Who Was Aristotle Onassis, Jackie Kennedy's Second Husband?

Aristotle Onassis and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Aristotle Onassis and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Aristotle Onassis was a Greek shipping magnate and a wealthy international celebrity. His fame increased enormously in October 1968 when he married Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy. The marriage sent shockwaves through American culture. Onassis and his new wife, dubbed "Jackie O" by the tabloid press, became familiar figures in the news.

Fast Facts: Aristotle Onassis

  • Nickname: The Golden Greek
  • Occupation: Shipping magnate
  • Known For: His marriage to former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and his ownership of the largest privately-owned shipping fleet in the world (which made him one of the richest men in the world).
  • Born: January 15, 1906 in Smyrna (present day Izmir), Turkey
  • Died: March 15, 1975 in Paris, France.
  • Parents: Socrates Onassis, Penelope Dologou
  • Education: Evangelical School of Smyrna (high school); no college education
  • Spouse(s): Athina Livanos, Jacqueline Kennedy
  • Children: Alexander Onassis, Christina Onassis

Early Life

Aristotle Onassis was born January 15, 1906 in Smyrna, a port in Turkey that had a substantial Greek population. His father, Socrates Onassis, was a prosperous tobacco merchant. Young Aristotle was not a good student, and in his early teens he left school and began working in his father's office.

In 1919, Greek forces invaded and occupied Smyrna. The Onassis family fortunes suffered greatly when Turkish forces invaded in 1922, taking back the town and persecuting Greek residents. Onassis's father was jailed, accused of conspiring with the Greeks who had occupied the region.

Aristotle managed to help other family members to escape to Greece, smuggling the family's funds by taping money to his body. His father was released from prison and rejoined the family in Greece. Tensions in the family drove Aristotle away, and he sailed to Argentina.

Early Career in Argentina

With savings equivalent to $250, Onassis arrived in Buenos Aires and began working at a series of menial jobs. At one point, he landed a job as a telephone operator, and he spent his night shifts improving his English by listening in on calls to New York and London. According to legend, he also overheard information about business deals which enabled him to make timely investments. He began to appreciate that information obtained at the right time could have enormous value.

After repairing his relationship with his father, Onassis partnered with him to import tobacco into Argentina. He was soon very successful, and by the early 1930s he was prominent in the Greek expatriate business community in Buenos Aires.

The "Golden Greek" Becomes a Shipping Magnate

Seeking to move beyond being an importer, Onassis began to learn about the shipping business. While on a visit to London during the Great Depression, he obtained potentially valuable information: rumors that Canadian freighters were being sold by a troubled shipping company. Onassis bought six of the ships for $20,000 each. His new company, Olympic Maritime, began moving goods across the Atlantic and prospered in the late 1930s.

The outbreak of World War II threatened to destroy Onassis' growing business. Some of his ships were seized in ports in Europe. Yet Onassis, after safely sailing from London to New York, managed to negotiate to get his fleet back under his control.

For most of the war, Onassis leased ships to the U.S. government, which used them to transport vast quantities of war supplies around the globe. When the war ended, Onassis was set up for success. He purchased more ships cheaply as war surplus, and his shipping business grew quickly.

At the end of 1946, Onassis married Athina "Tina" Livanos, with whom he had two children. Tina Livanos was the daughter of Stavors Livanos, another wealthy Greek shipping magnate. Onassis' marriage into the Livanos family increased his influence in the business at a critical time.

In the postwar era, Onassis assembled one of the largest merchant fleets in the world. He built massive oil tankers which roamed the oceans. He encountered legal problems with the U.S. government over the registration of his vessels, as well as over a controversy about his visa paperwork (which was rooted in conflicting information about his declared birthplace when he had first emigrated to Argentina). Onassis eventually settled his legal problems (at one point paying a $7 million settlement) and by the mid-1950s his business success had earned him the nickname "The Golden Greek."

Marriage to Jackie Kennedy

Onassis' marriage to Tina Livano came apart in the 1950s when Onassis began an affair with opera star Maria Callas. They divorced in 1960. Soon after, Onassis became friendly with Jacqueline Kennedy, whom he met through her socialite sister Lee Radziwill. In 1963, Onassis invited Mrs. Kennedy and her sister for a cruise in the Aegean Sea aboard his lavish yacht, the Christina.

Onassis remained friends with Jacqueline Kennedy following the death of her husband, and began courting her at some point. Rumors swirled about their relationship, yet it was startling when, on October 18, 1968, the New York Times published the front-page headline, "Mrs. John F. Kennedy to Wed Onassis."

Photograph of Aristotle Onassis and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Aristotle Onassis and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in a limousine. Getty Images

Mrs. Kennedy and her two children flew to Greece and she and Onassis were married on his private island, Skorpios, on Sunday, October 20, 1968. The marriage became something of a scandal in the American press because Mrs. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, was marrying a divorced man. The controversy faded a bit within days when the Catholic archbishop of Boston defended the marriage on the front page of the New York Times.

The Onassis marriage was an object of enormous fascination. Paparazzi trailed them wherever they traveled, and speculation about their marriage was standard fare in gossip columns. The Onassis marriage helped define an era of jet-setting celebrity lifestyle, complete with yachts, private islands, and travel between New York, Paris, and the isle of Skorpios.

Later Years and Death

In 1973, Onassis' son Alexander died tragically in a plane crash. The loss devastated Onassis. He had anticipated his son taking over his business empire. After his son's death, he seemed to lose interest in his work, and his health began to fail. In 1974, he was diagnosed with a debilitating muscular disease. He died on March 15, 1975, after being hospitalized in Paris.

When Onassis died in 1975, at the age of 69, the press estimated his wealth at $500 million. He was one of the richest men in the world.

Legacy

Onassis' rise to the pinnacle of fame and wealth was unlikely. He was born to a merchant family that lost everything in the aftermath of World War I. After relocating from Greece to Argentina as a virtual refugee, Onassis managed to enter the tobacco importing business and by the age of 25 had become a millionaire.

Onassis eventually branched out into owning ships, and his business sense led him to revolutionize the shipping business. As his wealth increased, he also became known for dating beautiful women, ranging from Hollywood actresses in the 1940s to the famed opera soprano Maria Callas in the late 1950s. Today, he is perhaps most well-known for his marriage to Jackie Kennedy.

Sources

  • "Onassis, Aristotle." Encyclopedia of World Biography, edited by Andrea Henderson, 2nd ed., vol. 24, Gale, 2005, pp. 286-288. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Passty, Benjamin. "Onassis, Aristotle 1906–1975." History of World Trade Since 1450, edited by John J. McCusker, vol. 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2006, p. 543. Gale Virtual Reference Library.