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Both dynamic entrepreneurs, Niarchos and Onassis built giant shipping companies in Greece from relatively humble beginnings. But the rivalry between these two men is more complex and enthralling than the average business narrative. In many ways, it is positively Shakespearian.
Aristotle Onassis was born in 1906 in Smyrna, which today is İzmir in Turkey. After the great fire of 1922, Onassis left his hometown and moved to Argentina where he got his first big break launching his own cigarette company targeted at American women. From cigarettes, Onassis moved to ships. Already a millionaire when he bought his fleet, shipping exponentially increased Onassis’s fortune. As well as the fleet of ships, Aristotle Onassis launched Olympic airlines and a large, international real estate portfolio. He is also famous for becoming the second husband of Jackie Kennedy. The pair remained married until Onassis died in 1975.
Stavros Spyros Niarchos was born in Athens in 1909. His family was affluent and had moved back from America to Greece just months before he was born. Niarchos studied law at the Athens university and then went on to join his mother’s family grain business, working with the mills. When he realised that the business could become more profitable if they owned their own ships, Niarchos’ fate transformed. This idea was to spark the beginnings of an empire. It is reported that at one point, the Niarchos company operated more than 80 tankers. Alongside this fleet, Niarchos also developed an impressive modern art portfolio and owned racehorses.
As two dynamic Greeks changing the shipping industry, the pair were quickly in competition business-wise. Relations became more intertwined when both men married the daughters of another shipping tycoon, Stavros Livanos. Onassis first married Athina (known as Tina), with whom he had two children, Alexander and Christina. The Guardian obituary of Stavros Niarchos refers to a rumour that Niarchos wanted to marry Tina, but Onassis managed to capture the heart of the youngest daughter first. Instead, Stavros Niarchos married Eugenia Livanos in 1947. The pair had three sons and one daughter.
One can only imagine what family gatherings looked like, with both magnates competing to be favourite son-in-law as well as the richest men in the country. Such harmonious maritime matrimony was not to last.
Aristotle Onassis and Tina divorced in 1960, reportedly because she found out that Onassis was having an affair with the opera singer Maria Callas. The relationship between Callas and Onassis would become one of Greece’s most revered romances. When Onassis left to marry Jackie Kennedy in 1968, many in Greece were heartbroken. The Kennedy and Onassis wedding took place on Onassis’s private island, Skorpios. In the meantime, Tina Onassis married the Marquess of Blandford and moved to live in the United Kingdom.
A few years later, in 1965, the marriage of Stavros Niarchos to Eugenia Livanos also came to an end. It emerged that Niarchos was having an affair with Charlotte Ford, the 24-year-old daughter of the American Tycoon Henry Ford. Ford and Stavros had one child, but the romance did not last. Niarchos went back to Eugenia in 1967. The Greek Orthodox church had never dissolved their marriage.
Another tragic twist was to come. In 1970, Eugenia died from an overdose of barbiturates. For a time, there was controversy around her death. However, Niarchos was exonerated by the prosecution.
Yet, it came as a surprise to some when two years later, shrouded in secrecy, Stavros Niarchos married Eugenia’s younger sister and former wife of Onassis, Tina. Almost from the beginning, the marriage was ill-fated. Onassis’s son Alexander died in a plane crash in 1973. In 1974, Tina also passed away. She suffered a fatal heart attack while in France.
Stavros Niarchos died in Zurich in 1996; Aristotle Onassis died some years earlier, in 1975.
Today, the lasting legacy of both families can be seen through the seismic cultural foundations that each has in Athens. Always eager to compete, the buildings continue to rival each other in terms of location, design and cultural programme. These huge buildings serve as a lasting reminder of the power, prowess, controversy and loss that these legendary names evoked during their lifetime.