Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis (1906–1975) earned his fortune by building supertankers that carried oil around the globe, but he also engineered a number of other savvy business deals that gave him a personal wealth estimated to be in the billions when he died in Paris, France, in March of 1975. Sometimes called the "Golden Greek" for his Midas touch in business, Onassis is perhaps best remembered for marrying one of the most elusive woman of the twentieth century, Jacqueline Ken nedy, the widow of slain American president John F. Kennedy.
Fled Hometown of Smyrna
Onassis was born on January 15, 1906, in Smyrna, a thriving, ancient port in Turkey that was later renamed Izmir. The city was home to a large Greek population at the time, including his family, and his father, Socrates, was a well-to-do tobacco merchant. Penelope, his mother, died when Onassis was six, leaving him and an older sister; Socrates then remarried and had several more children. An indifferent student, he was ejected from several schools during his teens, and by 1919 was working in his father's office. That year, Greek forces invaded Smyrna, but in August of 1922 the Turks again seized control, and ethnic tensions between the two sides erupted. Several members of Onassis's extended family died, and his father was jailed on charges of conspiring with previous Greek occupiers. The teen managed to help his family escape to Greece, and arrived there himself with his father's savings taped to his legs.
When Socrates was released and rejoined the family, he treated his son harshly, and Onassis decided to make his fortune elsewhere. He sailed for Argentina in 1923 with some $250 in savings, using a so-called Nansen permit, which allowed a one-way trip for refugees on their way to a country of resettlement. In Buenos Aires, he held a series of menial jobs before finding work as an electrician with the British United River Plate Telephone Company. The boss, he was told, was an Briton who had been stationed in the Greek city of Salonika during World War I, and it was suggested that Onassis say he was from that city to improve his chances of hire. The information made it onto an official application that was used for his Argentine citizenship papers, and would later prove troublesome.
Earned First Fortune in Argentina
Starting out as an electrician at the phone company, Onassis became a night-shift telephone operator for it, and improved his English by listening in on calls made to London and New York. He also overheard information about upcoming business deals, and invested some of his own savings in the ventures. With his first small windfall, Onassis acquired some good suits and joined a posh rowing club to cultivate further contacts in Buenos Aires. He also became romantically involved with Claudia Muzio, an Italian soprano several years his senior. Restoring his relationship with his father, he began a successful tobacco-importing business and earned his first million from it. When a proposed tariff threatened to cut into the business's profits, Onassis brought Greek and Argentine politicians together to hammer out a trade agreement that kept the tax from being imposed. By 1931, his status and influence among the Greek expatriate community in Argentina was so impressive that the Greek government made him its deputy consul in Buenos Aires.
Onassis, however, hoped for greater prestige, and set his sights on the shipping industry. Several Greek names had been dominant over the past century, such as the powerful Livanos clan, but their operations were generally closed to newcomers. After returning to Athens for his father's funeral, he then went to London, where he heard a rumor that several Canadian freighters near Montreal were about to go up for sale. They were owned by the Canadian National Steamship Company, which was in severe financial trouble due to the Great Depression and the worldwide economic repercussions. Onassis struck a deal and bought six of them at the bargain price of $20,000 each. He renamed the first two he put in the water the Onassis Socrates and the Onassis Penelope in honor of his late parents.
Struck Wartime Deal
The fleet began carrying cargo across the Atlantic, and Onassis divided his time between the London and Buenos Aires offices of Olympic Maritime S.A., as he called his company. His ships were registered under the Panamanian flag, which saved on taxes and soon became common practice for sea-going commercial vessels. Onassis also began an affair with a wealthy heiress to a Swedish shipping fortune, Ingeborg Dedichen, which helped him secure a deal with a Göteborg ship-builder to build a 15,000-ton tanker at its yards, the world's largest at the time. When it was launched in 1938, he named it the Ariston, a Greek word for "the best."
Onassis's growing empire was threatened by world war in 1939. Some of his ships were seized by governments of the ports in which they sat, or by governments-in-exile. The following year, his business interests imperiled, he left a London under fire from German Luftwaffe bombs and sailed for New York, sleeping with an attaché case that contained the deeds to all of his vessels. In New York and Washington, he managed to cut deals to save his fleet, and for the rest of the war rented them out to the Allied forces fighting German and Japanese; some were lost at sea, but an agreement he reached with the U.S. government included providing him with war-surplus ships after the end of the conflict at a favorable price.
Wed Shipping Heiress
During the war years, Onassis lived in Centre Island, a village on Long Island, with Dedichen, and spent time in Hollywood, where he dated actresses Veronica Lake and Paulette Goddard. In 1942, he returned to Buenos Aires for business, and on his visa application for re-entry into the United States he used the information on his Argentine passport. Back on Long Island, his romance with Dedichen disintegrating, Onassis began romancing Athina (Tina) Livanos, the teenage daughter of shipping magnate Stavros Livanos. He competed for her affections with Stavros Niarchos, a young friend and business rival who was the maritime attaché to the Greek Embassy in Washington at the time. The two men would engage in a lifelong rivalry that involved both Livanos daughters—Niarchos wed Tina's sister, Eugenie—and their fleets. Tina's ardor for Onassis overcame her father's objections, and the two were wed in a ceremony at the New York's Greek Orthodox Cathedral on December 28, 1946.
After the war, with the purchase of the surplus American ships, Onassis controlled one of largest privately owned merchant fleets in the world, and press reports began to refer to him as the "golden Greek." Olympic Maritime S.A.'s increasingly immense oil tankers ruled the oceans, and its owner was known for cutting business deals that seemed prescient in their predictions about the next boom or bust in world shipping trends. He ran into trouble in the early 1950s with the U.S. government, which seized some of his ships and launched a Department of Justice investigation. The deal he had cut with the war for the surplus ships required them to be in control of U.S.-based companies, and Onassis skirted the regulations by a series of legal and registry maneuvers; the 1942 visa application, which contained false information about his birthplace, also landed him in trouble. The Federal Bureau of Investigation began compiling a 4,000-page dossier on him, and he eventually paid a $7 million fine for the return of his ships.
Founded Olympic Airways
In 1956, when Egypt seized control of the Suez Canal—a vital shipping channel that brought Middle Eastern oil to the rest of the world—Onassis's immense super-tankers carried it instead and he reportedly earned an extra $1 million extra daily during the crisis. He also began dabbling in other non-shipping ventures, including the purchase of a majority stake in Monaco's Société des Bains de Mer de Monte Carlo (SBM), which controlled the posh Monte Carlo casinos and hotels. The deal angered Monaco's Prince Rainier, and a bitter battle between the two endured for several years. Onassis was eventually forced to sell his SBM shares. He had better luck with a deal to operate the Greek national airline, Olympic Airways, which proved a money-losing investment for a number of years; still, the agreement he had reached with the Greek government protected his personal fortune from any financial losses.
Onassis and Tina had two children, Alexander and Christina. They lived lavishly, and commuted to and from their various European homes by means of a fabulously opulent yacht, the Christina. The marriage faltered when Onassis began an affair with Greek opera singer Maria Callas, one of the most famous women in the world at the time, and he and Tina divorced in 1960. Callas left her husband as well, but the pair never married; it was said he lost interest when he began courting Jacqueline Kennedy. Onassis met Kennedy in 1963, just months before her husband's assassination. He was friendly with her sister, Lee Radziwill, and invited both to an Aegean cruise on board the Christina. Kennedy had recently suffered the trauma of a difficult childbirth which the infant, a boy they christened Patrick, had not survived, and accepted the invitation.
Family Torn by Strife
Onassis and the former First Lady were wed in October of 1968 on a small chapel on Skorpios, the Greek Island owned by Onassis. The news shocked the world, for Kennedy was a devout Roman Catholic, and as such was forbidden to marry a divorced person under church law. The wedding came just months after the assassination of her brother-in-law, Democratic presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy, and it was said that she sought the isolation and safety that only extreme wealth like Onassis's might provide for her and her two young children.
The Onassis-Kennedy union seemed ostensibly happy for the first few years, but rumors circulated that Onassis had resumed his affair with Callas, or that Kennedy-Onassis spent immense amounts of money on clothes and antiques, and sometimes refused to let him stay in her Fifth Avenue apartment when he arrived in New York. Long-simmering family rivalries also played out inside the family: Onassis's children had been devastated when their parents divorced, and were reportedly cool to their new stepmother. Onassis's ex-wife Tina eventually married Stavros Niarchos after the death of her sister Eugenie. Furthermore, Onassis proved intractable regarding the romantic intrigues of his grown children. Onassis objected strenuously to Alexander's romance with Fiona Thyssen, the ex-wife of a steel baron several years his senior, and attempted to thwart it via various means. He had less luck with his Christina's 1971 marriage to Joseph Bolker, a Los Angeles real-estate mogul 27 years her senior—which Tina had encouraged—but the union proved short-lived.
Devastated by Son's Death
Onassis was reportedly planning a divorce from Kennedy-Onassis when his son, Alexander, then age 24, died; the small plane he was piloting crashed on an Athens, Greece, runway. An experienced aviator, Alexander ran a division of Olympic Airways, but he was planning to leave the company, return to earn his university degree, and move in with Thyssen and her children. A father devastated by the loss of his son, Onassis never believed that the crash was an accident, and hinted that either the Central Intelligence Agency or the Greek military junta in power at the time was behind it.
The grief-stricken Onassis rapidly declined in health. He suffered from myasthenia gravis, a muscular disease, and died on March 15, 1975 in Paris, France. His daughter Christina inherited the bulk of his fortune as well as control of the companies, and proved herself an able successor to her legendarily deal-making father. She died, however, in November of 1988 at the age of 37, leaving her three-year-old daughter Athina in the care of her ex-husband, French pharmaceutical heir Thierry Roussel. Athina became the world's wealthiest teenager on her eighteenth birthday in January of 2003, coming into a fortune estimated at $2.7 billion as the last direct descendant of a grandfather she never met.
Davis, L. J., Onassis, Aristotle and Christina, St. Martin's Press, 1986.
Evans, Peter, Ari: The Life and Times of Aristotle Socrates Onassis, Summit Books, 1986.
Times (London, England), March 17, 1975; January 25, 2003.