The Argentine Dream: Aristotle Onassis
How Onassis made his fortune in the Southern Cone and became the richest man alive in the 1960s
Welcome Avatar! Even though Argentina can be complicated, opportunities are always luring. So proves today’s story about a broke analogue nomad who would become a billionaire after making his fortune in Argentina. He even ended up marrying a former first lady of the United States.
Aristotle Socrates Onassis was the most famous Greek-Argentine magnate of the 20th century shipping industry and the richest man in the world in his time, so much so that it was said that "if he sold all his assets, Wall Street would tremble." And he didn’t even have to put any Dogecoin logos on his ships!
From Europoor to Latam king
Onassis was born in Izmir in 1906, a kind of Greek enclave in Turkey. His father was in the tobacco business, and when shit was starting to hit the fan in Turkey with a strong nationalist movement targeting Greeks and other minorities, Onassis flees to Athens in 1923.
Life was tough in Athens, and even though Onassis was still a young boy at the time, he remembered that he had some distant relatives in an exotic place in South America called Buenos Aires, and decided to emigrate with his meager savings.
Planting Flags in Argentina
In 1923, Argentina loomed as a thriving power and was promoted as a fertile territory for adventurers seeking to escape misery along the path of progress.
Legend has it that Aristotle Onassis arrived in Buenos Aires by boat with a third-class ticket and just $100 to his name, and that in just two years he had already become a millionaire.
According to the timeline this Mara was able to check, it might have taken a little longer, but he certainly did get rich in record time (about 4 years after arriving in Argentina), and it wasn’t with trading penny stocks or pump- and dumping on his followers.
When I arrived in Buenos Aires in 1923, $100 wasn't much. Hoping that my father's relationships would produce the expected results, I needed to work. Possessing no diploma, I entered the River Plate Telephone Company as a telephone worker.
To get my work permit I had to be six years older, and since I found that Izmir did not look serious on my identity documents, I opted for a place of birth that seemed more honorable to me: Athens.
Once employed, I asked to work nights, which left my days free to find other outlets to let my imagination run wild. A year later, with the help of a loan, I opened my first cigarette factory.
I didn't leave my job at the phone company until I was sure my business would work. I was, then, for a time, employer and employee at the same time. Because my personal strategy has always been to watch my back, just in case of unforeseen circumstances.
From this quote we can clearly see that Onassis implemented the WiFi money principle of first making sure he made enough in his side business before quitting his w2 as an employee.
Another thing that stands out is the relative ease with which he forged his documents to change his age and place of birth. This would be a bit harder to pull off today, but he still got his Argentine citizenship despite this great track record of identity fraud. Where the rules can be bent, they should be.
The First Years
After his arrival, Onassis immediately began to make long tours of the Buenos Aires port trying to get some ship (preferably Greek) to take him as a crew member, to no avail.
He then worked as a dishwasher, a dry cleaner, a night watchman. Finally a distant Greek relative arranged a job for him at the Telephone Union.
In addition to his electrician position, the same telephone union to also put him on the night shift as an operator, which substantially improved his income, to the point that he could begin to send money to his relatives in Greece.
Onassis makes Nancy Peloshi Blush
Thanks to the telephone conversations that he could listen in on as an operator, he became the ultimate inside trader and began to do some business trades with flax oil and leather products.
Being a multilingual telephone operator allowed him to find out about the ups and downs of the stock market through wiretapping, and he used this information to his advantage to obtain profits without much effort while he followed night studies in customs administration at the Argentine Port Customs Society; in his free time he studied the financial market on his own.
With the little income obtained from speculation, he was able to buy sophisticated clothes, and began to frequent the high society of Buenos Aires.
Onassis obtains the Albiceleste Passport & Starts a local company
In 1925 he received dual nationality, and he was now Greek and Argentine. At the time it was easier for Argentine nationals to start a company, and in 1927 with just 250 dollars of initial capital he started his first company in Argentina.
He decided to relaunch the family tobacco business he had left behind in Turkey and Greece in this new import-export company.
After just 1 year in 1928, the tobacco business with Greece represented around 2 million dollars a year for Onassis’ company.
Onassis becomes consul for Greece
One year later, in 1929, close to the Great Depression, Onassis found out that the Greek government had established a 1,000 percent surcharge on imports from countries with which Greece did not have a current trade agreement.
It turned out that there was no such agreement between Argentina and Greece. This represented a serious danger, especially if Argentina would adopt retaliatory measures, and then Onassis could kiss his sweet tobacco business goodbye.
Onassis did not hesitate to travel to Greece, where he convinced the Greek government to not apply surcharges in trades with Argentina.
1929 was also the year that Onassis, obtained Greek nationality as a refugee from Asia Minor as a result of the Treaty of Lausanne. Given the reputation that Onassis had acquired among the Greek Community in Argentina, the government of Athens named him Consul General of Greece in Buenos Aires.
From his new post as Consul, he could intervene in the dispatch of the Greek ships that returned to Europe from the port of Buenos Aires, sometimes three to four ships a day.
With the tobacco business he had already amassed a small fortune, but now he saw how his Greek countrymen made even more cuck bucks arranging the transportation part.
Onassis decided to become a shipowner, if only to emulate his idol, Don Alberto Dodero. His contact with his Greece increased, and he decided to return. At the same time he kept developing his Argentine business in the tobacco export business.
Two families from Buenos Aires were essential for his climb up the high society ladder: the Gaona family and the Dodero family, to which he was closely linked at different times in his life. We’ll see that especially the Dodero family played an instrumental role in Onassis’s life and that of his daughter.
To expand his tobacco-carrying capacity, he purchased two ships in Canada. Upon returning to Buenos Aires with the help of the Dodero family, he registered his first shipping company, Astilleros Onassis.
Making it big with Other People's Money
By 1932, Aristotle had become a businessman with ships, oil tankers and whalers, so he expanded his company worldwide by opening a New York City office.
After a bureaucratic problem in the port of Rotterdam, Onassis clearly showed that flags and countries are just labels for imaginary lines in the sand, changing the flag of his ships to Panama.
This made it possible for procedures such as the number of crew members, taxes and type of cargo to be resolved more quickly, making the process cheaper. He also regularly obtained bank loans, thereby increasing the size of his fleet.
Onassis convinced the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to make him a loan of 40 million dollars for the construction of new ships, offering a contract with an oil company as collateral. The loan would be for the same duration as his contract with the oil company.
Onassis often recalled that pivotal episode in his career:
“It was as if money were being lent to someone who was planning to rent property from Rockefeller. That the house had holes in the roof didn't matter if Rockefeller agreed to rent it; that was enough for the lender.”
Onassis and Perón
As with most historic figures in the postwar period, Onassis had ties with his first government. At the end of WWII, Juan Domingo Perón planned to have an important sea fleet and develop the naval industry.
Perón summoned a group of businessmen willing to secretly discuss the formation of the whaling fleet, to establish their own interest in the project and to make an economic commitment. This consultation group immediately aroused the curiosity of British and American espionage circles.
Alberto Dodero convinced Onassis to join the group, and Perón himself had summoned the Austrian munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl to the conclave in Buenos Aires, even knowing that his status as a Nazi-protected Jew would arouse suspicion.
The team was completed by the naval mechanic Alfredo Ryan, an entrepreneur of repair shops in the Río de la Plata, born in Gibraltar to an Irish family.
Dodero, Onassis, Mandl and Ryan had several things in common: they were already making piles of FU money without looking back; and all of these men had a rare dose of audacity, and had adopted the Argentine nationality before the war. All of the four maintained good relations with Germany during and after the war.
This last detail was important at the time, because suspicions about Nazi capital scattered around the world were circulating rapidly in these years, when Argentina and South America in general was quickly becoming a save haven for Nazi war criminals.
The backgrounds of these businessmen, especially those of Onassis and Mandl, were disturbing for allied espionage services.
Onassis was at the center of the biggest Argentine espionage scandal during the war, when a Nazi agent arrested on a trip to Berlin admitted that the first point of his mission there was to obtain a safe-conduct that would allow an Onassis tanker to leave a Swedish port under an Argentine flag.
Mandl's biography wasn’t much better: he was a close friend of Mussolini and Franco, to whom he had supplied the production of his Vienna factory during the Spanish Civil War. British intelligence had detected him in Buenos Aires at a party in Dodero where he met Onassis.
Not a whole lot of additional details are available about that postwar period, except for the fact that Onassis expanded his business significantly, also thanks to his marriage.
Women, women, women
So much for the analogue business part of our Greek-Argentine protagonist. His personal life is just as interesting as it is tragic.
Women played an fundamental role in his personal life, his family fortune and legacy, as we will see below, and so did Argentina.
Athina Mary Livanos
Onassis married Athina Mary Livanos in 1946. “Coincidentally” she was also the daughter of shipping magnate Stavros Livanos, which made her the heiress to one of the most important shipping companies in the world.
For many it was a very convenient marriage for Onassis, since he learned the shipping business at the expense of Livanos, and was able to take advantage of the family knowledge to expand his empire.
They had two children, Alexander (1948-1973) and Christina (1950-1988), both born in New York.
His marriage to Athina gave him two children, but shortly after his heart started yearning for another woman: Maria Anna Cecilia Sofia Kalogeropoúlou, better known as Maria Callas, a soprano born in the United States but of Greek origin.
He met Maria in 1957, during the Venice Film Festival. At the time Onassis had been married for ten years, and by 1960 he had divorced: Athina could no longer bear his infidelity with the opera singer. Callas also left her husband for Onassis.
In that same year, Onassis founded Olympic Airways (now Olympic Airlines), the first airline to fly the Greek flag.
Callas repeatedly tried to marry Onassis, but they never did. They even had a son together, which died shortly after birth.
The yacht Christina, a floating palace
His fame as a collector of women grew over time and the Christina yacht, named in honor of his daughter, who would tragically end her life in Argentina, was the scene of his most outstanding conquests.
After investing 4 million dollars, Onassis turned it into the most luxurious ship of all time. With 18 cabins, the yacht had capacity for 35 passengers and came equipped with a mosaic pool, and Miró and Renoir paintings.
The world's most outstanding personalities came aboard during Mediterranean Sea trips, with the likes of Winston Churchill, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Liza Minelli and Greta Garbo, all participating in long jetset parties on deck.
The sixties are the absolute consecration of Onassis as a tycoon in this sense: he had paradise lying at his feet, with more money than any sane person would know how to deal with without losing it.
Skorpios, an island with an Argentine Casa Rosada included
Onassis bought Skorpios Island in 1963 for 3.5 million drachmas, or what would be about $12,500 today. Those were the days where a man could still buy an island without breaking the bank.
He quickly turned this rock in the middle of the Ionian sea into a paradise, planting thousands of trees, creating small private beaches with imported sand, and placing a heliport at the highest point. He also built three mansions: one of which he called the “Casa Rosada”, as a tribute to the Argentine Presidential Palace.
A trip on the Christina cruise and a stay on Skorpios Island could dazzle anyone, and the widow of assassinated President John F. Kennedy was no exception.
Onassis was still missing his greatest conquest: the world's most famous widow, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, better known as Jackie Kennedy. They met each other through Maria Callas.
Onassis decided to marry Jacqueline Kennedy on October 20, 1968. Jacqueline insisted on getting married so as not to shock her young children, to which the magnate agreed.
A secret marriage certificate was established that stated that in the event of her husband's death or divorce, Jacqueline Kennedy would receive a third of his fortune and assets. Onassis signed it without thinking this part through in too much detail.
After some time, Jacquie revealed that she had extravagant and expensive tastes that a grieving Onassis had to satisfy with large sums of money, resources and personnel at her service. He soon grew tired of her.
For example, for the morning breakfast, Onassis's personal plane had to fly more than 300 km in the morning, to an island near the island of Skorpios to bring a type of bread that Jacquie loved for breakfast, and she ordered fresh milk from Greek cows to take baths, lol.
In 1971, a worldwide scandal shook the marriage: Jackie appeared completely naked on the cover of the pornographic magazine Hustler, after a paparazzo caught her sunbathing without clothes on Skorpios' private beach.
How could a simple photographer have violated the security of the richest man in the world?
A hypothesis that arose decades later shed light on the subject, and maintains that it was Aristotle Onassis himself who spread the word that his wife was sunbathing naked among journalists and eased the security of the island so that photographers could capture the images of Jackie sunbathing naked.
It was not a happy marriage. Within a few months of their marriage, he started to refer to her as “his widow”.
The long road down tragedy lane
That was the beginning of a fateful decade for Aristotle. When everything seemed like a movie script, tragedy would strike the Onassis family over and over again, relentlessly, to the very end.
In 1973 his son Alexander died in a plane crash. The episode plunged the patriarch into a great depression from which he did not recover.
In 1974, his ex-wife Athina, who had remarried one of Aristotle’s competitor, committed suicide with a drug overdose. Her daughter Christina did not bring serenity to the family, quite the contrary, and her relationship with her father was going through its worst moment.
The Greek magnate died in 1975 in Paris, the victim of pneumonia. His years of compulsive smoking finally caught up with him, but even more so the sadness of having lost his only son, who was only 24 years old.
Although most of his estate was inherited by his daughter Christina, Jackie Kennedy ended up cashing a $25+ million dollar check when Onassis kicked the bucket, thanks to that secret prenup.
Christina: aftermath in Argentina, where it all began
Aristotle's only daughter Christina would marry four times, and divorce four times. She had an only daughter, whom he named Athina, after her mother.
As we’ve seen above, within the span of 29 months, Christina Onassis had lost all of her immediate family.
After losing her father, Christina renounced her US citizenship. Instead, she maintained dual Greek and Argentine citizenship throughout her life. A smart thing to do from a tax perspective.
Christina’s death in Argentina
On November 19, 1988, at the age of 37, Christina’s body was found in the bathtub of a mansion in the Tortugas Country Club, located in the district of Pilar, province of Buenos Aires, owned by her close friend Marina Dodero who had come over to visit (yes, from that same Dodero family we discussed above).
She died in the place where her father Aristotle began his personal fortune, and in the circle of friends who bear the same surnames as the Argentine high society that helped Aristotle Onassis establish his first financial contacts.
Cristina's death and the circumstances surrounding it confirm that reality is often stranger than fiction. The Argentine press affirms that Cristina's presence in Buenos Aires and her two trips in less than a month were related to her plan to marry Jorge Tchomelkdjoglou for the fifth time.
This alleged Onassis fiancé is a 43-year-old Argentine textile businessman of Greek origin, brother of Marina Dodero, Cristina's schoolmate and direct heir of the important Dodero family fortune.
At the time of her death, Christina’s 3-year old daughter Athina Roussel was in Switzerland with her father and her stepmother.
Given the family history and the circumstances surrounding her death, the Argentine justice system retained Cristina's body for several days.
Her remains could only leave Argentina when the judges made sure that there was a sufficient number of viscera left to carry out a toxicological test to clarify whether she had ingested any substance that could have caused her death.
The autopsy found no evidence of suicide, drug overdose or crime, and ruled that Onassis had died of a heart attack, caused by acute pulmonary edema.
According to her friend Marina, Christina didn’t commit suicide, but died of drinking too much Coca Cola (more than 24 bottles daily, which wasn’t a great addition to her existing insomnia).
Athina, Aristotle’s three-year-old granddaughter, was left the sole heir to the family empire, and her fortune was managed by a group of executors until she came of age.
The fortune was estimated at 2.5 billion dollars. Athina was raised in Switzerland by her father Thierry Roussel and his wife, and she gained control of half of her estate on her 18th birthday.
The yacht was donated by Christina Onassis to the Greek state to be used as a presidential boat but the government sold it to the Greek businessman Yannis Papanicolaou after two decades of decline due to high maintenance costs. The boat is currently moored in Monaco and can be rented for 90 thousand euros per day.
Skorpios Island had a similar fate. After Aristotle's death, the 83-hectare island was left abandoned until 2013, when Russian billionaire Dimitry Rybolovlev bought the island for $138 million as a gift to his daughter, Ekaterina Rybolovlev.
Legend has it that Aristotle Onassis dreamed that this island would always remain a family property, but as is often the case, once the casket closes all those earthly possessions tend to end up in other people’s hands, unless the estate is managed by the De Medici family.
The life story of Onassis is intrinsically linked to the history of Argentina in more ways then one. Both in the ups and downs.
As a skilled businessman he did not hesitate to use bribery, insider trading and eavesdropping, politics or extortion to increase his fortune. He used his passports to his advantage, and did not care too much about national borders or flags.
He lived the Argentine dream like no one else, arriving with spare change to become the richest man on earth.
See you in the Jungle, anon!
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