The Oil Company Heiress Devoting Her Wealth To Oceans and the Environment

One of the country’s most active funders of environmental issues and Democratic campaigns also turns out to have one of the more poetic backstories in environmental philanthropy. That’s because the G in Anne G. Earhart stands for Getty, the storied family behind one of the biggest oil fortunes of the 20th century.

Earhart is the president of the Marisla Foundation, a Laguna Beach-based funder that supports mostly environmental issues, especially relating to marine conservation, energy and climate, and toxic chemicals. The foundation also supports health and human services programs. Earhart also moonlights as a major donor to Democratic causes, especially Organizing for Action and the super PAC Priorities USA Action, both of which were born out of campaigns in support of President Obama. 

Anne Earhart, like many large donors, does her best to keep a low profile, having very little interaction with the press and leaving most of the public work of Marisla to Executive Director Herbert Bedolfe. But the source of the foundation’s and Earhart’s wealth is pretty fascinating, a twist of fate that sends millions in oil wealth toward clean energy and oceans protection.

Earhart is the granddaughter of Jean Paul Getty, who in 1957, was named the richest living American, thanks to shrewd investments in domestic and Middle East oil extraction. He was one of the first people in the world with a fortune of more than $1 billion, and at one point, controlled nearly 200 businesses. Getty was one of the more larger-than-life mid-century American industrialists, both admired and hated.

He was once quoted as saying, “The meek shall inherit the earth, but not its mineral rights.”

J. Paul Getty was also a notorious public figure, a Los Angeles playboy who married five times, had a pay phone in his mansion, and once refused to pay ransom for his kidnapped grandson. The huge family that expanded from his marriages and five children has become the source of great fame and fortune, but also tragic events, prompting rumors of a “Getty curse.” 

But Anne Getty Earhart, daughter of Paul’s first son George (who passed in 1973), seems to have avoided such a curse herself, along with the famed miserliness of her late grandfather. Now in her 60s, she’s become one of the most prominent donors in California, taking a sharp left turn from her family legacy. 

She was previously married to John Earhart, a similarly private environmentalist, who worked for the WWF, co-founded the Global Environment Fund in 1990, and sits on many nonprofit boards. Since the late 1980s, Earhart has been crusading to protect the oceans and natural landscapes in the state. 

For example, through Marisla, Earhart has heavily backed groups like the Nature Conservancy, Oceana and the Resources Legacy Fund, notably for the latter group’s work on marine preserves. The funder has also backed international issues in Northern Mexico and further afield in South America and the Pacific.

Earhart’s Democratic and progressive campaign contributions have also drawn attention. While Marisla gives some funding to the Center for American Progress and Media Matters, Earhart has directly given millions to Democratic committees. In the 2012 election cycle, she contributed nearly $2 million to groups like House Majority PAC and Priorities USA. In the 2014 election cycle, she’s given at least $500,000 to outside spending groups like American Bridge and Planned Parenthood Votes. That’s not including the major support she gave to the pro-clean energy "No on 23" campaign, or to individual candidates like Gov. Jerry Brown. She’s also emerged as one of the largest individual donors to Organizing for Action.

Like many of the Getty descendants (except for Balthazar, of course), Anne Earhart has maintained a highly private personal life. But she’s clearly made it her goal to use her chunk of wealth from the family business to try and undo some of the damage the oil barons of the past set in motion. 

Read more about the Marisla Foundation’s environmental giving here and here.