Who Was Aristotle Onassis?
In the 1920s, Aristotle Onassis launched his own cigarette brand. Shortly thereafter he realized that tobacco shipping generated more revenue, and went into the cargo ship business. The shipping tycoon dated many famous women, including the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy, whom he married in 1968.
Onassis, who was called “Ari” by most everyone, was born on January 15, 1906, in Smyrna, a town in present-day Turkey. Never a good student, he did poorly in school much to his father’s chagrin, who hoped Ari would take over the family’s cigarette business. After the Turks invaded his town in 1921, Onassis decided to leave for Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 1923, he got a job as a telephone engineer. Poor but clever, he eavesdropped on business calls and used the information to set up deals of his own.
Onassis’s fortunes soon turned favorable and he began a life of good living with expensive clothes. His ability to reinvent himself as an "important businessman" during the day, yet continuing to work the phone lines in coveralls at night, was an early indication of his shrewd social and business skills.
First Fortune in Tobacco
Onassis' first big idea came in the mid-1920s when he overheard a phone call about a new "talkie" that would have its main character smoke a cigarette. Onassis got the idea to start his own brand of cigarettes aimed at the female market. He chose famous opera singer Claudia Muzio as the perfect model. To get her to smoke his brand in public, he showed up at her dressing room with a giant bouquet of flowers.
Amazingly, Onassis seduced her. She, of course, smoked his brand of cigarettes. The relationship proved to be very lucrative for Onassis and by the age of 25, his tobacco business made him a millionaire. Building on his wealth, he realized that the shipping magnates who hauled the tobacco made more than the cigarette manufacturer. This realization came to him at the height of the Great Depression. Just when everyone was getting out of the shipping business, Onassis was able to buy six ships for less than half of what they would normally cost.
Wealth Grows during World War II
At the outbreak of World War II, Onassis registered his fleet of cargo ships to Panama, which gave him tax-free status and reduced his overhead costs, making him one of the lowest cost shipping merchants in the world. He struck a deal with the U.S. Government whereby he offered reduced prices on shipping military equipment in exchange for the U.S. granting him very favorable prices on war-surplus cargo ships in spite of a ban on non-citizens buying military surplus equipment. This allowed him to build one of the world's largest privately-owned fleets. It has been recorded that Onassis never lost a ship during the war. Reasons for this vary from being very lucky to having made deals with both sides, though no credible evidence exists to prove this.
Early in his business career, Onassis began dating a string of famous women, including Greta Garbo. In 1946, he met the daughter of the richest shipping magnate in the world, Athina Livanos, a woman almost half his age. They married and had two children.
Soon, however, both of them were having affairs. In 1957, Onassis met Maria Callas, one of the most famous opera singers in the world. Onassis was so proud of his relationship with Callas that he began to flaunt it. Athina was wrecked by embarrassment and divorced him in 1960.
Several months before John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Onassis befriended Jacqueline, America's queen. In the agony following JFK's death, Jacqueline clung to Onassis for friendship. In time, they become lovers. In 1968, the two married on Onassis' privately owned island. Generally, the American public reacted very negatively to the news. One newspaper's headline implored, "Jackie, How Could You?"
Onassis' son, Alexander, was a notorious brat as a child, but when he was an adult, Onassis insisted that his son work for him. In 1973, Alexander died in a terrible plane crash. Onassis was devastated with his son and heir gone.
Two years later, on March 15, 1975, Onassis died. It was said that Maria Callas, his true love, never recovered from his death. She died two and a half years later.
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