Thursday, September 2, 2021. It was partly sunny, mainly cloudy most of yesterday in New York with temps in the 70s, growing darker by late afternoon as if rain would be coming. It had been forecast but it had been forecast the day before too and nada. Then about 6:30 it started lightly and got darker as it got heavier. By 7 p.m. it was heavy. And has stayed that way right up to the moment of this writing, with the National Weather Service sending Flash Flood Warnings in areas around the city.
You may have seen the news this week that Sirhan Sirhan, the accused assassin of Bobby Kennedy, was granted parole a few days ago after serving 53 years behind bars. Coincidentally JH and I had prepared a Diary I wrote about that time in our late 20th century American history. The piece was inspired by a book written by a British journalist and biographer, the late Peter Evans, titled Nemesis.
The murder of Robert Kennedy, like that of his brother John, remains unclear decades later, to the point of disbelief. We tend to take it for granted in retrospect. Our political history has more than a few incidents of outright murder of Presidents. That’s not exactly mild stuff. Yet we seem to have a high tolerance for it.
Nemesis, which is mainly about Jackie Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis and their lives — together and separately — is an excellent portrait of a way of life in that time and the international prosperity of post-World War II U.S. All of the characters in this story were experiencing that expansion and many were living high, wide and handsome. Or so it seemed to the outsider looking in.
I remember the afternoon in 1968 when it came over the news wires that Jackie Kennedy was marrying Aristotle Onassis. I was in the technical analyst’s office of a Wall Street firm long since lost in merger oblivion. One of the analyst’s assistants pulled the paper out of the teletype machine and asked, dumfounded: “who do you think Jackie Kennedy is going to marry?”
“Aristotle Onassis,” I answered.
He was shocked at my accuracy: “how did you know?”
In retrospect, I don’t know how I knew. I must have read about the two being seen together in one of the columns — most likely in Suzy, whose society column in those days was in the Daily News.
The analyst wasn’t the only one shocked by the news; the whole country was. Shocked, and dismayed in that proprietary way that individuals feel about the private lives of public persons. Jackie Kennedy was, at that moment, the nearest thing to a saint in the eyes of the American public — and maybe the world. She belonged to the public whose memory of her at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral a little less than five years before, not only garnered an enormous and lasting outpouring of public sympathy, but an even greater respect than she already had as First Lady.
At the time of the Onassis announcement, Jackie was just 39. With the exception of Elizabeth Taylor, she was the most famous woman in the world. And, unlike Taylor, whose fame was related to her highly publicized love life, Jackie’s fame was beatific — the beautiful, widowed mother of two small, now fatherless children, who had emerged from the horrific with triumphal grace. She was an icon of such unimpeachable respectability and elegance that she was beyond reproach.
She was well aware of her “public” persona we also learned the year before, in 1967, when author William Machester was about to publish his book The Death of the President. When the author balked at making certain editorial changes that she requested (changes which actually altered the truth), she tried to stop its publication. Counseled that such an action could make her look bad in the eyes of the public, she famously retorted: “The only thing that could make me look bad would be if I ran off with Eddie Fisher.” (Eddie Fisher, a few years before had been publicly humiliated when Elizabeth Taylor left him for Richard Burton.)
Aristotle Onassis was no Eddie Fisher although he was not held in high regard by the American public. He was the Greek shipping tycoon, a somewhat mysterious figure who spent much of his time on his 357-foot yacht the Christina and entertained the rich and the famous, including his one time mistress, the fabled Maria Callas, as well as Sir Winston Churchill. Americans were most familiar with Aristotle Onassis because only a month before the assassination of JFK, in October 1963, Jackie Kennedy, who had given premature birth to a son who died less than two days later, went for a “rest” cruise on the Onassis yacht in the Aegean.
Her sister Lee Radziwill, unbeknownst to the general public, although still married to Prince Stanislas Radziwill, had been having an affair at the time with the Greek shipping tycoon. The trip was presented to the American public as a chance for a rest away from the hectic White House schedule and spend time in her sister’s company. It was accepted that way also.
Why do I bring all this up now? I literally tripped on the book that jogged these memories as I was cleaning up the house today. It’s called Nemesis and it was written by the late British journalist Peter Evans (JH and I shared tea with him a couple times when visiting London).
Nemesis is about that aforementioned trip and many other matters, shocking and almost incredible were it not for the author’s detailed unfolding of the complicated story. The book is subtitled: The True Story; Aristotle Onassis, Jackie O, and the Love Triangle that Brought Down the Kennedys. That’s a big chunk of change, quite a claim to make about the most famous American family of the 20th century. However.
“Nemesis” is a Greek word, if you didn’t know; the goddess in classical mythological terms, of divine retribution. Or, as the Random House Dictionary puts its: downfall, undoing, ruin. Waterloo. I remember finishing this book in one sitting (or rather, over a weekend), and was left wondering about its title. Who? Nemesis of whom? Answer: everyone involved.
This is a story about the man, his wife — and mother of his two children, Alexander and Christina Onassis — Tina Livanos, who later married Sunny, the present Duke of Marlborough and then Stavros Niarchos, who had previously been married to Tina’s older sister Eugenie, who was probably beaten to death by her husband; Maria Callas, Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, John and Robert Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, Lee Radziwill, Jackie, and a large cast of individuals, some known — such as Johnny Meyer who worked for both Howard Hughes and Onassis; Charlotte Ford, who was briefly married to Niarchos and was a friend of Stash Radziwill; Fiona Thyssen, once married to steel magnate Heinrich, and lover of much younger Alexander Onassis — and some unknown to most of us such as David Karr, an international “fixer” and mystery man who introduced Onassis to another man named Mahmould Hamshari who “just after the Six Day War suggested to Fatah that they kill a high profile American on American soil. Fatah declined but Hamshari was undeterred.” The tale leads from Hamshari to Los Angeles and among others, a hypnotherapist named William Joseph Bryan Jr., and ultimately, as the dots connect, to a Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan.
Connecting the dots: Onassis hated Robert Kennedy. The feeling was mutual. Nemesis.
Connecting the dots: when Jackie Kennedy took that first trip on the Christina after the death of her child, although the White House presented the voyage with a “positive spin,” they did not want her to go. They being her husband, the President, and his brother Bobby. They couldn’t stop her, however, and one reason, according to Peter Evans’ book, was because she was in a fury over her husband’s constant dalliances including while she was in labor with the ill-fated child.
The trip on the Christina, changed everything: Jackie, in effect, stole Onassis away from her sister, beginning a relationship (sometimes an affair), that culminated in a marriage announcement only weeks after the assassination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles in June 1968.
A friend of mine who spent a good deal of time with Onassis on his yacht never read this book. He liked “Ari,” (as he was known to his friends) and would rather not go there. I thought of the late Lady Sarah Churchill, the duke of Marlborough’s sister, who also spent a lot of time with “Ari” on the Christina, who adored him, found him “the most charming man in the world,” (and who also, incidentally, didn’t care much for Jackie). She wouldn’t have liked this book but probably little in it would have surprised her.
Nemesis. Most of the characters, the main players in this story, are dead now, many of them under tragic circumstances: JFK, RFK, Marilyn Monroe, Alexander Onassis, Eugenie Niarchos, Tina Onassis Niarchos, Callas, more than a few of them (including the previously mentioned Karr and Hamshari and possibly Bryan) were murdered or possibly murdered.
“So this it seems is what it is to be a king,” Jacqueline Kennedy said to her host Mr. Onassis when first on board his yacht with its crew of 58, two hairdressers (from Paris), three chefs (French, Italian and Greek), a Swedish masseuse and a steward and private maid for every stateroom.
Five years after that initial trip, when Mrs. Kennedy was taking Mr. Onassis around to introduce him to her “social” American friends, Peter Evans writes in Nemesis: “… Their subtle ostracism” (referring to Jackie’s friends) “was a source of amusement as well as anger to Onassis. ‘Everybody here knows three things about Aristotle Onassis,’ he answered when Johnny Meyer asked how he was coping with Jackie’s crowd: ‘I’m fucking Maria Callas. I’m fucking Jackie Kennedy. And I’m fucking rich.’”
That last sentence, those four words, put it all, succinctly, in a nutshell. The American public was disappointed when Mrs. Kennedy took that initial trip on the Christina. She was later surprised at the reaction because she was well aware of the power of her public image. The public was even more disappointed when she married Onassis but she was “forgiven” because of the circumstances of her husband’s death and because of her children, to whom she was judged to be a devoted mother. Although after her marriage to Onassis, there was much press on her extravagant spending. So it was easily concluded, and also accepted, that she was in it for the money.
Chapter Thirteen of Peter Evan’s book begins with a quotation of Saint-Marc Girardin (1801 – 1873): “Too heavy a price may be paid for wealth.” After the death of Onassis, his widow (whom he had been planning to divorce, and had hired Roy Cohn as his lawyer), was left, according to Evans, “a fixed annual income of $200,000. to be revoked — and his executors and heirs were instructed to fight her ‘through all possible legal means’ — if she challenged the will in any way.”
Jackie did not take it sitting down. Jackie, claims Evans, knew “far too much” and because of that, his principal heir, his daughter Christina, caved to her stepmother’s demands. Twelve months later, the two parties agreed to a final settlement of $26 million (about $200+ million in today’s currency), plus an annual income of $150,000 and many other items, including paintings, sculpture, and objets d’art.
… When Christina wrote out the final check — and “before the ink was dry, Jackie reached over and pulled (it) out of her hand” — Christina laughed in her face.
“It was dirty money anyway Johnny, and I reckoned she’d earned every penny of it,” she (Christina) told Johnny Meyer, enigmatically.
Dirty isn’t the half of it.