With the Olympics returning this week to the place where the games began, I started thinking about the most famous Greek of the past half century: the colorful, controversial shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. I was helped along by a new book, Nemesis, by British journalist Peter Evans, which purports to trace Onassis’s connection to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. In fact, Evans concludes that Onassis, through a Palestinian terrorist contact, bankrolled the plot and that Sirhan Sirhan, the shooter, was a true Manchurian Candidate–brainwashed, with the help of Onassis’s cash, into turning his .22 on Bobby in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Okay, okay, I know you are saying, “Puh-lese, do we need yet another conspiracy theory, and what does it really matter now?” But Evans is a conscientious journalist and an expert on Onassis. He wrote a much-admired, in-depth biography of him in the ’80s with lots of input from Ari himself, along with information supplied by Onassis’s daughter and business partners. Only afterward was Evans told that he may have missed “the real story”–that Onassis hated Bobby Kennedy so much and for so many reasons that he helped plot his death.
What is most interesting about Nemesis is the portrait of Onassis, who, during his days, was always pictured as sort of a roughhewn but charming rogue, the international Donald Trump of his time. The lover of Maria Callas, that era’s other famous Greek, he owned a private island on which he reigned lavishly, like a later-day Aegean king. He was also a friend of Churchill, whom he entertained on his sumptuous yacht, and ultimately became the husband of the world’s most famous and admired woman, Jacqueline Kennedy.
But Onassis was far more complex than a character in a slick jet-set novel by Sydney Sheldon or Jacqueline Susann. He is a figure out of a Greek tragedy, driven by emotions the Furies would have understood: greed, lust, and most of all revenge. He first grew enraged with Kennedy because he believed Bobby had derailed an amazing deal he had once made with the Saudi royal family to build a fleet of tankers to carry much of that nation’s oil. It would have cut out most American oil companies. In truth, the CIA probably scuttled that plan.
But most of all, he hated Bobby because Bobby stood in the way of his marriage to Jackie. She had promised her brother-in-law not to wed Onassis until after the 1968 election, in which Kennedy hoped to be the Democratic candidate, because they both knew how the American public would have reacted.
Onassis was originally the lover of Jackie’s sister, Lee Radziwill, which certainly didn’t please Bobby or Jack Kennedy. They grew even more upset in September 1963, when Ari invited Jackie to vacation on his yacht. The Kennedy marriage, never the storybook affair the press pretended, was at its lowest point. Jackie was furious with her husband’s constant flagrant infidelities and despondent over the death of their infant son. No novice at revenge herself, and disregarding her sister’s feelings as well as those of her husband and brother-in-law, she probably became Ari’s lover on that cruise. And after the president’s assassination, Ari was a guest in the White House on the night before Kennedy’s state funeral.
Although Evans produces no smoking gun, he does confirm numerous innuendoes and connects Onassis, always sympathetic to the Palestinians, to a rogue Fatah operative who could have engineered the assassination plot. And it is amazing that Onassis, all those years ago, dragged his feet through the intrigues of Middle Eastern politics and the world’s ever-increasing need for oil–issues that affect us to this day. But possibly the most chilling scene in the book–and one that is absolutely indisputable–involves Jackie.
In January 1973, Onassis’s son Alexander died in a suspicious accident while piloting his own plane. A decent young man–who during most of his life had been berated by his father–he was madly in love with an older woman, a British beauty named Fiona Thyssen. Jackie and Onassis had been married five years by then. It was a loveless marriage, plagued by constant financial squabbling.
Fiona remembers that Alexander was in a coma, brain dead. As they waited to pull the plug, Jackie came to sit by her side and take her hand. But instead of offering sympathy, she murmured in her whispery voice, “Fiona, I have to talk to you.” She knew, she said, that Alexander told her everything, and that Onassis had discussed their inevitable divorce with his son. Could Fiona please tell her how much Onassis had in mind for her settlement?
If Ari did conspire to kill Bobby Kennedy, he was punished by the loss of a woman who loved him, Maria Callas, for a woman who disdained him; by the death of his son; and finally by a debilitating disease, myasthenia gravis, that killed him. A British journalist spent a decade putting the pieces together in a book, but only Euripides could have written the play.