Born in Smyrna on January 15, 1906, Aristotle Onassis was to become Greece’s pioneer in shipping, his name still reverberating today as the Greek fleet dominates international waters.
His father, Socrates Onassis was one of the wealthiest tobacco merchants and businessmen of Smyrna. His mother, Penelope Dologlou died at 33 and his father remarried six months after her death.
Aristotle’s grandmother, Gethsemane, was very religious and dreamed of her grandson becoming a priest. The young Onassis was an altar boy and learned Byzantine psalms. His family’s wealth secured that he attended the best schools.
Growing up, Aristotle was a handsome teenager. At the same time, he had power, boldness, connections and money. It is said that he bribed the school staff to buy him cigarettes, which he smoked with his friends. Despite his delinquent behavior, he was loved by all. It is said that he was a regular customer of a brothel and he had plenty of sexual encounters with older women, including his French tutor.
The Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922 was devastating for the Onassis family. His father went to prison and his business went to the hands of the Turks. Having no other choice, the rest of the family fled to Greece.
When Aristotle Onassis set foot in Greece for the first time he was 16. Initially, like most of the refugees, the family had to stay in an outdoor camp and then in a room near the dock. A little later he returned to Constantinople and in August 1923 he started his journey to Argentina with $250 in his pocket.
Onassis enters the world of business
In Buenos Aires the young Onassis did odd jobs, like washing dishes, working in a laundromat, or night watchman. When the British Telephony Company recruited unskilled staff, he went to work their as a night operator. There, the restless Aristotle learned a lot by listening to conversations. Utilizing the useful information, he founded a small tobacco import and cigarette manufacturing company, which he advertised by tossing empty packets to the city’s busier train stations.
Onassis returned to Greece having become an Argentinian citizen. In Athens he became acquainted with Minister Andreas Michalakopoulos. Thanks to him, he returned to Buenos Aires with a new Greek passport and the title of the Special Attaché.
In 1931 he became an alternate consul and in 1932 began to deal with shipping issues. Initially, he purchased a 7,000-ton merchant ship, which was in bad shape and sank anchored in Montevideo after it was hit by a storm. He then bought six Canadian ships. The first two he named “Penelope Onassis” and “Socrates Onassis” to honor his parents.
Onassis’ infallible instinct
Onassis, along with his other skills and talents, had something rare: he possessed an almost infallible business instinct, which led him straight to the point whenever and wherever there was a new opportunity for him. His instinct led him to the importance of oil in a rapidly developing world. He ordered the first tanker in the world, with a capacity of 15,000 tons, and named it “Ariston”. The rise of shipping was tremendous and Onassis kept buying new and bigger tankers.
During World War II, Onassis settled in New York. There, in 1943, he met the 16-year-old daughter of the great Greek shipowner Stavros Livanos, Athena, and fell in love with her. Three years later they married and settled in Paris. On April 30, 1948, their son Alexander was born. On December 11, 1950 their second child, Christina, was born in New York.
In his businesses, he was inventive to the point that he was signing contracts to carry oil with ships that were not built yet. Nevertheless, oil giants like Oil and Texaco used him as their exclusive carrier.
Onassis foresaw the economic rebirth of Germany after the war. Although the Potsdam Treaty of 1945 banned the Germans from building ships of over 15,000 tons, Onassis thought of whale-hunting ships. Since the treaty was not prohibiting conversions, he was converting the whale-hunting ships to tankers. At this time, he chose Monte Carlo as his business headquarters. In 1953 almost all of Monaco was his own. That same year he baptized the biggest tanker in the world in Hamburg and named it Tina Onassis. However, his relation with his wife were not ideal.
In 1957, Greece’s Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis encouraged him to take over the small Greek state airline TAE that was generating losses. Onassis acquired the airline for $ 2,000,000, and converted it to “Olympic Airways”. He soon made it an airline of all five continents. Onassis already had 70 companies around the world to his name. He became a subject of admiration and envy, one of the most talked-about persons in the world. Then he bought Scorpios, a beautiful island in the Ionian Sea, which he changed into his summer residence.
In 1958 he met famous Greek soprano Maria Callas. Their acquaintance evolved over the next few years in a fiery romance that never ended in marriage. Aristotle Onassis married for the second time on October 20, 1968, with Jacqueline Bouvier, after the assassination of her husband, U.S. president John Kennedy. They had met several years ago when Onassis had introduced the then Massachusetts senator to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as a capable politician who was qualified to become president of the United States.
The Greek mogul was also a ladies man, as he dated many famous women, such as Eva Perron, Marilyn Monroe, Gloria Swanson, and Greta Garbo.
The countdown for Aristotle Onassis began on January 22, 1973, when his son Alexander was seriously injured in the crash of his aircraft at Hellenic Airport. The brain injuries were severe and after a medical meeting and with the consent of his father the doctors removed the mechanical support. He never believed that his son was killed in an accident and offered $ 1 million to anyone who reported that the crash was a result of sabotage.
In December 1973, with the oil crisis at its peak, losses for Aristotle Onassis amounted to $ 12.5 million. The refinery in New Hampshire was closed and on January 15, 1975, he returned the “Olympic Airways” to Constantine Karamanlis, who nationalized it.
Aristotle Onassis had already lost all interest in life. He was attacked by myasthenia, a disease that slowly weakened the muscular system, and retired to his private island, Scorpios. The best doctors in the world were unable to do anything about the ever-powerful Greek from Smyrna. Onassis passed away on March 15, 1975, at the American Hospital of Paris.
The only heir to this day’s grand estate is his granddaughter, Athena, the daughter of Christina Onassis and Thierry Russell. Aristotle Onassis’ daughter Christina was found dead in her bath in 1988, with the causes of her death unclear. The mother of his two children, Tina, was also found dead in bed from a barbiturates overdose, while his second wife, Jackie, died in 1994 from cancer.