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29 June 2022

From the NS archive: Up the plank

23 March 1973: On J Paul Getty, America’s richest buccaneer.

By John Wells

In this piece from 1973, the satirist John Wells reviewed “How To Be a Successful Executive”, a new book by J Paul Getty, the petroleum industrialist and patriarch of the influential Getty family. Getty may have been named the richest man in America by Fortune magazine in 1957, but Wells wasn’t sure he had any real advice to offer to others. It was soon clear that the book’s real purpose was to present Getty as a kind of American diplomat, a “pleader and pugilist for the US and the invincible wisdom of its economic system”. But Wells liked to imagine Getty as a pirate, a buccaneer – though he understands Getty would prefer the term “entrepreneur” – who sets out to “capture” his fortune of buried treasure.

Mean-minded socialist cynics, I suppose, might ask themselves – and they would be unwise to ask anyone else within earshot of the Getty troupe of savage man-eating libel lawyers – whether the tiny and reclusive tycoon actually wrote this exceedingly tedious book himself. He clearly cannot have needed the money, and he is not, if hilarious popular gossip is to be believed, in the habit of giving anything away, even advice: though the book admittedly does not contain a single original tip on how to become a multi-millionaire, except for one story about his father, also an oilman, observing that the acceleration of a goods train over apparently flat terrain in California may denote the “dome” of an oilfield.

The mean-minded cynics might also observe that the copyright of the text is held by Playboy Enterprises Inc, which claims to have published “portions” of the book in its magazine, and that the text leans heavily on punchy one-line cuttings from Nation’s Business, Business Week, Time, and random potboilers like The Managers, The Multimillionaires and Survival in the Executive Jungle, with the rarest glint of the Successful Executive’s solid gold pen discernible in such chunky verbal decorations as “pseudonymous”, “seriatim” or “achromatic”. The core and purpose of the book, however, is all too soon revealed: a core and purpose to which the cynics of the left must inevitably remain insensitive: the infant Getty (chilling thought) cherished a dream, apart from that of becoming a writer – hence “pseudonymous”, “seriatim” and “achromatic” – of being an American diplomat. Later he even yearned, had not war-production claimed his unique talents, to fight for the United States on the high seas.

[see also: From the NS archive: Donald Trump, the man who would be Christ]

It is therefore the hero as pleader and pugilist for the US and the invincible wisdom of its economic system who occupies the centre of the stage. There is one chapter – a “The Myth of a Balanced Federal Budget – A Master of Profitable Enterprise Defends Uncle Sam’s Right to Run in the Red” – that the cynics might identify as an after-dinner speech designed to ingratiate the speaker with those dishing out prestigious diplomatic appointments abroad.

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Elsewhere, however, the figure presented is a more raffish one: yarning on with a wink and a nudge and a chuckle at the head of the gangplank, he seems at pains to draw attention to his three-cornered hat and the parrot on his shoulder. Buccaneers – the word preferred is “entrepreneurs” – are not “faceless automatons plodding seriatim through the deepest grooves of organisation, constantly glancing over their shoulders in fear, unfeelingly trampling the bodies of their fellows who fall by the wayside”. Bless you no, Jim Hawkins, lad! They are well-rounded intellectuals, and the days are gone when the Cap’n on the bridge could shout – and I quote – “Damn Aristotle and Zwingli!” Like oil, “business is adventure – and many years ago, American courts established the legal concept of the law of ‘capture’”.

[see also: From bullied to billionaire – the inevitable triumph of Elon Musk]

Starry-eyed, the recruits begin to trudge up the plank, are clubbed over the head and drop silently into the hold. There is the occasional wee infelicity (in the stirring call to enlist, a distinction is made between “man-sized executive timber” and “boy-size chips”); there are harsh words for the entrepreneur the Captain once had to throw overboard for putting his private letters through the office franking machine (old Paul never could abide a man who wanted something for nothing, lad); and tears of injured innocence are shed at the thought of the Oklahoma Oil Rush, “a magnet that drew highbinders, swindlers, and plain ordinary crooks”, “vultures” who descended on the honest entrepreneur, “leaving him little but the clothes he wore”.

But when he remembers how he “captured” his own fortune of buried treasure, the veteran grows sentimental – “it would be fun to do it again” – and his voice trembles with emotion:

[see also: “They have no respect for anything”: the quiet remorse of the man who sold London to Putin’s oligarchs]

“A fabulous business landscape spreads literally into infinity before the eye of the imaginative beginner… a landscape rich in opportunity, richer by far even than that unfolded during the golden era of the American expansion… and the postwar boom… The biggest leaps forward – US free-enterprise style, I hasten to make clear, and not the Red Chinese variety – and the most tempting plums lie ahead… The overall business trend is up.”

And indeed, as the ship sinks slowly in the West there is something positively poignant about the old dog as he leans on his crutch in the sunset, high above the confused murmuring in the hold, solemnly saluting the Jolly Roger.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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