The Surprising Newsom, Pelosi and Harris Ties With the Getty Oil Dynasty

There are few true American dynasties. The Rockefellers, Mellons, Astors and DuPonts come to mind. The Gettys, too, are on that list. Founded by oil baron J. Paul Getty who moved under the radar until his "outing" as the richest American by Fortune magazine in 1957, the subsequent four generations of his family have been in the spotlight navigating fields from environmentalism to fashion to business, music, digital archives, arts, LGBTQ rights and politics. With five wives, the patriarch of the dynasty, J. Paul Getty, fathered four sons who lived to adulthood, and the family tree has flowered to some 19 grandchildren, 40 great-grandchildren and 15 great-great-grandchildren.

Family scandals and internal squabbles such as Getty's son Gordon's (unsuccessful) seven-year court challenge over the family trust in the 1960s and the kidnapping of his eldest grandson in 1973, as well as subsequent battles with drug addiction, depression, adultery and internal squabbles over the sale of Getty Oil have been tabloid fodder for years and led to talk of "The Getty Curse." In the wake of the sale of the company in 1985 to Texaco for $10.1 billion—at that time the biggest corporate acquisition in history—$3 billion was partitioned into four separate trusts. Currently, the family's combined net worth could be in the neighborhood of $20 billion, which will finally be divided among all the heirs upon the death of J. Paul Getty's last living son—Gordon, currently 88.

PER Getty Excerpt 01
England, in January 1973, billionaire J. Paul Getty (1892 – 1976) home, his castle in the sixteenth century, Sulton Palace, 40 km from London. Portrait smiling, in the yard of his property . Manuel Litran/Paris Match/Getty

During their youths in the 1930s and 1940s, Paul Jr. and Gordon Getty could enjoy the camaraderie that came with being the only pair of full siblings born to J. Paul Getty, the richest American of his time. The oil mogul's three other sons had each been born to a different wife (of which there were five), and the half-brothers rarely saw each other.

Following her 1936 divorce from Getty, Paul Jr. and Gordon's mother settled her boys into a rambling house on Clay Street in San Francisco. Gregarious and artistically inclined, she was often absent. Their father, a workaholic who lived primarily in Europe, was virtually never present.

Left to their own devices, Paul Jr. and Gordon spent a good deal of time at the nearby home of their St. Ignatius prep school classmate, William "Bill" Newsom III, and his five siblings. This lively Irish-Catholic household was presided over by William A. Newsom II, a real estate developer and campaign manager for Edmund G. Brown, governor of California from 1959 to 1967 (whose son Jerry subsequently reclaimed the office in 1974 for the first of his four terms).

In the genial Newsom père, the Getty boys found a surrogate dad. Their great affection for him endured. When Paul Jr. died at his mansion in England in 2003, a framed photograph of Newsom II was near his bed. This intimate family friendship between the Gettys and the Newsoms spanned generations, including Gordon's four sons—Peter, Andrew, John and Billy—and Bill's son—Gavin, California's 40th governor.

Bonding Over Bones: The Origins of the Pelosi Friendship

Around 1970, Gordon and his bride, Ann, attended a small gathering in San Francisco. Dr. Louis Leakey, the pioneering paleoanthropologist, had come from Kenya to share with Americans news of his progress searching for evidence of the origins of man.

PER Getty Excerpt 02
26th July 1973: American oil heir and arts patron Gordon Getty, son of oil tycoon John Paul Getty Jnr, walking with his wife, Ann, outdoors after the marriage of Barbara Collins, personal assistant to J. Paul Getty, Surrey, England. Hulton Archive/Getty

Gordon had read of Leakey's work in newspapers and was eager to learn more. So, too, were Ron and Barbara Pelosi—nee Newsom, she was one of Bill's sisters—as well as Ron's brother, Paul Pelosi, and his wife, Nancy.

Since moving with her husband to the Pelosis' hometown of San Francisco in 1969, Baltimore-born Nancy had her hands full taking care of their four children; their fifth child was born in 1970. Though she'd grown up in a political household, the idea of herself taking office was still nearly two decades off.

At the time, Ron and Barbara had the highest political profiles of any in the gang. Ron served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and Barbara had grown up steeped in the city's Irish-Democratic politics.

The three young couples became ardent supporters of the new L. S. B.
Leakey Foundation. They honed their skills as they organized large public symposia, reviewed applications for grants the foundation dispensed to researchers and performed sundry other tasks.

Their first large event, a two-day symposium held at the Palace of Fine Arts in 1973, was a triumph: Australian anthropologist Raymond Dart recounted his seminal discovery of Australopithecus africanus at a cave in Taung, South Africa; Mary Leakey brought the latest news of the digs at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania; Dian Fossey discussed her study of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda; and Jane Goodall talked of her work with wild chimpanzees at Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanzania.

Over the next decades, Gordon served as chairman, and made substantial financial contributions to the organization. In 2013, the Leakey Foundation celebrated Gordon's 40 years of service with a four-day celebration, with toasts from attendees including Life Trustee Nancy Pelosi and her husband, Paul. According to a citation from Don Dana, the foundation's president, "No person has contributed more to the science of human origins than Gordon Getty."

In the years after these families met and became intertwined, as they rose to the peaks of wealth and power, there have been inevitable accusations of cronyism. But they bonded over old bones. They were all fascinated by the science—though doubtless learning about the survival of the fittest surely came in handy as they tangled with the modern hunter-gatherers of Pacific Heights, Capitol Hill and beyond. (Barbara and Ron divorced in 1977, after which she reverted to her maiden name of Newsom and served as the U.S. representative to the United Nations. She remained a staunch supporter of her former sister-in-law and her nephew Gavin.)

The Wine's the Thing

As they grew up, Billy Getty and Gavin developed an appreciation of good wine from their fathers, both passionate oenophiles and best friends. (Gordon became a well-respected composer of classical music while Bill served as a judge on the California Courts of Appeals bench.) In 1992, the boys opened a storefront shop, PlumpJack Wine & Spirits. With its whimsical design elements, youthful but informed vibe, and cut-rate prices, PlumpJack shook up the conservative wine world and became an immediate hit.

"It's a lot of fun to see the entrepreneurial spirit bubbling up in the Getty clan again," said Gordon.

PER Getty Excerpt 03
Gavin Newsom, center, with Peter and Billy Getty. During the PlumpJack wine shop opening party. Oct. 29, 1992. Steve Castillo/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty

As it happened, a political spirit gurgled up from the same premises—from a mop sink, to be exact. When the young men were applying for their permits, city inspectors put the brakes on things because the space lacked all the required plumbing fixtures. "Why the hell do we need a mop sink?" fumed Gavin. "The whole store is carpeted." His fight against city hall led to his first political position, on the Parking and Traffic Commission.

Friends Like Family

At Billy's 1999 wedding to Vanessa Jarman, held on a ranch in Napa Valley, Judge Newsom officiated, and Gavin served as best man. Among the 165 guests was a new assistant district attorney in town, a 34-year-old up-and-comer named Kamala Harris, Vanessa's new friend. Two years later, Harris threw the shower before the birth of the couple's first son. When their daughter was born, Kamala was asked to be the godmother.

PER Getty Excerpt 06
Obsolete owner Ray Azoulay, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris and Vanessa Getty attend the "Choose Or Lose Your Toys" event at the Obsolete Gallery on November 3, 2009 in Venice, California. Jesse Grant/Getty

Political siblings, Gavin and Kamala came up together, though his rise, after becoming mayor of San Francisco in 2004, was meteoric. One day he would make a strong run for the White House it was commonly assumed around San Francisco.

In 2001, when Gavin married Kimberly Guilfoyle, a prosecutor in the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, Ann lent the bride her Edwardian diamond trembleuse (trembling) tiara and threw a lavish banquet for some 500 guests at the Getty's mansion in Pacific Heights.

Over the years, Newsom political opponents have tried to weaponize his connections to the Gettys, portraying him as a child of privilege. But while the Gettys contributed generously to his campaigns, other San Francisco families gave as much, if not more.

PER Getty Excerpt 04
Billy Getty along with his girlfriend Vanessa Jarman host a party for their Jewelery Designer friend Alana Leigh. Also a time to show off Billy's 5,500 square foot penthouse. Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty

Through the tragedies and scandals that beset the Gettys, including the death in 2015 of Gordon and Ann's son, Andrew, and the bombshell news, in 1999, that Gordon had been keeping a secret second family in Los Angeles—a mistress with whom he had three daughters—it was Bill Newsom who often provided wise advice and emotional comfort for members of the family. Hours after he died in 2018, at age 84, a distraught Kendalle Getty, one of Gordon's daughters, let her feelings pour out on Instagram: "Today, my father...lost his very best friend in the world.... I loved Bill, and I still do. Today hurts so badly...."

In the election cycle of 2020, some airtime was devoted to pondering Kimberly Guilfoyle's path from Gavin to fiancé Donald Trump Jr. "Life's interesting," Newsom said diplomatically, when BuzzFeed brought up the topic with him.

At the Democratic National Convention, when Harris accepted her historic nomination for vice president, she acknowledged the people she considered family, including her goddaughter.

Amid the pandemic, the Gettys were shaken by back-to-back tragedies. Ann, the matriarch, died of a heart attack, and son John, 52, was found dead in a San Antonio hotel room. According to the medical examiner's report, he died of "cardiomyopathy and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD], complicated by fentanyl toxicity."

On the first anniversary of Ann's death, the grandees of San Francisco emerged from their COVID-19 isolation and assembled at the Conservatory of Music to memorialize her. It was what was left of San Francisco society, anyway. "Old, old," said one attendee of the crowd.

But there was one bright face among them. On the day that only weeks earlier some prognosticators predicted might be his political funeral—the California gubernatorial recall election—Gavin Newsom was beaming. At 11 a.m., as the service began, he was clearly confident of the resounding victory he would have that night, which renewed talk of a presidential run, and an old rivalry. ("Are Newsom and Harris on a Collision Course?" asked a headline.)

PER Getty Excerpt 11
Ivy Getty attends the Charity Gala for Ukraine people and culture at Scuola Grande Di San Rocco on April 21, 2022 in Venice, Italy. Daniele Venturelli/Getty

Two months later, when 27-year-old Ivy Getty—John's only child—was married, she was still mourning the loss of her father as well as her beloved grandmother, who had largely raised her. One of Ann's oldest friends stepped up to preside over the ceremony. When the service began at 6 p.m. on Saturday, November 6, under the dome of San Francisco City Hall, there was Nancy Pelosi, the officiant. Just before midnight the previous evening, the Speaker of the House, under the rotunda of the Capitol, had signed the historic $1.8 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework. "I hightailed it out of there for Ivy, who I've known since she was a baby," Pelosi told guests.


PER Getty Excerpt 10
Simon and Schuster

Excerpt from Growing Up Getty by James Reginato. Published by Gallery Books. Copyright © 2022.