7 April 2022
Ari, Jackie & Maria
The Pirate, The Princess & The Diva
‘A Greek tragedy’ is the cliché most often used to describe the love triangle of Aristotle, Maria and Jackie but none of them, in truth, were genuinely Greek. Their story is, however, a tragedy in all other senses. If you needed a cautionary tale on the themes of love, money, gender politics, and their association with happiness, then this would be it. Here you have passionate, life-changing love; breath-taking misogyny, fabulous amounts of money and no lasting happiness. Both Aristotle and Maria were wretched and miserable in their final years, if not before. Jackie eventually found contentment, but only after searing events which almost took her sanity. Aristotle’s only surviving child, Christina, who inherited wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, was always a profoundly unhappy woman who repeatedly attempted suicide and died alone at the age of thirty-seven.
Five years after the assassination of John F Kennedy and weeks after the slaying of his brother, Bobby, an unsuspecting public would be dumfounded by news of Jackie Kennedy’s engagement to Aristotle Onassis. On the streets of New York astonished passers-by, randomly interviewed by TV reporters, covered their mouths in horror and shook their heads in disbelief as though being told of a natural disaster, or the outbreak of war. Jackie Kennedy — the closest thing to a queen America had ever known — was to marry an ultra-rich, unbeautiful Greek who was her senior by twenty-three years. It was as if Camelot had subsided overnight, and vultures circled above.
Two myths have persisted in the decades since their marriage. The first is that Onassis was a rich but likeable rogue who avoided taxes but was, at heart, a decent and generous man. The second is that Jackie Onassis was a shameless gold-digger and spendthrift, motivated by little other than greed and personal ambition.
We now know that the truth is very different. Onassis was a vicious, drunken bully who beat his wives and mistresses until they were bloody and forced them to have abortions. When he tired of them, he smeared them in the media, tapped their phones and publicly humiliated them. His business empire was built largely on bribery, corruption and contempt for the law.
Maria Callas lived for little more than a year after the death of Aristotle. Lonely, depressed, addicted to Mandrax and in declining health, she wrote to a friend, ‘I am a person without identity. I was born of Greek parents, yet I have never felt absolutely Greek. I was born in America, yet I am not an American. I lived the most crucial period of my career in Italy, I married an Italian but, of course, I am not an Italian. I now live permanently in Paris, but this doesn’t mean I feel French. What the hell am I, after all? What am I? I am alone, always alone.’ At the age of fifty-three, Maria Callas was found dead in her Paris apartment on 16 September 1977. She had died, in her sleep, from heart failure. Her sister was the only relative to attend her funeral.
The pair were as dissimilar as it is possible for a betrothed couple to be, sharing almost nothing except a love of luxury. Even their appearances were dramatically different: she was tall and slim while he was short and thickset. She wore haute couture as confidently as any catwalk model, while he — despite buying expensive bespoke suits — often appeared dishevelled and unkempt.
She looked younger than her years while he seemed older than his and her beauty was sharply contrasted by his saturnine, almost reptilian looks. Jackie had, unaccountably, left Camelot for Caliban. The Onassis/Kennedy wedding — instantly dubbed Beauty and the Beast — filled newspapers across the world, and three decades would pass before another ill-starred marriage could rival it for publicity or obloquy.
The Christina was stocked with eight varieties of caviar, a priceless wine cellar, and sixty crew including two hairdressers, three chefs, a Swedish masseuse and an orchestra for those who wished to dance. Marble, gold and hand-painted frescos were everywhere, but her sleek white hull and streamlined funnel made her a graceful sight when she rode at anchor or steamed slowly along the Mediterranean coast.
Because the bar stools of the Christina were covered with the foreskins of whales, Onassis was able to tell Greta Garbo, ‘Madam, you are now sitting on the largest penis in the world.’ Garbo was nonplussed but Cary Grant’s wife, Betsy Drake, laughed and retorted, ‘Oh, so that’s Moby’s Dick!’