For Twenty of the Thirty Years She Has Been Living with HIV, Aileen Getty Was In Pain. The Last Decade, Though, Has Brought Not Only Joy to Her, But to Others As Well
by Dann Dulin
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]t one time, Aileen Getty’s grandfather, J. Paul Getty, industrialist and art collector, was known as the richest man in the world. With such a pedigree, you’d assume that Aileen was destined for a life of ease. It wasn’t. In fact, some parts played out like a tragic Gothic novel.
On a hot, muggy end-of-summer afternoon, my assistant Davidd and I drive up the winding tree lined gravel road to Getty’s ranch in Ojai, California, an hour north of Los Angeles and long a retreat for celebrities (Channing Tatum and Emily Blunt recently bought homes here). Aileen invited this journalist to her recently purchased home. She rarely grants interviews—in one article she had protested, “I’m terrified of interviews…”—so I wanted to put her at ease.
I didn’t have to. Standing by the Spanish-tiled front door, Aileen, along with her publicist, Sarah, warmly greet us. We easily embrace with robust enthusiasm, as if we’ve known each other for years. Then Aileen offhandedly asks, “Why don’t we all go on a bike ride later this afternoon?” Her brightness and eagerness are disarming.
Our host is smartly clad in beige slacks and a loose-fitting muted grey-blue Spanish top, her feet in sandals. The Holly Hunter-lookalike is down-to-earth, kicked back, and possesses a hint of Earth Mother. She’s a refreshing throwback to the Sixties. She has several tattoos, one on her upper arm that reads “Biohazard” (“I wanted to wear it like a badge so HIV wouldn’t corrupt my insides”). A subtle raspiness to her voice summons up Lauren Bacall, and the rhythm and intonation of her speech is, well, a bit like Holly Hunter’s.
While remarking about the unusually humid weather, Aileen escorts us into a spacious, sun-splashed room. Immediately, my eyes dart to the intense lavender tablecloth on a circular dining room table. Surprise. It’s set for lunch. In the center are vases of fresh-cut flowers from her revered garden. The room is brimming with contemporary art. Some paintings hang, others rest on the floor. Aileen is not fully moved in yet. An expansive floor-to-ceiling window offers a view of the lush landscape.
As we chat about politics, disco music, reality television, and selfies, Aileen totes out platters of food from the kitchen one at a time. A local chef prepared today’s lunch and, because of her sensitive immune system, she’s a vegan. She asks us if we’re okay with that. “Unfortunately, eating for well-being is a very expensive proposition today. I think we have to demand organic food and once we start eating it regularly, the prices will come down,” she asserts, carrying out a dish, concluding, “I love how food brings us together.”
What a feast! I ask about the menu. (She owns several restaurants in Los Angeles.)
Aileen fetches a list and reads: Socca’s made with chickpea flour (“I like them because they taste like a dry omelet.”), yellow squash primavera, Swiss chard and red Cannellini beans, and smashed Peruvian potatoes (they’re purple). Suddenly, she scans the table. “Hmmm, we have quinoa with sweet potato and kale, but I don’t think I brought it out…,” she flashes annoyance, though sounding not terribly fussed. She returns to the kitchen and brings the dish to the table.
To drink, we have a choice of different flavored Kombucha (fermented tea and mushroom). I choose the Golden Pear and note that it tastes like beer. “That’s why I love it!” exclaims Aileen, amid a devilish laugh, which is guttural and infectious. Sarah adds, “It got me to stop drinking Diet Coke.”
[pull_quote_center]I learned how to live in a way that makes me feel comfortable with myself. I learned not to depend on someone else. I can do for myself! It’s been really good…[/pull_quote_center]After touching on Caitlyn Jenner (“a hero to me”), aging (“the simple answer for me is inner beauty”) and what male star is hot (“Mark Ruffalo”), Aileen explains her fear of interviews. “I feel like I don’t have a whole lot of weighty things to say about HIV and AIDS, because I’m [too] emotional about it,” she clarifies. “I have a deep aversion to being public, mostly because I’m afraid of being ridiculed. I become vulnerable and then a shark attacks me. I had a few incidents in my past that were demoralizing. I woke up one day and found myself on the cover of the National Enquirer. I was so humiliated.” She laggardly arranges her very long, straight brunette hair behind both ears.
Brutally honest, Aileen has overcome many of her demons and achieved self-love. “I learned how to live in a way that makes me feel comfortable with myself. I learned not to depend on someone else. I can do for myself! It’s been really good…”
“Dude [she uses this affectionate term occasionally throughout our time together], I’m at a place now where I know very little. In some ways I’m at a loss. Not a void, but a loss that’s looking to what I can divert into.” Aileen pauses, then peals off some wisdom. “You are enough. At all times preserve what’s authentic within you! We have the freedom to change our minds so long as we stay truthful,” she attests. “So much of those ten years were fulfilling, engaging, but sometimes bewildering. It was the most creative decade of my life.”
Aileen became an activist early in the epidemic before she was diagnosed. At that time, the hospital rooms were quarantined. When a visitor arrived, they had to don surgical masks and gloves before seeing the patient. Sometimes a whole body suit was required. “As soon as I was aware of the disease, I went into high gear…,” she reflects intensely, her serious big browns squinting. “I may have been one of the first people around the amfAR offices. I could be wrong. There was an office in Beverly Hills and I remember I was alone there and learning how to use Microsoft Word.”
In 1985, Elizabeth Taylor co-founded amfAR with Drs. Michael Gottlieb and Mathilde Krim. One of their fundraisers was called Art Against AIDS. Aileen nonchalantly points to a piece of assemblage art hanging on the wall. “I created this for Art Against AIDS years ago.” I rise from the table to view it. It’s roughly three feet-tall and four feet-wide, with the words “Death Row” repeated in the same typed font throughout the piece. Diagonally across the bottom are double zeroes with the word “zeros.” Framing the piece is slate-grey barbed wire fencing, which brings to mind the crown of thorns Christ wore for the crucifixion.
Last year, L.A.’s Project Angel Food honored Ms. Getty with its inaugural Elizabeth Taylor Leadership Award. She also serves as Ambassador to her former mother-in-law’s organization, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF). Aileen married Elizabeth’s son, Christopher Wilding.
Taylor played an important role in Aileen’s life. Aileen and Chris had just moved into a Los Angeles apartment when his father, British actor Michael Wilding, died. Aileen and Elizabeth met at the Wilding homestead in England when attending his funeral. “To this day, it is just such a good family. I’ve been so fortunate,” she admits with admiration.
Though Aileen and Chris divorced in 1990 after eight years (though together for ten) and two kids, Elizabeth and Aileen remained family. Taylor, who Aileen calls “Mom,” was never judgmental and supported Aileen until her death in 2011. Interviewed for A&U by this reporter in 2003, Elizabeth proudly said, “Aileen is magic. What a survivor. She’s been in and out of hospitals so many times but she fights. Aileen is a tiny woman yet she uses her courage, her brain, and every power in herself. Her spirit is keeping her alive.”
“Mom made me feel loved,” Aileen says softly with heartfelt passion. “This was huge for me but I was never able to reciprocate. I needed somebody to be totally unafraid because I ended up turning people’s fear of me into a weapon that I turned against myself,” she recalls. “To have Mom in my court was an incredible gift. I wasn’t able to engage because I just didn’t have the courage to do so at the time. But none of it went unacknowledged by me. Today I’m here in large part because of Mom and some other anchors who expected more of me.” Aileen takes a sip of Kombucha. “Even to just be attached in name to Mom is huge for me. I feel privileged to be in the same energy field as she’s in. I’m honored to be Ambassador of her Foundation. It’s a direct activity with mom’s spirit and to stay connected with her.”
“Connected” is a word Aileen uses many times this afternoon. “I love knowing so many people and being connected to them. I love their interests, their passions,” she rapturously remarks with drink in hand. “It changes your lens. When your input is so diverse you become a more diverse human being. Most of my life was less connected but now I have this connectivity where I feel this new freedom to be myself.” She takes another serving of squash and potatoes and sums up spritely, “We all have a connection! There’s a bridge that exists between each of us. I want to take more time understanding the bridge….”
After Rock Hudson went public with his AIDS diagnosis, Aileen was at Elizabeth’s home sifting through his mail. Elizabeth and Rock were dear friends. “I was going through sacks and sacks of Hudson’s mail reading how much hatred was within the letters. It was staggering to read how frightened people were. My introduction to AIDS was full-on.”
“In retrospect,” she notes, “it’s somehow odd that during that period I ended up becoming HIV-positive myself, having chosen behaviors to attract that. I really do believe we attract certain things in our life because we have something we want to learn from it.” Tara, her nearly two-year-old Akita, brushes in between Aileen and me. “You’re just the best girl,” she enthuses as she pets her. “It was such a powerful time for me. The world changed.
“I felt like I was the only girl. I was frightened. I didn’t throw myself into that place of embrace that I might have had if I had been a gay man. I was raising two little kids. I didn’t want people to know where I had contracted HIV.”
Though diagnosed in 1986, she didn’t go public until 1991. It wasn’t her choice. A television show informed her that they were going to air a piece on her. Magic Johnson had recently come out. “At that time I was in poor shape. I was high. I was ashamed of myself,” recounts Aileen, fiddling with one of the cream-colored lengthy tassels that hang from her short sleeves. “I had been clean before I contracted HIV, but when I was diagnosed I got high again and I stayed high. That was my way of dealing with it. It’s no excuse, but that’s what I did. These last ten years have been extraordinarily enlightening.”
There’s a note of gratification in her voice. “In the past thirty years, I’ve learned adaptability—emotionally, spiritually and physically. My being has become more elastic and bounces in ways that it wouldn’t have done before. I developed in so many ways.”
Elizabeth Taylor was an unwavering source of support for Aileen, but others, including family, were not so kind. “I remember that feeling of prejudice,” she laments matter-of-factly. “The early years were very hard years and I don’t think I’m over that. I don’t talk about it much, but I feel it. It lives in a very deep place in me that’s conflicted and still painful. I’m more of a person now who reaches out for joy instead of pain. It’s still an emotionally charged active event within me.” She stops, giggles, and grins. “I wouldn’t change anything, because it’s been…such… a ride.”
Aileen’s childhood was spent in Rome. In 1976, at seventeen, she moved to America.
Anorexia, addiction, rehab, self-mutilation, abusive relationships, and then HIV touched her life in the early years. She contracted HIV after having unprotected sex when she was involved in an extramarital affair. It shattered her marriage to Christopher Wilding. After another marriage and another divorce, Aileen was on this decade-long trajectory of reflection. A survivor, she has transformed herself into a global philanthropist and community leader.
In 2005, she established GettLove, a nonprofit organization to house and aid Los Angeles individuals who are experiencing homelessness. In 2012, she founded the Aileen Getty Foundation, currently supporting eight causes: YaLa (youth oriented social network-based peace movement), David Lynch Foundation (to bring meditation and mindfulness to school children), Center at Blessed Sacrament (homeless project), amfAR (dedicated to ending AIDS through research), Museum of Contemporary Art (preserving art), Africa Foundation (empowers communities around wildlife conservation areas), ETAF (raises funds and AIDS awareness), and Friends of Hollywood Central Park (a New York Central Park-inspired infrastructure plan).
The Gettys are not unlike any other famous wealthy brood. Tragedy is woven into their lives. When asked about this, Aileen replies, “This sounds like such a simple answer, but I think there’s something to be said about money and the power that’s associated with it. It’s inherently toxic. To have more than others is somehow unjust,” she warns. “It comes with generations that become less and less adept and skilled at real life. There’s a trade-off. I want so much to benefit in the best possible way from the gift that comes with this opportunity.” Aileen halts and briefly glances out through the thick wooden doors that enter onto the hallway and a floor-to-ceiling Palladian style window. “You know, I’m just in awe of what a wondrous incredible life it has been, but how diligent I have to stay and remain for it’s easy to be persuaded by stuff.”
[pull_quote_center]We educate through fear! Joy has a better way of taking root….At the core of infection is not knowing oneself.[/pull_quote_center]Having joyfully consumed our meal some time ago, we have remained at the table conversing. Aileen rises and carts dishes out to the kitchen. While helping, I inquire about her current meds. “Well, I’m now waiting to switch over to a single pill, but I’ve been taking Tivicay, Truvada, and Valcyclovir. My health is good,” she confirms, rinsing off plates and stacking them in the dishwasher. She had many opportunistic infections early on. “Those were hard years,” she bemoans, listing off some of them. “I’ve had fungus, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis—that was a horrible one! I’ve had a lot of issues with my lungs and I have had neuropathy in my feet and legs. It’s amazing that I am well today!”
Aileen comments on the high HIV infection rates among young people today. On the issue of prevention, she’s adamant. “We educate through fear!” she pronounces. “Joy has a better way of taking root.” There’s a short silence. “At the core of infection is not knowing oneself.”
She scrubs the last dish and places it in the dishwasher then asks if we’d like a tour of her home. The four of us meander through her casually elegant Paul R. Williams two-level hacienda. Built in 1929, the home affords captivating views. Abundant with meandering indoor and outdoor hallways, the home has eight bedrooms and eight baths.
Though she has an apartment in the arts district of downtown Los Angeles, Ojai is Aileen’s retreat. Usually the place bursts with family, like her two sons, Caleb, thirty-two, who builds and works on cars and bikes and lives close to her in Los Angeles, and Andrew, thirty-one, who writes music and directs films, and lives with his wife on a ranch in Sylmar.
“I’m a very lucky parent. I have incredible kids. They’re both divine souls and we’re all very close,” she confides proudly, perched on the side of a trickling fountain. It sits in the middle of a courtyard of an olive orchard, flowers, and manicured shrubs. It’s the focal point of the house and adjacent to the luscious hefty-size rose garden.
Aileen also has a thriving relationship with her ex-, Chris Wilding, and his wife, who join in on family get-togethers. “Chris is a beautiful human being. I was harsh on him. I really roughed him up…,” she kids out of embarrassment. “We went through some really bad years, guys. I wasn’t fit for a relationship. I needed some serious work!”
As Davidd and Sarah lag behind, Aileen leads me outside to the swimming pool, offset by a massive old lazy oak tree. I am overwhelmed by the stunning view. We walk past the pool to the edge of the hill and quietly stand for a few minutes before the Ojai hills.
Aileen suspends silence and asks if I am in a relationship. She’s not only eager to learn about others, but to learn about herself through you. After I answer, I turn the question back on her. The introspective decade has gladly brought her celibacy. “There are periods where I think I would love to date now, but then in a minute,” she snaps her fingers, “I become terrified.” She peeks around for Tara who has followed us, and spots her. “Friends tell me that it’s different today and somewhat easier, but I don’t believe it. I’m not afraid of rejection, I’m fearful of being vulnerable in front of others.
“Oddly enough, some things have changed enormously in my life, like the value I now place on life. Human beings are very interesting. We have patterns that we fall into and things get triggered,” she insists with measured cadence. “One thing triggers another pattern and all of a sudden your alignment is all out of whack.”
She contemplates. “I do have the tools [to have a relationship] but don’t know how to activate them,” she offers, having considered therapy. “After being with myself for ten years I do have the wherewithal and can come into a relationship as a whole human being.”
Aileen confides that she’s attracted to “the package” – whether it’s male or female.
[pull_quote_center]So many extraordinary things have resulted from this epidemic. For me, the most direct benefit has been really witnessing in… my… entire… being…on…a…cellular level—that LOVE is far greater than any other power.[/pull_quote_center]She had a girlfriend before she was diagnosed. When Aileen revealed to her that she was HIV-positive, “She immediately asked for her jeans back!” Aileen howls and we all join in. “Ever since I was a little kid I always identified more as feeling like I’m more of a boy. I wasn’t a tomboy. More of a goody-two-shoes to please my mom. I didn’t like the idea of hooking up with boys when I was young. Then I thought maybe I am gay. But I know that I’m not anything that has a label,” she affirms. Her face softens into a smile. “That is not my truth. My truth is that if it resonates in a way that brings joy and makes me laugh, it doesn’t matter who it is.”
With that, she asks, “How about some tea and dessert?” In anticipation, the four of us congregate back at the dining table. The vegan, gluten-free dessert is a coconut yogurt parfait, sweetened with agave and layered with buckwheat granola and berries. Absolute heaven. “I’m addicted to it!” she beams, pouring hot water into cups, serving a variety of herbal teas. She offers a toast and we all clink cups.
“I love how food brings us together,” she quips, sitting down. “That’s what’s great about this house, just like us sharing right now. There’s no distraction. We’re just fully present for hearing each other and for celebrating each other’s lives in this moment in a full way. It’s awesome.”
As the sun fades, we prepare to depart. Standing together on the stone-laid entranceway, Aileen turns to me. “So many extraordinary things have resulted from this epidemic. For me, the most direct benefit has been really witnessing,” she pauses, then with surgical precision utters in a soulful voice “—in… my… entire… being…on…a…cellular level—that LOVE is far greater than any other power. Gay men came together and this showed me that love conquerors all,” she revs spiritedly, with her nuclear-wattage energy. “Dude, it made me turn a page in my own evolution to not be afraid. Or even if I am afraid, not to let my fear come before my ability to express my love.”
Dann Dulin interviewed Jonathan Groff for the November cover story.