Ari Onassis was a business partner but above all a very good friend of mine for many years until his death in 1975. It was great to know him and fantastic to be involved in his odyssey and contributes to build his empire. There are so many things that are said about Ari and by creating this blog I want to reflect the reality about him to make sure his memory is not stained by gossiping people that don't know anything about him. You can also view my website:

Friday, January 29, 2010

Photobook - Aristotle Onassis and Jackie's wedding

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Around the world with Winston: Churchill's grandaughter reveals tales from the Onassis yacht to Lawrence of Arabia

For Winston Churchill, it was an idyllic Mediterranean cruise on the most luxurious yacht in the world. But he and the other guests on board the Christina were aware of an atmosphere fraught with tension. 'It was the moment when I knew I'd joined the grown-ups,' recalls Churchill's granddaughter Celia Sandys, who, as a coolly observant 16-year-old, was awake to undercurrents of awkwardness at the dinner table.

She was witnessing the beginning of one of the great love affairs of the 20th century, between Aristotle Onassis and the diva Maria Callas, all played out in front of Ari's wife, Tina. By the end of that cruise, in the summer of 1959, the marriages of both Onassis and Callas would be over.

None of the women in the party liked Callas, and they were appalled when she coquettishly tried to feed the bemused, octogenarian Churchill with ice-cream from her own spoon. Celia, along with her mother, Diana, and grandmother, Clementine, Churchill's wife, bonded in their down-to-earth English dislike of this tiresome drama queen.

'There was a great sense of camaraderie between us once we realised this affair between Callas and Onassis had started. We'd exchange glances across the table and get together in my grandmother's cabin every evening to gossip about the day. It was rather fun. These were the sort of things I'd read about in the News Of The World - when I could get my hands on it,' Celia reminisces now, nearly 50 years on.

She also remembers with much amusement when Gracie Fields boarded the yacht at Capri. The diva made them all suffer a singsong of homely tunes around the piano.

Churchill was fond of Gracie but enough was enough. 'We love you, we do, Sir Winston, we luu-urve you,' warbled Gracie to the tune of Volare. 'God's teeth! How long is this going on?' Churchill muttered, in too loud a stage whisper, to his private secretary Anthony Montague Browne.

As for Callas, she completely failed to grasp that for once somebody else was centre of attention. 'She was terribly irritating,' laughs Celia, thinking back to a shore excursion to the Greek amphitheatre at Epidaurus, where locals had erected a huge floral Victory-V in honour of Churchill. Callas was first puzzled, then furious when she realised the flowers weren't for her. Later, without humour, she remarked, 'It's a pleasure to travel with Sir Winston. He removes from me some of the burden of my popularity.' For Celia, now 65 and a mother of four living in west London, it was always a pleasure to travel with her grandfather and in the last years of his life she spent several holidays with him in the penthouse of Monaco's famous Hotel de Paris. As he was wont to say, 'My tastes are simple. I am easily satisfied by the best.'

More recently, Celia has been following in her grandfather's footsteps for a Discovery Channel documentary series, Chasing Churchill, retracing his travels - military, political and private - from his early days as an ambitious young man desperate to make his mark until his final journey to where he was buried at Bladon, in Oxfordshire.

Celia found herself accompanying the most famous man in the world, not out of favouritism, but because 'I just happened to be an available grandchild of an appropriate age'.

And, to her, Churchill was first and foremost a dearly loved Grandpapa. 'He was a very warm person, no question of it being difficult or stuffy to be with him. I wasn't interested in politics at that age, so we'd be more likely to talk about whether his horse had won the latest race or where he'd painted that afternoon.'

Mindful of financial humiliations endured in his own youth, he would pull out wads of banknotes. 'He'd say, "How are you for money, darling?" I always thought it was his winnings from the casino!' remembers Celia, for there was a discreet underground passage linking the hotel to the nearby Monte Carlo gaming house.

'And, very definitely, he wanted to share his pleasures. If he was drinking champagne, he wanted everybody else to drink champagne. When I was about 15, there was an elderly cousin who complimented my mother on her daughter - that was me - and then went for the kill... "Pity the child drinks so much!"

'My mother said I didn't drink. "But she's always got a full glass of champagne," said the cousin. "You watch," said my mother. "She has a glass because it pleases her grandfather but she doesn't drink it... so it's always full." I didn't like champagne then, though I've made up for it since.'

Churchill, however, wasn't always such a welcome guest as he was on Aristotle Onassis's yacht and, to Celia's great amusement, researching her grandfather's travels led her to meet the American Senator Harry Byrd Jr, 'a lovely, lovely man', now well into his 90s, who has the oldest living memory of Sir Winston.

He was only 14 when he met the 54-year-old Churchill in 1929 through his father, who was governor of Virginia. But Churchill outstayed his welcome at the governor's mansion, at least in the opinion of the governor's harassed wife.

'My grandfather stayed for ten days and irritated Mrs Byrd by changing mealtimes and menus - and he'd also walk around upstairs in his underwear, and she didn't like that either,' Celia explains. 'Then there was a state dinner and the menu included Virginia ham. Churchill asked for mustard and the butler was sent to the kitchen, came back and said, "I'm sorry, but we don't have any mustard." And Mrs Byrd said, "If you like, I could send to the store." Never expecting him to say, in the middle of dinner, "Yes, that would be very nice."

'And so they all had to wait while the food got cold. When my grandfather left, Harry Byrd remembers his mother turning to his father, and saying, "Don't you ever ask that dreadful man here again!" as the car went out of the drive.

'There was another dinner in Virginia, probably the same visit, when the butler came around with the chicken and asked my grandfather which piece of the bird he would like. He said, "I'd like breast." Whereupon the woman next to him said, "Mr Churchill, in this country we say white meat or dark meat."

'Next day she got a corsage of flowers, saying, "Pin this on your white meat!"'

But while Churchill could often be a high-maintenance guest, on other occasions he could be disarmingly charming. Mary Jean Eisenhower, President Eisenhower's granddaughter, recalled that on a visit to the White House in 1959, her eight-year-old sister interrupted Churchill's conversation with the President to inform him that her doll's nappy had fallen off. Without batting an eyelid, or breaking off his talk, Sir Winston fixed the nappy. 'I was amazed,' Celia says, smiling. 'I can't imagine my grandfather would have known what a nappy was!'

Celia's satisfaction has been in uncovering affectionate stories about her grandfather that wouldn't even make a footnote in a history book. In South Africa, she made a television appeal for people whose parents' or grandparents' lives had touched upon that of the young Churchill in the Boer War. In the small town of Estcourt, at a drinks store called The Plough - Churchill's 'local' - met Derek Clegg, grandson of the local stationmaster whom he befriended in 1899, when, as war correspondent for the Morning Post, he was making daily excursions to spy on the Boers.

He recalled the story of how, night after night, Churchill would regale his fellow drinkers with tall tales of his previous soldiering adventures. 'He told a lot of stories and, of course, they all sounded unbelievable,' said Derek. ' Eventually, when everyone was laughing, he got fed up and said, belligerently, "Mark my words, one day I'll be Prime Minister of England."

And many years later, in 1940, when my grandfather had retired, Derek opened his newspaper and said, "By Jove, he's done it!"' The tale of how Churchill was ambushed and arrested by the Boers and staged his audacious escape from prison by hiding in a latrine and climbing over a wall has, of course, been told many times before. 'I know what happened,' says Celia. 'But what I wanted to know was what people thought about my grandfather at the time. One family produced a little note - written by him on the train journey from Natal to Pretoria as he was being taken into captivity. He was being guarded by a young soldier and they got into conversation. And, before they parted, my grandfather wrote on a tiny scrap of paper, "This man has treated me very well. If he is captured by the British, please treat him kindly."'

Churchill had several narrow escapes on his travels, even in peacetime; bullets whistled past his head more than once, and in New York in 1931 he was run over by a car on Fifth Avenue, protected only by his heavy overcoat.

'I do not understand why I was not broken like an eggshell or squashed like a gooseberry,' he wrote in the Daily Mail. 'I certainly must be very tough or very lucky or both.'

From early on, he'd had faith in his luck. 'Bullets are not worth considering,' he wrote to his mother from the dangerous North West Frontier of India in the 1890s. 'Besides I am so conceited I do not think the Gods would create so potent a being for so prosaic an ending.'

Had the gods been inclined to prove him wrong, World War II might have been very different. As prime minister of a beleaguered nation, he travelled constantly during the war - even adjusting happily to a bottle of red wine with his breakfast in North Africa, where he didn't care for tinned milk in his tea.

For all the pressures of war, there were occasional snatched moments. 'You cannot come all this way to North Africa without seeing Marrakech,' he insisted to the wheelchair-bound President Roosevelt after their Casablanca Conference in
1943. Determined to share the sunset over the Atlas mountains, he arranged for the President to be carried to the rooftop of their villa. Celia laughs. 'Roosevelt was reclining on a divan with silk cushions and he lifted his hand to my grandfather, and said, "I feel like a sultan... you may kiss my hand, my dear!" History doesn't relate my grandfather's response.'

Nearly 20 years later, when Celia was on holiday in Monte Carlo with her grandfather, then 87, one morning she found that he had fallen and broken his hip in the night. Sir Winston said he wanted to die in England and an RAF air ambulance flew him home.'I'll never forget the journey,' Celia says. 'I've never seen anybody look as vulnerable. We didn't talk, I just sat and held his hand - and there was a real chance that he wasn't going to make it.'

But as he was carried off the plane, Churchill rallied and gave the V-sign for Victory. He recovered sufficiently to take one more holiday with his granddaughter: 'But everything slowed down after that,' says Celia. 'What was nice for me was to have to myself the man the whole world thought they owned. Just for a little while, to have this companionable time.'

On the day of his state funeral in 1965, she travelled with her grandfather's coffin on his final journey as crowds lined the streets and even the building cranes along the Thames dipped their heads like great sorrowing birds.

'He was a lovely grandfather,' says Celia. 'He still casts a ray of summer on the family.'

The Onassis Diamonds

The 325-foot the Christina, named after his only daughter, was for years the main residence of Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. The rich, famous and royal were often aboard as guests. Sir Winston Churchill often cruised as the man’s guest (often accompanied by his parakeet – who was lost during one fateful voyage). It was on this yacht in 1957 that he was accompanied by among others, Senor and Senora Battista Meneghini. Sra. Meneghini was known to the world as the already legendary diva, Maria Callas. That was the last time Onassis’ (first) wife Athina (always known as Tina) traveled aboard the boat with her husband. Callas and Onassis became an international romance, until … in 1963 Onassis entertained the two most famous sisters in America, Jackie Kennedy and (Princess Stanislaus) Lee Radziwill aboard the Christina.

Christina Onassis once told me that she wore diamonds at breakfast because ‘they look so pretty in the morning sun. You have no idea how erotic men find dew on the rocks,’ she smiled mischievously.

Jewels – and sex, of course – ran in the Onassis family as deeply and bitterly as scandal and feuds.

Her father, Aristotle Onassis, was an expert on all of them.

A man who approached every woman as a potential mistress, he believed that the diamond was the most reliable currency of love. ‘Even women who won’t take money to go to bed with a man will always settle for carats,’ he told me once.

The young Aristotle Onassis family – son Alexandros (Alexander), born in 1948, his mother Tina, daughter Christina, born 1950 and the man himself age 55. He survived the sacking of Smyrna by the Turks in 1922 by pretending to be 16 and befriended by an infatuated Turkish officer. After a life by his wits in Constantinople, Athens and Naples, he emigrated to Buenos Aires where his charm and business acumen brought him fortune (in tobacco) and international social connections through an Argentine shipping tycoon, Alberto Dodero. By 1940 he was a millionaire, living in New York, later briefly in Los Angeles (where he had a brief affair with Gloria Swanson). At 46, he married for the first time to Tina Livanos, daughter of Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Livanos. The marriage was a kind of revenge to the men who excluded him (including his new father-in-law) from their clubs and business deals. In the mid-50s, the young marrieds, the US Senator Jack Kennedy and his wife cruised aboard the Christina along with Winston Churchill. That time marked the beginning of the end of his marriage to his wife.

Although it was a view that not every woman appreciated, and many claimed to loathe, according to Onassis, there were few who did not succumb when presented with the opportunity.

Even the assumption of carats to come was often aphrodisiac enough for some women.

On the afternoon Jackie Kennedy became his lover while cruising aboard his yacht, the Christina, shortly before Jack Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Onassis, noticing her open jewel case on her dressing-table, was surprised at how few pieces she had, and of how little value they appeared to be. (He had an appraiser’s experienced eye in these matters.)

He immediately called Van Cleef and Arpels in Paris and told them to fly a suitably impressive gift to the yacht. They responded with an $80,000 ($541,716 in today’s money) gold and ruby bracelet.

Maria Callas, Onassis’s long-time mistress, who collected her share of Onassis diamonds, understood her lover better than most women. One evening in Paris, when I was writing his official biography, [Ari: The Life and Times of Aristotle Onassis. Summit/Simon & Shuster, 1986], she told me: ‘Ari’s total understanding of women comes out of a Van Cleef and Arpels catalogue.’

It was more than just a smart remark: it was heartfelt.

These memories came back to me when Athina Onassis, the sole heiress to the Onassis fortune – dubbed ‘the richest little girl in the world’ when, in 1988, her mother, Christina, after four divorces, constant drug problems, and a rift as big as the Ritz with her stepmother Jackie Onassis, died at the age of 37 – recently sold the Onassis family trinkets at Christie’s in London for $16 million (twice the estimate).

Daughter of Christina’s third marriage, to Frenchman Thierry Roussel, Athina was just three years old when her mother was found dead in a bathtub in Buenos Aires, where she had gone to attend a friend’s wedding, and to trace her father’s footsteps – to the Teatro Colon, for example, where he had seen his first opera, La Boheme, and seduced his first famous lady, the Italian soprano, Claudia Muzio – in the city where Onassis had made his first fortune in the 1920s.

Christie’s European head of jewellery, Raymond Sancroft-Baker, said that Athina, now married to the Brazilian equestrian champion, Alvaro Affonso de Miranda, had decided to sell because the pieces were not suitable for her. ‘She’s a young girl and she just doesn’t wear them. She wants to feel comfortable in what she wears,’ he said.

The pieces that made her feel so uncomfortable included a pear-shaped 38-carat diamond, of the purest D color, a 15-carat heart-shaped diamond pendant, a Harry Winston sapphire and diamond necklace, a ring by Graff with a vivid yellow pear-shaped diamond of 4.5 carats, and a Van Cleef and Arpels ruby and diamond necklace.

But could it have been the history of the pieces, rather more than their design, that troubled Athina so much?

Her grandmother, Tina, Onassis’s first wife, after whom Athina was named, was a superstitious woman who believed that jewels possess contagious destinies. ‘With a freshly-cut diamond you don’t inherit somebody else’s life and fate; a new diamond has only the value and the destiny of the life you give to it yourself,’ she told me once.A deeply defensive woman, especially where Onassis was concerned, Tina Livanos Onassis Niarchos was responding to his claim that beautiful women could not bear moderation and always needed an inexhaustible supply of excess.

Although I knew, and liked, her mother and grandmother, I never got to know Athina at all. (The last time I saw her she was lying naked in bed, sucking her thumb. She was six months old.) But it would surprise me if some of her grandmother’s superstition about the contagious destiny of jewels hadn’t rubbed off on her.

Or maybe dew on the rocks just doesn’t do it for her man.

And now, the only surviving descendant of Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, 23-year-old Athina has decided to sell more than 40 pieces owned by her mother, Christina, who died when she was three.

The sale is prompted not by a lack of money - Athina inherited a fortune estimated at anything up to £1 billion - but by her decision that she has no need of what she sees as the glittering accoutrements of a bygone era.

It will, however, be bound to attract further criticism that she has no respect for her family’s past.

Athina fell out with her French father Thierry Roussel when she was young and he failed to attend her wedding in 2005 to Alvaro de Miranda Neto, a Brazilian Olympic showjumper 12 years her senior.

Athina, who as a 10-year-old revealed in a handwritten will that she intended to give her fortune away, was due to take over control of the philanthropic Onassis Foundation founded by her grandfather Aristotle when she turned 21.

However she was blocked by the trustees, who said her connections with Greece were too tenuous.

The jewellery collection has an estimated value of £8 million and is being auctioned on Wednesday. It is on public show at Christie’s in London today.

Highlights include a pear-shaped 38-carat diamond estimated at up to £2.2 million and a ruby and diamond necklace by Van Cleef and Arpels, expected to make up to £40,000.

They were worn by Christina, Onassis’s daughter, to many grand balls and dinners.

The collection also includes a rare Buddha by Carl Fabergé which took pride of place on Onassis’s yacht. That has an estimate of £250,000 to £350,000.

Raymond Sancroft-Baker, Christie’s jewellery expert, said the heiress had decided to sell because the jewellery was not suitable for her.

'She’s a young girl and she just doesn’t wear them. She wants to feel comfortable in what she wears. That era has gone.'

Yet there were still people who would buy and wear such items, particularly at private parties, he added.

'The Americans are very keen and the Chinese more so than they were. If you’ve made millions in China, how are you going to show your wealth?'

He said the last jewellery sale attracted bidders from 28 countries from Norway to Uruguay with no sign of a slump in interest despite world economic problems.

'It’s rather perverse. The last time there was a blip, in the early Nineties, sales held up because [jewellery] has intrinsic value,' he said.

The value of the best flawless diamonds has doubled in the last two years.

'Auctions are a very good place to buy jewellery. It’s difficult to find it cheaper elsewhere.'

Mr Sancroft-Baker welcomed the public to come to view the lots.

'There aren’t many opportunities in London to come and see things in a nice atmosphere without a gorilla looking over your shoulder,' he said.

Other exceptional pieces include a 15.02-carat heart-shaped diamond pendant, estimated at up to £800,000, a ring by Graff with a vivid yellow pear-shaped diamond of 4.15 carats, expected to make up to £120,000, and a Harry Winston sapphire and diamond necklace estimated at up to £150,000.