Paul Ioannidis, Onassis Expert, Talks to TNH

NEW YORK - When Paul J. Ioannidis wrote a book in Greek about his life with the legendary Aristotle Onassis and his children ,“Κι αν δεν είσαι, θα γίνεις” (2008), he surprised many people. Not only by the wealth of information it contained – some of it about Greek history – but also by how well the book was written. It came to prove once again that some of the best books on history are written by non-historians. Many of us felt that it had to be translated in the English language too, so that it would be read even more widely than the Greek edition. And now, the book is available in English, indeed: Destiny Prevails: My Life With Aristotle, Alexander, Christina and Her Daughter, Athina (2003, Livani Publishing). And it is every bit as captivating as the Greek version. The author recently sat down with us to discuss his book and, more broadly, some of his experiences with the Onassis Family.

NEW YORK – When Paul J. Ioannidis wrote a book in Greek about his life with the legendary Aristotle Onassis and his children ,“Κι αν δεν είσαι, θα γίνεις” (2008), he surprised many people. Not only by the wealth of information it contained – some of it about Greek history – but also by how well the book was written. It came to prove once again that some of the best books on history are written by non-historians.
Many of us felt that it had to be translated in the English language too, so that it would be read even more widely than the Greek edition. And now, the book is available in English, indeed: Destiny Prevails: My Life With Aristotle, Alexander, Christina and Her Daughter, Athina (2003, Livani Publishing). And it is every bit as captivating as the Greek version.
The author recently sat down with us to discuss his book and, more broadly, some of his experiences with the Onassis Family. We began by asking him how he gained Onassis’ trust in the first place. “Onassis motto was: ‘You can buy capability but you can’t buy honesty and loyalty. Either you have them or you don’t,’” Ioannidis replied. The other characteristics needed in order to maintain Onassis’ trust, he continued, were courage, the ability to cope with difficult situations, consistency, and essential professional knowledge.
Ioannidis’ greatest motivation for writing the book, he said, “was my desire to record the details of some events involving the Onassis Family that were unknown, as I experienced them in my life, and which relate to Aristotle Onassis as a businessman and as private individual.” He listed some of those:
– His children – Alexander and Christina, who both died tragically before their time – and his granddaughter, Athina.
– Certain unknown aspects and problems that arose regarding the establishment of the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation.
– The serious problems due to the unethical and unreasonable demands made by Thierry Roussel, Athina’s father, both before and after the Christina’s death.
– Highlights of the history of Olympic Airways.
– The longstanding dispute between the executors of Christina’s will and the administrators of her estate with Roussel and with the Swiss authorities.
A close advisor and friend with the Onassis Family for a long number of years, including 56 years with the Onassis Group, Ioannidis is “the last living person that experienced these events from the inside and I wanted to write down the real facts exactly as they happened and the reason why they happened. Many stories have been told and many rumors have been spread around all these years, which do not reflect the truth.”
How did Onassis rise from virtually nothing to amass such a tremendous fortune, and even to become a household word throughout the world by marrying Jacqueline Bouvier, the widow of President John F. Kennedy? Ioannidis explained: “Aristotle Onassis was not an ordinary man. Apart from his qualities as a smart and pioneering businessman, he was also a charismatic person with an impressing personality. He was ambitious and managed to enter the circles of high society. His hospitality was legendary and his guests were treated regally. This fact, coupled with his innovative and daring business ventures gained him world recognition and respect. In other words, he became famous but not infamous.”
Did Ioannidis dare exclaim that the emperor had no clothes, so to speak? “Onassis trusted me because I had always the courage to tell him what I believed about all the pending issues which were coming up for discussion,” he said. “I never hesitated to disagree with him even in cases that a decision was already made by him and a few times I managed to convince him to change his decision.
“I will give you an example. It was back in 1966. During a strike of the Pilot’s Union, mainly involving wages and other demands, the situation became out of hand and Onassis decided as a counteraction, to run a full-page ad in all newspapers, printing the names and the corresponding salaries of all pilots and flight engineers, so that the public would be informed of what they earned. I was informed about this development on my return from a flight, and upon arriving I went straight to the head office where Onassis, the Managing Director, Costas Konialidis, and all the managers were gathered. Onassis was adamant about his decision and refused to hear anything to the contrary. After I greeted him I said: ‘I heard about your decision regarding the ad in tomorrow’s papers. I think that your anger is justified. You are right, but these salaries shouldn’t be printed.’ ‘Why?’ Onassis retorted angrily. ‘Because many of the pilots and flight engineers have not told their families how much they really make, each one for his own personal reasons. Some may want to help their relatives and their wives complain that they are spending too much money, others because they have other obligations to meet, which they cannot justify, in addition to many other reasons. The strike is going to end sooner or later, Mr. Onassis. And we are going to keep on working with these men. It is better if we don’t open up a can of worms with their families.’
“He listened to me carefully. He thought about it for a bit, and told me: ‘You really don’t think I should go through with this?’ ‘Yes, Mr. Onassis. I really don’t, for the sake of the airline. It’s not a problem for me, personally.’
“Then, Onassis turned to Konialidis and told him not to run the ad. Everyone was amazed. However, since they have told all the newspapers to hold a full page in the next day’s edition, they replaced the list with a full page ad for Olympic. The readers must have thought that the company had gone mad. We were advertising our routes in the middle of a strike.”
We asked Ioannidis to talk to us about Onassis’ courage and intuition, which he describes in the book. The author answered by referring to a very specific example: “On July 22, 1970 an Olympic airways B-727 with 80 passengers on route from Beirut to Athens was hijacked. When the airplane flew over Rhodes, a man entered the cockpit armed to the teeth and stated that he was a Palestinian and was taking over the airline along with four of his comrades, which included the infamous Leila Khaled, who had participated in many hijackings. Their goal was to secure the release of seven of their comrades who were been held in Greek jails. The airplane landed and parked in a spot that was far from the airport terminals. One of the hijackers walked down the airplane’s staircase holding a machine gun.
“Onassis also happened to be in Athens during that time. As soon as he heard that we had a hijacking, he came to the airport. The hijackers demanded that the airplane be refueled and said they would give up the 80 passengers they were holding as hostages in exchange for their imprisoned comrades.
“At some point during the negotiation, Onassis told me: ‘I am going to speak with them.’ ‘I don’t think that it would be advisable at this point,’ I said to him.
‘But if you go I will accompany you,’ I said. ‘No, you are going to stay here,’ he replied.
“We tried to change his mind, but he was adamant. He wanted to propose to the hijackers that they release all the passengers and take him instead, with the promise that the authorities would, surely, allow them to take off.
“And so he headed over to the airplane, with his hands out in the open, outside of his pockets. As he approached the hijacker, a woman, Leila Khaled, came out. They spoke for quite some time, and then Onassis returned. He was astonished and disappointed that they refused his offer.”
On another topic, an extremely painful one for the tycoon, Ioannidis described how “Alexander’s death was a crushing blow for Onassis. He lost his son and heir, whom he loved so much and in whom he took such great pride. I would say that he adored him – just in his own way.
“Sadly, the two men had a troubled relationship. Alexander often complained about his father and deep down he believed that his father did not loved him. There were, in fact, times when his father’s behavior – justified or not – was not the best it could have been, especially in front of third parties.
“When Alexander would speak to me about how he felt, I would try to convince him that his feelings were justified to a point, but that his father not only loved him, he literally adored him and beamed with pride over him.” Ioannidis explained how he reassured Alexander time and again.
“I am sure you will remember me one day because of what I am telling you,” I used to say to him. And I was right. When Alexander embraced his father as the latter was about to board a plane, Onassis walked back, with tears in his eyes, to give his son an additional hug. “Remember what I told you?” Ioannidis asked the young man, who was visibly moved by the experience.
Ioannidis also had a close, father-child type relationship with Christina. About her death, and his own negative feelings about Roussel, he said: “After Christina was pronounced dead in Buenos Aires the prosecutor ordered an autopsy. The results of the autopsy showed that the cause of death was an acute pulmonary edema.
It was said that the coroner did not detect any drugs or chemical agents that could have led to Christina’s death. All these statements were made verbally, but never in writing. Of course, the question remained: what brought about the acute pulmonary edema that led to Christina Onassis’ death?
“This question remains unanswered. It is beyond any doubt that the unethical behavior of Thierry Roussel even before their marriage and almost until the day of her death, caused many serious psychological troubles to Christina and certainly broke her heart.
However, due to her strong character and the immense love for her daughter, Athina, she managed to overcome her bitterness and was ready to make a new start in her life. Unfortunately, her untimely death marked the end of the Onassis Family saga, which resembles an Ancient Greek tragedy.
Despite Ioannidis’ close bond with Onassis and his children, he was unable to replicate that closeness with Athina, who, because of her father’s Rousse’s influence, Ioannidis believes, remains averse to having any contact with him or with the other “bad Greeks” that were part of her grandfather’s inner circle.
“Following a decision of the Onassis Foundation’s Executive Board and the Advisory Committee on September 7, 2006, we sent an invitation to Athina to attend two events in Athens: first, the opening of the exhibition entitled “Aristotle S. Onassis – Beyond his Myth,” held on October 4 of that year, celebrating the centennial anniversary of her grandfather’ s birth and the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation. The second event, which took place two weeks later, was the awards ceremony for the International Onassis Prizes. Athina did not even send us a response, although her attorneys assured us in writing that they forwarded our letter to her. I am truly sorry about that.”
Back to Aristotle Onassis, the patriarch of the troubled but seemingly ubiquitous family: why, though he could have had virtually anyone in the world he wanted in his closest entourage of confidantes, did he choose mostly Greeks? “That was because Onassis was very proud being a Greek. Despite the disappointments that he received along the way, he strongly believed in Greeks.”