The life of millionaire shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis is a riches to rags—and back to riches again—story. His underhanded business dealings were constantly under suspicion, and so was his unseemly pursuit of married women. Operating in some of the world’s most glamorous locations, Onassis manipulated his romantic and commercial life with a lethal combination of an ice cold heart and undeniable charm.
1. He Had A Distinguished Start
Although he was Greek, Aristotle Socrates Onassis was actually born in Smyrna, Turkey in 1906. His father, Socrates, was a successful shipping entrepreneur, and as such, little Onassis not only enjoyed a charmed childhood, but also received an esteemed education. Unfortunately, no amount of privilege could save him from an unspeakable tragedy.
2. He Lost Everything
When he was only a teenager, Onassis experienced true fear as the the Greco-Turkey conflict changed his life forever. After the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922, the Onassis family lost all their property and became refugees in search of a new home. But sadly, they lost far more than just property: There was a gruesome human toll as well.
3. His Relatives Perished
During The Great Fire of Smyrna, the flames raged on for many days. A large number of people, including many of Onassis’ relatives, ran to a church for protection. Horrifically, the church caught fire and 500 people perished. On that horrible day, Onassis lost uncles, aunts, and cousins—six loved ones in all. To put this tragedy behind him, Onassis packed his bags and never looked back.
4. He Moved On
In 1923, and at the tender age of 17, Onassis arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He was clutching his few belongings and his Nansen passport—used for stateless people—and looking for a new life. Luckily, his language skills landed him a position as a telephone operator. But could Onassis ever be fulfilled by working a nine-to-five? Nope, he chose that job for a very underhanded reason.
5. He Had A Master Plan
Onassis’ job at the telephone company was actually part of a devious plan. He started listening in on business calls and using what he heard to make deals. But his overarching master plan was to start his own company. While he eavesdropped during the day, Onassis also studied late into the night, attending school to learn about the import-export business.
These early efforts were the key to his later success. He was destined to become one of the richest men in the world.
6. He Led A Double Life
Once Onassis’ own deals started making him money, he could have quit the phone company altogether. But no, the information he was getting was just too juicy to pass up. This is how he started leading a wild double life: He was both a suit-wearing businessman and a working average joe. But Onassis’ path to fame and fortune also had a nefarious side.
In fact, his journey involved pushing a particularly toxic substance.
7. He Took A Risk
Onassis’s main focus was on importing a singular brand of smokes. But he was going to do something a little different, even a little risky. He planned to target his product at non-smokers—women. More than that, he wanted a famous personality to be his brand ambassador. To make this happen, Onassis arrived at opera singer Claudia Muzio’s dressing room with flowers and free samples.
However, the flowers weren’t the only thing that caught her eye.
8. He Seduced Her
Clearly won over by Onassis’ oozing charm, Muzio agreed to be the model for his brand. Onassis was quite the flirt, and boy, did it pay off. Using the famous opera singer as an advertisement helped Onassis become a millionaire, and at that time, he was only 25 years old. As his fortunes started to amass, he realized he could do more than just importing and exporting. In fact, it was high time he expanded his horizons.
9. He Got A Very Good Deal
Onassis decided to get rid of the middleman and began shipping his products himself. He just needed to get a fleet of boats at a price he could afford. Lucky for him, this was the 1930s—The Great Depression—and everyone was abandoning ship on the shipping business. So, Onassis offered to buy up the vessels from the companies that were—pun intended—going under.
Don’t think that Onassis was actually trying to help anyone: He got the ships for well under half price.
10. He Bit The Big Apple
After getting a taste of delicious success and with riches on his mind, Onassis only dreamed of more. He kept his offices in Buenos Aires and opened new ones in New York City. His shipping company continued to roll in the bucks, but it never seemed enough to satisfy him—if that was even possible. Onassis wanted to go further. He looked at his biggest competitor and asked: What does he have that I don’t have?
11. He Took A Daughter
When you’re starting out in the shipping business, and then you happen to marry the daughter of the richest shipping magnate in the world, tongues are bound to wag. He decided to marry his competitor’s 17-year-old daughter, Athina Livanos. Let’s just say the marriage looked a little opportunistic on Onassis’ part. It was, however, even darker than that.
12. He Used His Wife
While Onassis’ marriage to Livanos certainly helped his career, it also helped him with something much more devious: Onassis wanted to stick it to his father-in-law, Stavros G. Livanos. At the time, a bona fide success like Livanos looked down on lowlife start ups like Onassis. So, Onassis’ plan had one of two outcomes: He could elevate himself to Livanos’ level or bring his father-in-law down a few notches.
Of course, either option seems like a despicable reason for a wedding.
13. He Was Sneaky
In 1953, Onassis set his eye on purchasing Monaco—the gambling principality located near France. He wanted the whole place for himself, so he had to be clever about to capture it. He quickly bought up shares in the country’s largest property owning company using front companies. This way, no one would suspect it was a single investor. Very sneaky.
It wasn’t long, however, before a Prince caught him in the act.
14. He Fought With A Prince
Eventually Prince Rainier III, the ruler of Monaco, realized that Onassis was buying up all the shares in his country. And—surprise surprise—he wasn’t unhappy about it. His principality needed money, and Onassis certainly wasn’t short of it. The two men both wanted Monaco to prosper, but unfortunately, each had a different vision.
It was time for these two powerhouses to fight it out.
15. He Bowed Out
Prince Rainier wanted to bring more tourists to Monaco, while Onassis wanted the exact opposite—he wanted to make it as exclusive as possible. But the Prince had the perfect plan to bump Onassis out of the picture. In 1966, he created 600,000 new shares in the company. Suddenly, Onassis found himself stripped of the power he needed to see his plan through.
In light of the Prince’s victory, Onassis admitted defeat and bid adieu to Monaco. But this wasn’t his only perilous adventure.
16. He Paid Dearly
During the 1950s, Onassis got himself into some serious trouble with the authorities. When Onassis arranged a tanker transport deal with Saudi Arabia, he started to concern the FBI. They began investigating Onassis for misconduct and made an upsetting discovery: Apparently some of Onassis’ ships were flying American flags—even though an American didn’t own them.
In 1954, Onassis pled guilty in court and had to pay an exorbitant fine of $7,000,000. Still, with his hand in every honey pot, Onassis had other disturbing business ventures up his sleeve.
17. He Slaughtered Whales
In 1950, Onassis started a whaling slaughtering industry off the coast of South America. As with his oil tanker business, Onassis didn’t really follow the rules in his whaling company. Even though there were regulations about catching adult whales only, Onassis was a full-blown monster and happily slaughtered underage whales as well. And depressingly, his savagery certainly paid off.
18. He Made Blood Money
Ignoring the rules helped Onassis make $4.5 million on his first expedition. It was all money, money, money—until he angered Peru. The Peruvians weren’t at all thrilled to find Onassis doing business off the coast of their country. After all, he was brutally decimating their whale population. With vengeance in mind, they set out to destroy him.
19. He Went To Battle
Peru sent naval vessels and even air force planes out to overpower Onassis. It became a full-on international conflict, not between two countries, but between a country and a company. Not surprisingly, Onassis lost…but not before managed to sell his whaling company for a Moby Dick sized amount: $8.5 million. As his wallet grew fatter and fatter, Onassis’ ego swelled along with it…
20. He Went Full-On Diva
By 1957, Onassis and his wife were both having affairs and keeping them under wraps—at least until Onassis met opera sensation Maria Callas. Onassis and Callas were both married when they met, but they started an affair anyway. To Onassis, the affair seemed inevitable. His reason? Because they were the two most famous Greeks in the world.
21. His Pride Cost Him
Onassis could have continued his affair with Callas in secret, except his pride wouldn’t let him. What was the point of dating the number one opera star if he couldn’t rub it in people’s faces? Onassis started to flaunt his relationship with Callas, and that’s when his wife put her foot down. The two divorced in 1960. So, does that mean he turned around and married Callas?
Not a chance. Callas wasn’t marriage material. There was, however, a certain first lady who was.
22. He Worried A President
In 1963, President Kennedy’s wife Jackie, battled a harrowing depression after the passing of her third child. Jackie’s younger sister, Lee Radziwill had a friend with a yacht, and she thought that a little fresh sea air might alleviate Jackie’s grief. But President Kennedy had his reservations. He worried over the impropriety of it all, especially considering the owner of the boat—none other than womanizer and millionaire—Aristotle Onassis.
23. He Made A Friend
The trip on the yacht went off without a hitch, and when Jackie was finally back on solid ground she realized she’d made a new friend in Onassis. It didn’t matter that he’d once been romantically tied to her sister Radziwill; he was just someone to talk to. To Kennedy, this was just an innocent friendship. However, there’s not very much that’s innocent when it comes to the scheming Onassis.
24. He Had An Modus Operandi
Obviously, inviting a married woman for a cruise was something Onassis had done before. Previous to Kennedy, it had been Maria Callas. Callas boarded Onassis’ yacht a married woman and returned to shore convinced her marriage was over. Onassis’ charm seemed to take on super powers while at sea. So, where was Callas while the cruise with Kennedy was taking place?
25. He Had A Guest List
Onassis didn’t want Callas getting in the way of his “friendship building” with Kennedy—so he didn’t invite her. At that point, Onassis was actually living with Callas, so keeping her out of the way might’ve been difficult. Apparently, she spent the entire time holed up in her decadent Paris apartment, which he’d bought for her.
It seemed pretty clear that Onassis was going out of his way to keep his different love interests completely separate from one another.
26. He Had Enemies
The meeting of Onassis and Jackie Kennedy hadn’t just come out of the blue. Onassis already had a connection to the Kennedy’s—and not a good one. He didn’t really like Robert Kennedy, Jackie’s brother-in-law, because of a business deal that went sour. This, in turn, made both Kennedys—the President and Robert—look down on Onassis.
And at the center of it all? An unlikely friendship between a ruthless businessman and the beloved first lady. What in the world was Onassis up to?
27. He Poured On The Charm
See, Onassis wasn’t above using his romantic charms to further his power. After all, it had worked wonders on Callas. So here Onassis was, making friends with the President of the United State’s wife. Bear in mind, this is from someone who rarely does anything without a strategy. We can only hope that Onassis was really in it for friendship because Jackie Kennedy was about to need a big shoulder to cry on.
28. He Got The Cold Shoulder
On November 22, 1963, shots rang out that changed Jackie Kennedy’s life forever: The president had been assassinated. Suddenly, Kennedy was a widow, this sad date marking the beginning of her odyssey of grief. There’s a good chance that Onassis was waiting in the wings, ready to jump at any chance to rush to Jackie’s side.
But to his utter dismay, Jackie didn’t turn to him for support at all. And that made Onassis’ blood boil.
29. She Ignored Him
Instead of leaning on Onassis, Jackie turned to her brother-in-law, Robert Kennedy—one of Onassis’ corporate enemies. Jackie and Robert bonded closer than ever in the aftermath of their shared tragedy—some said maybe too close. Even so, Onassis wouldn’t have to wait long for Jackie’s attention. Tragedy was about to strike her down once again.
30. He Bided His Time
I don’t want to say that Onassis was happy about the next tragedy, but it certainly gave him an advantage. Let’s just say that the shooting of Robert Kennedy couldn’t have been more helpful for Onassis. He got two things out of Robert’s passing: revenge for their long-standing grudge, and most importantly, it left Jackie vulnerable and even more distraught than before. Surely now was his moment to shine.
31. He Won Her Over
After enduring two tragedies, Jackie Kennedy finally warmed to Onassis as more than a friend. Rumors about the two being in a romantic relationship emerged four months after Robert Kennedy’s demise. In 1968, the two married. But if the happy couple expected a warm reaction from the American people, they were in for a rude awakening…
32. He Broke America’s Heart
The media hadn’t been particularly kind to Aristotle Onassis in the past, so, when he wed Jackie, the real fangs came out. In response to the marriage, The Washington Post dramatically said, “The gods are weeping.” The New York Times reported that the reaction to the marriage was “anger, shock and dismay.” But it was a headline in Germany that may have said it best: “America has lost a saint.”
33. He Was A Mystery
Everyone in America was wondering why Jackie Kennedy did it. Why did America’s sweetheart marry the rather—let’s be honest—immoral millionaire. He was 23 years older than her, a known womanizer, and his business dealings were far from scrupulous. The world wanted to know what Onassis was offering. The answer was easy: money.
34. He Promised Her A Fortune
The moment Onassis and Jackie wed, Jackie lost her Kennedy trust fund. This would prove to be a hardship for Jackie, who’d become accustomed to the luxurious life of a first lady. Onassis acknowledged her loss and offered her a lump sum payment of $3 million. But that wasn’t all. He also threw in an annual amount of $150,000 per year once he passed.
These cold financial deals led Onassis’ daughter Christina to call Jackie her “father’s unfortunate obsession.”
35. He Had A Private Island
The nuptials took place on Onassis’ private island in Greece. The location of the ceremony may have been a symbol of what Jackie wanted from the relationship: It was private, and most of all, it was safe. She had witnessed enough carnage over the past years and wanted a haven where she could finally relax. There was one strange requirement though.
36. He Had A Shortcoming
For all the money they had for a wedding, Jackie didn’t seem to treat it as a super special event. In fact, she didn’t even have a special dress made for her—she wore a dress that she’d already worn to a friend’s wedding. Her footwear, however, had requirements: She had to wear flats, so she wouldn’t bring attention to her fiancé’s height. But Onassis’ short stature didn’t bother Jackie…She was after something else.
37. He Gave Her His Name
Jackie had started to believe that just having the name Kennedy was a bad omen—I mean, look what happened to her husband and brother-in-law. So she took the unusual move of completely removing it from her moniker. It was almost as if she were trying to erase her troubled past and replace it with Onassis. This name change didn’t do anything, however, to stop another very real enemy from entering the picture.
38. He Wasn’t Enough
Now that Onassis was with Jackie, she was fair game to the tabloids. He’d effectively stripped of her widowed first lady status. To show their lack of enthusiasm with the pairing, the media refused to even use her new name. They settled on Jackie O. Onassis had worked so hard to be with America’s first lady and now he was represented by a measly little “O.” What a slap in the face.
39. He’d Met His Match
Onassis had, with a great amount of effort, married the most famous woman in the world, but keeping her happy was an ordeal. After the wedding, Jackie quickly started spending on house redecorating and huge additions to her already enormous wardrobe. After a year of marriage the bills came in: She’d spent $1.5 million. But that wasn’t all.
Onassis, the man who owned his own island, said something surprising: He’d “never met anyone who could spend money like Jackie.”
40. He Was A Good Father
For the most part, onlookers were very skeptical of this marriage; they thought that it was a union of convenience. But Jackie’s personal assistant has a different story to tell. Kathy McKeon says that Onassis would often sit with the children and ask them about their day at school. She says that Onassis really did give a lot of attention to Jackie’s children—and they loved him for it. Let’s be honest though: good father, lousy husband.
41. He Couldn’t Shake This One
Just weeks after his marriage to Kennedy, Onassis was up to his old shenanigans. He tried to reignite his affair with ex-girlfriend Maria Callas. Callas, however, was no longer interested. You see, Onassis had never gotten around to telling her about his marriage to Jackie. Not smart. She was livid and refused to see him, that is, until he made a desperate threat.
42. He Threatened Her
Onassis wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. So, when Callas refused to see him, Onassis said he would take his Mercedes Coupe and crash it into her front door. It’s not clear if Callas was fond of Onassis or just didn’t want to see a perfectly nice car smashed up. For one reason or another, she let him back into her life. And Jackie’s response? Interesting, to say the least.
43. He Wasn’t Loyal
Jackie was in America when she noticed in the newspaper that Onassis was having a romantic dinner in Paris with Callas. Infuriated, Jackie raced across the pond and insisted that he have dinner with her as well—in the exact same restaurant. After all this, one thing was certainly clear: Onassis’ insatiable appetite for women poisoned his personal life. But if his love life was a hot mess, the his business debacles were even more harried.
44. He Spilled Oil
In 1970, one of Onassis’ tankers, the SS Arrow, ran aground and drained its oily contents into Chedabucto Bay, Nova Scotia. Even though this happened over 50 years ago, Canadians still consider it to be on of the most significant oil spills on the country’s east coast. It was a massive disaster and instigated a commission to find the cause of the spill. They were hot on his tail.
What the commission found destroyed Aristotle Onassis’ reputation.
45. He Didn’t Play By the Rules
The commission into Onassis’ SS Arrow discovered more than just a few problems with the ship. In fact, the entire ship was in shambles…None of the navigation equipment was working properly: not the radar nor the depth sensor. Even more damaging was the fact that the crew was completely inexperienced. In fact, the officer on watch the night of the accident didn’t have a license to do his job.
This certainly was bad for business. But Onassis’ trouble didn’t end there. The next accident hit much closer to home—and it was all the more devastating.
46. He Lived Under A Curse
In 1973, Onassis’ son Alexander was a passenger on a small aircraft that crashed. Of the three men on board, only Alexander didn’t survive. This accident devastated Onassis and the entire family. Onassis’ daughter Christina caused a rift when she tried to convince her father that Alexander’s accident wasn’t really an accident at all.
She claimed something much darker was responsible—that it was part of the “Kennedy Curse.” She may have been right. The next time tragedy struck, Onassis himself was on the receiving end of it.
47. He Became Ill
After his son’s passing, Aristotle Onassis’s health deteriorated and doctors told him he was terminally ill. His first thought, however, was scandalous: He wanted to divorce Jackie—I guess he didn’t want his money going to a Kennedy. With the clock ticking, he hatched a diabolical plane. He wanted to hire a private detective to catch Jackie committing adultery.
This way, he could leave her with as little money as possible. Unfortunately for Onassis, his plan hit a medical speed bump.
48. He Wasn’t Her Priority
Onassis’ health had taken a turn for the worse. He was sent to a Paris hospital and didn’t have the time or the energy to proceed with his divorce. Jackie heard about his hospitalization, and then did something utterly heartless: She chose skiing in Aspen over sitting by her husband’s hospital bed—I guess it wasn’t just the slopes that were cold.
Jackie did, however, have a chance to send a message forward. But it wasn’t for her husband.
49. He Received An Ultimatum
Jackie seemed to have no intention of visiting her husband in the hospital, but she did want control over who did—or, more precisely, who didn’t. Jackie took time between runs down the ski hill to send a pretty clear message to Onassis’ people: Under no circumstances should Maria Callas visit Onassis’ hospital bed. Kennedy was sending out a threat, but would Callas back off? Of course not.
50. He Couldn’t Say Goodbye
Callas arranged to have herself snuck up into Onassis’ room. She used a freight elevator, so none of Jackie’s minions could stop her. Once she entered the room it was clear this was the final goodbye. Onassis was in a coma. Callas stayed with him for an hour and then snuck out. In retrospect, she should have taken his wallet—and we’ll soon see why.
51. He Returned To His Island
In 1975, Onassis passed due to respiratory failure and loved ones buried him on his private island, next to his son, Alexander. The generosity of Onassis’ will surprised many people: Almost half of his estate went to a charity in the name of his son. Of course, there was still the other half of his gigantic fortune to worry about. And with that portion, he certainly wasn’t as generous.
52. He Left The Minimum
Onassis left most of the remainder of his estate to his daughter, Christina. Before he passed, he’d managed to keep Jackie’s portion to a bare minimum. But Jackie was not going to stand for it. She hadn’t married one of the world’s richest men for nothing. With brother-in-law Ted Kennedy at her side, she contested the will. The stage was set for the estate trial of the century.
53. They Settled
The trial never happened. Since there was more than enough money to go around, Christina Onassis, hoping to avoid a courtroom battle, made Jackie an offer. Christina never cared much for Jackie, so maybe the young heiress just wanted her out of her hair. Well, that cost Christina Onassis a cool $26 million. This left Jackie with the last laugh: Maria Callas received nothing.
54. He Was Omitted
Aristotle Onassis had spent a lifetime—and a fortune—courting and conquering two of the most famous women in the world: Maria Callas and Jackie Kennedy. Sadly, there wasn’t much to show for his efforts. He didn’t have children with either of them. To make matters worse, when Jackie passed in 1994, the name Onassis wasn’t mentioned at the funeral. Not once.
However, he did get a gravestone reference. Jackie’s reads: “Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.” I guess it’s better than just an “O”.