Was J. Paul Getty a Nazi collaborator?
That is the provocative question that J. Edgar Hoover asked in 1940, when the FBI opened a secret investigation into J. Paul Getty’s possible ties to the Nazi regime.
While reporting Chasing Aphrodite, we obtained Getty’s FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act. It contains a fascinating account of the FBI’s ultimately inconclusive espionage investigation into Getty, who some in the government feared was “extremely dangerous to the safety of this country.”
Here are highlights from Hoover’s investigation in J. Paul Getty, at the time one of the world’s richest men:
Aug 1940: The FBI takes notice when sources report that J. Paul Getty (“Geddy”) buys the run-down Hotel Pierre on 5th Avenue in New York City, fires the staff and replaces them with “employees of the Italian consulate.” Months earlier, Italy had joined forces with Nazi Germany. An inquiry is opened.
Aug 29, 1940: J. Edgar Hoover orders the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office to launch “a complete and thorough investigation” of Getty, noting his employees’ “Italian consular connections.” Hoover writes: “Getty may, because of his oil interests and German descent, be engaged in activity inimical to our Government.”
Nov 1940: After a preliminary investigation, the FBI opens a formal case file on Getty, listing the focus of the investigation as “Espionage.”
Nov 11, 1940: The investigation finds Getty has been married four times, and was accused of “immorality” and adultery by his wives.
Dec 1940: FBI file cites a New York Daily News article describing Getty as a “personal friend” of Hitler who has supplied oil to Russia.
December 1940: Getty’s attorneys write to US Embassy in London, denying claims made in Daily News article. Getty “never met and does not know Hitler, and is not and has never been friendly or sympathetic to him.”
Jan 1941: J. Edgar Hoover writes to the Attorney General, summarizing the investigation into possible espionage by J. Paul Getty.
Jan 1941: The FBI learns that in Nov 1939 Getty was in Berlin negotiating the sale of 1 million barrels of California oil to Soviet Russian buyers.
Nov 1941: FBI report from New York office summarizes investigation, concluding, “Investigation has failed to disclose information to substantiate allegations that the employees and those who frequent the hotel have Italian Consular connections.”
Jan 1942: Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge writes to Hoover saying there is insufficient evidence for a criminal prosecution against Getty, but asks the FBI to continue its investigation.
April 1942: Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge instructs Hoover to continue investigation of Getty, noting “If these allegations, or some of them, are true the subject is a person extremely dangerous to the safety of this country.”
April 1942: In a heavily redacted report, a confidential source tells FBI investigators that Getty advised Nazi army “a way to break through the Maginot line,” France’s protective barrier with Germany. Source tells FBI investigator that Getty was interested in Hitler “merely because of the efficiency with which HITLER and other German officials conducted their system of government…” Getty is “amenable towards the way those in power crush the weak.” Source tells FBI investigators that Getty turned down offers of oil and art from Russian and German officials in exchange for his help drilling oil wells.
Aug 29, 1942: Getty was interviewed by the FBI and denied any ties to Hitler’s government.
Oct 1942: FBI summarizes investigation of Getty, concludes facts “do not reflect that he is engaged in espionage activities.” Case transferred to unnamed division of FBI.
July 1943: Attorney General Francis Biddle concludes the FBI’s use of “danger classifications” for individuals was a mistake and should be stopped. He orders a memo placed into Getty’s file and others classified as dangerous, noting that such designations were unreliable.
Sept 1961: In 1961, the Kennedy White House opened a confidential “name check” inquiry into Getty. The report notes the FBI’s investigation of Getty and the oil tycoon’s promiscuous relations. It also mentions that in the 1940s Getty was involved in a paternity dispute with a woman who claimed the true father of the child was Getty’s friend Charlie Chaplin. The White House deemed the information in the file not relevant to the the inquiry, whose focus is not revealed.
Aug 1963: Kennedy is said to have accused Getty of avoiding income tax payments and using his money to subsidize “extreme right-wing propaganda.”
March 1973: Nixon Dept Assistant Alexander Butterfield requests inquiry into J. Paul Getty.
In hindsight, the FBI’s two-year investigation of Getty found nothing concrete, and appears more guided by innuendo and rumor than hard fact. With the FBI’s current focus on penetrating domestic terror networks, it is noteworthy that soon after the investigation concluded, Attorney General Francis Biddle advised the FBI halt its use of “danger classifications” like the one applied to Getty.
“This classification system is inherently unreliable,” Biddle concluded. “The notion that a valid determination can be made of how dangerous a person is…is impractical, unwise and dangerous.”
To this day, rumors persist about Getty’s ties to Hitler and Mussolini.
*Thanks to our friends at DocumentCloud for hosting the Getty FBI files.