Faces of Greece: Aristotle Onassis


He shares the same first name as the father of logic. He amassed the world’s largest privately-owned shipping fleet and became one of the world’s richest men. He has also been associated with three of the world’s most beautiful, talented, and influential women. He owned an island in the Ionian Sea. His life, however, was full of tragedies, with many believing that he has even been cursed. Today, we explore the life and works of one of the most influential Greeks of modern times: Aristotle Onassis.

The Catastrophe of Smyrna

On the 20th of January 1906, Socrates Onassis, a Greek tobacconist from Smyrna, and his wife Penelope Dologlu welcomed their second child into their family. A baby boy named Aristotle who was set to be one of the most influential men of the 20th century. Their lives, however, were about to be struck by misfortune before Aristotle reached adulthood. 

In September 1922, the Catastrophe of Smyrna occurred, with attacks against the Christian population of the city. Many of Aristotle’s relatives were burned alive in a Church and his family’s business was taken over by the Turks. His father was imprisoned but he was able to flee to Greece with his surviving family members. There, he had to reside in an outdoor refugee camp along with over a million Greeks from Asia Minor. 

Migration to Argentina

A year later, with a few dollars in his pocket, Aristotle Onassis arrived to Argentina on a Nansen passport for refugees. He got his first job as a telephone operator and followed his studies in commerce and port-duty administration. In the meantime, his father, who was now released, and his uncle, had founded a tobacco export business in Piraeus, the port of Athens. That is when Aristotle saw an immense opportunity to import tobacco from the Near East to Argentina. 

The tobacco he used to smoke in Smyrna was much lighter than the one produced in Latin America. This variety would become very popular among women, the market segment he chose for his first business. Women had already started to smoke by that time, with the cigarette being a symbol of female liberation at that time. As a result, his female-focused tobacco business became a great success and he amassed a great fortune in less than ten years. 

Becoming a Shipping Magnate

In 1932, Socrates Onassis died and Aristotle sought new opportunities in maritime shipping. He started by purchasing two vessels, Onassis-Penelope and Onassis-Socrates, that eventually grew to a fleet of over 70 ships. His company was known as Olympic Maritime and his fleet as Olympic fleet.

Since his family did not have any history in the field, Aristotle felt that he had to prove himself by taking risks. After observing the rising demand for oil, he became the first Greek to use tankers. His ability to observe such trends, his ambition, and willingness to take risks helped him become a great success in just a few decades. Another benefactor was of course the tax-exemption of shipowners in Greece. With all these in mind, Aristotle Onassis had amassed his first million dollars before the age of 25. 

Shipping Scandals

Although Onassis was very well liked by the public, he did find himself in scandals. For example, his tanker SS Arrow once created one of the biggest oil spills off Canada’s East Coast, an event that was followed a Commission of Inquiry that found a total disregard for international shipping rules. Moreover, in the 1950s, Onassis profited from whaling off the West Coast of South America. During that time, there were accusations that his crew would kill baby whales at alarming rates and that his vessels would often reach the coast of Peru without permission. In 1968, Aristotle Onassis was criticized once again due to the so-called Project Omega, an investment program with the assistance of the Greek military junta that was established during that period. 

The Man Behind Olympic Air

Apart from his shipping fleet, Onassis is also known for his airline: Olympic Airways. It all started in 1956, when the Greek government allowed the privatization of its struggling airlines. Onassis was granted their operational rights and the “golden era” of Olympic Airways began. That is because Onassis would make big investments in acquiring the latest technology and by focusing on providing excellent service. For example, first class passengers would dine with gold-plated utensils, while the air hostesses were known for their beauty and excellence. In 1974, after a series of strikes, Onassis decided to terminate his contract. 

Rivalry with Stavros Niarchos

During Onassis’ success, another important shipping magnate was Stavros Niarchos. The two men were known for their long rivalry in all aspects of life. Niarchos was just three years younger than Onassis. He came from a rich family that had repatriated to Greece from America. Things got complicated once the two men married two sisters. Their marriages did not last long and Niarchos later married the other sister, Onassis’ ex-wife, as well. 

Athina Livanos, Maria Callas, Jacqueline Kennedy

The woman who married both Onassis and Niarchos was no other than Athina Livanos, a socialite and shipping heiress of the Livanos family. She died in 1974 at just 45 years old, after her son’s tragic death. It is rumored that her death was a result of overusing hypnotics. Her sister had a similar ending some years earlier.

Onassis was also connected to another important female figure of that time. Maria Callas, the American-born Greek soprano, was one of the most renowned opera singers of the last century. Although she never married Onassis, their on and off relationship was known to the press and reportedly caused Athina Livanos to ask for divorce. Maria Callas died also at a young age in 1977 in Paris. 

Eleven years earlier, Onassis had married his second wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of the assassinated US president John F. Kennedy. Reportedly, Jacqueline sought to be remarried by someone who could protect her and keep her away from the United States. She feared that her children could be the next targets. The couple lived together until the death of Onassis, with Jacqueline spending two years fighting over the inheritance with Aristotle’s daughter, Christina. 

Onassis’ Children

Aristotle Onassis had two children with his wife Athina Livanos, Alexander and Christina. The son was known for being the attractive, sporty president of Olympic Aviation, a regional Greek subsidiary of Olympic Airways. Alexander was a licensed pilot who loved flying in the skies. Although his father admired him and he seemed to be his favorite child, there were many tensions between them. Aristotle did not approve of his son’s relationship with a much older British model named Fiona von Thyssen. Similarly, Alexander did not approve of his father’s affairs that destroyed his family nor his decision to marry Jacqueline Kennedy. 

The young man ended up dying extremely young at the age of 24, after his personal airplane crashed at the old international airport of Athens. After an investigation, it was discovered that faulty controls had been fitted to his plane. Although a 1 million dollar reward was announced for anyone who could prove who was behind what appeared to be an assassination, the mystery remains unsolved. Onassis believed that the CIA and the leader of the military junta were behind the death of his beloved son. He did not live long to continue investigating.

On the other hand, Onassis’ daughter was no other than Christina. Although she grew up in wealth, Christina was known to the press as the “girl with the sad eyes”. Spanish musician Joaquin Sabina had even dedicated a song to her called “Pobre Christina” (Poor Christina). She allegedly battled with depression, after years of being “unseen” by her family. She had an unhealthy relationship with her body, often following crash diets, and felt that she could not find true love. She married four times and her last marriage was to the French businessman Thierry Roussel, with whom she had her only daughter, Athena. She died in 1988 under mysterious circumstances, with many alleging that she might had ended her own life. A couple of years prior she had divorced Roussel, after she found out that he had fathered a child with a Swedish model. 

Death & Legacy of Aristotle Onassis

It is clear that, as bright and luxurious as the life of Aristotle Onassis was, tragedy hit his family countless times. He died from respiratory failure on March 15th 1975 at the age of 69 in Paris. He had been suffering from a chronic disease known as myasthenia gravis, which causes muscle weakness. After the death of his son, his disease started progressing rapidly, leaving him unable to breathe. 

His gravesite is located at his private island, Skorpios, where he is buried next to Alexander and his sister, Artemis. Before his death, he had established a charitable foundation in the memory of Alexander, which received 45% of Onassis’ estate. The remaining was left to Christina which is now passed onto her daughter, Athena. Athena Onassis is currently one of the wealthiest women in the world. 

The Foundation has covered many projects that have been gifted to the Greek public. From the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center at the heart of Athens to the nearby Cultural Center, the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation has benefitted Greek people in multiple ways. 

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Marialena Perpiraki is a journalist and writer from Athens, Greece. In 2020, she founded Helinika as a cross-media platform.

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