How a tycoon lost a son: A morality tale

Aristotle Onassis’s tumultuous life has been documented in the press, through several biographies and even in a film – «The Last Tycoon» – where the hero, without actually carrying the name, resembles him down to the trademark thick-framed glasses. Onassis’s saga – rising from poverty to immense riches, if often by dubious means, his prescient move to tankers, his tax-avoidance innovations such as flags of convenience, increasingly complex webs of ownership, and even his takeover of a tax haven, his role as a pioneer of what came to be called the «jet set,» his many liaisons and his taking a second wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, as a trophy long before Tom Wolfe coined the term «trophy wife» – is more than enough to feed an enduring myth. Yet, it appears, the man himself wanted to inflate his mythical persona even more. A new biography by, of all people, a lawyer, argues that this passion for self-aggrandizement indirectly contributed to the death of Onassis’s son Alexander and, ultimately, to the tycoon’s demise. To be sure, Stuart Speiser, a specialist in aviation law and the author of this book («The Deadly Sins of Aristotle Onassis,» ACW Press, forthcoming), is an interested party. He has been involved in litigation against Onassis and his estate. Even before that, he had been approached by Nicholas Onassis to helped him build a defamation case against his famous cousin. The case never came to court – through intimidation, Speiser alleges – and, as the author himself admits, «I had been itching to get a second shot at him, dead or alive.» Such an admission would have sunk the credibility of most prospective biographers. Speiser, however, is careful to document his particular involvement with Onassis (or, more precisely, his estate) and, above all, produces a hitherto buried report that backs up his story. Speiser was approached in 1978 by a veteran pilot, Don McCusker, who had happened to be inside Onassis’s private plane, a Piaggio 136 amphibian craft, on January 22, 1973, auditioning for a job as a pilot for that plane. His «examiner» was none other than Alexander Onassis, while a veteran pilot, Donald MacGregor, was there to assist in McCusker’s assessment. The plane had crashed seconds after takeoff. While McCusker and MacGregor survived with serious injuries, Alexander Onassis never regained consciousness and died the following day. He was 24 years old. Onassis’s grief was enormous. The publisher asserts that «this is the first book to show how Ari lost the will to live and chose to die shortly after finding out he helped cause his beloved son’s death.» There is little mystery in that, however. The public, at the time, was well-informed about Onassis’s decline following his son’s death and his loss of the will to live. Aristotle Onassis survived his son by just over two years, dying on March 15, 1975 at a Paris hospital. Onassis was quick to accuse McCusker, a test pilot straight out of «The Right Stuff» who had logged more than 8,000 hours in flight, of being directly responsible through inexperience with that particular aircraft. Gradually, Onassis came up with dark schemes of a CIA plot against him, knowing full well that conspiracy theories blossom in Greece. The police officer in charge of the investigation appointed a committee of five Greek air force officers to conduct a technical investigation. The report, submitted three months after the accident, is unambiguous in its conclusion: The accident «was not the result of poor technique or mistake of the pilot… The main cause of the accident was the mistakes of the maintenance personnel of Olympic Airways.» At the time of the accident, Aristotle Onassis was the owner of Olympic Airways, enjoying the status of a state monopoly, and Alexander the recently appointed head of subsidiary Olympic Aviation. This report, amazing in its candor, considering the circumstances – Greece was then a dictatorship with which Onassis had a close relationship – was suppressed and charges were brought against McCusker which, however, were quietly dismissed in November 1977. Speiser devotes a good deal to his handling of the case, which led to the settlement offered by the Onassis estate rising from $65,000 to $800,000, a considerable sum in 1978. Another part is taken up to demonstrate that Onassis had used the plane, as we said earlier, to prop up his reputation as a jet-setting businessman, something that the plane’s capabilities did not support. He had taken the aircraft through an overhaul to take it with him on his luxury yacht; this, despite Alexander’s objections, who considered the plane a relic and would have preferred a helicopter instead. In a sense, as Speiser alleges, Onassis’s «deadly sins» – which he boils down to one, deceitfulness – did play a role in the death of his son. He must have been aware of this at the time of the accident and didn’t need to see the damning report to become aware of his responsibility. In the rest of the book, the author tries to show how this basic trait of deceitfulness informed Onassis’s whole business life. To the end, he believed he was above the rules constraining mere mortals. If one believes in fate, this is a compelling morality tale. The documentation for it, however, the plane crash incident apart, is rather thin. There exists plenty of raw material, including the voluminous FBI file on Onassis, for a future, definitive biography.