The Book of the Week is “onassis” (sic) by Will Frischauer, published in 1968. The biographer immediately resorted to a disclaimer on his Acknowledgements page. In compiling this volume, he sourced twelve books in his Bibliography, claimed he drew upon interviews, and fifteen years’ worth of his readings on his subject, conceding that “… in many instances the dividing line between fact and fiction is so blurred…”
Nowadays, an equally vague author, whether authorized or unauthorized– to write about a wealthy alpha male (especially a politician) whose crack public-relations mythmakers gloze over unpleasant details– usually has the goal of rewriting history. That did not appear to be the case, at least with this book.
Born in 1906 in Smyrna, Onassis was of Turkish extraction. He was six years old when his mother passed away. His father lucratively sold tobacco, grain and hides. Sent to a Greek Orthodox (Christian) school, Onassis excelled at water polo and, already fluent in Turkish and Greek– became so in English, French and Italian.
In September 1922, when hostilities flared up between the Turks and Greeks, Onassis helped his family (except for his father, who was arrested early on) survive by playing well with parties on both sides of the conflict. His good relationship with the United States Vice Consul (a neutral party) allowed him to reunite with his older sister, two younger half-sisters and stepmother in Athens, and then travel to bail his father out of jail.
The father was furious that Onassis wasted money to bribe the authorities to get him sprung, as he would’ve been released anyway. The Turks froze foreign bank accounts of the family’s business when they took over Smyrna.
In 1923, taking advice from friends, Onassis got a job with a telephone company. He got away with lying about his age (said he was older) and birthplace to obtain an ID card. Then he felt the need to strike out on his own. His persistence paid off after a number of frustrating weeks, when he was finally able to sell his father’s Oriental tobacco to the Argentinians, who had been importing it from Brazil and Cuba.
Onassis was eventually able to get both Argentinian and Greek citizenship with the use of his dishonest identity-document application. After presiding over a failed cigarette business, in the next five or so years, he made his first million dollars. It was unstated exactly how. It was stated that he made business contacts wherever he went, some of whom he obviously inherited from his father.
Onassis was appointed a trade diplomat for the Argentinian government, and got into the shipping business. He started with used ships with Greek registration, then, in the early 1930’s, to avoid petty bureaucrats, switched to Panamanian registration. Other advantages with the latter included financial transactions that were permitted to be made in any currency, that were tax-free.
Onassis revolutionized the industry by ordering the construction of monster-sized oil tankers– with unprecedented capacities of tens of thousands of tons. The Swedes built the boats, and J. Paul Getty shipped the oil to Japan. Onassis, unlike the competition, also built comfortable living quarters for his ships’ crews, to foster employee loyalty.
During WWII, Onassis broke into the whaling industry, selling whale meat to mink farms and whale livers to the Borden food outfit. After the war, he took a bride; she was seventeen, he was forty. They raised their family in Oyster Bay, Long Island.
Yet another unique shipping-related activity Onassis pioneered, involved a risk-management contractual arrangement for international shipping. Prior to its implementation, he thought he had done his due diligence.
Onassis consulted an attorney to make sure he would be complying with maritime law– as he was purchasing surplus vessels of the United States, but registering them under other countries’ flags for purposes of deregulated operations and tax evasion. Nevertheless, by the mid-1950’s, the American Maritime Commission questioned its legality, anyway.
Read the book to learn additional specifics on how Onassis became rich and famous, and stayed that way.