Friday, October 10, 2008

Night of Aristo

Robert Lindsay and Elizabeth McGovern the debut performance of Aristo at Chichester.
by Peter Evans

It was while driving down to the Minerva theatre in Sussex for the press night of Aristo, the new play by Martin Sherman -- based on my book Nemesis: Aristotle Onassis, Jackie O, and the Love Triangle That Brought Down the Kennedys, now the closing production of the prestigious Chichester festival season -- that I realised it was exactly 40 years that Onassis asked me to fly to Paris to discuss writing his official biography – or ghosting his autobiography. He wasn’t sure how he wanted the book handled at that point, he only knew that finally he wanted to “come clean” about his extraordinary life – “the way it really was, the whole kit and caboodle.”

It was an intriguing proposition, and seemed almost too good to be true because the one thing billionaires can’t afford is to level about how they accumulated their loot. (‘Anything but that, my dear,’ as Calouste Gulbenkian once remarked.) But Onassis was a charmer – seducer might be a more appropriate word – and, over a long and rather bibulous lunch at Maxim’s, I was duly seduced. The outcome was Ari, The Life and Times of Aristotle Onassis, published in 1986.

Robert Lindsay as Aristotle Onassis.
I had never met Onassis before he summoned me to Paris. I later learned that I had been recommended to him by J. Paul Getty. He had written to Getty, whom he worshipped – he was once photographed sitting adoringly at Getty’s feet – saying that he was considering writing his life story and could Getty suggest a suitable writer to work on the project with him.

The old oil man had returned Onassis’s letter, with my name and telephone number scrawled in the margin. I was at that time interviewing Getty for a magazine profile and had spent several days with him in London and at Sutton Place, his estate in Surrey. He was not the sort of man who wasted time on matters that did not directly benefit his own interests, (lest we forget, he had a payphone installed in his hall for guests), and I suspect that mine had simply been the first name that came to into his head.

At our first lunch, Onassis did most of the talking, his voice, carefully modulated and with the faintly rasping tone of a sixty-a-day cigarette man, or a serious whisky drinker (he was both), had an accent that carried the longing cadence of the exile, which I would discover he knew how to use effectively on women. His eyes were hidden by the dark glasses which had become his trademark – Ari was very conscious of his image – but I knew they would be alert, speculating, not without humor. He wore a conservative blue suit with a monogrammed white silk handkerchief in his top pocket. Only his hands surprised me. Strong and hard-looking, to the touch they were as soft as a young girl’s.

He told me about his early life, his childhood in Smyrna, now Izmir, the massacre of 1922, in which so many of his family were killed by the Turks, his flight to Argentina, where he made his first fortune, and made love to his first opera star, Claudia Muzio. The seduction of Muzio revealed the energy and guile, the romanticism, too, (he sent her flowers for a week before presenting his card at her dressing room,) which were to be familiar elements of his success. ‘The secret of making money,’ he would later tell me, ‘is to figure out what works for you and keep repeating it until it doesn’t work, then try something new.’

We were accompanied at that first lunch by Johnny Meyer, the legendary Hollywood PR man who had recently ended a long association with Howard Hughes. On the surface Meyer was a Runyonesque character. A born storyteller and entertaining company, he never forgot the indiscretions of others and was a valuable source of information for Onassis. I liked Meyer. Although always respectful to Onassis, he was never afraid to drop a provocative one-liner into the conversation to nudge it in the direction he thought Onassis should take it. ‘Maria used to think you were a Greek God, Ari – now she thinks you’re just another goddam Greek,’ he said when Maria Callas’s name was mentioned.

Diana Quick as Maria Callas in Aristo.
I remember it was the first time I’d heard Onassis laugh. ‘We all know what Maria thinks of me,’ he said. ‘But what do you think of me so far, Mr. Evans?’ he asked.

I said that he had style. He thought about that for a little while. ‘Style, perhaps, but they say I have no class. Fortunately, people with class are usually willing to overlook this flaw because I am very rich. You can’t buy class, but you can buy tolerance for its absence,’ he roared with laughter.

I got the impression that he had prepared for our meeting and I was seeing a performance, although I was sure he could convince anyone of anything when he put his mind to it. Nevertheless, the alchemy of mystery, money and sex held the promise of a remarkable story, and before we left the restaurant that late afternoon in Paris we had a deal.

So much of this came back to me while watching Aristo at Chichester.

The brilliant English actor Robert Lindsay plays Onassis in the Chichester production. Elizabeth McGovern’s Jackie – complete with that voice that Maria Callas told me reminded her of ‘Marilyn Monroe playing Ophelia’ – and Diana Quick’s vengeful but loving Callas are on the money.

But there were moments in Lindsay’s performance when I felt that Ari was back – bragging, cajoling, loving, hating and slowly and knowingly dying with extraordinary courage before our eyes.

His Onassis is by turns charming and irascible, generous and cruel, treacherous and oddly noble, too – even in his most diabolical moments one feels that there is something holy in him trying to get out. It is a character I knew and loved in spite of his faults and the crimes I later learned he had committed.

Watching Aristo, I remembered a line Onassis liked to quote from his favourite philosopher – Aristotle, naturally: ‘The present contains nothing more than the past.’

The evening was that good.

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