Magazine article The Spectator

The Shipboard Romance

Magazine article The Spectator

The Shipboard Romance

Article excerpt




by Nicholas Gage

Sidgwick, L18.99, pp. 422

You would expect a book about the love affair of Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas to contain ship-loads of drama. But is there anything about the Greek tycoon and his opera-singing mistress that hasn't already been covered by, respectively, his masseuse, her angry mother, his secretary, her estranged husband, his ex-lover or any of the other biographers drawn to write about one of last century's most celebrated entanglements?

The answer in this engrossing study by Nicholas Gage is `yes'. A former investigative journalist on the New York Times, Mr Gage has been suitably dogged in his research, hunting down close acquaintances who had never before given interviews, such as Callas's devoted butler and her maid. In the process he routed inaccuracies - often put about by Callas and Onassis themselves - and uncovered deep-buried secrets. The most extraordinary of these is the revelation that in March 1960 Callas bore Onassis a child who died a few hours after his birth in Milan. There is even a photograph of this tiny child, who was never held by his mother.

Gage believes that their shared loss deepened a love that had begun the previous year, when Callas and her husband joined a party that included Winston Churchill for a cruise aboard Onassis's yacht, the Christina. At the time, Callas was opera's most famous diva - Leonard Bernstein thought her `the greatest artist of the world'. For her adoring fans, her vocal powers were nothing short of miraculous. One respected female critic wrote Callas pathetic, babbling love letters.

If the diva sang badly, riots could ensue. When she lost her voice and halted an opera in the presence of Italy's president, the scandal was discussed in parliament. She and her husband had to leave Milan after they were threatened, a dead dog left in their car. She never again sang at La Scala, her favourite opera house.

Callas felt herself to be lovable only for her voice, not as a woman. Onassis, who wasn't much interested in opera (`it sounds like a lot of Italian chefs shouting risotto recipes at each other') changed that in one passionate night aboard the Christina. Thus Callas, who had started the cruise as a loyal wife, praying with her husband every night, ended it ready to abandon everything for Onassis. …

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