#211 Aristotle Onassis An Extravagant Life



In the gripping biography "Onassis: An Extravagant Life" by Frank Brady, Aristotle Onassis emerges as a figure of profound paradoxes. From witnessing the harrowing burning of Smyrna and surviving as a penniless refugee, Onassis ascends to become one of the world's richest and most influential men. His life, marked by both ruthlessness in business and charisma in personal dealings, is a study in contrasts. He was a man who could tenderly engage with a child yet bully loved ones, spend lavishly to impress yet skimp on tipping, and dine with royalty while preferring the company of actors and gamblers. Despite his wealth and power, Onassis sought what he couldn't buy—tranquility and the mercy of the gods. His life, interwoven with relationships like his friendship with Winston Churchill and marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy, was ultimately overshadowed by personal tragedy, including the death of his son Alexander, which led to his own decline and demise at age 68.

Summary Notes

The Burning of Smyrna

  • Smyrna experienced a catastrophic event larger than the great fires of London and San Francisco.
  • The city was overwhelmed with 200,000 refugees, a typhoid outbreak, and violence.
  • Turkish soldiers systematically executed Greek men, sparing ammunition by slitting their throats.
  • Women and children faced rape and murder if they resisted Turkish soldiers.
  • Aristotle Onassis navigated the dangerous city to reach his father's office.

"The city of Samyrna was in flames. The Holocaust, one of the biggest in the world's history, was larger than the great fire of London in 1666 or the blaze that wrecked San Francisco in 1906."

This quote sets the historical context of the catastrophic event Aristotle Onassis experienced, emphasizing its magnitude by comparing it to other significant fires in history.

Early Life of Aristotle Onassis

  • Raised by his grandmother due to his mother's early death from urimic poisoning at age 25.
  • Grew up wealthy, indulged, and was an excellent swimmer and oarsman.
  • His father, Socrates Onassis, involved him in the family tobacco business at a young age.
  • Aristotle was educated by the best tutors and worked in his father's office learning the trade.
  • The onset of the Greco-Turkish War and the burning of Smyrna marked a turning point in his life.

"Aristotle was actually raised by his grandmother, a not so unusual occurrence where a Greek grandparent lives in the same house as her grandchildren."

This quote explains Aristotle's upbringing and the cultural norm of Greek grandparents living with and sometimes raising their grandchildren.

The Greco-Turkish War and Its Impact

  • The Onassis family failed to flee Smyrna in time, leading to their arrest and the death of many relatives.
  • Socrates Onassis was arrested, and other family members were either executed or died in a church fire.
  • Aristotle managed to stay in his occupied house by serving Turkish officers and smuggling alcohol.
  • He used his resourcefulness to secure a pass allowing him to move freely in the city and escape to safety.

"The Turks put up concentration camps on the outskirts of the city."

This quote highlights the dire situation in Smyrna during the war, including the establishment of concentration camps by the Turks.

Aristotle's Resourcefulness and Escape

  • Aristotle used his wits and understanding of human nature to survive and help his father.
  • He bribed prison guards to keep his father off the execution list and secured passes for safe movement.
  • A close call with a Turkish warden led to his desperate escape to the US marine zone and then to Greece.

"Aristotle escaped when the guard was paying attention to something else."

This quote showcases Aristotle's quick thinking and ability to seize opportunities, which ultimately led to his escape from a dangerous situation.

The Aftermath and Journey to South America

  • After the war, the Onassis family was impoverished, and Aristotle's grandmother was murdered by Greek thieves.
  • With limited opportunities in Greece, Aristotle decided to emigrate to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • He borrowed money for a one-way ticket and left with only $100 from his father.

"Aristotle did not quite know what to do with his life."

This quote reflects the uncertainty and challenges Aristotle faced after the catastrophic events in Smyrna and his determination to start anew in a foreign land.

Onassis's Early Struggles and Opportunities in Buenos Aires

  • Onassis sought work on the waterfront, taking any job he could find, from dishwashing to bricklaying.
  • He identified a technological transformation at the telephone company and pursued a job there.

"Onassis gave the ship's purser $5 to allow him to sleep on deck in a storage bin."

This quote exemplifies Onassis's resourcefulness and adaptability, traits that would serve him well in his subsequent career and life.

Early Career and Financial Success

  • Greek immigrant in Buenos Aires takes advantage of job opportunities and willingness to work hard.
  • Demonstrates frugality and ambition by saving money and seeking promotions within the telephone company.
  • Accumulates significant savings by working overtime and living modestly.
  • Uses previous experience in his father's tobacco business to identify a market opportunity for importing Turkish tobacco into South America.

"By working overtime and by spending very little money he managed to accumulate a savings of close to $1,000."

This quote highlights the immigrant's work ethic and financial prudence which allowed him to save a substantial amount of money.

"Whenever he saw the possibility that for advancement to another level in the company that could earn him more money he applied for it."

This quote underscores the immigrant's ambition and proactive approach to career advancement.

Entrepreneurial Strategy and Persistence

  • Onassis recognizes a business opportunity in importing high-quality Turkish tobacco to Argentina.
  • Faces initial rejection from tobacco buyers and decides to focus on a single target for his sales pitch.
  • Exhibits persistence by approaching the president of a cigarette company directly after being repeatedly ignored by lower-level buyers.
  • Secures a significant sale by impressing the company president with his sincerity and unique product offering.

"Eventually, he chose the one cigarette manufacturer that he believed might give him a chance, although the buyer had already refused to see him."

This quote illustrates Onassis's strategic shift to focus on a single potential client, which eventually leads to a successful sale.

"The result was a sale. $10,000 worth of Turkish leaf was purchased."

This quote demonstrates the successful outcome of Onassis's persistence and targeted approach, resulting in a large sale.

Business Expansion and Adaptation

  • Onassis continues to import tobacco while also venturing into cigarette manufacturing.
  • Understands the importance of product differentiation, targeting a specific customer base with luxury cigarettes.
  • Faces increased competition in cigarette manufacturing and decides to focus on the more profitable business of tobacco importing.
  • Recognizes the potential in the shipping industry and begins to learn from successful ship owners.

"His efforts in cigarette manufacturing, although they had expanded greatly from the beginning, were no longer profitable."

This quote explains Onassis's decision to shift focus away from cigarette manufacturing due to increased competition and diminishing profits.

"He was interested in getting into shipping, not just as an importer or one who merely uses ships, as he had been doing, but by owning the ships and enjoying the highly profitable cargo rates."

This quote captures Onassis's strategic thinking as he aims to move up the value chain by owning ships rather than just using them for his import business.

Diplomatic Success and Industry Insight

  • Onassis leverages his business acumen and connections to become a government liaison, negotiating trade agreements between Argentina and Greece.
  • Appointed as Greek Consul General in Buenos Aires, gaining valuable insights into the shipping industry.
  • Uses his diplomatic position to further his understanding of international trade and shipping operations.

"Soon a reciprocal advantageous trade agreement between Argentina and Greece was reached."

This quote highlights Onassis's success in negotiating trade agreements that benefited both Argentina and Greece, leading to his appointment as consul general.

"The most important positive factor was that he thoroughly learned the machinations of the shipping industry, as the post of the consul proved to be a business listening post of incalculable value."

This quote emphasizes the strategic advantage Onassis gained from his diplomatic role, which provided him with in-depth knowledge of the shipping industry.

Early Career and Work Ethic

  • Onassis was deeply involved in learning about ship owning and operating before he started his own business.
  • He displayed extreme work habits similar to other highly successful individuals like Bill Gates, capable of working long hours without sleep and then crashing for extensive rest.
  • Onassis engaged in "professional research" to teach himself about the industry outside of his working hours.
  • He traveled to major ports and shipyards around the world to understand the shipping industry and look for opportunities.

"He was constantly visiting and inspecting ships, talking to shipowners and other importers, and quietly absorbing everything." "He's like one of these psychopathic guys, like a Bill Gates, where they'll work for days at a time and then just crash."

These quotes highlight Onassis's dedication to immersing himself in the shipping industry and his intense work habits that are characteristic of some of the most successful entrepreneurs.

Onassis's Entry into Ship Owning

  • Onassis looked for opportunities to purchase ships during the economic depression when they were available at low prices.
  • The Canadian National Steamship Company, facing bankruptcy, sold their ships at a price Onassis proposed, which he calculated based on the scrap value.
  • Onassis's boldness and willingness to take risks were fundamental to his success.

"The Canadian National Steamship Company had a small fleet of freighters that were docked in Montreal for two years, which they were putting up for sale." "Onassis made an offer of $20,000 per ship, which was... The ships were worth a lot more."

These quotes indicate how Onassis capitalized on the economic downturn to acquire ships at a low cost, demonstrating his strategic thinking and bold approach to business.

Work Habits and Business Strategies

  • Onassis was a workaholic obsessed with details, spending his time analyzing shipping journals, trends, and opportunities.
  • He read maritime sections from multiple foreign language newspapers daily to gain a global understanding of the shipping industry.
  • Onassis's approach to business was ruthless, and he was unafraid to engage in practices that were effective yet controversial, such as registering his ships under flags of convenience to save on taxes and wages.

"Onassa spent almost all of his time working, he would pour over shipping journals from Antwerp, Vancouver, Hamburg, and New York, looking for intelligence, trends and opportunities." "Onassis felt no pangs of conscience in sailing his ships under flag of convenience."

The first quote emphasizes Onassis's dedication to mastering the details of his industry, while the second quote reveals his pragmatic and sometimes ethically questionable business methods.

Personal Philosophy and Ruthlessness

  • Onassis developed a personal philosophy that centered on boldness and self-interest.
  • His life experiences, including witnessing the murder of family members, may have contributed to his dark view of human nature and his pronounced selfishness.
  • Onassis believed in himself above all else, eschewing traditional beliefs in country or religion.

"The key to success, he said, was boldness. Boldness and more boldness." "I'm only doing things for my benefit... he believed in Aristotle Onassus. That's basically it."

The quotes reflect Onassis's personal philosophy that prioritized bold action and self-interest, which was a driving force behind his business decisions and personal life.

Charisma and Persuasiveness

  • Onassis was known for his relentless pursuit and charismatic nature, which allowed him to persuade others and close deals.
  • His ability to be persuasive was a key factor in his success, akin to influential historical figures.
  • Onassis's wealth and charisma played significant roles in his personal and professional relationships.

"He was a sorcerer." "Onassis has some of that. If you don't answer his letters or his calls, he's showing up in person."

These quotes illustrate Onassis's determined and charismatic personality, which enabled him to influence people and achieve his goals.

Visionary Approach to Business

  • Onassis foresaw the shift from coal to oil and positioned himself to capitalize on the upcoming boom in oil transportation.
  • He invested in oil tankers and became a leading transporter of oil, benefiting from the efficiency and profitability of the industry.
  • Onassis's bold decisions and investments were based on his vision of future industry trends.

"Boldness, boldness, and more boldness." "Onassa's order for such a gigantic tanker was placed because he believed in the future of the oil business."

These quotes demonstrate Onassis's foresight and willingness to make significant investments based on his predictions about the future of the energy industry.

Attention to Detail

  • Onassis was meticulous about the construction and details of his ships, often inspecting them personally.
  • His obsession with detail was a key factor in his success, as he believed that success lay in the pursuit of detail.
  • Onassis's work-life balance was non-existent, as he fully immersed himself in his business.

"The pursuit of detail is the religion of success." "He would then circle the ship again and again, climb aboard it, spend hours making mental notes of what he liked and disliked about the construction."

The quote from Napoleon, which Onassis often cited, encapsulates his belief that attention to detail was crucial for achieving success, and the second quote shows how he applied this belief in practice.

World War II and Focus on Shipping

  • World War II created opportunities for Onassis to profit from high wartime shipping rates despite losing part of his fleet.
  • He decided to concentrate solely on shipping, closing down his tobacco operation to focus on what would become his primary source of wealth.
  • Onassis's ability to adapt and focus on the most profitable aspects of his business was a key to his continued success.

"Even though his fleet had been markedly depleted... he made what was once described as an ocean of money from the war." "Despite the fact that he was realizing handsome profits from tobacco in 1942, Onassa suddenly moved his entire operation to New York, closing down his tobacco operation and concentrating all of his efforts on increasing his shipping interests."

These quotes indicate how Onassis was able to pivot his business focus to take advantage of wartime conditions, leading to substantial financial gain and setting the stage for future growth in the shipping industry.

Stravos Livinos and His Influence on Onassis

  • Stravos Livinos was the owner of the largest private fleet in the world.
  • Livinos was extremely wealthy, capable of acquiring Onassis' holdings for cash without affecting his own assets.
  • He had a deep understanding and experience in the shipping industry, having worked his way up from a deckhand to a captain.
  • Livinos held a master mariner's certificate and enjoyed discussing ships and the sea.
  • He admired Onassis but had reservations due to Onassis' interest in personal publicity.
  • Livinos avoided personal publicity, contrasting with Onassis who welcomed it.

"At that time, Livinos was so wealthy that he could have easily acquired all of Onassis' holdings for cash without markedly tampering with his own assets."

This quote highlights Livinos' immense wealth and his potential financial power over Onassis, indicating the scale of his shipping empire and his financial capabilities.

"He liked Onassis, except for one strong reservation."

Livinos' reservation about Onassis likely pertains to their differing attitudes towards publicity, with Livinos preferring to keep a low profile, unlike Onassis.

  • Onassis focused on building the largest fleet and securing oil contracts.
  • He was successful but also engaged in corrupt practices, including tax evasion.
  • Onassis was arrested for corruption related to violating laws on American ship ownership after WWII.
  • He used shell companies to circumvent the law but eventually faced legal consequences.
  • Onassis' habit of confronting issues in person led to his arrest in the US.
  • The legal issues haunted him throughout his life, affecting his reputation and personal relationships.

"He's going to die 68 years old. He figures this out when he's about 38. So he's got three decades of building, in some cases, anytime there's kind of disruption in shipping channels throughout the world and oil production throughout the world."

This quote outlines the timeline of Onassis' business career, emphasizing his long-term commitment to expanding his shipping empire and capitalizing on global disruptions.

"He's going to wind up paying fines and not spending time in jail."

Despite his legal troubles, Onassis managed to avoid jail time, likely due to his wealth and access to legal resources.

Onassis' Philosophy on Control and Creating His Own World

  • Onassis believed in having control over his time and life, which is a common sentiment among entrepreneurs.
  • He created his own "world within a world," exemplified by his yacht, the Christina.
  • The Christina served as his home, office, and a tool for cultivating influential relationships.
  • Onassis' lifestyle on the Christina reflected his desire for independence and privacy.
  • His relationships with figures like Winston Churchill were both strategic and, in some cases, genuine.

"Being on the sea, in control of wherever he wanted to go, his privacy intact, it enabled him to be the captain of his own directives and to feel totally independent."

This quote encapsulates Onassis' desire for autonomy and how the Christina yacht symbolized his personal freedom and control over his environment.

Onassis' Relationship with Winston Churchill

  • The friendship between Onassis and Winston Churchill was surprising to many due to their different backgrounds.
  • Churchill was a revered public figure, while Onassis was a wealthy but controversial businessman.
  • Their relationship was based on mutual respect and possibly genuine admiration on Onassis' part.

"I met a man yesterday called Onassis. He is a man of mark."

Churchill's diary entry about Onassis indicates a positive impression and recognition of Onassis' significance, despite their different statures.

Onassis' Personal Life and Marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy

  • Onassis had a charismatic personality and was known for his storytelling and social influence.
  • His marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy was unconventional, with a detailed contract and open terms.
  • Onassis' personal ethics were centered on self-benefit, and his marriage to Kennedy was not based on traditional love or fidelity.
  • The death of his son, Alexander, deeply affected Onassis, leading to a period of intense grief and decline in health.

"Jackie is a little bird that needs its freedom as well as its security. And she gets them both from me."

This quote by Onassis reflects his view on his marriage to Kennedy, emphasizing independence and a transactional nature of their relationship.

The Paradoxical Legacy of Aristotle Onassis

  • Onassis' life was full of contradictions, from his personal behavior to his business practices.
  • He was capable of both kindness and cruelty, generosity and pettiness.
  • Onassis had no firm allegiance to any government but was adept at navigating political regimes.
  • His life was a study of paradoxes, and he sought fulfillment beyond what wealth could buy.

"He was a man so gentle that he could happily play with the child for hours while corporate executives cried for his attention. And yet he usually bullied and sometimes physically assaulted the people he loved."

This quote captures the duality of Onassis' personality, showing his capacity for both tenderness and aggression.

"He continually followed one tenet of his own religion at all costs to fulfill his own well-being, and yet he only truly wanted what he could not purchase, the mercy of the gods."

The final reflection on Onassis' life suggests that despite his relentless pursuit of self-interest, he yearned for something beyond material wealth, indicating a deeper existential longing.

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