Aristotle 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 in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. He was commonly know as Ari or Aristo Onassis and was born in Smyrna in 1906.
Onassis was known for his business success, his great wealth and also his tumultuous personal life, including his marriage to Athina Livanos, his affair with famous opera singer Maria Callas, and his marriage to the widow of President John F. Kennedy’, Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968.
Onassis was born in Smyrna 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 WW II.
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 Argentina he got a job as a telephone engineer where he eavesdropped on business calls and used the information to set up deals of his own.
He soon became succesful ad he began a life of good living with expensive clothes. Onassis’ ability to portrey himself as an “important businessman” during the day, while continuing to work the phone lines in coveralls at night, was an early indication of his smarts and his sharp social and business skills.
In the mid-1920s he got his first big break when he overheard a phone call about a new “talkie” movie that would have its main character smoke a cigarette. Based on this call 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 advertise his cigarettes to the right audience. Legend has it that in order to persuade her to smoke his brand in public he showed up at her dressing room with a giant bouquet of flowers.
By the time Onassis was 25 years old his tobacco and cigarettes business made him a millionaire. Building on his wealth, he soon 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. The timing could not have been better as while everyone was trying to get 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, 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. In additon to this, he also struck a deal with the US Government where he offered reduced prices on shipping military equipment in exchange for the US 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 very quickly one of the world largest privately owned fleets. It’s rumored 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 career, in the 1930s and 1940s, and when he was already wealthy, Aristotle Onassis began dating a string of famous women of the time, 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, Alexandros and Christina.
Soon, however, both of them were having affairs which affected their marriage. Onassis met Maria Callas in 1957 when she was 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.
Onassis befriended Jackie Kennedy several months before John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In the agony following JFK’s death, Jackie clung to Onassis for friendship. In 1968, the two married on Onassis’ privately owned island, Skorpios. The American public reacted very negatively to Onassis’ and Jackie’s wedding.
“The only rule is
there are no rules.”
Ari’s son, Alexandros, was a notorious brat as a child, but when he was an adult, Ari insisted that his son works for him. However, Alexandros died in a terrible plane crash in 1973 which devastated Onassis.
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 alongside his son Alexander, on his private island of Skorpios in Greece.
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 Alexandros S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, 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 funds the Onassis International Prizes for achievement in various fields, funds the worldwide promotion of Greek culture, and also funds 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. Christina’s share has since passed to her only child Athena, at the time making Athina one of the wealthiest women in the world.