To sell or not to sell the snug corset and black stockings worn by Maria Callas?—that was the question. After much fretting, the answer auctioneer Frédéric Chambre came up with was oui, oui. The diva’s delicates will go to the highest bidder in the first auction of her intimate belongings, to be held in Paris on Dec. 2 and 3. “A lot of people didn’t think of Callas as a woman, only as a singer, but this is wrong,” says Chambre, 37, who set up the event. “She was a beautiful, amazing woman, a real woman.”
La Callas, who died of a heart attack in 1977 at 53, would have adored knowing that she still inspires such ardor. But the opera legend—who once said, “Only my dogs will not betray me”—would likely not have been surprised that fans may pay some $1 million for 417 lots of her loot, from Mario Valentino heels (estimated at up to $2,900) to a pair of the nearsighted soprano’s Bakelite eyeglasses ($12,900).
The trove comes from two collectors—an Italian and a Greek—by way of Callas’s sister Jackie and the estate of Callas’s husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, whom she dumped dramatically in 1959 for Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. While Meneghini devoted himself to Callas’s art, her soulmate Onassis once likened opera to “a lot of Italian chefs shouting risotto recipes at each other.”
To the opera world, his words are blasphemy. With her fiery talent and temperament, Callas not only revolutionized opera but metamorphosed from a poor, pudgy Greek girl into a svelte superstar. None of the adulation, though, quieted a deep insecurity that Nicholas Gage, author of Greek Fire, a new biography of Callas and Onassis, says began with an unstable mother who alternately criticized Callas and cadged money from her. A fed-up Callas finally told her mother to get a job or, failing that, “jump out of the window or drown yourself,” TIME once reported.
It wasn’t until she began a nine-year affair with Onassis that Callas felt cherished. “Others loved her for her voice,” says Gage. “But he loved her for herself.” That is, until he too betrayed her by marrying Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968. Yet Callas and Onassis remained close until his 1975 death. When she died two years later, she left behind legions of fans, known as Callas Widows. More than 700 of them have reserved seats at the sale. “When you have a figure like Callas,” Gage says, “you want a memento.”
Dietlind Lerner in Paris and Aaron Smith in New York City