The diva, the magnate and the First Lady
Aristotle Onassis believed that by marrying Jackie Kennedy he would get America. In the end, he got neither. Instead, he broke the heart of the woman he loved, opera singer Maria Callas, humiliating her publicly. Emily Hourican recalls the tangled web of desire and deceit
sAs he watched the newly widowed First Lady standing, heavily veiled, on the steps of the White House, with her children on either side, as her husband's coffin passed slowly by, Aristotle Onassis mused “There's something Greek about Jackie”. Kennedy had been shot three days earlier, and Jackie was now the most famous woman in the world. Onassis watched the endless coverage from the Paris apartment of his lover, Maria Callas, commenting that Jackie was “so brave, so courageous”. Maria, at the time, thought nothing of his words. She had no notion that this woman, whom she was only ever to meet once, briefly and inconsequentially, would contribute so much to her unhappiness. But perhaps the tone of Onassis' comment should have alerted her; to him, ‘Greek’ was something powerful, a state of mind more than a nationality.
In fact, Onassis' interest in Jackie was already piqued. At their first meeting some years earlier, he remarked to a friend that there was “something damned wilful ... something provocative ...” about the young Jackie, concluding: “She has got a carnal soul.” In this he was undoubtedly correct, and able to see beyond the careful image of elegant poise she projected to the rest of the world. However, the wilfulness that initially attracted him, the independence of spirit he admired in courtship, were to become profoundly irritating after just a few months of marriage.
Jackie wasn't Greek enough to understand what Callas knew instinctively — that for all his love of drama and passionate dispute, Onassis had to be the boss. A show of spirited defiance was what he wanted, followed by swooning capitulation. The violent rows were intended as a prelude to love, a kind of play-acting, nothing more. Jackie didn't get it, or maybe just didn't care enough for him to try to figure it out. Maria, on the other hand, loved him completely, almost slavishly and, crucially, understood him as a Greek man.
And yet it was Jackie he married, a woman he didn't love and who didn't love him, who defied him and made him look bad in the eyes of his Greek male friends, and who, in the end, couldn't deliver what he wanted. Onassis had believed that by marrying Jackie he would get America. In the end, he got neither. Instead, he broke the heart of the woman he did love, Maria, humiliating her publicly, before returning to her in private and begging to be taken back. In thwarting the natural course of love, Onassis instigated a tempestuous three-sided affair that so titillated the world that even now, more than 30 years later, the fascination remains, and is the subject of various plays and even a new concert, Casta Diva, to be performed at Dublin’s National Concert Hall next Saturday, September 24.
Jackie and Maria were complete opposites. Maria, the diva with an international reputation who, in her heart, was ready to give it all up for the man she loved, to be a Greek wife; Jackie with her rather glacially self-controlled and private nature, determined to show neither weakness nor fallibility, yearned for a role beyond the domestic, to somehow make an impact on the world.
Onassis was obsessed with power and those who had it, with what separated the great from the merely good. Maria was at this time very much in the prime of her life. Born relatively poor and brought up during the Axis occupation of Greece, she was pushed hard from the age of five by her demanding, unsympathetic mother. Now in her mid-30s — Onassis was almost 60 — she had emerged from the slightly dumpy, even dowdy, incarnation of her younger self into a glowing, expressive adult beauty, her vivid features given prominence by her new, slender form.
A determined womaniser from the age of 13, Onassis had learnt the importance of strategic relationships. He seduced not just for pleasure, but for worldly gain. His wife, Tina, was the daughter of his shipping rival Stavros Livanos, an heiress in her own right, and although the couple, by the time he met Maria, had an open relationship, she had given him two children, thus seemingly ensuring the dynasty (although ruining their sexual relationship).
Now, with his fortune secure, he was looking for a woman who would complement his image, who would bring her share of glamour and fame to the match. Maria had every prerequisite. He laid siege, starting with baskets of red roses delivered to her before every performance and signed ‘The Other Greek’.
Maria's husband, Battista Meneghini, also her manager, was initially far more receptive to Onassis' attentions than Maria, who, although monumentally self-absorbed, was, at heart, a rather moral woman. She understood the dangers that Onassis represented very well, to her marriage and herself, and initially sought to avoid him.
But Onassis knew it was just a matter of time, and simply continued his romantic assault, sending flowers and expensive gifts.
When Maria eventually capitulated, she did so completely. She threw herself into the role of Onassis' mistress with whole-hearted passion, allowing herself to fall as deeply in love with him, as she believed he was with her. A woman who knew no half-measures, she believed this to be destiny. “We cannot fight it; its force is beyond us,” she eventually told her husband. “For once, I feel like a woman,” she said to a fellow guest aboard her first cruise on the Christina, where Winston and Clementine Churchill, and Onassis' children Christina and Alexi were also present.
The sexual and emotional tension were conspicuous during that cruise, with Aristotle and Maria openly revelling in each other's company, she stripped down to a tiny bikini while he oiled her luxuriously, whispering to each other and disappearing below deck at odd hours. Meneghini, meanwhile, kept to his cabin, suffering motion sickness, while Tina sulked, acutely conscious that something was very different in this, Onassis' latest affair, compared with the many before it.
While at anchor at the foot of Mount Athos, Maria and Aristotle were received by an Orthodox Patriarch, who asked them to kneel side by side to receive his blessing; calling them “the world's greatest singer and the greatest seaman of the modern world, the new Ulysses”. This was precisely how they considered themselves, and to Maria anyway, whose eyes filled with tears, was a blessing on their love. By the end of the trip, both her marriage to Meneghini and Aristotle's to Tina were in effect over.
Maria was transformed, was living suddenly with a zest and vigour she had never known, loved and in love, at last the woman she had always dreamed of being. Onassis, however, the great seducer, naturally began to withdraw once his object was secured.
He would disappear for weeks at a time, sometimes with his wife, trying to woo her back. He refused to get a divorce and often Maria would believe the affair was over, that she would never see him again, and then suddenly he would phone again every day, send flowers, beg her to join him. Each time, she dropped all commitments to run to his side.
Onassis was never one to resist a beautiful woman, and had an open affair with Lee, Jackie's younger sister, then married to Prince Stanislas. Lee was a kind of professional house guest at the time, whose aspirations to breaching the highest society were becoming a reality thanks to Jackie's rising status.
Lee's appeal for Onassis, apart from the fact she was beautiful — far more so than Jackie, though without Jackie's magnetism — and willing, was her fame, and her relationship to the US President. He had long-standing problems with his shipping business in the States, and figured that getting close to the President would help resolve these. In 1963, he sent her to Jackie's bedside on his private jet when Jackie's son, Patrick, died, just three days old.
That tragedy was Onassis' opening. Under guise of sympathy, he urged Lee to invite Jackie for a recuperation cruise on the Christina. Jackie accepted — in the teeth of JFK's opposition, and possibly as payback for his philandering — and Onassis told Maria she wasn't welcome to join them, that it would be “unseemly for him to have his married mistress on board with the First Lady”. Tears and scenes followed, with Maria feeling humiliated and cheapened, although Lee was still the danger she most feared.
In fact, the seeds of the Aristotle-Jackie affair were laid on that voyage around the Aegean. Always susceptible to powerful, older men, Jackie flirted heavily with Onassis, listening in her engrossed and flattering way to his talk. She was snapped by a paparazzo sunbathing in a bikini.
So concerned was Maria, back in Paris, about the affair with Lee, that rumours of the First Lady and Aristotle were a relief to her. This, she knew, was business, something a Greek wife could understand. And perhaps she would have been proved right, except that the violent hand of history made Jackie a widow just one month later.
In secret, Onassis began laying siege to Jackie, dining with her in her Fifth Avenue apartment, sneaking in through the service door. Possibly the two most photographed people in the world managed to meet many times — in the States and on Onassis' island — without detection, embarking on an affair that was, at first anyway, highly charged and sexually compulsive. That, however, wasn't the real appeal for either of them. “It's not love,” Onassis told Maria when he admitted the affair. “I love you, I need Jackie.”
On Jackie's side, it was Onassis' millions that were the real attraction, specifically the protection his vast wealth afforded.
Kennedy's assassination was the defining moment of Jackie's life. She was terrified that she or her children would be kidnapped, or killed. When Bobby Kennedy — for whom she was actively campaigning, and who was the single greatest restraint on her affair with Onassis — was assassinated, that signalled the end for Jackie. A tentative date was set for the wedding, and the agonising financial negotiations began. Lee was furious, screaming “How could she do this to me?” down the phone to Truman Capote.
Maria, meanwhile, behaved with dignity. Although broken-hearted and humiliated, she kept away from the press, staying in her apartment and refusing to speak to anyone on the day of the wedding.
Within five months, Onassis was trying to woo Maria back, turning up outside her Paris apartment and whistling, as young Greek men used to do to their sweethearts, and insisting he no longer slept with Jackie (although he boasted to a former White House aide, at around the same time, that they had sex five times a night). He was beginning to realise that Jackie wasn't after all the entree he needed into American business life. He complained that the Kennedys treated him like some kind of dance-hall gigolo, and that, anyway, with Nixon now in the White House, their influence was limited.
For all his sophisticated — if corny — seduction techniques, and undoubted ability as a lover, Onassis could be boorish and crude. He was known to have beaten previous girlfriends (one so badly she looked like “a boxer who has lost a fight”), and often humiliated Maria by calling her, publicly, “a c*** with a whistle in her throat”. But with Jackie he never dared go so far, and she seemed to take pleasure in defying him, once diving from the deck of the Christina and swimming a considerable distance to shore when he refused to order the crew to take her.
Maria took Onassis back without a fight. She loved him too much and had already accepted him for the kind of man he was.
When Aristotle was snapped taking Maria to dinner at Maxim's in Paris while Jackie was shopping in London with Lee, Jackie immediately flew back and insisted he take her to the same place the very next night. When Onassis' son died tragically in a plane crash, Maria was forbidden to go to the funeral on Skorpios; then, when Maria's father died in Athens a few months later, she didn't go to the funeral, because Jackie and Aristotle were in Athens at the time.
The death of his son snapped something vital inside Onassis. He was never the same again and lost his appetite for the intrigue of his private life. He also lost the will to hold on to Jackie, who soon moved back to New York, the marriage in effect over. Shortly after, she began the protracted, bitter negotiations over a divorce settlement that were to endure up to his death and beyond. Maria, meanwhile, began to finally understand that she would never really occupy a place at Onassis' side. She threw herself into her career and another relationship, but her heart was still his for the taking. In November 1974, while singing in Japan, she got a message to call Paris, no matter how late the hour, her thoughts turned immediately to him. “It's Onassis, isn't it?” she asked.
He was in hospital in Paris, with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder, and expected to die. Jackie, despite the hostility of the divorce proceedings, was at his side daily, and ordered staff at the hospital not to admit Maria if she was to turn up. Once he seemed stable Jackie left, on a skiing trip to New Hampshire. His condition promptly deteriorated but Jackie couldn't be contacted. Instead, Onassis' sister, Artemis, rang Maria and said to come quickly if she wanted to say goodbye. Maria, who had barely left her apartment in months, waiting for news, snuck in through the service entrance of the hospital and up via a back elevator. She could not touch Onassis and he was barely conscious, but she whispered: “It is me, Maria — your canary,” telling him she loved him and always would.
When he died, six days later, aged nearly 70, only his daughter was by his side. Maria was in Florida, hiding from the paparazzi. Onassis, the great mariner, was buried on Skorpios, beside his son. Maria didn't go to the funeral, saying: “How would it look — his two wives by his side?”
But she mourned him sincerely for the two years she had left, dying aged just 54, probably of a heart attack, although popular myth called it a broken heart.
Casta Diva: The Life, Loves and Music of Maria Callas, National Concert Hall, Dublin, September 24 & November 6. For tickets, tel: 00353 1417 0000 or visit nch.ie