The dark side of Jackie and Maria's love triangle
On the 40th anniversary of the death of opera legend Maria Callas, Niall Morris, writer and director of the hit stage show 'Celebrating Callas', explores her bitter rivalry with Jackie Kennedy
Jackie Kennedy and Maria Callas would certainly have met each other on May 29, 1962, at the JFK gala concert at New York's Madison Square Garden - if it had not been for Marilyn Monroe.
That was the night of President John F Kennedy's 45th birthday celebrations and opera star Maria Callas had been flown in from Milan as the headline act. But if one person was notably absent from the evening it was the President's wife, Jackie.
Knowing that Marilyn Monroe had been invited to sing and fully aware she and her husband had been having an affair, Jackie wasn't going to be humiliated while the film star vocally seduced the President on national television.
With Jackie absent, Marilyn was free to unleash her sexually-charged and now infamous rendition of Happy Birthday, Mr President to the nation.
New York columnist Dorothy Kilgallen summed up the reaction. "It seemed like Marilyn was making love to the President in front of 40 million Americans.'' Even Maria Callas, not accustomed to being upstaged, had to admit that Marilyn Monroe had stolen the show.
Maria Callas and Jackie Kennedy never met, which is remarkable, considering they moved in the same gilded, jet-set world. Initially, it was just that their paths never crossed. In later years, when they had both become very publicly involved with Greek shipping billionaire Aristotle Onassis, they consciously avoided each other.
In a Barbara Walters television interview filmed in 1974, when asked what she thought of Jackie, Maria answered with an icy coolness."I don't know her. I've never met her." She then changed the subject.
Jacqueline Kennedy and Maria Callas were both born in 1920s Manhattan - Maria in 1923, and Jackie in 1929. Their start in life, however, could not have been more different. Jackie was born into wealth and privilege, the daughter of stockbroker 'Black Jack' Bouvier and Janet Lee, a socialite of Irish descent. Her father adored her, often referring to her as "the most beautiful daughter a man ever had".
Maria, born six years earlier, was the second daughter of Greek immigrants George and Evangelia Kalogeropoulos. (The family changed the name to Callas soon after their arrival in the United States.)
Unlike Jackie, she was an unwanted child. Her mother had expected a boy and was so disappointed upon seeing that her newborn baby was a girl, she refused to even look at her for the first four days.
Jackie went to an exclusive private school in New York and spent her vacations horse riding in the Hamptons. She excelled at literature and languages. Maria was brought up in a small apartment over a pharmacy in the borough of Queens, where she attended the local state school. At the age of just five, she revealed an exceptional singing voice.
One thing they did have in common was that both their parents' marriages were unhappy. When their parents separated, Maria and her sister were taken by their mother to live in Greece. Jackie and her sister Lee were sent to boarding school in Connecticut, an upper middle-class solution to domestic upheaval.
But from the age of around 24, their lives followed a very similar path.
Jackie, who was by then working as a reporter, was introduced to an aspiring and dashing politician called John Kennedy. He was the son of an ambitious, wealthy, Boston family of Irish descent. They soon married, and, within less than 10 years, by the age of 32, Jackie was living in the White House as America's First Lady.
Meanwhile in Greece, Maria had spent years studying voice at the Athens Conservatoire and, as a result, was engaged to star at the Opera di Verona at the age of 24. It was there that she was introduced to Giovanni Battista Meneghini, a wealthy Italian businessman, 26 years older than her. Within a few years, they were married and he also became her manager.
What followed was a meteoric rise to fame and, by her early 30s, Maria Callas was being hailed as the First Lady of opera.
Callas and Kennedy both shared an instinctive ability to manufacture their own public personae. Jackie set about creating the image of the ideal 'Presidential Wife'. She affected a baby-doll voice and projected an air of effortless elegance, impeccably dressed in Chanel and Dior.
Gala evenings were held at the White House where world-famous classical musicians played after supper and she impressed visiting dignitaries with her fluency in European languages. At the same time, Jackie rarely gave any indication of the real person behind the facade.
Maria, who had been overweight since childhood, also set about inventing her new persona. In 1953, she lost over 80 pounds (36kg), re-emerging as a beautifully dressed fashion icon in the style of Audrey Hepburn. Like Jackie, Maria was fluent in many languages - and she too spoke with a distinctive, rather regal accent which seemed to combine them all. The image Callas created was every inch the diva, as famous for her demands and cancellations as she was for her spell-binding performances.
Maria Callas was introduced to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis in 1957 at a party in Venice. Within a few weeks, he invited Maria and her husband to join him on his private yacht for a Mediterranean cruise.
Onassis wasn't in the least bit interested in opera - but he was an avid collector of famous people.
At first, Maria declined, saying she was too busy with her singing career but, finally, she accepted an invitation for a holiday on board the Christina with Sir Winston and Lady Churchill. By the time she left the ship, her marriage to Meneghini was over. She had been seduced by Onassis and drawn into a world that would cause her to neglect her voice and bring an abrupt end to her once glorious singing career.
In 1963, Onassis devised a similar opportunistic tactic with Jackie Kennedy. Hearing that her son Patrick had died at the age of just one month, he invited her for a cruise on the Christina to recuperate. Maria Callas, by then his live-in girlfriend, was not invited. Instead, Onassis left her in Paris in the sumptuous apartment he had bought for her.
Three months later, the world was thrown into shock when John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Onassis waited in the wings, offering his support to Jackie wherever he could.
After the assassination of JFK, Jackie found comfort in a number of men, one of whom was Bobby Kennedy, JFK's younger brother. But she went into a state of panic when Bobby was shot dead during his presidential election campaign in Los Angeles in June 1968.
"If they're killing Kennedys, then my children are targets," Jackie is reported to have said, living in fear for her own safety and that of her children.
She accepted Onassis's offer to marry and protect her, putting his private island, airline and vast wealth at her disposal. Jackie got the security she craved, while Onassis had bagged the biggest prize of all: the world's most famous woman. The wedding took place in November of that year, in a blaze of publicity. Maria Callas, who wasn't informed, sat alone in Paris watching news reports on the television.
But right from the start, the marriage was a disaster.
"I never met anyone who could spend money like Jackie," said Onassis. She spent $1.5m in the first year alone, mainly redecorating his houses and replenishing her wardrobe.
It is now widely acknowledged that, within a few weeks, Onassis resumed his relationship with Maria Callas. At first, understandably devastated, Maria refused to see him but, when he threatened to crash his Mercedes coupe into the front door of her apartment building, she finally relented.
"They met every month until his death," said Onassis's driver Yaikinto Rossa. "The truth is that Maria Callas was Onassis's one true love. She was his true wife, though they never married."
Jackie returned to America but the rivalry between Kennedy and Callas remained intense. When the world's press published images of Onassis and Callas having a romantic dinner a deux at Maxim's in Paris, Jackie immediately boarded a flight from Boston and was photographed dining with Onassis at the same restaurant two nights later - a very deliberate act of defiance against Maria Callas.
In the later years of his marriage to Jackie, Onassis came to see his betrayal of Maria as a huge mistake. When he found out he was gravely ill, he told his lawyers to file divorce proceedings against Jackie, doing so in typical Onassis fashion - which meant having her followed by a private detective so he could use adultery to reduce her claim to his fortune. But Onassis didn't get around to divorcing Jackie. Before he could do so, he was admitted to hospital in Paris with a life-threatening illness. Jackie didn't join him. Instead, she went skiing in Aspen - but not before leaving instructions that Maria Callas was not to be admitted to his bedside.
Callas did in fact visit Onassis on his deathbed. She was brought up to his room secretly through a service elevator and sat with him for an hour as he lay in a coma. It was her last goodbye. Onassis died a few days later.
In his will, Onassis had reportedly reduced his wife's share of his fortune to a bare minimum - but Jackie contested it.
In order to avoid a protracted and very public legal battle, Onassis's daughter Christina agreed to give Jackie a full and final settlement of $26m. Maria Callas was left nothing.
After the death of Onassis in 1975, with her voice gone, Maria became a recluse in her apartment in Paris. Surrounded by photographs and memorabilia, she sat listening to her old recordings, like an operatic Norma Desmond, living in her glorious past. Two years later, on the morning of September 16, 1977, Callas was found dead from a heart attack on the floor of her bedroom. She was just 53.
Jackie went into a career in publishing and found new love with a diamond dealer, Maurice Tempelsman. She died in 1994, aged 64, from cancer.
Both Jackie and Maria are remembered by millions as icons of their time, whereas Aristotle Onassis, once the world's richest man, is now known mainly for his part in this extraordinary drama.
'Celebrating Callas', the singer's 40th anniversary gala is at the National Concert Hall on Sunday, September 17. Visit www.nch.ie or (01) 417 0000
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