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Maria Callas: Affair with Aristotle Onassis

By Sigurd Neubauer


In 1959, Onassis invited Callas and Meneghini for a cruise on his mega yacht, Christina, named after his daughter. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was also a passenger, although Callas considered him to be “boring,” Spence writes.  By the end of the cruise, Callas’ marriage to Meneghini was effectively over, she adds.

Callas’ nine-year-long affair (1959-1968) with Onassis, who was one of the richest people in the world at the time, is thoroughly documented in “Cast a Diva: The Hidden Life of Maria Callas.”

In our interview, Spence reveals that Callas first conceived a child in 1960 but lost it. At that time, “she didn’t want to sing as she faced neurological problems.” Instead, Callas wanted to settle down and establish a family but Onassis, Spence says, “didn’t want to be with just a bland woman. He was attracted to her celebrity, which provided him with status.”

While Callas remained popular within European high society, including among various royal families, Onassis was despite his wealth considered an outcast. “Callas enhanced his social standing,” Spence says.

In 1963, Callas becomes pregnant for the second time, but lost the baby again. Both times, in 1960 and in 1963, she loses the baby when Onassis “was away,” Spence points out.

“Writing and researching about Onassis’ physical abuse of Callas was particularly draining on me,” Spence reveals

In 1963, Callas becomes pregnant for the second time, but lost the baby again. Both times, in 1960 and in 1963, she loses the baby when Onassis “was away,” Spence points out.

When she lost the baby in 1963, Onassis hosted who would eventually become his future wife, Jacqueline Kennedy and her sister, Lee Radziwill. The two sisters, who remained competitive with each other throughout their lives, both had separate affairs with Onassis.

In 1966, Callas became pregnant for a third time. This time, however, Spence believes that Callas had an abortion. During her two prior pregnancies, Onassis had each time encouraged Callas to terminate it, another topic which Spence covers in full length in her book.

Onassis repeatedly forced his own wife, Tina, to have abortions. Among his personal staff, Onassis had an “abortionist,” which he even used for his 19-year-old daughter, Christina, once she became pregnant, Spence reveals.

“Callas was always alone when she lost the child,” says Spence, adding that although she had always wanted a child, “Callas did so much that she was against when she was with Onassis.”

She submitted to what he wanted for her, including by taking sex drugs. “It was this dysfunctional dynamic, along with his persistent psychical violence towards her, that led to the abortion,” Spence says.

While Callas was popular within European high society,  Onassis  reamined an outcast

Spence writes:

“At the time, Onassis was negotiating a deal to supply a fleet of oil tankers for the Saudi Arabian government, giving their country control of the oil industry.  It violated an agreement between the American oil industry and the Saudi King. Washington learned of his deception and repossessed his T2 tankers as they docked in America and seized his profits. In return for pleading guilty and paying $7 million, the criminal charges against him were dropped.”

She continues:

“For years, he had wanted to settle a score with Jacqueline’s brother in-law, Bobby Kennedy, the United States Attorney General who, a decade earlier, had exposed the corruption within the Greek shipping industry.”

Thus, for Onassis, his immediate pursuit of Jacqueline Kennedy after her husband’s assassination in 1963, was motivated by an elaborate political scheme, says Spence. Jacqueline, who prior to Bobby Kennedy’s own assassination in 1968, had carried out an affair with her former brother in-law.

Ahead of the Onassis-Kennedy wedding, a third Kennedy brother, Ted Kennedy, negotiated with Onassis Jacklyn’s marriage contract, Spence says.

Despite his marriage to another high-profile woman, “Onassis kept coming back for Callas as they continued to love each other,” says Spence in our interview. “Callas played a very nurturing role he couldn’t get from his other women.”

“Unlike his newfound wife, who he could not control, Onassis could control Callas emotionally, which in turn was part of the psychological dimension to their relationship,” says Spence.

It was during these tumultuous years when Callas began abusing pills and other medicines, which would eventually contribute to her ill health and overall decline, mentally and physically.

“Callas did so much that she was against when she was with Onassis,” Spence says

The later years

Whereas Onassis continued to pay for Callas’ apartment in Paris even after his marriage  to Kennedy, Callas was forced to work as Meneghini had squandered her wealth and continued to demand that she cover part of his legal expenses until their eventual divorce in 1971.

Callas eventually broke away from Onassis even though he repeatedly attempted to lure her back. In 1971, she attempted to find success outside of opera by cooperating with Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, starring in his film Medea.

“At that time, Callas felt independent after having been wronged by Onassis,” Spence says.  But the Medea movie became a failure. Not only was Callas embarrassed by his film, but ultimately felt exploited by him as he published poetry about her,” Spence adds.

Attempting to recover from the film’s failure and staging a comeback in opera, Callas began teaching masterclasses at Juilliard in 1971-72.  In 1973-1974, she toured Europe, North America, and the Far East along with Giuseppe Di Stefano, who also became her lover. The relationship between the two, however, did not last as Callas’ zest for life was slowly ebbing out.

“They were completely obsessed with one another:” Spence

On September 16, 1977, Callas died alone and isolated in her Paris apartment.

 In Spence’s epilogue, the reader will quickly discover who – among the many questionable characters she had been forced to deal with throughout her tragic life – would attempt to secure her estate for themselves.

 Lyndsy Spence’s “Cast a Diva: The Hidden Life of Maria Callas” (The History Press, 2021) is not only a page turner, but required reading for everyone interested in the world of opera as she paints a compelling narrative about Callas’ truly tragic life. Yet, Callas’ legacy is about triumph and the human ability to overcome some of life’s biggest obstacles.

All Callas images are from the private collections of Cosimo Capanni, Dimitris Pyromallis, Nicos Haralabopoulos, Nuri Lidar, Renzo Allegri, and Sarah Allouche.

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