Aristotle Onassis was born in 1906 in the Greek town of Smyrna (later occupied by Turkey). The few facts available regarding his childhood suggest that those years were rather difficult: he lost his mother when he was still a baby, and his father remarried a year and a half later. His relationship with his stepmother was extremely bad: they were in a state of continuous warfare, he regarded her as a usurper, and refused to obey her. At one point, the situation with his stepmother became so bad that the young boy was sent to a friendly neighbor’s house to stay for a while. Also, his relationship with his father was not much better. A wealthy wholesale merchant in Smyrna, he was a strict father who was feared by his son.
As a result of these problems, Onassis mostly brought up by his grandmother. He also did poorly in school, which he entered at the age of seven in 1913. He did not like studying and constantly skipped class. He was also extremely disruptive and annoyed his classmates. As a result, he was expelled from all the schools he attended. His desperate father then wrote one of Aristo’s teachers that he was contemplating “suicide because of that boy.” Under those circumstances, it was not surprising that Onassis never finished his studies. When he took the final exams required for a high school diploma in 1922, he failed -and he never tried again.
The same year, the situation became even more difficult for him: the Turks invaded Onassis’s town of Smyrna after defeating the Greek Army. Young Onassis -then 16- was caught up, as he would often recall later, in the disaster that followed. The Turkish Army swept the town from one side to the other for many days, killing, looting, and burning. Men and women were taken forcibly out of their homes and killed in the streets. Churches filled with refugees were covered with oil and set on fire, while people trying to come out were bayoneted on the church steps. When the mayhem ended five days later, about 120,000 Greeks had been lost. Smyrna was entirely destroyed.
Onassis’s father gathered his family inside their home when the Turks entered the town and closed the doors and windows. Terrified, they watched the destruction through cracks in the walls. Their only source of income, the shop in the town, had been destroyed. On the fifth day, the Turks entered the house and arrested the father, leaving young Onassis as the only male there. The next day, Onassis took on the responsibility of rescuing his family. He went out into the chaotic streets of Smyrna, and there by chance he met the American vice-consul. With his intervention, the Onassis family was transferred immediately on a small boat to the nearby Greek island of Lesbos. But Onassis stayed behind to rescue his imprisoned father.
He soon managed to visit his father in prison, where he found him ill and distraught. When Onassis was leaving the prison, the Turks arrested him. But he managed to escape; terrified he ran to the vice-consul’s office. The next day he was on his way to Lesbos -disguised as a sailor on an American warship. Three weeks later, the Onassis family arrived at the Greek port of Piraeus -as war refugees- in a miserable condition.
Onassis’s father was later released and joined them. But the family’s uprooting was, for young Onassis, an oppressive experience. Throughout the next year (1923) he had “a feeling of futility” -as he said later- and spent his days in Athens lonely and withdrawn. He didn’t have any contact with his former classmates who’d also come to Greece, and he was not willing to get involved in any way in the business -tobacco trading- that his father had started under difficult circumstances.
In desperation, he got the idea to immigrate to the United States. But he could not obtain a visa, so as a second choice he decided on Argentina. Unfortunately his father was vehemently opposed, so much so that he refused to even give him the money for the tickets. Onassis was forced to ask some of his friends for a loan. He obtained an insignificant amount, and with it embarked on a risky venture. In August 1923, he departed from the Greek port of Piraeus, arriving a month later in Buenos Aires. He was only 17, clutched a torn suitcase, and was penniless.
His first priority was of course to find a job. He soon realized that wouldn’t be easy. To keep himself alive, he had to wash dishes in restaurants and haul bricks on construction sites. Finally, in March 1924 he found a job at the Telephone Company of Buenos Aires as an electrician. Since he wasn’t making enough money, he had to request the night shift, so that he could do another job during the day. This was not the Argentina Onassis had dreamed of.
But in 1925, Onassis’s fate changed. As soon as he found a decent job, his next step was to work out a deal with his father so that he could start selling Greek tobacco in Argentina. Early in 1925 he began corresponding with his father and soon they’d repaired their relationship. Before long, he convinced his father to send him samples of high-quality Greek tobacco. With the samples in hand, Onassis started visiting the cigarette manufacturers of Argentina to try to sell them tobacco. He quickly received his first order, for $10,000. Since the quality of the tobacco was excellent, a second order followed soon, for $50,000. The orders came faster and faster. Onassis couldn’t even find time to sleep. By May 1925 he had managed to put $25,000 in the bank -not bad for someone who had recently been penniless.
The same month, he quit his telephone company job and started a business of his own: he began manufacturing his own cigarettes -in the small room he was living in. That business was very successful, and soon Onassis started living the high life. He frequented music halls and clubs, and formed friendships with wealthy young men. Early in 1926, he moved out of the small room he had been living in and took a hotel suite in the most distinguished part of Buenos Aires. He also bought a car and took French and English lessons.
But the season was still “springtime”: there are some rain showers, too. In the summer of 1929, the Greek government increased the import duties from countries with which it did not have commercial agreements by 1,000 percent. Argentina was among those countries and Onassis feared that Argentina would retaliate by increasing the import duties for the Greek products, making the trade of Greek tobacco impossible. He decided to return to Greece the same year (1929) to persuade the authorities to exempt Argentina from the increased duties. After a stormy discussion with the Greek Prime Minister, Onassis -then only 23- finally won the battle. The spring shower had passed.
Onassis’s visit to Greece had another benefit: not only was he reunited with his family but the reunion had a touch of triumph. He was the successful son who had come back, the son who was sending money to the widows in the family for the educational expenses of their children. The reconciliation with his father, furthermore, was now complete. Returning to Argentina later in 1929, Onassis made his first foray into a field of activity that would eventually bring him staggering wealth: shipping. He bought a dilapidated 7,000-ton ship that was 25 years old.
But the great deal of money came from the tobacco trade. Between 1930 and 1931 he expanded the business to Cuba and Brazil. A year later, a new source of profits was added: the Greek government acknowledged his commercial potentials and appointed him the country’s consul in Buenos Aires -at the age of 26. In that position, Onassis could now obtain foreign currency at official rates and resell it in the free market at huge profits. That position also gave him two more advantages: he was able to acquire Argentinean citizenship, and he made many important contacts in the international shipping world.
In the fall of 1932, Onassis assembled all of his savings -around $600,000- and sailed to London, the maritime world’s capital, to buy ships. Because of the economic crash of 1929-1932, the ships’ prices had declined precipitously. A ten year-old freighter, which had cost $1 million to build in 1920, could now be obtained for $20,000. Onassis didn’t take long to find what he was looking for: a whole fleet of ten such ships were for sale in Saint Lawrence in Canada. In the winter of the same year, he was found in Saint Lawrence. After brief negotiations, he bought six of those ships in 1933 – for $20,000 each.
Onassis’s career as a ship owner had begun.