Aristotle Socrates Onassis commonly called Ari or Aristo Onassis was a Greek shipping magnate who amassed the world’s largest privately owned shipping fleet and was one of the world’s richest and most famous men.
He was known for his business success, his great wealth and also his personal life, including his marriage to Athina Mary Livanos (daughter of shipping tycoon Stavros G. Livanos); his affair with famous opera singer Maria Callas; and his 1968 marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of American President John F. Kennedy.
Onassis was born in Smyrna (modern-day İzmir in Turkey) on the 20th January 1906 and fled the city with his family to Greece in 1922 in the wake of the Greco-Turkish War. He moved to Argentina in 1923 and established himself as a tobacco trader and later a shipping owner during the Second World War. Moving to Monaco, Onassis fought Prince Rainer III for economic control of the country through his ownership of SBM and its Monte Carlo Casino. In the mid-1950s, he sought to secure an oil shipping arrangement with Saudi Arabia and engaged in whaling expeditions.
In the 1960s Onassis attempted to establish a large investment contract, Project Omega, with the Greek military junta and sold Olympic Airways which he had founded in 1957. Onassis was greatly affected by the death of his 24-year-old son, Alexander, in a plane crash in 1973, and died two years later.
Onassis’s childhood was dominated by the principles of the Orthodox Church. Unsurprisingly, this upbringing influenced him throughout his life and, while not openly a religious man, he retained many of the qualities imparted to him through the church.
He did poorly in school much to his father’s dismay, who hoped Ari would take over the family’s cigarette business. After the Turks invaded his town in 1922, Onassis decided to leave for Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 1923, he got a job as a telephone engineer. Poor but clever, he eavesdropped on business calls and used the information to set up deals of his own.
Onassis’s fortunes soon turned favorable and he began a life of good living with expensive clothes. His ability to reinvent himself as an “important businessman” during the day, yet continuing to work the phone lines in coveralls at night, was an early indication of his sharp social and business skills.
Onassis’ first “big idea” came in the mid-1920s, when he overheard a phone call about a new “talkie” that would have its main character smoke a cigarette. Onassis got the idea to start his own brand of cigarettes aimed at the female market. He chose famous opera singer, Claudia Muzio, as the perfect model. To get her to smoke his brand in public, he showed up at her dressing room with a giant bouquet of flowers.
By the age of 25, his tobacco business made him a millionaire. Building on his wealth, he realized that the shipping magnates who hauled the tobacco made more than the cigarette manufacturer. This realization came to him at the height of the Great Depression. Just when everyone was getting out of the shipping business, Onassis was able to buy six ships for less than half of what they would normally cost.
At the outbreak of World War II, Aristotle Onassis registered his fleet of cargo ships to Panama, which gave him tax-free status and reduced his overhead costs, making him one of the lowest cost shipping merchants in the world. He struck a deal with the U.S. Government whereby he offered reduced prices on shipping military equipment in exchange for the U.S. granting him very favorable prices on war surplus cargo ships in spite of a ban on non-citizens buying military surplus equipment. This allowed him to build one of the world largest privately owned fleets. It has been recorded that Onassis never lost a ship during the war. Reasons for this vary from being very lucky to have made deals with both sides, though no credible evidence exists to prove this.
Early in his business career, Aristotle Onassis began dating a string of famous women, including Greta Garbo. In 1946, he met the daughter of the richest shipping magnate in the world, Athina Livanos, a woman almost half his age. They married and had two children, Alexander and Christina.
Soon, however, both of them were having affairs. In 1957, Onassis met Maria Callas, one of the most famous opera singers in the world. Onassis was so proud of his relationship with Callas that he began to flaunt it. Athina was wrecked by embarrassment and divorced him in 1960.
Several months before John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Onassis befriended Jackie Kennedy. In the agony following JFK’s death, Jackie clung to Onassis for friendship. In 1968, the two married on Onassis’ privately owned island. Generally, the American public reacted very negatively to the news. One newspaper’s headline implored, “Jackie, How Could You?”
“The only rule is
there are no rules.”
Ari’s son, Alexander, was a notorious brat as a child, but when he was an adult, Ari insisted that his son works for him. In 1973, Alexander died in a terrible plane crash. Ari was devastated with his son and heir gone.
Two years later, on March 15, 1975, Aristotle Onassis died at age 69 on 15 March 1975 at the American Hospital of Paris in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, of respiratory failure. Onassis was buried on his island of Skorpios in Greece, alongside his son, Alexander.
It was said that Maria Callas, his true love, never recovered from his death. She died two and a half years later.
Onassis’ will established a charitable foundation in memory of his son, named the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, based in the tax haven of Vaduz in Liechtenstein, and headquartered in Athens. The foundation received 45% of Onassis’ estate, which would have been left to his son, with the 55% remainder left to his daughter, Christina. The foundation consists of two parts; a business foundation which runs various businesses including shipping, and a public benefit foundation which is the sole recipient of the business foundation. The public benefit foundation funds the worldwide promotion of Greek culture funds the Onassis International Prizes for achievement in various fields, and the funding of scholarships for Greek university students.
Jacqueline Onassis also received her share of the estate, settling for a reported $10 million ($26 million according to other sources), which was negotiated by her brother-in-law Ted Kennedy. This amount would reportedly grow to several hundred million under the financial stewardship of her companion Maurice Tempelsman. Christina’s share has since passed to her only child Athina, at the time making Athina one of the wealthiest women in the world.