Often pictured wearing bold glasses and an elegant double-breasted suit, Aristotle Onassis (1906-1975) was a Greek maritime tycoon who dominated international shipping throughout the 1950s and 60s. His journey to immense wealth and notoriety was not always straightforward, characterised by personal tragedy and over-ambition.
Nonetheless, during his lifetime, Onassis built the world’s largest privately-owned shipping company and amassed monumental personal wealth. Eventually, he married one of the world’s most famous women: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, better known as Jackie Kennedy.
The Catastrophe of Smyrna
Aristotle Socrates Onassis was born in Smyrna, modern Turkey, in 1906 to a wealthy tobacco family. Smyrna was retaken by Turkey during the Greco-Turkish War (1919–22). The conflict saw the Onassis family’s substantial property lost and forced them to become refugees as they fled to Greece in 1922.
In September of that year, a great fire began in Smyrna when Turkish forces captured the port town and began setting fire to Greek homes. As Greeks and Armenians fled to the waterfront, Turkish militants committed various acts of atrocity. When some 500 Christian Greeks sought refuge in a church, it was burnt down with them trapped inside. Among the dead were Onassis’ 4 uncles, his aunt and her daughter.
Fleeing tragedy and hoping to rebuild his family’s fortune, Onassis, only 17, travelled to Buenos Aires in Argentina. By night he worked as a switchboard operator for the British United River Plate Telephone Company, and by day he studied commerce and port administration.
Applying what he learnt, Onassis started his own business in the import-export sector, making a huge amount of money selling English-Turkish tobacco to Argentina. By 25, he had made the first of many future millions of dollars.
In the 1930s, Onassis took advantage of the Great Depression, buying 6 vessels at a fraction of their value. During World War Two, he then leased several ships to the Allies and bought 23 more after the war. His shipping fleet soon reached over 70 vessels, with a large portion of his wealth coming from lucrative fixed-price contracts with big oil companies such as Texaco.
During the oil boom of the 1950s, Onassis was in discussions with the King of Saudi Arabia to secure a tanker transport deal. But the deal raised alarms in the US where the American-Arabian Co. had a monopoly on oil transport.
As a result, Onassis soon found he had a target on his back. The FBI launched a fraud investigation against him for having displayed a US flag on his ships when you could only do so with US citizenship. As his penalty, Onassis had to pay a $7 million fine.
Beyond tobacco and oil, Onassis also had success in the whaling industry. But his ships off the coast of South America paid little attention to international restrictions and were captured by the Peruvian military after whaling too close to Peru’s waters without permission. The Peruvians even dropped bombs that exploded near the vessels. In the end, Onassis sold his company to a Japanese whaling company.
Expanding his ever-growing shipping empire, Onassis moved to New York. However, before he left, Onassis set up a scholarship fund encouraging international exchange.
Onassis arrived in Monaco in 1953 and began to purchase shares of Monaco’s Société des bains de mer de Monaco (SBM). The SBM owned the casino, hotels and other properties in the resort of Monte Carlo.
Yet his power in Monaco soon brought Onassis into conflict with Prince Rainier in the 1960s. The prince wanted to increase tourism by investing in hotel building, while Onassis wanted to keep Monaco as an exclusive resort. This issue became increasingly strained, especially when Charles de Gaulle started a French boycott of Monaco in 1962. Losing money and shares in SBM, Onassis sold his remaining shares to the state and left Monaco.
In October 1968, Onassis announced the launch of his $400 million investment program to build industrial infrastructure in Greece: Project Omega. Onassis had sweetened the Greek junta dictator Georgios Papadopoulos by loaning him the use of his villa and buying dresses for his wife.
Unfortunately for Onassis, internal divisions within the junta leadership meant the project kept being split between different investors, including Onassis’ business rival, Stavros Niarchos.
In the 1950s, the Greek state could no longer afford to run Greek airlines because of cash shortages and strikes. The airlines were therefore sold off to private investors, one of which was Aristotle Onassis.
Unable to use the Olympic symbol showing 5 interlocking rings for his airline logo, Onassis simply added another ring and named his company Olympic Airways. Onassis’s time at the head of Olympic Airways is remembered as a golden era, due to his investment in training and using cutting-edge technology.
Paul Ioannidis, a high-ranking director from Olympic Airways, described how Onassis “was married to the sea, but Olympic was his mistress. We used to say that he would spend all the money he made at sea with his mistress in the sky.”
Onassis held the contract from 1957 until 1974, when strikes ended and the government created a law where Olympic Airlines could not fire employees.
In 1946, Aristotle Onassis had married Athina Mary ‘Tina’ Livanos, daughter of another shipping magnate, who was 23 years his junior. Together they had 2 children: Alexander, who died in 1973 in a tragic plane crash, and Christina, after whom the family’s super-yacht was named, Christina O.
Yet their marriage ended bitterly in 1960 when Athina caught Onassis having an affair. He had also been in a relationship with the Greek operatic singer, Maria Callas, since 1957.
On 20 October 1968, Onassis married his friend Jackie Kennedy on his private Greek island, Skorpios. Although he was a well-known womaniser, Onassis could offer the former-president’s widow protection and luxury. Their marriage was unpopular with many conservative Catholics, as Onassis was a divorcee, earning the former First Lady the nickname ‘Jackie O’.
However, Onassis’s daughter Christina made it clear that she disliked Jackie, especially after Alexander’s death. She even tried to convince her father that Jackie had passed on a curse following the assassinations of John and Robert F. Kennedy.
Aristotle Onassis died in Paris on 15 March 1975, leaving 55% of his wealth to his daughter, Christina. Christina agreed to give Jackie $26 million if she did not contest Onassis’ will. He was buried on his island, Skorpios, alongside his son Alexander. The other portion of his wealth went to the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation.