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Onassis in 1967
Aristotle Socrates Onassis
20 January 1906
|Died||15 March 1975 (aged 69)|
|Resting place||Skorpios Island, Greece|
|Citizenship||Greek and Argentine|
|Education||Evangelical School of Smyrna|
(m. 1946; div. 1960)
|Partner(s)||Maria Callas (1959–68)|
|Relatives||Athina Onassis (granddaughter)|
Aristotle Socrates Onassis (/
Onassis was born in Smyrna (modern day İzmir in Turkey) and fled the city with his family to Greece in 1922 in the wake of the Greco-Turkish War. He moved to Argentina in 1923 and established himself as a tobacco trader and later a shipping owner during the Second World War. Moving to Monaco, Onassis fought Prince Rainer III for economic control of the country through his ownership of SBM and its Monte Carlo Casino. In the mid 1950s he sought to secure an oil shipping arrangement with Saudi Arabia, and engaged in whaling expeditions. In the 1960s Onassis attempted to establish a large investment contract, Project Omega, with the Greek military junta, and sold Olympic Airways which he had founded in 1957. Onassis was greatly affected by the death of his 24-year-old son, Alexander, in a plane crash in 1973, and died two years later.
Onassis was born in Karataş, a suburb of the port city of Smyrna (now İzmir, Turkey) in Anatolia to Socrates Onassis and Penelope Dologou. Onassis had one full-sister, Artemis, and two half-sisters, Kalliroi and Merope, by his father's second marriage following Penelope's death. Onassis became a successful shipping entrepreneur and was able to send his children to prestigious schools. When Onassis graduated from the local Evangelical Greek School at the age of 16, he spoke four languages: Greek (his native language), Turkish, Spanish, and English.
Smyrna was briefly administered by Greece (1919–1922) in the aftermath of the Allied victory in World War I, but then Smyrna was re-taken by Turkey during the Greco-Turkish War (1919–22). The Onassis family's substantial property holdings were lost, causing them to become refugees fleeing to Greece after the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922. During this period, Onassis lost three uncles, an aunt, and her husband Chrysostomos Konialidis and their daughter, who were burned to death in a church in Thyatira where 500 Christians were seeking shelter from the Great Fire of Smyrna.
At age 17 in 1923, Onassis arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, by Nansen passport, and got his first job as a telephone operator, with the British United River Plate Telephone Company, while following studies in commerce and port-duty administration at Aduanas Argentinas. He later became an entrepreneur, creating an Argentine import-export company, going into business for himself and making a fortune importing English-Turkish tobacco to Argentina. He obtained Argentine citizenship in 1929. Eventually he established his first shipping trading company in Buenos Aires, Astilleros Onassis. After gaining his first fortune in Argentina, he expanded his shipping business worldwide and relocated to New York City, USA, where he built up his shipping businesses empire while keeping offices in Buenos Aires and Athens. His legacy in Buenos Aires was the creation of a shipping empire and a Hellenic Culture Fund providing youth scholarships and an academic international exchange program between Argentina, Greece, Monaco and the United States; the programs are funded and administered by the Onassis Foundation and were eventually under the managing direction of his daughter Christina Onassis.
Onassis built up a fleet of freighters and tankers that eventually exceeded seventy vessels. The fleet operated under a flag of convenience, thereby bypassing laws and regulations of the owners’ country that would protect safety standards and the wages and working conditions of mariners. Onassis' fleet had mostly Panamanian and Liberian flags and sailed tax-free while operating at low cost. Because of this, Onassis could turn a profit in every transaction, even though he charged one of the lowest prices in the merchant navy market. Onassis made large profits when the Big Oil companies like Mobil, Socony, and Texaco signed long-term contracts at fixed prices with him for the use of his fleet, while having trouble managing their own fleets, which operated under US flags and thus at high cost.
The high profitability of the Onassis fleet has been attributed in large part to his disregard for standards that normally govern international shipping. For example, after his Liberian registered tanker SS Arrow ran aground and spilled oil into Chedabucto Bay in 1970, still the most significant oil spill off Canada’s East Coast  (about 25% of the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989), there was a Commission of Inquiry. Led by Dr Patrick McTaggart-Cowan, executive director of the Science Council of Canada, the Commission found that the Arrow had been operating with almost none of its navigation equipment serviceable: "radar had ceased to function an hour before the ship struck; the echo sounder had not been in working condition for two months; and the gyrocompass... had a permanent error of three degrees west. The officer on watch at the time of the accident, the ship's third officer, had no license" and none of the crew had any navigational skill except the master, "and there are even doubts about his ability."
Onassis arrived in the Mediterranean principality of Monaco in 1953 and began to purchase the shares of Monaco's Société des bains de mer de Monaco (SBM) via the use of front companies in the tax haven of Panama, and took control of the organisation in the summer of that year. Onassis moved his headquarters into the Old Sporting Club on Monaco's Avenue d'Ostende shortly after taking control of the SBM. The SBM was a significant owner of property in Monaco, its assets included the Monte Carlo Casino, the Monaco Yacht Club, the Hôtel de Paris and a third of the country's acreage. Onassis' takeover of the SBM was initially welcomed by Monaco's ruler, Prince Rainier III as the country required investment, but Onassis and Rainier's relationship had deteriorated by 1962 in the wake of the boycott of Monaco by the French President, Charles de Gaulle.
Onassis and Rainier had differing visions for Monaco. Onassis wished the country to remain a resort for an exclusive clientele, but Rainier wished to build hotels and attract a greater number of tourists. Monaco had become less attractive as a tax haven in the wake of France's actions, and Rainier urged Onassis to invest in the construction of hotels. Onassis was reluctant to invest in hotels without a guarantee from Rainier that no other competing hotel development would be permitted, but promised to build two hotels and an apartment block. Unwilling to give Onassis his guarantee, Rainier used his veto to cancel the entire hotel project, and publicly attacked SBM for their 'bad faith' on television, implicitly criticising Onassis. Rainier and Onassis remained at odds over the direction of the company for several years and in June 1966 Rainier approved a plan to create 600,000 new shares in SBM to be permanently held by the state, which reduced Onassis's stake from 52% to under a third. In the Supreme Court of Monaco the share creation was challenged by Onassis who claimed that it was unconstitutional, but the court found against him in March 1967. Following the ruling Onassis sold his holdings in SBM to the state of Monaco for $9.5 million ($271 million as of 2015), and left the country. According to Frank Brady in Onassis: An Extravagant Life, Onassis' words about the issue were: "We were gypped."
During the oil boom of the 1950s Onassis was in final discussions with the King of Saudi Arabia for securing a tanker transport deal. Since the Arabian-American Oil Co. (Currently, ARAMCO) had a monopoly on Saudi oil by a concession agreement, the US government was alarmed by the tanker deal. By 1954, a specific U.S. policy for Saudi Arabia, in addition to strengthening the US "special position," was to take "all appropriate measures to bring about the cancellation" of an agreement between the Saudi government and Onassis to transport Saudi oil on his tankers and "in any case, to make the agreement ineffective". [Doc. 128] The arrangement would have ended monopoly control of Saudi Arabia's oil by American oil companies, but was forestalled by the US government.
For this reason he became a target of the US government and in 1954, the FBI investigated Onassis for fraud against the U.S. government. He was charged with violating the citizenship provision of the shipping laws which require that all ships displaying the U.S. flag be owned by U.S. citizens. Onassis entered a guilty plea and paid $7 million.
Between 1950 and 1956, Onassis had success whaling off the Peruvian coast. His first expedition made a net profit of US$4.5 million. That business ended when The Norwegian Whaling Gazette made accusations based on sailors' testimonials, such as one given by Bruno Schalaghecke who worked on the factory ship Olympic Challenger: "Pieces of fresh meat from the 124 whales we killed yesterday still remains on the deck. Among them all, just one could be considered adult. All animals that pass within the range of the harpoon are killed in cold blood." The venture came to an end after the business was sold to Kyokuyo Hogei Kaisha Whaling Company, one of the biggest Japanese whaling companies, for $8.5 million. Norwegian authorities suspected the involvement of Hjalmar Schacht in Onassis' whaling enterprises. Schacht had previously been connected with Onassis' Saudi Arabian deals.
In 1956, Greek airlines in general faced economic difficulties, whereby companies like TAE were affected by strikes and cash shortage. The Greek government decided to give this and other companies to the private sector, and, on 30 July 1956, Onassis signed a contract granting him the operational rights to the Greek air transport industry. When Onassis heard during the negotiations that he would not be able to use the five Olympic rings in his logo due to copyright issues, he simply decided to add a sixth ring.
Operation effectively started in 1957, with one DC-4, two DC-6s and 13 DC-3s. The following year saw 244,000 passengers transported. The agreement lasted until 10 December 1974, when a number of factors (namely, a series of strikes, shortage of passengers, fuel price increase, and a law from the new Greek government forbidding Olympic Airways to fire employees) led Onassis to terminate his contract.
Following this event, Paul Ionnidis, a high-ranking director from Olympic Airways, said the following of Onassis: "Deep down, [he] did not want to relinquish Olympic Airways. He found it flattering to own an airline. It was something in which he took deep pride. It was his accomplishment. He 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' time at the head of Olympic Airways is known as a golden era, due to investments he made in training and the acquisition of cutting-edge technology. For example, in 1959, he signed a deal with De Havilland to buy four Comet 4B jets. Onassis was also renowned for his attention to service quality, which led him to buy gold-plated utensils and candles for the dining service of the first-class section.
During 1974, the last year of Onassis' involvement with the company, Olympic Airways transported 2.5 million passengers and had a work force of 7,356 persons. At the time, his ownership of Olympic Airways distinguished Onassis as one of only two men in the world to own a private airline, the other being Howard Hughes of TWA.
Onassis was involved in the privatization of the Greek national airline and founded the privatized Olympic Airways (today Olympic Air) in 1957. Stocks accounted for one-third of his capital, held in oil companies in the USA, the Middle East, and Venezuela. He also owned additional shares that secured his control of 95 multinational businesses in five continents. He owned gold-processing plants in Argentina and Uruguay and a large share in an airline in Latin America and $4 million worth of investments in Brazil. Also, he owned companies like Olympic Maritime and Olympic Tourist; a chemical company in Persia; apartments in Paris, London, Monte Carlo, Athens, and Acapulco; a castle in South France; the Olympic Tower (a 52-storey high-rise in Manhattan); another building in Sutton Place; Olympic Airways and Air Navigation; the island of Skorpios; the 325 ft (99.06 m) luxury yacht Christina O and, finally, deposit accounts and accounts in treasuries in 217 banks in the whole world.
In October 1968, amidst the Greek military junta and shortly after his marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy, Onassis announced the launch of Project Omega, a $400 million investment program that aimed to build considerable industrial infrastructure in Greece including an oil refinery and aluminum smelter. Onassis had cultivated the Prime Minister of Greece, Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos, for his assistance with the scheme, loaning Papadopoulos the use of his villa and buying dresses for his wife. The project was financially supported by the American bank First National City, and Onassis' American financial supporters eventually tired of the unfavourable terms demanded by him. The project was heavily criticized by people such as Helen Vlachos, a journalist from Athens. Another Greek Colonel, Nikolaos Makarezos, preferred a deal offered by Onassis' rival, Stavros Niarchos, and the project was eventually split between them. The failure was due partly to opposition from influential people within the military junta, such as Ioannis-Orlandos Rodinos, Deputy Minister of Economic Coordination, who opposed Onassis's offers in preference to Niarchos.
Onassis married Athina Mary "Tina" Livanos, daughter of shipping magnate Stavros G. Livanos and Arietta Zafrikakis, on 28 December 1946. Livanos was 17 at the time of their marriage; Onassis was 40. Onassis and Livanos had two children, both born in New York City: a son, Alexander (1948–1973), and a daughter Christina (1950–1988). Onassis named his legendary super-yacht after his daughter. To Onassis his marriage to Athina was more than the fulfillment of his ambitions. He also felt that the marriage dealt a blow to his father-in-law and the old-money Greek traditionalists who held Onassis in very low esteem. The couple had become largely separated by the mid-1950s, with the end of the marriage coming after Livanos found Onassis in bed with a friend of hers at their home in Cap d'Antibes, the Château de la Croë. The house was then acquired by Onassis' brother-in-law and business rival Stavros Niarchos, who bought it for his wife, Eugenia Livanos, Athina's sister. Onassis and Livanos divorced in June 1960 during Onassis' well publicised affair with Maria Callas.
Onassis and opera prima donna Maria Callas carried on an affair despite the fact that they were both married. They met in 1957 during a party in Venice promoted by Elsa Maxwell. After this first encounter, Onassis commented to Spyros Skouras: "There [was] just a natural curiosity; after all, we were the most famous Greeks alive in the world." Callas and Onassis both divorced their spouses but did not marry each other although their relationship continued for many years.
Onassis offered Mrs. Kennedy US$3 million to replace her Kennedy trust fund, which she would lose because she was remarrying. After Onassis' death, she would receive US$150,000 each year for the rest of her life. The whole marital contract was discussed with Ted Kennedy. Onassis' daughter Christina made it clear that she disliked Jacqueline Kennedy, and after Alexander's death, she convinced Aristotle that Jacqueline had some kind of curse due to John and Robert Kennedy's assassinations. After Onassis's death, Christina settled with Jackie Onassis for $25 million in exchange for Jackie not contesting Onassis's will.
During his marriage to Jackie, the couple inhabited six residences: her 15-room Fifth Ave. apartment in New York City, her horse farm in New Jersey, his Ave. Foch apartment in Paris, his house in Athens, on Skorpios, his private island in Greece, and his yacht Christina O.
Onassis died at age 69 on 15 March 1975 at the American Hospital of Paris in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, of respiratory failure, a complication of the myasthenia gravis from which he had been suffering during the last years of his life. Onassis was buried on his island of Skorpios in Greece, alongside his son, Alexander. Onassis' will established a charitable foundation in memory of his son, named the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, based in the tax haven of Vaduz in Liechtenstein, and headquartered in Athens. The foundation received 45% of Onassis' estate, which would have been left to his son, with the 55% remainder left to his daughter, Christina. The foundation consists of two parts; a business foundation which runs various businesses including shipping, and a public benefit foundation which is the sole recipient of the business foundation. The public benefit foundation funds the worldwide promotion of Greek culture, funds the Onassis International Prizes for achievement in various fields, and the funding of scholarships for Greek university students.
Jacqueline Onassis also received her share of the estate, settling for a reported $10 million ($26 million according to other sources), which was negotiated by her brother-in-law Ted Kennedy. This amount would reportedly grow to several hundred million under the financial stewardship of her companion Maurice Tempelsman. Christina's share has since passed to her only child Athina, at the time making Athina one of the wealthiest women in the world.
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