Aristotle Socrates Onassis was born on January 20, 1906, in Smyrna, Turkey, to Anatolian Greek parents. His father, Socrates, was a successful tobacco trader. Onassis and his sister, Artemis, grew up in wealth but were touched by tragedy early. Their mother died when Onassis was six years old.
Anatolia is the name of the peninsula that forms the Asian side of Turkey. The European side is called Thrace or Rumelia. Anatolia, which is also known as Asia Minor, comes from the Greek word for “east.” The ancient city of Troy was located in Anatolia, and Onassis's hometown, Smyrna, was the reputed birthplace of Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
After World War I, the area was briefly occupied by Greece. But when Turkey recaptured Smyrna, the Onassis family lost everything. Then, because the Onassis family was Christian, they were persecuted by the Islamic government. Several members of Onassis's family were put in prison and sent to work camps. Three of his uncles were executed by hanging. The family moved to Greece as impoverished refugees, leaving just before the Turkish Army conducted a massacre of non-Turkish citizens.
A year later, in 1923, Onassis sailed to Argentina, leaving home with just $63 in his pocket. He supported himself with a succession of odd jobs: dishwasher, telephone operator, construction worker. He eventually established a thriving tobacco business in Argentina. He moved to New York and used that nest egg to invest in shipping tankers. He was a millionaire by the time he was twenty-five.
Around 1940, Onassis moved to Hollywood, where he lived the life of a rich bachelor. He dated movie stars — including Joe Kennedy's former mistress, Gloria Swanson — and ingratiated himself to the entertainment community. But by 1946, he was ready to start a family. He returned to Greece and began wooing Athina Livanos, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Greece's wealthiest shipping magnate, Stavros Livanos. It wasn't love that spurred Onassis's advances; it was partly business and partly revenge. Onassis bitterly resented Livanos and other members of the Greek shipping union for refusing to let him participate in a very lucrative deal with the U.S. government. By marrying Athina, Livanos had no choice but to accept Onassis, who many considered a shady businessman at best. When Tina's sister Eugenia married Stavros Niarchos, Onassis joined with his father-in-law and new brother-in-law to form the most powerful shipping group in the world.
Onassis kept looking for ways to expand his business empire. In 1953, he acquired a majority interest in SBM, which controlled much of Monaco. Through SBM Onassis co-owned one-third of Monaco's real estate. Next, Onassis tried to make an exclusive deal with the Saudis to transport their oil in his tankers. It was at this point that Onassis's business practices came under scrutiny from the U.S. government. The FBI investigated Onassis and discovered fraud — by law, all ships carrying the American flag must be owned by an American citizen. Onassis pled guilty and paid a $7 million fine. His run-in with U.S. authorities also cost Onassis the deal with the Saudis. Undaunted, three years later he founded Olympic Airlines, the national carrier of Greece.
When the Suez Canal closed in 1956, Onassis made millions because he was the only independent ship owner with enough available tankers to transport oil around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. It was around that time that Onassis first met Jackie Kennedy when she and John F. Kennedy went for drinks aboard Onassis's yacht, Christina.
Onassis invited the young senator and his wife on board the yacht to meet Sir Winston Churchill, one of John F. Kennedy's idols. While the meeting between Churchill and Kennedy was anticlimactic, Onassis was immediately taken with Jackie.
Onassis and Athina had two children — Alexander, born in 1948, and Christina, born in 1950 — but the marriage was far from perfect. Onassis was a serial adulterer, and his wife could not ignore the infidelities. She became addicted to alcohol and painkillers. The marriage unraveled for good when Onassis began a very public affair with opera singer Maria Callas, and the couple divorced in 1960. By that time, Onassis was one of the richest men in the world.