An Extract from Chapter 17, "Remembrance of Times Past",
of Stelios Galatopoulos' biography Maria Callas: Sacred MonsterThe old saying that familiarity breeds contempt was very much at the back of my mind. You see, before I met Ari I had not really experienced lovers' tiffs and being by nature rather shy and introverted (when I am not on the stage), I was losing my sense of humour, not that I have much. When you can't laugh at yourself life becomes dreary. It took time, but once I understood this other side of his character, by and large I accepted it, even though in part I still disapproved of it.
Ari's upbringing had been unusual. His family were well off and cultured and although Greek, quite prominent in Turkish society until the catastrophe of Smyrna. As a young man he had seen and known suffering and used his wits to survive. Whereas he matured as an outstanding businessman, in some other ways, in personal relationships, he did not relatively speaking. He liked to tease, but if you dared pull his leg in an effort to fish for compliments he would sometimes retaliate like a tiresome schoolboy.
At a dinner party, I think it was at Maxim's, while we were having a pleasant time and everybody seemed to be in a very jovial mood, one of our closest and most likeable friends, a lady, Maggie van Zuylen, passed a teasing remark, saying 'You lovebirds, I am sure you make love often,' or words to this effect. 'We never do,' I commented, smiling and winking at Aristo. His reaction was incredible. Abruptly, but fortunately in Greek, he declared that if that was the case he would make love to any woman except me, even if I were the last woman on Earth. I was very upset ...
Feeling flattered that Maria had told me all this, I ventured to probe further and mentioned an incident I had heard about, from more than one source, which referred to Onassis walking into the room where Callas was discussing a film contract with would-be financiers. He took over by telling Callas that she did not know anything as she was only a 'night-club' singer, whereupon she walked out, leaving him to negotiate. After a chuckle Maria answered,
Of course it is true. Ari wanted to deal with that film contract himself and, with his tongue in his cheek, made that grossly exaggerated remark in order to give me the excuse of walking out and leaving him to handle the situation. We did rehearse it but he surprised me when he mentioned night-clubs. Afterwards we laughed about it, especially when he said that he only tried to imitate me that is in the way I improvise in my stage movements. Let's face it, in business matters he was second to none. I am rather a naive businesswoman, always giving primary importance to artistic values. Film business people, including producers, naturally preferred to deal with me. They took it for granted that if I were involved Ari would put up any amount of money. And he would, provided it was a sound investment. It was I who withdrew. He never interfered with my art except in telling me that I should not feel any obligation to continue my singing career. Obviously, he maintained, the stress had come to be too great and as I had more than done my duty (his words, not mine) I was entitled to relax and enjoy my well-earned money. He would have liked me to make films as he believed the strain wouldn't have been excessive. Anyway as far as my artistic career is concerned I always took the decisions. Neither Ari nor anybody else could have influenced me during that stage of my career.
Presently, while we were having a drink, Maria brought up the subject of Onassis again:
I really had only one thing against him. It was impossible for me to come to terms with his insatiable thirst for conquering everything. I appreciate achievement immensely (at one time I considered it the only reason for living but then I was young and unwise) but with him this developed into something else. It was not money he had plenty and lived like the richest man in the world. I think his trouble was this continuous search, his restlessness to accomplish something new, but more for the bravado than the money. He meant it when he talked about money being very easy to make; 'the difficulty was making the first million, the rest dropped into your lap.'
'This bravado,' I asked, 'did it extend to people? It was widely believed that Onassis always wanted to be seen in the company of famous people and beautiful women. This sort of publicity, which betrays superficiality, not to say immaturity, seems to have attracted him.'
'I would say,' Maria answered,
that this observation was partly true. He certainly liked this kind of thing but only with people that he also genuinely liked or admired. Ari, for example, did not need to be Churchill's nurse. On board the Christina Churchill had everything, of course, male nurses as well as his wife and others. He was old and rather feeble but Ari was much more than the perfect host to him. He was the perfect friend, always ready to play cards and amuse him and assist in every way possible. I, too, admired the great old man and once when I remarked to Ari how touching I thought his veneration for Churchill was, I got a marvellous answer: 'We must remember that it was he, the man of our century, who saved the world in 1940. Where would we all be today and in what state without this man!' So you see there was much more to Ari than met the eye. And let me add that he was also friendly and generous to poor and unknown people provided he liked them. He would never forget an old friend, especially if he had come down in the world. There was never any publicity for this side of his character as it does not make interesting news generally. What I cannot comment on with authority is how honest his business transactions were.
When his son died he lost the craving to conquer, which was his lifeblood. This attitude of his was basically the cause of our arguments. Of course I tried to change him but I realized that this was not possible, any more than he could change me. We were two independent people with minds of our own and different outlooks on some basic aspects of life. Unfortunately we were not complementary, but we understood each other sufficiently to make our friendship eventually possible. After his death I felt a widow.
By this stage I had summoned up enough courage to be more personal: 'But why did you not marry him?' I asked, really meaning why did he marry someone else. 'Onassis's strange marriage to Mrs Kennedy makes nonsense of the man you describe, unless he married for love and really fooled us all.'
'Oh, it was partly my own fault,' Maria interposed.
He made me feel liberated, a very feminine woman, and I came to love him very much, but my intuition, or whatever you call it, told me that I would have lost him the moment I married him he would then have turned his interest to some other younger woman. I also sensed that he too knew I could not change my outlook on life to fit in with his and our marriage would probably have become, before long, a squalid argument. At the time, however, I was not so philosophical about our relationship as I am now when human emotions simmer down it is easier to see more clearly other points of view and one can put the whole affair (saga is a better word) in a rational perspective. If only one could do this from the beginning! Make no mistake, when he married I felt betrayed, as any woman would, though I was more perplexed than angry, because I could not understand for the life of me why, after so many years together, he married another. My anger was in no way directed against his wife. That would have been unreasonable.
Maria then chuckled and said, 'No he did not marry for love and I do not think that his wife did either. It was more a marriage of business convenience. I have already told you that he was afflicted with a predilection for conquering everything. Once he set his mind on something he was determined to achieve it. I really could never come to terms with this philosophy.'
'Neither can I,' I added. Then realizing that Maria was in a congenial mood, I assumed a more probing manner, testing her by putting forward a theory which I had basically developed partly from published information and hearsay. Above all, however, I wanted to know how much Callas knew about it. 'Is it true, then,' I enquired, 'that this marriage was in fact arranged by the Kennedys, specifically Rose Kennedy, the family matriarch?' Maria's initial response, though silent and a touch aloof but by no means disapproving, encouraged me to continue: 'The remarkably entrepreneurial Onassis offered to finance a future Kennedy campaign for the Presidency. If successful, he hoped for access to the American market which had been denied him since the mid-1940s when he evaded paying taxes on his oil tankers. Anticipating possible Congress opposition as to his trustworthiness, Onassis's next move, with Rose Kennedy's support, was to propose marriage to Jackie. Thus Onassis, husband of the famous widow of President J. F. Kennedy, would become one of the family, as it were, and gain respectability in the United States.'
(The Kennedy women have always been expected to make every sacrifice in serving the all-important interests of the dynasty. The marriage would automatically make Jackie a very rich woman, something that she badly needed at the time, not only for herself but also to safeguard the future of her children. Additionally, Onassis would provide bodyguards for their much-needed protection. Within a few months, however, after Onassis's marriage to Jackie, the Kennedy family virtually lost hope for providing a presidential candidate, at least in the foreseeable future after an unfortunate accident in 1969 when a female friend of Edward Kennedy, the next in line for the presidency, drowned after a party at Chappaquiddick. They had been travelling in separate cars when hers sank, after a small bridge collapsed, and he took ten hours to report it. It is probable she died from asphyxia rather than drowning.)
With a restrained smile, Callas made me feel that she was already familiar with what I had just told her about Onassis's marriage. Her first words were, 'You seem to be well informed, better than I am. Are you in the CIA or something? Well, anyway, I do not regard that as a marriage made in heaven.' Then, shaking her head and pointing a finger at me in feigned remonstrance, she exclaimed, as she often did when wanting to close a topic of conversation 'Let's leave it at that, shall we?'
Nevertheless, I questioned her further regarding Mrs Kennedy. Maria became serious again and answered by saying that Onassis came back to her not long after his wedding, literally in tears over the mistake he had made.
At first I would not let him into the house but, would you believe it, one day he persistently kept on whistling outside my apartment, as young men used to do in Greece fifty years ago they wooed their sweethearts with song. So I had to let him in before the press realized what was going on in avenue Georges Mandel.
With his return, so soon after his marriage, my confusion changed into a mixture of elation and frustration. Although I never admitted to him that I believed he was going to divorce his wife, I felt that as our friendship at least had survived his marriage, however weak its foundations, his principles regarding human relationships were changing. Anyway, I continued to see him from time to time, and during my concert tours in 1973-4 he always sent me flowers and telephoned occasionally.
'You said that when he died you felt a widow. How do you feel about him now?'
'The word widow is a figure of speech. Naturally I miss him. I have missed other people in my life, as everybody does, for much less. But this is life and we must not make a tragedy of those we have lost. Personally, I prefer to remember the good times, however few these usually are. One of the best things I have learned in life is that people should be assessed by taking into account both their good and bad points. I hope I will be, too. It is the easiest thing in the world to destroy almost anyone by considering merely the flaws in their character.'
'So you feel no bitterness towards him?'
can find a reason to be bitter about friends, family, even parents. But there are two kinds of people: those who remain bitter and those who do not. I am happy that I belong to the second category. Most of the bitterness I have experienced had more to do with my career. The so-called Callas scandals, particularly during the time I was singing in Anna Bolena at La Scala, were traumatic experiences. However, even those are now forgotten. Besides, I made my peace with the people concerned and it is of no consequence on whose side the fault was greater.... As far as Ari is concerned, of course I miss him but I do try not to become a complete sentimental fool, you know!
At first I was quite taken, touched, by Maria's eloquent simplicity in revealing the emotional side of her character and life. Soon, however, it dawned on me that the crucial factors of her intimate relationship with Onassis, such as their continued friendship after his marriage to another woman, had been only superficially dealt with and indeed, not without contradiction. I responded by whole-heartedly agreeing with her philosophy that one must never become a sentimental old fool. The fact that I only dwelled on this aspect may have betrayed my thoughts. Maria continued to be pleasantly sociable but she was really miles away until, inadvertently, I said, 'A penny for your thoughts.'
She stared at me and then, winking, exclaimed that her thoughts were worth much more.
'I quite agree,' I replied and in a mock-serious tone added, 'but that is all I have. I may sometimes live dangerously but I never bid for anything beyond my means.'
Maria appeared to be enjoying this small talk. She obviously had something on her mind and, as usual when confronted with a personal question, was playing for time. So she kept it going, reminding me a little of Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia when at a certain moment Maria boxed my ears lightly, as if to reprimand me for my 'blatant stinginess'. Then, having had enough of this frivolity, she rested her chin on her hand and began:
Everything I have said about Aristo is true, though there was more to it. For some time at the beginning of our relationship we were blissfully happy. I also felt secure and even unperturbed about my vocal problems well, for the moment. As I have already told you I was learning, for the first time in my life, how to relax and live for myself and even began to question my belief that there was no life beyond art. This frame of mind was relatively short-lived as I discovered that many of Ari's principles, his code of practice, were seriously at variance with mine. I found myself unstuck. How can a man who really loves you at the same time have affairs with other women? He couldn't possibly love them all. For some time it was only a suspicion, which I tried to dismiss, but evidently I could not and it was out of the question to accept it into my moral code in any circumstances. Furthermore, I was too proud to confide such a personal predicament in anybody until I found the ideal friend in Maggie who quickly sensed my problem and, being the genuine person she was, made it easier for me to open up.
Like a mother, sister, friend, she explained to me that there are men who find it impossible to be physically faithful to one woman, especially to their wives: 'Nearly always, a man like that genuinely loves his wife or the woman in his life. To his way of thinking these extra-marital affairs are no more than biological infidelities. He simply, for a thousand Freudian reasons that probably date from puberty, cannot do without them. Sensible wives understand this and thank God that they do, otherwise there would not be any married couples left in France. For a Frenchman, even a happily married one, it is normal to have a mistress. It is a way of life and Frenchwomen, more than others, wisely have learned to accept it. Do not think for a minute that Ari did not have affairs when he was married to Tina and do not think that he did not love his wife, the mother of his children. A man does not, cannot, change some of his ways.'
But I could not then accept this, my reasoning being that I was neither French nor Ari's lawful wife; the role of the betrayed wife was not in my repertoire. I simply missed Maggie's point and though I never brought myself to discuss anything like this with Ari, I am sure he was aware of my inability to come to terms with any infidelity a husband of mine might commit. We were not, therefore, compatible for marriage to each other. You can understand why my philosophy of marriage was wrong in practice but right for me in theory.
Being more practical than I was in such matters, and more experienced, Ari, who did love me but also knew that sooner or later we would have been at daggers drawn had we married (this may sound rather eccentric but I have to accept that it was his way of thinking and therefore not necessarily wrong), married somebody else. But that was an unusual marriage whichever way you look at it. Nevertheless, at the time I was terribly upset and thought him a proper bastard and used other epithets I do not care to repeat. It was later, when he came back and when obviously I began to regain my lost pride, that I was able to put things in a wiser and more realistic perspective. Of course, his immediate explanation was that his marriage was a mistake, his mistake not his wife's, as I bluntly told him; he got exactly what he had bargained for and he had entirely himself to blame. His so-called marriage contract was a bizarre arrangement I could never fathom.
Fortunately for me there was Maggie, who again helped me to rid myself sufficiently of my moral hang-ups, and I took him back. This is how my great friendship with Ari was born. You can call it a passionate friendship.
At this point I realized that Maria was familiar with the real reason for, and conditions of, Onassis's marriage, though not until after he returned to her; undoubtedly it played a great, if not crucial, part in accepting him back into her life. Although this marriage contract was not made public it was occasionally mentioned in the press after Onassis's death in 1975 friends of his professed to have known about it and ex-members of the Christina crew claimed actually to have seen it. Apparently the marriage was to last seven years, at the end of which Jackie would receive $27 million. It also stipulated that she would not be required to sleep with her husband, nor be obliged to have children by him. Apart from cruises on the Christina, where there were always other people with them, Onassis hardly ever lived under the same roof with his wife. Even when he was in New York for considerable periods, once for over two months, he stayed at the Pierre Hotel, not far from his wife's sumptuous fifteen-room apartment. The probing press was always told that Mrs Kennedy Onassis was redecorating a process that seemed interminable.
Copyright 1998 by Stelios Galatopoulos
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