Of course, if you guessed from her surname that she is one of the fabulously rich Getty family, you’d be correct. Has it often occurred to you that often the richest families are the ones who seem to have the most tragedies and disasters in their lives? The Onassis and Kennedy families come to mind.
Aileen Getty was one of these people who suffered because of her family’s enormous wealth – yet she’s a survivor.
How did it all start?
Aileen was the second child of Jean Paul Getty II and his first wife, Gail. They had four children including Jean Paul III who was famously kidnapped in the 1970s. The couple were divorced in 1964 and Gail received custody. Although Aileen’s father became known eventually as a philanthropist, during Aileen’s childhood he lived a ‘rich hippie’ lifestyle which included the mandatory drug problem.
After Gail and Jean Paul split up, Gail went to live with a man you Aileen resented. She was brought up in Italy but as a teenager sent to boarding school in England. She hated it and rebelled against the discipline of the school. The idea of this expensive education was to make her into a young society woman but it had the opposite effect – she became a rebel.
Later, she dropped out of the University of Southern California and did what most rebels of her day enjoyed – creating controversial artworks, protesting against the Vietnam war and using a good deals of drug, in particular cocaine which was favoured by the rich and famous.
Then there was sex. She lived for a while with a jazz pianist and then with a film director but soon became sidetracked by someone else and decided to marry. She had been spending time with a young man called Michael Wilding Jr and had got to know his younger brother, Christopher. People who know their movie history might know who the mother of the two young men was…
A wedding between the son of one of the most famous women in America and the granddaughter of one of the richest men in the world was bound to be quite an undertaking and the logistics seemed impossible so, with their parents’ knowledge, the couple eloped and were secretly married at a wedding chapel on Sunset Strip.
But the marriage wasn’t to succeed.
Aileen later said that she became insecure when her parents were divorced and that the five month kidnapping ordeal of her brother Paul had made her realise distrust her family — and the family wealth. By the time she married Christopher she had already had a nervous breakdown.
Drugs didn’t help the situation. Her new husband was a kind man who indulged her. But the drugs caused massive mood swings. There was also the problem that, as two rich kids, they did not have the struggles that most young married couples have to go through to bond the the relationship.
Miscarriages, another nervous breakdown and a several week disappearance were to follow. Although Christopher’s friends later said that he was ‘getting tired of being Aileen’s nursemaid’ the couple decided to adopt a son in an effort to cement their marriage.
As often happens, Aileen became pregnant shortly after the adoption and the couple now had another little boy born in 1985.
It was eight months later that she was confessing her terrible secret to Elizabeth Taylor
Aileen was severely depressed after the birth of her son and her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Taylor, decided that she needed to get away for a short spell. Ms Taylor was travelling to Paris in her role as president of the American Foundation for AIDS Research and took Aileen with her.
Aileen was horrified when she found out more about AIDS during the vacation. It made her aware of various risks she had taken in the past. She confessed to her mother-in-law that it was possible that she was HIV positive. Ms Taylor was incredibly reassuring and comforting.
After the Paris trip, she took Aileen to stay at her Bel Air mansion. And Aileen took blood tests. Although those who knew her were aware that she had a drama-queen side to her personality, in this instance she was right – the tests revealed that she was HIV positive.
Aileen knew that she couldn’t stay with her mother-in-law forever so fled to New York. She hit the bars – and the drugs scene – hard. She believed that it would be more ‘respectable’ if she died of a drug overdose. This demonstrates the stigma that was attached to AIDS in those days.
However she lived and returned to her husband and children, but Christopher was now talking about divorce. Christopher and his mother were the only people at this stage who knew about Aileen’s illness. She tried several supposed cures but nothing worked and eventually she told her family.
Divorce and remarriage
Christopher divorced Aileen in 1987. He also gained custody of the children. Those in the know thought that this might be the final blow for her but the following year she announced that she was marrying a young man she had met at her latest rehab clinic. When the couple returned from their honeymoon, Aileen was found unconscious the following day – a drug overdose. The second marriage ended.
Less than three years later, she developed the first symptoms of AIDS itself. Her doctors told her that she might only have a few months to live. Her inherent rebelliousness kicked in. She hated people pitying her and she hated the stigma that was attached to her disease. But for a time she was very ill.
When she was fitter, she announced publicly that she had AIDS and with the name of Getty (and that of Elizabeth Taylor) backing her up she became a champion for the rights of her fellow-sufferers, particularly women. She made no secret of the fact that she had contracted the disease by having unprotected sex with someone who she later discovered was HIV positive but repeatedly said that the way the disease was contracted was not important, that sufferers should be treated with the dignity that sufferers of any other disease were granted.
Aileen put her own house in order
As she gained fame for her campaigning she was determined to sort out her life. She tried to get out of her drug habit. She re-established a friendship with Christopher Wilding and was allowed custody of her children on four days of the week. In 2014 she was honoured with the Elizabeth Taylor Leadership Award. In the audience at the event were numerous members of the Getty family, plus many from the Wilding family.
In her acceptance speech, Aileen said “Thank you to my family. You have been my constant anchor. I am blown away every day by your love and support. I am so grateful to be surrounded by so much love here this evening.”
In 1990 when she discovered that she had the full-blown disease she said that AIDS had given her something positive to live for.
And at that time, her doctors had expected her to live for only a few months. What an inspiring story.
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