994, was the MY Talitha G.
In July 1968, the Gettys had a son, Tara Gabriel Gramophone Galaxy, who became a noted ecological conservationist in Africa, dropped his third and fourth forenames, and took Irish citizenship in 1999. He and his wife Jessica (a chalet maid he met in Verbier) had three children, including a daughter named Talitha.
She hugs me hard, and she smells like heaven. Aileen Getty has just scurried down the stairs of her Hollywood hillside home to greet me, even though I’ve only dropped by to pick up a videotape of her Dateline NBC appearance and hadn’t expected to see her. But here she is, fresh off a three-day hospital stay, and she hugs me, an utter stranger, with an earnest abandon that’s often missing in the arms of one’s closest friends. She is a wisp of a thing, dressed in a white gauze blouse and a sarong-like skirt the color of Caribbean water. In her sense of style there is a lifetime of money and a veneer of confidence, but in her demeanor there is an unnerving lack of guile, the kind of uncertainty that comes from doing time in the depths of loneliness. I am fascinated by her, and thus I am flustered.
“Do you want an iced tea?” she asks, furrowing her brow and scratching her forehead a little nervously. “Some water?”
“No,” I say, “I’m fine. I, um, I have to get back to the office.”
With that, I flee down the stone steps and the long, steep driveway through the verdigris gate. I don’t think I thanked her.
It would be nice to write about Aileen Getty without identifying her first as an heiress, as the granddaughter of the late oil baron J. Paul Getty, as the sister of Paul, who lost an ear to Italian gangsters at 16 and his lucidity to a stroke at 25. Aileen would probably appreciate a description of herself so separate from her legacy, distanced as she seems from it, damaged as she has been by the side effects of privilege. But such an independent identity will never be hers to enjoy, in her lifetime or after, so let’s get it over with: Aileen Getty is the 36-year-old daughter of Jean Paul Getty, Jr. by his first wife, Gail; she should be partial heir to her family’s $750 million share of the J. Paul Getty fortune. Which only means that when Aileen has a showing of her art at a gallery, the critics get more pissed off than usual if they don’t like the art. It also means that now, deep in the throes of her 11-year-long battle with AIDS, she doesn’t have to worry so much about how to pay her medical bills.
What she does worry about is being misunderstood for all that she believes and represents. Aileen Getty is full of metaphors and imagery and lists of pronouncements about life, death and being a Getty, and she has paid dearly for her frankness. Her recent interview with Jane Pauley of Dateline stands as a cautionary example of what can happen to someone this young, beautiful, famous and sick with AIDS: You muster the will to speak up about your illness and get rewarded with shame. The Dateline footage is painful to watch: As Aileen struggles through a medicated haze to explain her complicated life lessons in soundbites suitable for broadcast, Pauley, well-coiffed and smug, poses for a camera that’s far more sympathetic to her networked-over persona than it is to her subject. “I’m happy I have AIDS,” says Aileen, in all her unstudied candor. Pauley frowns, and tilts her head quizzically to one side. “Can you explain that to me?” she demands. “Oh!” Aileen backtracks. “You must think I’m a total idiot.”
In fact, Pauley does seem to consider Aileen some degree of idiot, and later in the broadcast she does her best to convince her viewers of the same. It only helps Pauley’s mission that Aileen was admittedly “using and not clear,” at the time of the interview. It also helps that Aileen made this confession in a letter to her father, which he promptly and considerately faxed to Pauley.
Like I said: It would be nice to write about Aileen and not dwell on the peculiarities of the Getty family. It seems far more worthwhile, at this point, to dwell instead on what it means when Aileen says, not like a total idiot but as a woman who’s taken the hard, long road to truth, that AIDS, in her words, “is a phenomenal gift.”
If it hadn’t been for HIV, I would still be a victim,” Aileen says. “Victimized by my parents, by my legacy, by life. I’d been in seven institutions, I’d had 12 shock treatments, I’d had seven miscarriages. I was anorexic, a self-mutilator. I’d been there and back.” In the most simplistic terms, it sounds like she was making one desperate bid for attention after another. “Right,” says Aileen. “And the ultimate attention comes from death, and now I’ve got AIDS. I think it’s probably been a lifetime of trying to die in order to be loved.” If this version of Aileen Getty, the one I sit down with two days after our first brief meeting, has little in common with the feckless child on the Dateline videotape, she has just as little in common with the composed, preppy-looking woman smiling out from her publicity photos. When she welcomes me to her house this time with somewhat — but not a whole lot — more reserve, I wonder not how the girl who had everything got so messed up, but how the woman whose father faxed her personal correspondence to Jane Pauley remains so unguarded, so dangerously honest, in the presence of a journalist. “I don’t have a choice,” she explains when I ask her why she’d ever consent to another interview. “I feel a responsibility to be public, although it’s not my nature to be public.
“I’m not always familiar with the things that I’ve said, because before I speak or do any interview, I always pray,” says Aileen, who believes in Jesus but not necessarily in church. “I’m terrified of the public and I’m terrified of interviews and I’m terrified of cameras, and I always pray to be a vehicle for something larger than myself. I always pray to not be myself so I don’t really relate to anything outside of the situation right here. But when you’re public domain you do feel like, a…what are they called? Those Motel 8’s or whatever. I feel industrialized. Fortunately, I don’t suffer from it, I don’t take it to bed with me. I live actually a very simple life, a very unglamorous life, a very real, good life. A real good life. I love my life.”
It is early March, one of those stunning days in Southern California when the air is suddenly full of jasmine and the breeze is warm but as yet smog-free; the kind of day that makes it hard to think about leaving this world. The sun is beating down on Aileen’s brutally sunny patio, but she is soaking in it, draped in a black dress over black suede Doc Marten boots, her long, silky brown hair brushed back over one side of her face. Her 12-week-old German shepherd puppy, Texas, scrambles around our feet and tugs at Aileen’s sleeves, much to the dismay of Aileen’s manager, Steve Grissom, who is doing his best to control a situation that will forever be out of anyone’s control. In his friend and client’s own best interest, Steve would really prefer that Aileen avoid talking too much about drugs and out-of-body experiences. But Aileen, ever the rebel, is adamant. “Don’t avoid the drug issue,” she advises in a voice made husky and nasal by cigarettes and tuberculosis, and in an accent that betrays her multilingual childhood. “It’s not something I want to avoid. I think it’s very important to deal with drugs and HIV. It’s very prevalent. They’re two separate diseases, both lethal. But just because you’ve got HIV it doesn’t automatically put alcoholism into remission.”
In fact, Aileen attests, AIDS too often exacerbates addiction. “Drugs are about control over fear,” she says, “and when you have AIDS, your lack of control is all that much more evident. I tried to make up for that lack of being in control with a lot of cocaine. That’s definitely not the way to do it.”
It has been nearly three months since Aileen nearly died, of toxicity and weakness, in her doctor’s office, and nearly three months since she made a commitment to get sober. “I was clinically dead,” she says. “I went through the whole out-of-body experience and everything; it was probably the clearest memory I’ve ever had. And there was a moment where I got to choose whether to come back or not, and I didn’t know if I wanted to live. I have a lot of shame about that,” she confesses. “Life is given to one with so much love. It broke my heart when I realized I’d turned my back on it.”
“On the lip of life,” as she puts it, Aileen chose life; she learned to “walk its circumference instead of fucking it down the middle.” And she finally understood she didn’t want either disease to kill her. “It’s a hell of an achievement,” she boasts, “to get sober with HIV.” Aileen has known since 1985 that she was HIV positive, and shortly afterward she was diagnosed with AIDS. But it wasn’t until 1991, after Magic Johnson disclosed his condition to the media, that Aileen went public, too, via Kevin Sessums in Vanity Fair, “because HIV was something that required a woman to stand up and speak the truth.” Aileen’s truth came in increments at first. She initially claimed that she’d become infected through a blood transfusion, but within the year, as her support increased and shame diminished, she admitted that she had contracted HIV from unprotected sex in an extramarital affair — a disclosure that, at the time, led to the dissolution of her eight-year marriage to Christopher Wilding, Elizabeth Taylor’s son by Michael Wilding.
Aileen is now engaged to be remarried, to 40-year-old documentary filmmaker Jay Brown, but Taylor has remained the woman Aileen calls mom, and her former daughter-in-law’s illness has added fuel to Taylor’s ongoing fundraising efforts for AIDS research and treatment. In the past four years, Aileen has become an activist, too: Around the same time that her story hit the media, Homestead Hospice, a Los Angeles-based network of shelters for people with AIDS, approached her about sponsoring a home for women with the disease, and her energy helped establish a house in the South Bay city of Lawndale called the Dallas House, named for a boy Aileen mothered for five years. Aileen hopes to open a second hospice in Hollywood, calling it the Aileen Getty House. “It’s a wish,” she says. “But money is hard to come by, and raising it is very political. People expect commendation and notoriety for their generosity. Obviously, it’s a lot more inviting to give to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation than it is to give to the Homestead Hospice.”
Part of the startup money for the Dallas House came from a benefit performance of The Seagull at LA’s Fountain Theater, which Aileen’s friend Bud Cort staged in her honor. On the night of the performance, Aileen was hospitalized with tuberculosis. And to the delight of theatergoers, Elizabeth Taylor showed up in her place.
The Dallas House also receives proceeds from sales of L.A. Eyeworks “Luck” glasses, which Aileen models in a pensive, chiaroscuro magazine ad. The money helps sustain the house’s $165,000 annual operating budget; it helps “keep our girls in bed and fed,” Aileen says. It’s a meager budget, says house manager Joan Crawford, who relies heavily on volunteeers from the community, and this time of year finds herself making frequent visits to the food shelves. “It’s pinched,” she says. “I’m operating on a shoestring.” (“Of course,” she adds cheerfully, “around the holidays our cupboards are overflowing.”) Dallas died of AIDS three years ago, at the age of 11; a smiling, handsome portrait of him in a football jersey hangs on Aileen’s living room wall. But “there’s more to Dallas than the Dallas House,” Aileen announces, taking off her right boot and rolling down her sweatsock to reveal an elaborate tattoo. The tattoo bears the names of the two sons she had with Wilding, Caleb, now 12, and Andrew, 11, their names joined in a rosary with Dallas.