|Tina Onassis and Maria Callas|
Onassis, who was 19 years older than Callas, was born in Turkey, where his father was a prosperous merchant and prominent member of the Greek community that outnumbered the Turks in the port city of Smyrna. Ari's mother died when he was 8, and 10 years later he barely escaped a brutal massacre of non-Turkish citizens by the Turkish Army in 1922. After an unhappy spell in Athens, Onassis emigrated to Argentina, where he made a fortune importing tobacco, and then to New York, where he built his multimillion-dollar shipping business.
Callas had a similarly itinerant and difficult childhood. The daughter of Greek immigrants, she spent her early years in Manhattan. At 5, Maria stunned listeners with her precocious voice, later described by one of her teachers as ''violent cascades of sound, full of drama and emotion.'' Her domineering mother pulled her out of school at 13 so Maria could return to Greece for training as a singer.
During World War II, Maria sang for the occupying Axis forces, but her mother also hid two fugitive British soldiers until they could escape. When Maria and her family were trapped in their apartment in an area held by Communist troops during the Greek Civil War, a grateful British officer helped them flee to his country's embassy in Athens. Faced with bleak prospects in Greece, Maria returned to America, where she went broke in a fruitless effort to establish herself as an opera singer. Finally, after landing in Italy at 24, she met and married a Veronese impresario 30 years her senior who sent her into her career as a world-renowned soprano.
Callas and Onassis were introduced in 1957 by the predatory social columnist Elsa Maxwell, one of a number of exotic secondary characters in the lovers' drama. According to Gage, Maxwell not only promoted Callas's career, she made sexual overtures that the diva rebuffed, driving Maxwell to fury and despair. The centerpiece of the book, covering seven out of 23 chapters, is the saga of the three-week cruise along the Greek and Turkish coasts in the summer of 1959, when Onassis, then married to Tina Livanos, seduced Callas and the notorious affair began.
|Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis during a cruise on the Christina O yacht|
As Callas lost her singing voice and Onassis suffered a series of tragedies -- the death of his only son and the suicide of his former wife -- as well as business reversals, the couple's devotion deepened, but she refused to be his lover as long as he remained married. When Onassis was dying in 1975, he took Maria's final gift, a red cashmere Hermès blanket, to the hospital, although neither Maria nor his wife was with him at his death. A heartbroken Callas died two years later.
Gage frequently draws on his knowledge of Greek history, culture and character to provide insights into the motivations of Callas and Onassis. Citing Plato's ''Symposium,'' he offers the Greek theory of destiny to explain the attraction of two such volatile individuals: ''The idea that each person is half of what was once a whole and spends his or her whole life searching for the other individual who will make him complete.'' Gage provides additional nuance by quoting a friend of Onassis who observed: ''Onassis loved, but he never fell in love. He had the oriental view that a real man does not allow himself to be conquered by love. Maria, on the other hand, flooded Onassis with her love, surrendered totally.'' Gage's extensive research has unearthed revealing new facts about the couple as well, from the birth and death of a son in 1960 to a phone call Onassis made to Callas two days before his marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy, asking her to come to Athens and ''save him,'' presumably by inciting a jealous Jackie to call off the wedding.
But journalistic overkill often slows the narrative to a crawl. The drama of the shipboard seduction collapses amid a deconstruction of when and where Onassis and Callas first had sexual relations. Nor does the reader need to know every document and source Gage consulted to pin down Onassis' birth date. He also has the annoying habit of boasting about his reporting. He repeatedly announces the circumstances of his interviews (''When I interviewed him in May of 1998 at his home near Lake Como''), making the book seem less the story of a fabled romance than a Baedeker of Gage's own odyssey as a reporter. Including photographs of himself with various sources adds to the impression that Gage considers himself as interesting as his subjects.
Every conscientious biographer makes countless phone calls and spends endless time tracking down elusive documents. But the details of such reporting and archival research belong in chapter notes that don't distract from the narrative. In this case, the author's notes are both sketchy and erratic, offering sources in some instances but ignoring many others. How does Gage know, for example, that John F. Kennedy exclaimed, ''For Christ's sake Jackie! Onassis is an international pirate!'' on hearing his wife was planning her cruise on the Onassis yacht?
Still, after years of erroneous accounts about Onassis and Callas, not to mention their own embroidered versions of their lives, Gage diligently sets the record straight. The most conspicuous falsehood that he demolishes is Callas's supposed abortion under duress from Onassis, first reported in a biography by Arianna Stassinopoulos and then popularized by Terrence McNally's play ''Master Class.'' But one wishes that Callas and Onassis didn't have to share the stage so often with their intrepid biographer.