The career of Maria Callas had already begun its downward slide when she was introduced to Aristotle Onassis. It was 1957 and she was 35 years old. She had been married to the elderly, short, squat Giovanni Battista Meneghini for ten years.
Maria found some comfort for her diminishing artistic success in high society. Elsa Maxwell gave an elegant party for Maria in Venice. Before she knew it, Aristotle Onassis had managed to inveigle the seat next to hers at the dinner table. For the next seven days, wherever she was he appeared next to her as if by magic. She found it flattering and pleasant, but for the time being, nothing more.
Then the morning before a gala charity concert for a Legion d’Honneur in 1958, Maria received a huge bunch of red roses, with good wishes in Greek, signed Aristotle Onassis. Another huge bunch of red roses arrived at lunch, also with good wishes in Greek, signed Aristotle. And just as she was about to leave for the opera house came another bunch of roses, also with good wishes in Greek. This time there was no signature on it. Maria knew who had sent it…
On June 17, after a performance of MEDEA at Covent Garden, Maria and her husband attended a reception at the Dorchester where they met Aristotle Onassis again. This time Maria was ready….
Next he organized a party for her which literally left her gasping. The Meneghinis were millionaires, but compared to Onassis, they felt like a poor relatives. He invited forty people to come as his guests to the opera and then one hundred and sixty to a party at the Dorchester. It was more lavish than any ever given for Maria before, even by Elsa Maxwell. The ballroom was decorated entirely in orchid pink and overflowing with matching roses. She had often heard the expression, “Your wish is my command,” but this was the first time in her life she had seen it in action. Aristotle never left her side and no request of hers was too small for him to grant. When she casually mentioned she liked tangos, he rushed up to the bandleader with fifty pounds in his hand. After that nothing but tangos were played all evening. They didn’t leave the Dorchester until after 3 o’clock in the morning. In the foyer, the Meneghinis and Onassis were photographed in a hug, Aristotle on one side of Maria and Meneghini on the other. The shot turned out to be prophetic.
Ari kept inviting her all evening to come and cruise with him and Tina on the Christina. He was hard to resist and poor Meneghini didn’t offer much competition. For a little girl from a lower middle class neighborhood in Washington Heights, it was a fairy tale, a dream come true. In spite of Meneghini’s impassioned protests, they were going cruising on the Christina.
Maria went shopping in Milan, where she spent millions of lire on bathing suits, vacation outfits, and lingerie. A sophisticated friend later told Maria that a woman always buys new lingerie when she is about to have an affair. She was right, but Maria didn’t know it yet; she told herself she just wanted to look nice on the trip.
On board the three million dollar sea palace as large as a football field were Winston Churchill and his wife and daughter, Gianni Agnelli and his wife, and many other well known Greek, American, and English personalities. Maria ran about the ship like a school girl, exclaiming at each new discovery, now the solid gold fixtures shaped like dolphins in each bathroom, now her enormous, beautifully decorated cabin and marble bathroom with adjoining boudoir and limitless closet space for all her beautiful new clothes (a suite, incidentally, which she never used later unless Ari and she had a fight), now the real El Greco in Ari’s study, the fabulous jeweled Buddha, the swimming pool decorated with a mosaic reproduction of a fresco from the Palace of Knossos, the huge oak paneled lounge with a majestic grand piano at one end and a lapis lazuli fireplace at the other, and Ari’s private bathroom that looked like a temple, and the bath, inlaid with flying fish and dolphins, which was an exact copy of the one in King Minos’s lost Palace of Knossos in Crete. Ari, who had fussed like a housewife over every detail, was in raptures over each of Maria’s enthusiastic outbursts. The ship boasted a crew of sixty, including two chefs, one French, one Greek. The guests were given a choice of menus, but Maria, who had lost a great deal of weight, was still eating mostly raw meat and salads. But since she had a habit of sneaking bits of food from everyone else’s plates, she got at least a sampling of the fine cuisine.
The trip was literally an eye opener for her, a staid Italian matron who believed in fidelity and monogamy. She was shocked to see many of the guests sunbathing without any clothes on, and some of them openly playing around with other people’s mates on deck. Aristotle was one of those walking around naked. He was very hairy, like a gorilla, Battista said. Maria’s reaction to his nudity was the second sign that she was becoming another person. She had always been a bit of a prude. She wouldn’t sing the Dance of the Seven Veils in Richard Strauss’s SALOME because she had to take off her clothes. But when she saw Ari walking around like that, she giggled like a school girl. She had never seen a nude man besides Battista.
For Maria, it was a magnificent three week voyage. Their plans were to stop first at Portofino, a toy port on the coast of Italy, and then go on to Capri for sight-seeing. Then they would sail from the Mediterranean through the Aegean Sea to the Gulf of Corinth. From there they planned a sight seeing trip of Delphi, sailing on to Izmir, the Turkish name for Ari’s boyhood home, and then on up to the Dardanelles to Istanbul and home again.
Maria’s enthusiasm was not shared by Meneghini. He got crabbier and crabbier the further along they got on their voyage. He was interested in neither the ship nor the other guests, and spent his time whining about the way they were slighting him. Maria found his griping and endless criticism of Aristo increasingly irritating. She kept comparing his sluggish demeanor with Ari’s vigor and passion for life, and Battista fell far short. He was only nine years older than Ari, but Maria felt but he acted like his grandfather.
Maria was drunk with the fresh sea air, the cloudless blue skies, and the company of Onassis. By the time they reached Piraeus, the weather became so stormy Meneghini and most of the other guests took to their staterooms, leaving Aristo and Maria practically alone. They sat in the deserted games room basking before the fire in the lapis lazuli fireplace. The sparkle of the flames lit up the deep blue of the lapis, and was reflected in his eyes, which were black and round as Greek olives. The room was dimly lit, and once in a while it was brilliantly illuminated by a flash of lightening. Once during such a flash Maria saw her own eyes mirrored in his. She took it as an omen. His eyes, her eyes, it was all the same to Maria.
The motion of the ship on the stormy seas rocked them back and forth, so she was almost in a trance as they sat there talking all night long. They talked mostly in Greek, or, rather, Ari did. He told her all about his boyhood, where he came into the world seventeen years before Maria in Smyrna near the coast of Turkey. Later he had the captain stop the ship there so he could show her the house where he was born. He spoke about the Greek quarters where he was brought up, and of his father and uncle, who were flourishing merchants of cotton, tobacco, and anything else that would grow in the Anatalyan area. Then without making a play for sympathy, he described his mother’s death during a kidney operation when he was only six. He told her of his father’s subsequent remarriage to his aunt, and of his beloved grandmother. He also said he had been a choirboy and boasted with a beguiling smile that he, too, had a good voice. She found him enchanting, and knew other women did, too. He had been a ladies’ man from the time he pinched his English teacher’s bottom and was suspended from school. He was incorrigible from the beginning, and made love for the first time when he was only thirteen. When Maria thought she was twice that age when she had her first sexual experience, she was embarrassed!
He also told her of the horrors in his life that surpassed Maria’s experiences during the Second World War. He had lived through the Turkish attack on Smyrna and had seen thousands of Greeks tortured and killed. At age sixteen he rescued his father from the cruel Turks, who massacred one million Greeks in Turkish Asia Minor between 1918 and 1923. Then he told Maria of crossing the sea in a filthy boat crammed with a thousand immigrants in steerage until his arrival at Buenos Aires on September 21, 1923. It amazed Maria that six weeks before she was born, Ari was already an experienced man on his way to success. He soon started his career with the telephone company and, by the time he was twenty-four, had become Greek vice-consul general in Argentina. Shortly after he found the two Canadian ships with which he began his stunning career.
On August 4 they dropped anchor at the foot of Mount Athos, where an incident happened that was to change Maria’s life forever. They were received by the Patriarch Athenagoras, and knelt side by side to receive his blessing. Speaking in Greek, he called them “the world’s greatest singer and the greatest seaman of the modern world, the new Ulysses.” When he thanked them for the honors they had brought to the Greek world, Maria’s eyes filled with tears. It was as if he were performing a solemn marriage ceremony. Somehow she felt he brought her God’s permission to be together with Ari, and her last resistance crumbled. After that they were man and wife in their minds, and a few hours later, in their bodies.
That night there was a party at the Istanbul Hilton for the guests of the Christina. Meneghini said he felt too tired and weak to attend and remained on board the ship. When Maria returned at five in the morning, he was waiting up for her and demanded to know why she was so late. Maria knew she couldn’t keep up the farce any longer. “I am in love with Ari,” she said.
A week after the Christina had docked in Istanbul, the Meneghinis left the ship on one of Onassis’ private planes and flew to Milan, and then promptly left for Sirmione. Maria wore a bracelet with the initials TMWL (To Maria With Love) engraved on it.
Parting from Ari left a hole in Maria’s heart, which she filled by fantasizing the whole night long he would come get her. To her great surprise, to say nothing of Battista’s, at nine o’clock the next morning they heard a voice outside her window singing, “Maria, Maria!” It was Aristo. He told Battista, “I’ve come to marry your wife.”
At four o’clock in the morning, she left with Aristo for Milan. He then flew to Venice to discuss divorce with Tina.
For the first time in her life, Maria was madly in love with a man in love with her. It was too much to take in all at once. She was flooded with so much feeling she felt she couldn’t bear it. Then she would remind herself that despite the blessing of the Patriarch Athenagoras, she was having an affair with a married man, and this would calm her down a bit. Then she appeased her conscience with the knowledge that she and Ari would try to get divorces and marry as soon as possible.
People said Callas’ whole personality changed, that her sharp edges had melted and she had become a softer, gentler person. Even poor Battista said she was a different woman. For the first time in her life she was happy. She had the feeling of being kept in a cage so long that when she met Aristo, bursting with vigor and zest for life, she became another woman. Even Antonio Ghiringhelli, the taciturn and enigmatic manager of La Scala, succumbed to her new temperament. The iceman actually smiled with his whole face when he asked Maria to return to La Scala on her own terms and to sing anything she wanted. She arrived in Milan on September 2 in wonderful spirits to begin rehearsals for the new recording.
Her happiness was somewhat flawed by the press and photographers, who persecuted her mercilessly. The throngs were so numerous and unruly she needed physical protection to keep from being mauled. On one occasion they caught Ari and Maria dining tete-a-tete at the Rendez-vous in Milan, and at three o’clock that morning they were photographed going into the Hotel Principe e Savoia arm in arm. In order to increase Maria’s chances of getting a divorce by mutual consent, her lawyers insisted she issue a statement to the press saying: “I confirm that the break between my husband and myself is complete and final. It has been in the air for some time, and the cruise on the Christina was only coincidental….I am now my own manager. I ask for understanding in this painful personal situation,” she said sweetly. “Between Signor Onassis and myself there exists a profound friendship that dates back some time. I am also in a business connection with him. When I have further things to say, I shall do so at the opportune moment.”
Maria despised living a lie, which she knew no one believed anyhow. Aristo was also attacked by reporters, but he was more honest than Maria. “Of course,” he said, “how could I help but be flattered if a woman with the class of Maria Callas fell in love with someone like me? Who wouldn’t?”
On September 10, as soon as the GIOCONDA recording was finished, Maria rushed to the Milan airport to board the private plane Ari had sent for her. From there she flew to Venice, where she excitedly boarded the Christina. Aristo was exuberant and triumphantly marked her arrival by setting off the loud, blasting siren announcing the departure of the Christina. Only two other guests were along this time, Ari’s sister, Artemis and her husband Theodore Garoufalidis.
Tina was not on board. She had taken her children a few days before and fled to Paris to the home of her father, the respected Greek shipowner, Stavros Livanos. Aristo, who was upset about the children, followed her in his private plane to make a half-hearted gesture of reconciliation. But Tina was not about to forgive him for the public humiliation to which he had subjected her. This left Ari free to do what he really wanted, to sail on the Christina with Maria Callas.
What a dream voyage it was, with both of them relaxed and at peace with themselves! Their love was just what the Good Doctor ordered. They soaked up the sun all day long, swam for hours in the sun drenched Mediterranean, and were free to make love all night.
Luxuriating in her new happiness left Maria unwilling to give up one moment of it. She was so immersed in the timelessness of the present she paid no attention to her career. She was sick and tired of being a sexless nun, and was relieved to leave it behind her. Nevertheless, she was shocked when a newspaper compared the number of appearances she had made pre and post-Ari. In 1958, she gave twenty-eight performances of seven operas in six cities all over the world. In 1960 she gave only seven performances of two operas in two cities, and in 1961 her schedule showed just five performances, all of MEDEA at Epidaurus and La Scala. The decline continued even more rapidly in 1962, when she sang MEDEA twice at La Scala. And in 1963 she gave no performances at all. In 1964, sadly enough, Maria Callas made the last stage appearance of her life.
But like most heavenly sojourns on earth, Maria’s utopia was short lived. Or perhaps it would be nearer correct to say it became sporadic, as a new phase of their relationship began. Like many men, once Ari had Maria for his own, he became much more difficult. Now he played the one hard to get. Gone were the days of the Dorchester when every wish of hers was his command. Now his pleasure became primary to both of them. To Maria’s despair, he spent time with his wife, trying to woo her back. He began to date other women. He behaved like a typical Greek man and Maria a typical Greek woman, whose philosophy is that a man cannot really change himself, but a woman must be able transform herself to suit her man.
Now he became withdrawn and difficult, now staying away for as much as a week, not even phoning when he didn’t feel like it. Nor would he answer her calls. She would be in a panic for days at a time. He had all the power in the relationship: She could only sit and wait for his call.
Then suddenly, for no reason she could understand, he would begin to phone again every day and send her flowers. Or he would show up unexpectedly or send for her. She was so happy to see him she overlooked being hurt and angry. Each return was like another honeymoon.
They talked a lot about getting married. When Ari said once more he would marry her, Maria made an announcement to the press. Ari told reporters it was just a childish prank and purely Maria’s fantasy! She was a good little girl again and said nothing. How she had changed from the Xanthippe who was married to Meneghini!
Ari behaved like a pasha, and when he didn’t want Maria along on the voyages of the Christina, he had no compunctions about kicking her off. No excuse was necessary.
Meanwhile, Tina was going about getting her divorce, in spite of Aristotle’s pleas for a reconciliation. Maria was overjoyed when he agreed to look at a chateau with her in Eure-et-Loire. The divorce came through a month later. The chateau never did.
Maria had agreed to give two performances of NORMA in August in Greece. It had almost a religious significance for Ari that his mistress score a triumph at historic Epidaurus. He put everything else aside for her those weeks, and they were deliriously happy again as they spent almost all their time together. When he loved her everything seemed possible. And, indeed, the performance on August 24 turned out to be one of the peak experiences of her life. Maria loved Ari as he was and accepted all his weaknesses along with the qualities she admired in him. He, on the other hand, was constantly trying to change her. He didn’t like the way she dressed, and actually phoned Biki, one of Milan’s most important fashion designers, during Maria’s fittings to make sure her new clothes would be to his taste. He said she looked plain in her glasses. Since Maria was unable to tolerate contacts, she walked about the ship half blind, holding her glasses in her hand. He didn’t like her long hair either, which had always been her glory. So he sent her to Alexandre in Paris, who cut her hair while she kept her hands over her eyes. To her surprise, she loved the short, bouncy hairstyle he created, and thought it made her look younger and more sophisticated.
Thus the years passed, with Maria ever hopeful and Onassis ever more brutal. In 1963, Lee Radziwell, Jackie Kennedy’s sister, who was on board the Christina, left to fly to her sister’s bedside, where she had just given birth to Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, who died two days later. When Lee returned to Athens, she told Ari and Maria how desolate and distraught her sister was. Ari immediately offered Mrs. Kennedy the use of the Christina for her convalescence. She eagerly accepted, although neither the president nor Maria shared her enthusiasm. President Kennedy objected to his wife’s cruise because Onassis had been indicted during the Eisenhower administration for conspiring to defraud the American government of taxes on surplus American ships. He had to pay the government seven million dollars to get off the hook. And Maria – she had vague anxieties she didn’t understand. She only knew she felt desolate and lonely at the thought of Mrs. Kennedy’s presence on board, and strangely enough, found herself trembling with fear.
Her voice continued to go down hill. Just when she needed him the most, Aristo became impossible, and in 1967 they had their worst summer together yet. Ingse Dedichen, his lover during World War Two, told a friend Ari had beaten her up until she looked “like a boxer who has lost a fight.” He told her afterward every Greek without exception beats up his wife. “It is good for them,” he said. “It keeps them in line.”
He never beat Maria physically – he probably knew that was the one thing he couldn’t get away with – but his treatment of her was almost as brutal. No curse was too vile to hurl at her, no words of abuse too insulting. She was told to shut up because she was only a stupid dame whose nose was too big, with glasses that made her look ugly and legs that were too fat. He was not above saying she was just a cunt with a whistle in her throat who was good only for fucking. And always in front of people, to make her humiliation that much more painful.
Aristo was having his own difficulties, both with his old friend Vergottis, who later sued him and lost, and with Prince Ranier, who was trying to unseat Ari as the person with the controlling interest in the State of Monaco. Ari loved his power over the principality, and gloried every time he took a step into Monaco. For him, it was the crowning jewel of his life. In a brilliant move, the prince created 600,000 shares in the company, and offered to buy out any shares of the existing shareholders at the market rate, thus giving him and his stockholders complete power over the destiny of his country. Ari appealed to the courts and lost. A defeated man, he left Monaco, not to return until shortly before he died.
Of all the possible times of her life it could have happened, Maria picked the moment when their relationship was at its lowest point to become pregnant. She couldn’t wait to tell Ari about it. She wanted to have a baby more than she ever wanted anything in my life besides him, and the thought of bearing the child of the man she loved filled her with tenderness. But Ari had other ideas.
“Why should I want another child?” he said. “I already have two.”
“But Aristo,” Maria pleaded, “I have always wanted a child. It is a miracle I’m pregnant at all at the age of forty-three. If I don’t have this baby, I will never have another.”
“Have it then,” he said, “and it will be the end of our relationship.”
Maria had the abortion. But it marked the end of their love affair, even though they stayed together for a few years longer.
Maria didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t live with him and she couldn’t live without him. She was forty-three years old and had never had a place of her own. So she compromised and got her own apartment in Paris.
The turning point came when Ari’s servants, George and Helen, told a friend they had been ordered to spend an entire evening in their rooms while Ari entertained and cooked for a “special guest” himself. Maria knew Aristo had been having affairs all along. But she knew intuitively that this incident was different. She remained agitated and anxious and began to find it impossible to sleep without taking pills.
She soon found out who the “special guest” was. The newspapers reported seeing Ari and Jackie Kennedy dining together at El Morocco, 21, Dionysis, and at Mykonos with Christina, Nureyev, and Margot Fonteyn. Gossips were already listing him among Jackie’s possible suitors.
The crisis occurred when Maria returned to the Christina and Ari instructed her to go back to Paris and wait for him there.
“Go to Paris?” she said. “Nobody stays in Paris in August. You must be mad.”
“You have to go,” he insisted.
“I have to? What are you talking about?”
“I’m having a special guest aboard and you can’t be here.”
“Who could be so special that I can’t be aboard?”
He didn’t answer, but it didn’t matter. Maria already knew the answer.
“Then I’m leaving you,” she said.
“Don’t be silly. I’ll see you after the cruise is over in September,” he said.
“No, Ari. You don’t understand. I said I’m leaving you. You will never see me again.” And she left, never to return.
Then on October 20, 1968, Maria got the news she had prayed she would never hear. Ari’s butler called to tell her Aristotle and Kennedy were going to be married.
Maria did what she could to pass the time. She attended the opera next to Ghiringhelli, made a movie, taught a master class at Jiulliard. In the meantime, Ari was becoming disillusioned with Jackie’s lavish buying sprees of jewelry and clothing and he was beginning to realize she was taking him for a fool. He kept calling and sending Maria flowers, but for a long time her pride was too hurt and she refused to talk with him. Finally in 1969 they met at a party and little by little, began to see each other again.
The climax came after they had spent four nights together when he took her to dine at Maxim’s for the whole world to see. Maria was ecstatic, and believed Jackie was just another paramour to be forgotten. But the lady had other ideas. When she saw the newspaper photos of her husband and Maria dining together with blissful smiles, she was furious and flew immediately to his side. She insisted he repeat the drama of the day before at Maxim’s with her in Maria’s place. The next day Maria was admitted to the American Hospital at Neuilly with the diagnosis of “overdose of barbiturates.”
For the first time since Ari’s marriage, Maria returned to Greece, this time as the guest of Perry Embiricos on his private island of Tragonisi in the Aegean. Perry was a friend of Onassis, who had introduced Maria to him. To her surprise who should show up on the island but Aristo! He greeted Maria with a kiss, and from then on they resumed their relationship.
Thus, surviving his marriage, Maria was able to hang on by the tips of her fingernails until March, 1975, when Onassis became critically ill with incurable myasthenia gravis.
Maria had been getting daily reports about his progress from the American Hospital in Paris, where he had gone for surgery. He never recovered consciousness, and was kept alive for five weeks by a respirator and intravenous feedings. Maria knew he was dying and she was not allowed to be by his side. The doctors said it could go on for weeks or even months. Her suffering was unendurable.
On March 12, she received her last report from the American Hospital. Aristo was dead.
Maria was slowly dying from the loss of her career. He had flashed into her life like a bolt of lightning across a dark summer sky; where there’d been nothing suddenly there was Aristo. Her friends and staff were considerate, thoughtful, and loving. But it meant nothing, nothing. He was her core, her life. How could she live without him?
On September 16, 1977, at the age of 53, Maria Callas was found dead in her bed. The official story was that she died of a heart attack. But no autopsy was permitted, and her cremation took place almost immediately. Heart attack? Perhaps. But there are those of us who believe Maria when she said, “I’ve played heroines who die for love – and that’s something I can understand.”