Art, Art & Archives, Behind the Scenes, Getty Research Institute, technology

A Look Inside J. Paul Getty’s Newly Digitized Diaries

They’re here! The diaries of J. Paul Getty are now part of the collection of the Getty’s Institutional Archives, thanks in large part to the late Jim Wood, former Trust President and CEO, who placed great value on the Getty’s history.

J. Paul Getty's diary open to the page for March 29 and 30, 1952

J. Paul Getty Diaries excerpt for March 29–30, 1952. Institutional Archives, The Getty Research Institute, 2010.IA.16

The diaries, which have just been made available online, chronicle almost four decades of Getty’s life, from 1938 to just before his death in 1976, through daily journal entries.  These unassuming little volumes are the most comprehensive primary source on our institution’s founder and provide valuable documentation on the provenance, authentication, and acquisition of foundational objects in the Museum’s collection.

The diaries will aid in the study of art collecting, too: they record Getty’s visits to private and public collections and his interactions with premier collectors, dealers, art historians, and others who influenced his tastes and helped him assemble his collection.

As objects the diaries reflect Getty’s frugality—they are common, inexpensive notebooks that could have been purchased at any five-and-dime. You can look inside this volume here.

Cover of J. Paul Getty's diary for 1949 and 1950

J. Paul Getty Diaries cover, 1949𔂿50. Institutional Archives, The Getty Research Institute, 2010.IA.16

Getty was as economical with his words as he was with his money, jotting down daily activities, expenditures, and thoughts quickly with apparent candor and little embellishment. His penmanship is average in the early years, slipping into illegibility toward the end of his life—ultimately the entries are so craggy that they appear to have been created by an Etch A Sketch!

Getty’s cramped handwriting and tendency to write back-to-front when the mood struck him make reading the diaries a challenge. We currently have no transcriptions of the diaries, and their content is largely undiscovered.  We will soon launch a website that will invite your participation to perform the transcriptions (via crowdsourcing), thus rendering the diaries keyword-searchable and dramatically improving their accessibility.

Here’s a sample transcription for December 31, 1949:

Drove Mitchell Samuels to the ranch at noon. Oeben mechanical table, Josse bureau plat and the rock crystal chandelier just arrived from London. The mechanical table was partly open when unpacked, I succeeded in closing it but couldn’t get it to open by turning the key. Possibly I had wound it too tight. Then  I couldn’t get the key to turn. Mitchell said it was a great table. There are about 15 in the world, about 5 in America. He said my table was not as important as the 3 in N.Y. his 2 and the one in the Metropolitan… [He proceeds to list the value of other items in his home.] Drove Mitchell Samuels back to the Bev. Hills Hotel and then I went to B.C. Cuba libre with m. At 9:30 pm Teddy and I gave a New Year’s party at the ranch house.  About 30 guests for a sit down buffet dinner in the dining room and lanai…The new half century came in amid considerable hilarity.

Mechanical Writing and Toilet Table, Jean-François Oeben, about 1750. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Gift of J. Paul Getty

The Oeben table mentioned in the diary: Mechanical Writing and Toilet Table by Jean-François Oeben, about 1750. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Gift of J. Paul Getty

So that’s what the richest man in the world does on New Year’s Eve—monkeys around with his new table, discusses his home décor with one of the most well-respected art dealers in the country (Samuels was founder of French & Company), tosses back a Cuba Libre (highball) after lunch, and hosts a little dinner party with his wife. Not bad.

Based on what we’ve read thus far, this entry is typical of the diaries as a whole: they primarily focus on art collecting and business (personal matters are secondary); they echo the notion of “keeping up with the Joneses” (or more precisely, Hearst, Huntington, Rockefeller, and the like); and there’s a constant awareness of the cost or value of EVERYTHING, sometimes detailing how much Mr. Getty paid for lunch that day! Unusual for his time, Getty was very health-conscious and sometimes records what he eats and the rare occasions that he drinks alcohol.

By publicizing digital versions of the diaries, the Getty Research Institute is providing open access to an uncensored narrative of the life and times of one of the most fascinating public figures of the 20th century.

Portrait of J. Paul Getty at his desk

J. Paul Getty at his desk, about 1939–45. J. Paul Getty Family Collected Papers, Institutional Archives, The Getty Research Institute, 1986.IA.22

Contact Reproductions and Permissions at the Getty Research Institute for additional copyright information and permission to publish.

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  1. Ben Brumfield
    Posted December 30, 2010 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    We will soon launch a website that will invite your participation to perform the transcriptions (via crowdsourcing), thus rendering the diaries keyword-searchable and dramatically improving their accessibility.

    Have you decided on a transcription technology yet? Several exist or are in development–see Melissa Terras’s blog post on the subject–but if you’re building your own I do hope you’ll post about the resulting tool.

  2. Laure Marest-Caffey
    Posted December 31, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    I had no idea they were being digitized! This is fantastic.

  3. Cyndi Shein
    Posted January 2, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Ben! Melissa Terra’s blog post is a great resource that I had not seen before. We have been looking at most of the sites/projects mentioned there, especially the Bentham project. We are still exploring the available technologies. We’ll keep you posted!

  4. Cyndi Shein
    Posted January 2, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Laure! You are as practiced as any of us in reading Mr. Getty’s handwriting. We’d love for you to participate in the transcription project once it’s up and running!

  5. Christine Griffiths
    Posted September 7, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    What a great resource! I plan on opening my seminar course that will discusses 18th-century mechanical furniture with this passage from Getty’s diary. It perfectly exemplifies Mimi Hellman’s argument in “Furniture, Sociability, and the Work of Leisure in Eighteenth-Century France” (which we will be reading for that day) about being properly socialized to successfully “perform” furniture! [Eighteenth-Century Studies 32, No. 4 (1999): 415-445].

  6. david kipen
    Posted January 10, 2015 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Cyndi, did that transcription of the Getty diaries ever get crowdsourced? I’d love to have a look-see…

    • Annelisa Stephan
      Posted January 14, 2015 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      Hi David, Thanks so much for your interest. (Cyndi has since left the Getty so I’ll reply.) In brief, no. We still have this project on our to-do list but we haven’t implemented it yet. Since 2011 the landscape for transcription has changed a lot so we’ve been evaluating new tools that might be promising. Extremely open to suggestions here, too.

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