Aristotle Onassis and Me
by Dr. Alma H. Bond
(Publisher's note: This
excerpt from Alma H. Bond's book, The Autobiography of Maria Callas: A
Novel, is reprinted here with permission of its publisher, Birch Brook
Press, P.O. Box 81, Delhi, NY 13753. For more information about the full
On April 21, 1959, Battista and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary at Maxim's in Paris. I wore a stunning fitted evening dress of matt satin with a stole of the same material. My only jewelry was a pair of pear‑shaped diamond earrings Battista had given me for our anniversary. A chinchilla wrap was casually draped over my shoulders. I rested my hand over his through most of the dinner, and kissed him in the restaurant, wishing to keep up the pretense of a perfect marriage. Believe me, I did some of my best acting that night at Maxim's. At the end of the evening the violins serenaded us and the whole restaurant applauded. I told the newspapers, "I could not sing without him present. If I am the voice, he is the soul." From there we went to the Lido, and continued "celebrating" until the early hours of the morning. It makes me laugh to think how easily I fooled everybody!
The real story behind the story is that for some time I had been wearying of Meneghini. I wondered why I had never noticed before how self‑involved, scheming, clumsy, and narrow he was. He had no interest in art, philosophy, or ideas, not even opera, except for the contents of the cash box. In fact, I thought if I heard one more word from him about money I would scream! He spoke no languages but Italian, and was never willing to learn. That put him (and me) at a real disadvantage in American, French and English society, in which we spent much of our time. He embarrassed me by falling asleep at the events we attended, even my concerts. Can you imagine how it looks to have the husband of the prima donna start to snore in the middle of her most important aria? I'm surprised the papers never got hold of it. They would have had a field day! He hadn't aged well at all, and seemed to have become coarser and less sophisticated as he grew older, almost like a clown. He never managed to dress smartly, or maybe it's just that no suit would look good on a homely, elderly peasant type. I'm ashamed to admit it, but since I became so svelte, the thought had crossed my mind many times that I deserved a more dashing, exciting man.
On June 17, after a fabulous performance of Medea at Covent Garden, we attended a reception at the Dorchester where we met Aristotle Onassis again. I was ready.
He had organized a party for me which literally left me gasping for breath. Meneghini and I were millionaires, but compared to Onassis, we were poor relations. He invited forty people to come as his guests to the opera and then one hundred and sixty to a party at the Dorchester. It was more lavish than any ever given for me before, even by Elsa Maxwell. The ballroom was decorated entirely in orchid pink and overflowing with matching roses. I had heard the expression, "Your wish is my command" many times, but this was the first time I had ever seen it in action. Ari never left my side and no request of mine was too small for him to grant. When I casually mentioned I liked tangos, he rushed up to the bandleader with fifty pounds in his hand. That was one hundred and forty dollars in American money, and twice the weekly salary of the average Englishman. After that nothing but tangos were played all evening. I didn't find out until later that my "wish" had been a fortunate one, for Carlos Gardel, the great Argentine singer of tangos, had been the idol of Ari's youth. We didn't leave the Dorchester until after 3 o'clock in the morning. In the foyer, the three of us were photographed in a hug, Aristotle on one side of me and Meneghini on the other. How prophetic that shot turned out to be!
Ari kept inviting me all evening to come and cruise with him and Tina on the Christina. He was hard to resist and poor Meneghini didn't offer much competition. For a little girl from a lower middle class neighborhood in Washington Heights, it was a fairy tale, a dream come true.
But most important of all, for the first time in my life my head was filled with erotic fantasies. I could hardly concentrate when anyone else was talking to me, I was so overwhelmed with images of making love with Ari. It was frightening as well as exciting. As Battista and I left for our limousine, I told Ari I would consider the Christina trip and give him my decision soon. I didn't know it yet, but the die was already cast.
Impatient as I was, I had a concert at the Holland Festival and four MEDEAs in London in July before I could get back to Ari. I remember wondering in Holland how I would ever get through the next few days. It seemed to me time existed only when I was with him; the rest was just an abyss to be vaulted with one continuous fantasy, where I obsessed about all the things I would like to do to him and have him do to me.
My fantasies would always start with our trip on his boat. Menenghini would be tired and Ari would ask me if I wanted to go for a stroll around the deck. I would sound reluctant, and he would know just how to coax me so it sounded like his idea and not mine. We would breathe in the sea air and become heady with the salt spray on our faces. He would gently kiss me and move away, but I would no longer be able to keep myself from grabbing him. We would kiss passionately, furiously, with our tongues deep in each other's mouths. I never kissed Meneghini that way. In fact kisses always seemed so intimate to me I never liked them at all. Just when I felt I couldn't stand the tension any longer Ari would suggest we go to his stateroom for a drink. I would agree, again reluctantly, of course, and we would stroll down to his quarters, looking unconcerned with each other if we passed any of the staff or other guests. When we got inside the door of the stateroom, we would be so impatient we would pull off each other's clothes and fall right down there on the floor. He would kiss my entire body starting from the top and going on down until my excitement became so intense I was frantic to see Ari and get relief. I hardly recognized prim and proper Maria in this newborn sex crazed creature.
I gave a joyous concert, in which I sang an aria from Act 1 of Ernani with a new passion, especially the lines,
"Ernani, Ernani, bear me away
from that abhorred embrace.
Let us flee if love permits
me to live with you;
through caves and desolate wastelands,
my footsteps will follow you.
Those grottoes will be
an Eden of delight to me."
When I drove to the Hotel Amstel with Peter Diamand, the director of the Festival, I told him I had to talk to him without Battista. Just in case it was necessary, I said, I wanted him to keep my fee for me and not deposit it in the joint Meneghini account.
"What melodrama, Maria!" Peter declared.
"Not melodrama, Peter. Drama," I answered him. I had already made up my mind. In spite of Meneghini's protests, we were going cruising on the Christina. How could I do otherwise, in the shape I was in? Battista gave in, of course. He always was a wimp around me.
I went shopping in Milan, where I spent millions of lire on bathing suits, vacation outfits, and lingerie. A sophisticated friend told me later a woman always buys new lingerie when she is about to have an affair. She was right, but I didn't know it yet; I told myself I just wanted to look nice on the trip.
On board the three million dollar sea palace as large as a football field were Winston Churchill and his wife and daughter, Gianni Agnelli and his wife, and many other well known Greek, American, and English personalities. I don't have to describe the Christina, because by now everybody knows about the palace on the sea that was Onassis's real home. Suffice it to say I ran about the ship like a school girl, exclaiming at each new discovery, now the solid gold fixtures shaped like dolphins in each bathroom, now my enormous, beautifully decorated cabin and marble bathroom with adjoining boudoir and limitless closet space for all my beautiful new clothes (a suite, incidentally, which I never used later unless Ari and I had a fight), now the real El Greco in Ari's study, the fabulous jeweled Buddha, the swimming pool decorated with a mosaic reproduction of a fresco from the Palace of Knossos, the huge oak paneled lounge with a majestic grand piano at one end and a lapis lazuli fireplace at the other, and Ari's private bathroom that looked like a temple, and the bath, inlaid with flying fish and dolphins, which was an exact copy of the one in King Minos's lost Palace of Knossos in Crete. Ari, who had fussed like a housewife over every detail, was in raptures over each of my enthusiastic outbursts. The ship boasted a crew of sixty, including two chefs, one French, one Greek. The guests were given a choice of menus, but I was still eating mostly raw meat and salads, so I didn't really appreciate them. Of course I am known for sneaking bits of food from everyone else's plates, so I got at least a sampling of the fine cuisine.
The trip was literally an eye opener for me, a staid Italian matron who believed in fidelity and monogamy. I was shocked to see many of the guests sunbathing without any clothes on, and some of them openly playing around with other people's mates on deck. Aristide was one of those walking around naked. He was very hairy, like a gorilla, Battista said. My reaction to his nudity was the second sign that I was becoming another person. I have always been a bit of a prude, so much so I wouldn't sing “The Dance of the Seven Veils” in Richard Strauss's Salome because she had to take off her clothes, but when I saw Ari walking around like that, I giggled like a schoolgirl. I had never seen a nude man besides Battista, and it excited me so much I forgot all about my ideals. My fantasies about making love with him escalated more and more and kept me awake all night.
My enthusiasm was not shared by Meneghini. He got crabbier and crabbier the further along we got in our voyage. He was interested in neither the ship nor the other guests, and spent his time with me whining about the way they were slighting him. Of course he never mentioned he was the only person aboard who spoke neither French or English. I found his griping and endless criticism of Aristo increasingly irritating. I kept comparing his sluggish demeanor with Ari's vigor and passion for life, and Battista fell far short. He was only nine years older than Ari, but he behaved like his grandfather.
For me, it was a magnificent three-week voyage. Our plans were to stop first at Portofino, a toy port on the coast of Italy, and then go on to Capri for sight‑seeing. Then we would sail from the Mediterranean through the Aegean Sea to the Gulf of Corinth. From there we planned a sight seeing trip of Delphi, sailing on to Izmir, the Turkish name for Ari's boyhood home, and then on up to the Dardanelles to Istanbul and home again.
I was drunk with the fresh sea air, the cloudless blue skies, and the company of Onassis. For a few days I attributed my glow of happiness when I was near him to our common Greek heritage, but it didn't take long for me to stop kidding myself.
By the time we reached Piraeus, the weather became so stormy Meneghini and most of the other guests took to their staterooms, leaving Aristo and me practically alone. We sat in the deserted games room basking before the fire in the lapis lazuli fireplace. The sparkle of the flames lit up the deep blue of the lapis, and was reflected in eyes as black and round as Greek olives. The room was dimly lit, and once in a while it was brilliantly illuminated by a flash of lightning. Once during such a flash I saw my own eyes mirrored in his. I took it as an omen. His eyes, my eyes, it was all the same to me.
The motion of the ship on the stormy seas rocked us back and forth, so I was almost in a trance as we sat there talking all night long. We talked mostly in Greek, or, rather, Ari did. He told me all about his boyhood, where he came into the world seventeen years before me in Smyrna near the coast of Turkey. Later he had the captain stop the ship there so he could show me the house where he was born. He spoke about the Greek quarters where he was brought up, and of his father and uncle, who were flourishing merchants of cotton, tobacco, and anything else that would grow in the Anatalyan area. Then without making a play for sympathy, he described his mother's death during a kidney operation when he was only six. He told me of his father's subsequent remarriage to his aunt, and of his beloved grandmother. He also said he had been a choirboy and boasted with a beguiling smile that he, too, had a good voice. I found him enchanting, and knew other women did, too. He had been a ladies' man from the time he pinched his English teacher's bottom and was suspended from school. He was incorrigible from the beginning, and made love for the first time when he was only thirteen. When I think I was twice that age when I had my first sexual experience, I am embarrassed!
He also told me of the horrors in his life that surpassed mine during the Second World War. He had lived through the Turkish attack on Smyrna and saw thousands of Greeks tortured and killed, and survived his father's arrest and the atrocities that followed. He described how at age sixteen he rescued his father from the cruel Turks, who massacred one million Greeks in Turkish Asia Minor between 1918 and 1923. Then he told me about crossing the sea in a filthy boat crammed with a thousand immigrants in steerage until his arrival at Buenos Aires on September 21, 1923. It amazes me that six weeks before I was born, Ari was already an experienced man on his way to success. He soon started his career with the telephone company and, by the time he was twenty‑four, had become Greek vice‑consul general in Argentina. Shortly after he found the two Canadian ships with which he began his stunning career.
On August 4 we dropped anchor at the foot of Mount Athos, where an incident happened that was to change my life forever. We were received by the Patriarch Athenagoras. Ari and I knelt side by side to receive his blessing. Speaking in Greek, he called us "the world's greatest singer and the greatest seaman of the modern world, the new Ulysses." When he thanked us for the honors we had brought to the Greek world, my eyes filled with tears. It was as if he were performing a solemn marriage ceremony. Somehow I felt he brought me God's permission to be together with Ari, and my last resistance crumbled. After that we were man and wife in my mind, and a few hours later, in our bodies.
That night there was a party at the Istanbul Hilton for the guests of the Christina. Meneghini said he felt too tired and weak to attend and remained on board the ship. When I returned at five in the morning, he was waiting up for me and demanded to know why I was so late. I knew I couldn't keep up the farce any longer. "I am in love with Ari," I said.
We left the Christina on one of Onassis' private planes and flew to Milan, and then promptly left for Sirmione. I wore a bracelet with the initials TMWL (To Maria With Love) engraved on it, which I didn't remove for many years. After I had declared my love for Ari, Battista and I argued ferociously night and day and I'm sure our voices carried all over the ship. But I guess poor Titta had given up by the time we reached Sirmione, or else he was emotionally exhausted, for we sat together in silence.
Parting from Ari left a hole in my chest, which I filled by fantasizing the whole night long that he would come get me. To my great surprise, to say nothing of Battista's, at nine o'clock the next morning we heard a voice outside my window singing, "Maria, Maria!" It was Aristo. He told Battista, "I've come to marry your wife." Yes, dreams do come true, if we dream them long and hard and earnestly, and never, never give them up.
At four o'clock in the morning, I left with Aristo for Milan. He then flew to Venice to discuss divorce with Tina.
For the first time in my life, I was madly in love with a man in love with me. It was too much to take in all at once. I was flooded with so much feeling I felt I couldn't bear it another moment. Then I would remind myself that despite the blessing of the Patriarch Athenagoras, I was having an affair with a married man, and this would calm me down a bit. Then I appeased my conscience with the knowledge that Ari and I would both try to get divorces and marry as soon as possible.
People said my whole personality changed, that my sharp edges had melted and I had become a softer, gentler person. Even poor Battista said I was a different woman. Why not? For the first time in my life I was happy. I had the feeling of being kept in a cage so long that when I met Aristo, so full of vigor and zest for life, I did become another woman. Would you believe that even Ghiringhelli succumbed to my new temperament? When we met to discuss my recording Gioconda at La Scala, the iceman actually thawed. He even smiled with his whole face when he asked me to return to La Scala on my own terms and to sing anything I wanted. I arrived in Milan on September 2 in wonderful spirits to begin rehearsals for the new recording.
My happiness was somewhat flawed by the press and photographers, who persecuted me mercilessly. The throngs were so numerous and unruly I needed physical protection to keep from being mauled. On one occasion they caught Ari and me dining tete‑a‑tete at the Rendez‑vous in Milan, and at three o'clock that morning we were photographed going into the Hotel Principe e Savoia arm in arm. In order to increase my chances of getting a divorce by mutual consent, my lawyers insisted I issue a statement to the press saying: "I confirm that the break between my husband and myself is complete and final. It has been in the air for some time, and the cruise on the Christina was only coincidental... I am now my own manager. I ask for understanding in this painful personal situation... Between Signor Onassis and myself there exists a profound friendship that dates back some time. I am also in a business connection with him. When I have further things to say, I shall do so at the opportune moment."
As I have said, I am a simple, moral woman. I despised living a lie, which I knew no one believed anyhow.
Aristo was also attacked by reporters, but he was much more honest than I. "Of course," he said, "how could I help but be flattered if a woman with the class of Maria Callas fell in love with someone like me? Who wouldn't?" Dear Ari! Always frank, always forthright! How could I help but be flattered if a man with the directness of Onassis fell in love with someone like me?
On September 10, as soon as the Gioconda recording was finished, I rushed to the Milan airport to board the private plane Ari had sent for me. From there I flew to Venice, where I excitedly boarded the Christina. Aristo was delighted to see me and triumphantly marked my arrival by setting off the loud, blasting siren announcing the departure of the Christina. Only two other guests were along this time, Ari's sister, Artemis and her husband Theodore Garoufalidis.
Tina was not on board. She had taken her children a few days before and fled to Paris to the home of her father, the respected Greek shipowner, Stavros Livanos. Aristide, who was upset about the children, followed her in his private plane to make a half‑hearted gesture of reconciliation. But Tina was not about to forgive him for the public humiliation he had put her through. This left Ari free to do what he really wanted, to sail on the Christina with me.
What a dream voyage it was, with both of us relaxed and at peace with ourselves. Our love was just what the Good Doctor had ordered. We soaked up the sun all day long, and then swam for hours in the sun-drenched Mediterranean. Then we would make love all night, reaching peaks of pleasure that went on and on almost beyond endurance. At last I knew what the Hollywood movies were about. It was the first time in my life I felt happy to be alive. If I were lucky in my earlier life, I might have felt moments of joy here and there, but they were greatly outstripped by periods of misery. In fact, if someone had told me it was possible to experience a feeling of bliss most of the time, I wouldn't have believed it. On the Christina, however, I felt full of happiness the whole trip, except of course on the few occasions when Ari and I had a fight.
Luxuriating in my new happiness left me unwilling to give up one minute of it. I was so immersed in the timelessness of the present I paid no attention to my career. I was sick and tired of being a sexless nun, and was relieved to leave it behind me. Nevertheless, I was shocked at the end of the year when a newspaper compared the number of appearances I had made pre and post‑Ari. In 1958, it seems I gave twenty‑eight performances of seven operas in six cities all over the world. The cold figures offered proof in black and white of the dreadful decline of my career. In 1960 I gave only seven performances of two operas in two cities, and in 1961 my schedule showed just five performances, all of Medea at Epidaurus and La Scala. The decline continued even more rapidly in 1962, when I sang Medea twice at La Scala. And in 1963 I gave no performances at all. In 1964, sadly enough, I made the last stage appearance of my life.
Why did my career go down hill so rapidly? Biki and others say Ari destroyed my life. I don't think that is a fair statement. It is true he didn't want me to sing, but I didn't have to give in to him. Whatever his shortcomings, he can't be blamed for that. The truth is life for me began at nearly forty. I couldn't bear to be away from him for one moment, and in the beginning we spent every waking hour together. We Greeks are possessive people, and I wanted to hold on to every bit of him he would allow. Then too, I must confess I didn't want to give him the opportunity to find a replacement for me.
And remember, I had been having trouble with my voice since 1955. Perhaps because I was so upset by its decline, I couldn't bear to practice, and rarely did so. Thus any hope of recovering my vocal powers was lost, for a singer is like an athlete in that we have to keep on exercising if we are to retain our prowess.
But despite the degeneration of my voice, I was experiencing the greatest happiness of my life with Aristo. I ended the year feeling along with Blanche Dubois in "A Streetcar named Desire" that "Sometimes there's God so suddenly."
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