Victoria, Lady Getty, looks amazing. She is sitting on a leopard skin printed sofa with me in the beautifully understated apartment in West London, drinking green tea. She professes to be 71 years old. She looks as if she is about to turn 51.
As we come to the end of our chat she mulls over my last question, turning it in to a carefully thought-out answer – “What has made my life extraordinary…” there is quite a long pause until she’s certain, “what has made my life extraordinary is having been loved by an extraordinary person.”
That extraordinary person was of course American-born Sir John Paul Getty, KBE – eldest son of billionaire oil tycoon, Jean Paul Getty Sr., one of the richest men in the world. By the time of his death JPG was famed for his love of cricket, his friendships with luminaries such as Lady Thatcher and Mick Jagger and his mega-mind blowing philanthropy.
Of course what is also extraordinary is that both JPG and Victoria survived rocky journeys that fuelled their early lives. They had in their youth been lovers but life and travel and trouble separated them.
As a young woman, Victoria “ricocheted around, making poor decision after poor decision,” ending up in an abusive relationship for four years that nearly destroyed her. But it didn’t and she had to start to grow up instead. She spent the next decade travelling, putting herself in terribly dangerous situations because she just didn’t have enough self-worth to care.
Then by a miracle, at 38, she found herself in England and suddenly pregnant by a man who did the right thing and asked her to marry him. “The minute I found I was pregnant, I knew that instant that I would always put my child first.” she says with a clarity that is as surprising as it is touching. “I married the father and I became an old mother. At 41, I had my second child. Motherhood absolutely saved me. That was extraordinary. I became the person I was meant to be.”
Her first marriage eventually broke up and she turned to her “absolute anchor,” JPG, for the friendship and support they both needed. The friendship deepened and eventually they became lovers again.
They were married for 3 very happy years before their lives were changed forever. His gallbladder ruptured and he spent the last 4 years of his life having to have round-the-clock dialysis with Victoria nursing him. He died in 2003. Victoria was 59.
“You don’t get over it, but you get on with it,” she says in that airy British way which both hides and hints at the deep pain which lies beneath. “He was my soul mate, my best friend and my most beloved. For years after I would find myself suddenly crying out of the blue – those extraordinarily powerful tears of grief that can suddenly catch you unawares. I call them vinegar tears; they sting so much.”
She was no stranger to wealth, but money can’t comfort a widow at that terrible time – nor can it take away the confusion that comes if you find yourself “like so many countless women, having to deal with the mortgage bills for the first time or having to make huge decisions alone like when to sell the house.”
And then she turns to me and says, “Life is like an enormous tapestry. Every stitch you put in is either of light or shade. There have to be huge areas of shade which look terribly frightening and foreboding when you stand up close to it. The trick is to step back and then it becomes clear that you are making an enormous tapestry. There have to be some ghastly dark bits. But it all comes right in the end.”
And what has helped her to feel alright in the end. “Oh that’s easy!” she says, suddenly enthusiastic. “Every widow should have a project, whether it’s a hanging basket or a hobby such as painting. It’s essential. It keeps you going.”
And what keeps Victoria going? “Well apart from the love of my children, of course, I breed rare pedigree cattle.” Nothing could surprise me less from this remarkable, elegant woman. I can see that a hanging basket just wouldn’t cut it.