Aristotle Onassis: Man, legacy, myth

A citizen of the world who thrived when traveling through troubled waters, Aristotle Onassis became the most famous Greek of the 20th century. A major exhibition tracing moments of his sensational life offers up a number of clues as to why. Some 500 photographs and 300 objects make up «Aristotle Onassis: Beyond the Myth,» which showcases the maverick businessman’s lust for life. Inaugurated by Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis on Wednesday, the exhibition opened at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street branch yesterday. Organized by the keepers of the Onassis faith, the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, the exhibition is divided into two: While the bulk of the show is dedicated to the man and the myth, the second part goes beyond, presenting an important part of his legacy, the multifaceted activities of the foundation which was established the year Onassis died and named after Alexander, his only son who had died two years before. (This year marks 100 years since Onassis’s birth and 30 since his death.) «We had to honor the man. He became a legend, but to us he was a man, a charming and cultivated person,» said Antonis Papadimitriou, the foundation’s current president, during a preview earlier this week. «The exhibition aims to throw light on the real Onassis as well as today’s reality.» The Onassis saga remains high on the all-time list of real-life success stories, though it is not strictly a rags-to-riches tale. Aristotle was born to a wealthy family in Smyrna, Asia Minor, in 1906. The family lost everything at the time of the city’s fall in 1922 and eventually settled in Athens. Plans for Aristos to head to Oxford were scrapped; instead, the young man caught a boat to Argentina, taking along the sum of 250 dollars. Entrepreneur In his new adopted country, the emerging businessman’s first investment move was in tobacco. By the time he purchased his first steamship in the early 1930s, Onassis was worth 1 million dollars. Moving from Buenos Aires to London, New York and Monte Carlo, the restless and fearless Greek developed his tanker empire, founded Olympic Airways, raised a family and fell in love. «Women loved Onassis – and not just because of his money,» noted Papadimitriou. Sure, there were beauties like Veronica Lake around, yet only three women managed to define his life and times: his first wife and the mother of his two children Christina and Alexandros, Tina Livanos; opera diva Maria Callas, and his final companion and second spouse, Jackie Bouvier-Kennedy. A man of great passions, Onassis found solace on the island of Skorpios and aboard his refuge at sea, the Christina, a Canadian corvette he turned into the fabulously lavish yacht where he entertained the likes of Winston Churchill and Rudolph Nureyev. What kind of world did Onassis live in? There were eclectic elements in his life, works by Greek masters Volanakis, Ghyzis and Lytras; rare editions on Greek civilization going back to the 16th century; ship models; 19th century French clocks, but also less valuable, everyday items such as a favorite Maxim’s ashtray. The exhibition At the Benaki, visitors also get a glimpse of life aboard the Christina: a Steinway piano used by Callas to practice, complete with a Tosca score and some of the diva’s notes; his desk, glasses and a komboloi (string of worry beads). The correspondence in the exhibit also throws plenty of light on the man: a letter announcing his intention to donate his monthly wages as deputy consul general of Greece to the Buenos Aires Greek community, tender words by Jackie, and passionate words from Maria on his birthday. There were lots of happy times – on display at the Benaki are photos of Tina and the children and the evening bag Callas chose on their first date – but there were also also the omnipresent tragedies: One can view a blood-stained handkerchief belonging to Alexandros, found following the plane accident which claimed his life. Active in both charity and business, the foundation today manages the Olympic shipping firm, made up of 18 tankers. In addition to shipping, the foundation handles a number of Onassis assets. The foundation established in 1980 international prizes for outstanding accomplishment. So far, the foundation has given over 4,000 scholarships worth 38 million dollars. The Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center was completed in 1992 and has been bequeathed to the Greek state. The Alexander S. Onassis Affiliated Public Benefit Foundation sponsors scholars lecturing in the United States and Canada. The Onassis Cultural Center is located at the foundation’s New York headquarters, the Olympic Tower. One of the foundation’s major projects today is the House of Letters and Arts, currently under construction on Syngrou Avenue. This is where Persian blinds made of marble will one day open to reveal a 900-seat state-of-the-art theater (plus another, smaller in size), as well as an exhibition hall and much more. Scheduled for completion at the end of 2008, the center’s aim is to promote (and export) contemporary Greek culture. While the Benaki exhibition covers a good amount of Onassis history, past and present, there is one aspect of the legacy that it cannot foresee. Hanging on one of the walls in the exhibit is a photo of Athina, the wife of Brazilian equestrian Alvaro de Miranda Neto and granddaughter of Aristotle. Her own destiny in the Onassis adventure remains to be seen. Benaki Museum, Pireos Street annex, 138 Pireos & Andronikou, tel 210.345.3111. The exhibition runs to November 12.