Perhaps the most iconic Greek man of the 20th century and one of the most successful businessmen in history known the world over, Aristotle Onassis was born on this day in 1906 in the city of Smyrna in Asia Minor, or so we believe.
Books, biographies, websites and databases offer conflicting information about Onassis’ precise date of birth; biography.com lists it as January 15 whereas britannica.com lists it as January 20.
Onassis was born in Karatass, a predominantly Greek suburb of Smyrna to Socrates Onassis and Penelope (Dologou). He had one full-sister, Artemis, and two half-sisters, Kalliroi and Merope, by his father’s second marriage following Penelope’s death.
Socrates Onassis came from the village of Moutalasski (now named Talas), near Cappadocia in Asia Minor, which is the present-day city of Kayseri, in central Turkey.
The wealthy Onassis family lost everything when the marauding Turkish army burned Smyrna in September of 1922, forcing the entire family to flee to Greece as refugees.
Many from the Onassis family didn’t survive the Turkish genocide. Onassis lost three uncles, an aunt and her husband Chrysostomos Konialidis and their daughter, who were burned to death in a church in Thyatira where 500 Christians were seeking shelter.
In numerous personal accounts, Onassis spoke openly about a homosexual relationship he had with an older Turkish lieutenant that secured his father’s freedom as well as some of his family’s lost holdings in Smyrna.
Of course, his exploits with some of the most famous women in the world filled tabloids for decades. And it was something he loved talking about, openly.
He gave repeated interviews on how to handle women and rarely held back on strong opinions, no matter who was in the room: “I see every woman as a potential mistress. Beautiful women cannot bear moderation; they need an inexhaustible supply of excess,” he said in an interview.
“I hated the opera anyway,” Onassis confessed to a reporter one evening with Maria Callas sitting at his side. “It just sounds like a bunch of Italian chefs screaming risotto recipes at each other,” Onassis said.
Maria Callas left the room in tears.
“Unless you know my history, you’ll never understand what made me the man I am today,” he once said to Peter Evans, a UK journalist.
After establishing himself as one of the richest people in the 20th century, Onassis died on March 15, 1975 at the American Hospital of Paris in France. The shipping mogul died of respiratory failure, a complication of the myasthenia gravis from which he had been suffering during the last years of his life.
Onassis was buried on his private island of Skorpios in Greece’s Ionian Sea, alongside his son, Alexander.
His will established a charitable foundation in memory of his son, named the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, which continues to operate worldwide.
The foundation received 45% of Onassis’s estate, which would have been left to his son, with the 55% remainder left to his daughter, Christina.
The foundation consists of two parts: a business foundation which runs various businesses including shipping and a public benefit foundation which is the sole recipient of the business foundation. The public benefit foundation funds the worldwide promotion of Greek culture, funds the Onassis International Prizes for achievement in various fields, and the funding of scholarships for Greek university students.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis also received her share of the estate, settling for a reported $10 million ($26 million according to other sources), which was negotiated by her brother-in-law Ted Kennedy.
Christina’s share has since passed to her only child Athina.
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