Athens.- A man whose larger-than-life image belied his small stature, Aristotle Onassis is adored in Greece as the visionary shipping tycoon who built an empire on sheer willpower and craftiness.
A hundred years after the birth of one of modern Greece’s most famous sons, the foundation bearing the name of Onassis’ tragically lost son Alexander is marking the occasion with a special one-month exhibition in Athens.
Titled “Aristotle Onassis: Beyond his Myth,” the exhibition brings together some 500 items belonging to Onassis and key people in his life such as Maria Callas, the equally legendary opera diva with whom he shared a torrid eight-year love affair.
“The personality and tale of Aristotle Onassis is indelibly marked on the collective memory of Greeks across the world,” Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said in an address at the exhibition’s inauguration.
“He was, and remains, an authentic legend.”
Omitting any reference to the darker aspects of Onassis’ life — such as his wily reputation and the squabble over his fortune that tore apart his heirs — the exhibition traces the tycoon’s turbulent life from the early 20th century to his death in 1975.
Born in the Asia Minor city of Smyrna (modern-day Izmir in Turkey) into a wealthy Greek family of tobacco merchants, Onassis emigrated to Latin America after the city was sacked by Turkish forces in 1922 during the upheaval that marked the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
According to the established tale, the resourceful Onassis arrived in Argentina a near-penniless refugee, picked up Spanish, French, English and Italian while working as a telephone operator, and made his first windfall by overhearing a stock tip and investing on the New York exchange.
Now equipped with fine suits and a flashy car, he began making the rounds at high-brow nightclubs, where he first became romantically linked with an opera star, and subsequently caught the eye of Evita Peron, Argentina’s first lady.
His subsequent rise was swift: he became a tobacco merchant in his own right, bought his first ship in 1933, and built his first tanker in 1938.
Onassis then took his maritime business to the United States, where he dated famous movie stars such as Veronika Lake and Gloria Swanson, and in 1946 married Tina Livanou, daughter of the most powerful Greek ship owner of the period.
Livanou bore Onassis two children, Alexander and Christina, both of whom died in tragic circumstances.
Alexander Onassis died in a plane crash in 1973, while his sister was found dead in a Buenos Aires country club in 1988, the apparent victim of pulmonary edema. Talk of foul play surrounding her death has continued to this day.
Onassis gave his daughter’s name to a luxury yacht on which he entertained a glittering array of famous guests, including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rudolf Nureyev, Greta Garbo, Prince Rainier of Monaco and his wife Grace Kelly, Winston Churchill and then-senator John F. Kennedy.
Maria Callas is believed to have said of Onassis: “He wasn’t handsome, but he was incredibly charming. He was a magician who fulfilled every wish of the woman standing by his side.”
Onassis would later abandon Callas to marry Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy in 1968.
The exhibition has display cases dedicated to both women, including letters and a Steinway piano used by Callas on board the Christina, still bearing the score of Puccini’s Tosca.
Items belonging to Onassis on display include handwritten notes, cigarette lighters and cigar boxes, a string of worry beads, and a collection of magnetic ship miniatures, used by Onassis to mark the location of the vessels’ real counterparts on the map.
Held at the Benaki Museum in Athens, the exhibition runs to November 12.