When Maria Callas met Aristotle Onassis

The love affair between one of the world’s most influential opera singers and a billionaire shipping tycoon still captivates fans half a century after it ended.

When Maria Callas met Aristotle Onassis, it marked the start of a long romance that was the show business world’s worst-kept secret, as both parties were already married.

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Their turbulent and passionate affair was flawed because Callas wanted to settle down and have children, but Onassis wasn’t ready to take that step with her. Eventually, he married someone else.

Tragically, her life was dogged with ill health, and she died alone in 1977.

Maria Callas early life

Born in New York in December 1923, Callas was of Greek heritage. Her father George was a pharmacist in the Washington Heights neighbourhood.

When she was five, her singing talents became apparent, so her mother Litsa began pressing her to perform in public. They never had a close mother/daughter relationship.

George and Litsa separated in 1937. Later, Callas spoke of a miserable childhood, when she was forced to sing by her mother.

Despite her initial reluctance, Callas had an undeniable talent. She moved to Athens with her mother at the age of 14, where she sang more willingly as a student and after joining the Greek National Opera, she started to earn a salary, helping her family to survive the difficult times of World War II.

She left Greece on 14th September 1945 to return to the United States. By age 22, she had already given 56 performances in seven different operas and had sung in around 20 recitals.

In December 1945, she was described by the general manager of the New York Metropolitan Opera, Edward Johnson, as having an “exceptional voice”.

Later moving to Italy, her operatic career took off and she became globally famous in the prime of her life. There, she met and dated Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a wealthy industrialist. They married in 1949 and he became her business manager.

Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis

Born in January 1906, in Skorpios Island, Greece, entrepreneur Onassis was a millionaire by the age of 25, making a fortune from creating his own brand of cigarette.

He realised the shipping magnates who transported his tobacco made more than cigarette manufacturers, so he invested in six ships. His shrewd business sense paid off, as his net worth rocketed to $3.2 billion.

Callas and Onassis first met in 1957, during a party in Venice promoted by American gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell. After their first meeting, Onassis commented to a friend there had been a “natural curiosity”, explaining, “We were the most famous Greeks alive in the world.” However, they didn’t start their relationship until two years later.

In 1959, Onassis invited Callas and Meneghini on a cruise on his mega yacht, Christina. Their affair reportedly began during the cruise, which marked the end of her marriage to Meneghini. Onassis had been married to Athina Mary Livanos since 1946. The tycoon was attracted to Callas because he didn’t want to be with “just a bland woman” and liked the fact she was also a famous Greek.

Callas reportedly wanted to “escape” from her career at that stage. As well as singing, she also had operatic acting roles and starred in the non-musical, Medea, as the Greek mythological character. However, she had suffered vocal and neurological problems and was no longer happy.

Sadly, her relationship with Onassis wasn’t the fairytale she had hoped for. Despite his divorce from Athina in 1960, he didn’t marry Callas. It was rumoured she conceived three children between 1963 and 1966, but none of the pregnancies went full term. She wanted more from the relationship than he did, but they stayed together, with Callas describing her lover as “the first person to truly understand and accept her, warts and all”. Described as “dysfunctional”, Onassis appeared to hold all the power in the relationship, while Callas had little self-esteem.

Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy

In 1963, Onassis hosted a gathering attended by the woman who would later become his future wife, Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy. He began to pursue her romantically following the assassination of her husband, US President John F Kennedy, on 22nd November 1963. Onassis was once described as a “collector of beautiful women,” and she fell into this category.

However, it was said he truly loved Callas deep down, despite his behaviour. She played a “nurturing” role in his life – something he had never experienced with anyone else. Onassis went on to marry the former US First Lady in 1968, which should have ended his flawed relationship with Callas. Despite his marriage, however, biographers claimed he “kept coming back for Callas, as they continued to love each other”. He spent more time with her again in Paris. Onassis said he had realised Callas was the “true love of his life”, but by this time, it was too late.

Aristotle Onassis cause of death

Onassis died on 15th March 1975, at the age of 69, of respiratory failure. He had suffered from the condition in the later years of his life.

He was buried where he was born, on the island of Skorpios, in Greece. It was said Callas never recovered from her loss.

Aristotle Onassis children

Despite Callas never having had a child with the love of her life, Onassis had two children, Alexander and Christina, with his first wife.

Tragically, Alexander died at the age of 24 in a plane crash in 1973 and Christina suffered a fatal heart attack, aged only 37, at her Buenos Aires home in 1988.

Maria Callas cause of death

During the tumultuous years following Onassis’ marriage to Kennedy, Callas’s health began to decline. She had suffered from a neuromuscular disorder since the 1950s, which doctors had initially failed to diagnose.

She was continually taking various pills and medicines, which made her more ill, physically and mentally. Her vocal capacity declined, as she didn’t have the physical or mental strength to continue. The soprano died alone on 16th September 1977, aged 53, in Paris, of a heart attack.

While Callas never had the children or family life that she so desperately sought, she leaves the legacy of her beautiful music, including perhaps her most famous performance Madama Butterfly, to inspire future opera singers.

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