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Theodora Getty Gaston recalls life with J. Paul Getty in 'Alone Together'

Teddy Getty Gaston discusses her time with J. Paul Getty in a conversation at the Getty Villa. Her memoir is 'Alone Together.'

September 06, 2013|By Carolyn Kellogg | This post has been corrected. See note at bottom of article for details.
  • Theodora "Teddy" Getty Gaston, ex-wife of J. Paul Getty, at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades.
Theodora "Teddy" Getty Gaston, ex-wife of J. Paul Getty, at… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

The crimson-haired woman makes sure to offer snacks to each person entering the room. She's seated at the end, next to a carved marble fireplace that doesn't entirely match the rest of the neutral corporate décor.

It used to be different here. "It was a very beautiful living room, with beautiful chairs and lovely couches," she says. That's when this place was hers and J. Paul Getty's. They called it their ranch; we call it the Getty Villa.

Theodora Getty Gaston — Teddy — will turn 100 this month, just in time for the publication of her new memoir, "Alone Together: My Life With J. Paul Getty" (Ecco: 416 pp., $26.99). In person, Gaston is sweet and sharp. Recounting the incredible stories of her life, she is alternately lighthearted and serious, demure then sassy.

She recalls a museum tour guide saying that she and J. Paul Getty never slept at the Villa-slash-ranch. "If we didn't sleep here, who the hell was I sleeping with?" Gaston asks wryly. "We didn't tell everybody in the United States, hey, we two are going up to sleep at the ranch. We didn't announce it. We just came here, went to bed, got up in the morning and had breakfast and left."

She's using "sleeping" euphemistically, and there's a surprising sexual frankness in the book, particularly for a centenarian society girl raised in Greenwich, Conn. She vividly describes her own love affairs, and in the first pages, she describes being sexually assaulted by her stepfather.

Striving for independence after college, Teddy Lynch launched a singing career. This was 1932: In a successful Depression-era gambit to bring the still wealthy in the door, the Waldorf Astoria booked debutantes to sing, giving them dinner and $25 a week.

"Although no one knew it, I was the only girl living on that $25 a week. The others still lived with their families on Park Avenue or in River House," she writes. She shared a dingy apartment with two other girls, "and slept in a single bed right under a huge window overlooking the back alley filled with trash. It was summer, and we had to leave the window open to catch whatever breeze might come our way, no matter how bad it smelled."

That recall makes the book so engaging. "Her voice was so attractive," says co-writer Digby Diehl, co-author of bestselling memoirs from Dan Rather and Esther Williams and a former Times editor. "She would weave this extraordinary time of dinner dances and the Hamptons — a time she recollects very clearly."

Her singing brought her and Getty together. She describes their meeting with crystal clarity. She was singing at a chic club; he was struck by the quality of her voice and asked her to dance. "Usually they say, 'Well, you're a pretty sexy dancer, I want to [pause], let's go home,'" she says, waving a hand. "And this man is talking about the quality of my voice."

He fell for her as a torch singer but believed she could sing opera. When their love affair began, he paid for her to take lessons from magnificent teachers — something she writes that she accepted only after insisting on paying him 10% of her future singing earnings.

"I have the canceled checks, and he signed them!" she says. This might be unusual behavior for a billionaire, but Getty was notoriously tightfisted. Before their 1939 marriage, he had her sign a prenuptial agreement and, in later years, he became increasingly ungenerous with her. But first he swept her off her feet.

The billionaire, the beautiful young singer he grooms — there are echoes here of "Citizen Kane," and it's perhaps no coincidence that Gaston did know William Randolph Hearst, upon whom the film was based. For many years, Gaston lived in Santa Monica right next door to Marion Davies and her legendary beach house. The key difference between Gaston and the film character: Gaston was a genuine talent — she sings opera in the Oscar-winning "The Lost Weekend".

"Alone Together" is a whirlwind tour through the storied places and people of the early 20th century: the Stork Club and the Russian Tea Room, appearances by Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Jesse Lasky. Hollywood never became the center of her world, though. Gaston studied opera in England and Italy and was so determined to work until she could perform opera on stage that when Getty returned to America, she stayed behind in Rome.

It was far too close to the onset of World War II. "I remember coming out of the American Embassy, and a man was going by saying, 'Avanti avanti, Il Duce.' I thought, 'Well, I'm going to hear him now. Personally.' So I followed him to the area where Mussolini was speaking," she says.

"I was in the palazzo — the piazza, you call it — right beneath where he lived, and he came out there strutting like a little [here, she pauses] poo poo." In her seat, more than a half-century later, Gaston mimes Mussolini's strut.

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