“Money is like manure,” said J. Paul Getty. “You have to spread it around or it smells.” Getty himself was redolent of a rascally sort of rapaciousness. He was also a tough old coot with a tumescent appetite for beautiful women. But he had a soft spot for one particular beauty in his life: his granddaughter and godchild, Ariadne Getty, now 57, who has always been a bit of a rascal herself — one part punk, one part princess.
“I’ve never taken any of this for granted,” the philanthropist tells me when she is read that quote from her grandfather. “I’ve never pretended that I made a penny in my life. I inherited this money and I’m a steward. I have to honor it. Actually, I have to honor my great-grandmother who set up the trust. She didn’t trust my grandfather because he was a womanizer,” she says, confirming this lede paragraph and letting loose a signature burst of laughter, a quick gale of it that can blow through a conversation like a gust of gumption.
Such frankness is refreshing as she sits at a table in her Los Angeles home on this conference call as we converse in the disembodied way that such calls engender on top of the already stilted badinage of an interview’s back-and-forth, a kind of disembodied, distilled discourse all its own with which such wealthy patrons raised by the wolves of fame and fortune engage journalists after having been coached to do so by the experts they hire to smooth their heralded heredity into but a smattering of personality quirks and wisecracks. Call it the knowingness of the known.
Getty has an expert publicist and the expert head of her charitable foundation there at the table with her at each of her elbows, which I imagine to be well-lotioned, even though she is unafraid to throw such elbows around a bit roughly if need be in the staid world of philanthropy. That is her charm: her ability, elbows ready, to challenge others to find their inner iconoclast even as they serve a higher purpose to better society as a whole. Yet there is nothing slippery about this iconoclastic woman even if the emollients of lotion and lavish privilege come to mind when speaking with her.
Indeed, Ariadne Getty speaks haltingly — a bit shyly — and chooses her words quite carefully. This is not out of a fear of being misquoted so much as it is out of the seriousness with which she takes her philanthropic impulse.
When she was first starting her charitable foundation, she came up with a one-line, two-word mission statement: “Unpopular Causes.” It has since expanded to the more generalized assertion that the goal of the Ariadne Getty Foundation is to “work with partners worldwide to improve the lives of individuals and communities through large-scale investments & hands-on advocacy.”
The focus most recently at the foundation has been shoring up LGBTQ organizations, such as the Los Angeles LGBT Center and GLAAD. Getty joined the board of directors of the latter in 2016 and last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos she pledged $15 million to the organization, which focuses on media and how we as a culture can rewrite the script for LGBTQ acceptance.
I ask her if maybe her daughter Nats Getty’s mission statement for her gender-fluid streetwear line, Strike Oil, might be an even better fit for her foundation. It reads, in part: “For the misfits and the outcasts, The unseen and the unheard, For anyone who dares to be different, Because different is dope.”
She readily agrees and tells me that Nats and her brother August, also a fashion designer but one with a more high-end couture aesthetic focused on the female client, are her “beacons of information and light.” They are her only two children. August is gay. Nats is a lesbian and married to Gigi Gorgeous, the YouTube sensation and transgender activist. They are the kind of adults who still have a cool-kid vibe about them, as does their part punk/part princess mom. They are quite a triple-treat as a close-knit family as well as a style council of creative spirits who straddle lots of worlds — Getty runs both the fashion lines — and I’d wager some of that Getty wealth that when you use the term “grommet” around them they know it is not only something that can reinforce an eyelet sewn into a piece of clothing, but also a term for an inexperienced skateboarder with scratched-up knees and no real scratch of his own.
“Inexperienced” is not a term anyone would use for Ariadne Getty who grew up outside Siena, Italy, with her mother after her parents divorced. It was in many ways an idyllic setting for a childhood but anywhere would have been within reach of the tentacles of the family scandals that, as she grew up and realized what her last name meant to the larger world, strengthened her even as it all made her a bit wary — and, yes, for a time quite weary — of public attention. Her father J. Paul Getty II was a drug addict for much of his life (her stepmother died of a heroin overdose) and became a recluse in England in his later years, but one finally with a generous spirit which she seems to have inherited from him. She survived the actual narrative of the kidnapping of her older brother, J. Paul Getty III, and his subsequent heartbreaking health issues as well as the faux narratives made more noxious for their rather mercenary and monetary reasons.
She bonded with her sister Aileen who is herself an activist and philanthropist, roles that were motivated by Aileen’s HIV-positive status. She lived in London and had a swinging time designing T-shirts and being a bit of dilettante who dallied in lots of sybaritic endeavors. She even had an academic interregnum at Bennington College in Vermont.
Getty’s gust of laughter again blows through the conversation when I bring up her college days because of how few those days actually were.
So she didn’t go for the whole four years?
“I certainly did not.”
Does she even remember her time at Bennington or was it basically one long, however brief, blackout?
“It’s a little bit fuzzy to be honest,” she confesses. “But I did learn a lot there. I really did. I had some fantastic people I was exposed to. It really was an environment that allows you to find your own personality without the restrictions of rules. It’s almost like a Waldorf approach to college,” she tells me, citing the Rudolf Steiner holistic model of education. But I take it as another kind of cue. “A Waldorf salad approach?” I ask. Another gust of of laughter. “It does put nuts into your life,” she says.
Some would claim that her children and their circle of friends — many of them the misfits and outcasts cited in Nats’s mission statement for Strike Oil streetwear — are the latest nuts in her life with whom she has surrounded herself. She is a kind of den mother of the denizen of acceptance that her home has become for this extended LA family. They even call her Mama G. Does she think she would be so viscerally focused on LGBTQ rights if she weren’t the mother of two gay children and seen as a mother figure for so many of their friends? There is a maternal aspect to her activism. “I always say I am here doing this mostly to support what my children have made me aware of … I’m not sure how the Mama G thing started, but it’s so sweet. I get texts to Mama G all the time from the friends of my children and my daughter-in-law Gigi. I am a fiercely loyal mother. I will go to war for my children and their friends.”
“You’re like a polar bear,” I tell her.
“I can’t believe you said that. That’s my spirit animal. You got me there. They are my cubs — Nats and August. And all of their friends are, too.”
“Yet not all wealthy parents support their gay children in the way that you have chosen to support yours. Some of them even donate to Donald Trump. Would you meet with Trump if he invited you to the White House?”
“Oh, Kevin … Kevin …,” she says, moaning. No laughter is launched into the conversation at the thought of this. There is a long silence instead. “I would have to say, ‘I’m sorry. Under most other situations, I would be honored to be invited and I would love to go,’” she carefully begins. “But as Trump continues to stop people’s human rights and disregards the basic … ah … ah, ” she stops again. Time to throw some elbows, after all. “You know what, I would tell him in a heartbeat that under any other circumstances I would love to go but I actually wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I met with him in the Oval Office. I would probably even have a couple of rotten tomatoes in my pocket,” she says, that gust of laughter finally unleashed as she references her time in England and how the groundlings there would respond to their own vulgarians on their Elizabethan stages by throwing such weaponized fruit at them.
“You could bring your children and daughter-in-law to bear visual witness to your meeting with him,” I suggest, knowing that Gigi is sort of Trump’s type and how disconcerting that would be for him to be turned on by her.
“If he allowed me even to bring them with me,” says Getty. “Can you imagine? Or we could wear MAGA caps but install little mini-cams in them and tape his reaction when I introduced him to my daughter-in-law, ‘Mr. President, this is Gigi. She’s transgender.’”
We have been speaking on this conference call the same day that Ellen DeGeneres was getting media flak for her friendship with another president, George W. Bush. What does Ariadne think of Ellen’s response to the criticism?
“I personally believe that if you have a platform no matter what it is — even if it is your single voice as a human — you have a responsibility to it. Ellen is extremely fortunate to have such a fan base and a platform. I personally believe that there is nothing wrong with being friendly in private, but going public with it and saying what she said sends a mixed message. It not only might confuse her fans but also those who aren’t necessarily her fans but use her as a sort of barometer. Since she is a comedian, she gets to tackle a lot of topics. I do think that this is a message that does not need to be so public. Yes, it’s important to respect and accept everyone for who they are. I haven’t read exactly what she said. But if she is using her platform but she is ignoring the facts that there were so many rollbacks with Bush and his administration and there were so many LGBTQ injustices passed, then I don’t agree with that.
“She is not referencing that. She is not saying even though these things happened, we can affect a change if we approach those who have been against us in a fair and kind way in order to try and find a middle ground … After the election in 2016, I called Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO at GLAAD. I said I’m going to bed and closing my curtain and I’m going to stay here for a couple of weeks because I’m so very depressed. And she said, ‘I’m going to give you 24 hours to be depressed and then I want you to get out of bed, get dressed, brush your hair, and make 10 calls to talk about the changes you want to see happen. Get up and stand up and get to work.’ And that’s what I did.”
“Here is another quote from your grandfather,” I say, winding down our conference call. “’The rich are not born skeptical or cynical,’” he said. “They are made that way by events and circumstances.’And yet you, Ariadne, have had the opposite reactions to the events and circumstances of your life. They have made you less cynical and skeptical. They have given you a social conscience and spurred you to activism.”
The laughter is no longer a gust of gumption. It is now more a lovely little breeze, a hum of humility underlying it here on the line.
“You know what, life is too short,” she says. “I’ve had all the things happen to me that you can imagine — especially people taking advantage. There could be plenty of space in my life to just shut down and not interact and just basically be a victim, or what have you. But I love my life. It is really a privilege to be involved with the LGBT Center in LA, which has so many intergenerational programs there. I’m fortunate. I encourage everybody who has any way of being part of a cause to make the time and become involved.” She pauses. The breeze erupts into one last gust that carries more than itself forward. “Don’t let what other people do define you,” says Getty. “Define yourself.”
(Editor’s note: Ariadne Getty was honored with the Washington Blade Lifetime Achievement Award for LGBTQ Advocacy for her commitment to equality. The award was presented to her at the Blade’s 50th anniversary gala on Oct. 18, 2019 in D.C.)