November 09, 1998 12:00 PM

Aristotle Onassis was already one of the world’s wealthiest men when Kiki Feroudi Moutsatsos first walked into his Athens office in 1966. Just 17, she was hoping to land a job in the Greek shipping magnate’s office. Moutsatsos didn’t even recognize the diminutive tycoon when he stormed by, too preoccupied with the decline of Greece’s currency to return her smile. But moments later, when the superstitious Onassis learned that the value of the drachma had suddenly climbed, he called Moutsatsos into his office for a second look. Ten days later he hired her as a private secretary. “He believed in faces,” says Moutsatsos, now 49. “I was good luck for him.”

Onassis knew about ill fortune too. The divorced father of two troubled children, he fought constantly with his love-starved daughter Christina and was inconsolable when his favored son Alexandros was killed in a plane crash at 24. Though the suave Onassis had squired countless beauties and had spent the last seven years of his life married to Jacqueline Kennedy, his tempestuous affair with his true. love, opera star Maria Callas (“They thought they were two souls in one soul,” Moutsatsos says), spanned two of his marriages and ended in their mutual unhappiness.

Rumors about Onassis’s epic life and loves filled tabloids for years after his 1975 death, but Moutsatsos—a trusted personal assistant during his last nine years and a longtime employee of the Onassis-founded Olympic Airways—kept what she knew to herself. Married in 1977 to engineer George Moutsatsos, she made no serious attempt to write about the Onassis family until 1996, when coincidence brought Boston writer Phyllis Karas to the cliffside hotel Moutsatsos has run on the Greek island of Santorini since 1994. Paired with an eager collaborator, Moutsatsos shaped her memories into a book, The Onassis Women. “So many authors have written so many silly lies,” she says of existing tales about the Onassis clan. “It was my duty to write the truth. This is my present to the family.”

A onetime refugee from Turkish territory who rose to vast wealth and power, Onassis too loved giving presents. And he especially enjoyed lavishing extravagant jewelry—including a diamond ring worth $1 million—on the mercurial Callas. “She looked like a Greek goddess,” Moutsatsos recalls.

When he first met the tall, dark-eyed diva in 1958, Onassis was still married to his second wife, Tina, the daughter of one of Greece’s wealthiest families and the mother of both of his children. A year later, after he saw Callas’s overwhelming performance in the opera Medea, both of their marriages were as good as over. “My brother loved making love to famous women,” Onassis’s sister Artemis told Moutsatsos. “Maria was the most famous Greek woman of our time.”

Onassis and Callas reveled in their passionate and often turbulent affair during the mid-’60s, but Artemis—who had raised her younger brother from the time he was 6—did not approve. “The Onassises thought Ari should marry someone from a regal family,” Moutsatsos says. So while Callas neglected her beautiful but fragile voice to cruise the Greek isles on Onassis’s yacht Christina, his sister was urging him to replace the tempestuous singer with a worthier woman—a princess, perhaps.

Artemis more than got her wish when Ari married Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968. And though rumors soon spread that the union of Onassis and the widowed American First Lady was a marriage of convenience, Moutsatsos says the truth was far warmer. “Jackie was like a cat, very tender,” she says. “She liked to show she needed protection. And Onassis loved helping her.” He doted on her children, taking Caroline and John Jr. on fishing trips during their visits. And Ari and Jackie were occasionally discovered making love, once on his jet in midflight, another time in a rowboat on Onassis’s island Skorpios. Yet the tycoon yearned for his mistress. “Jackie knew about Maria,” Moutsatsos reveals. “But she knew Onassis could love two women in a different way.”

His love of his two children was more problematic. Although Alexandres, born in 1948, and Christina, born two years later, drifted away from their mother after she divorced Onassis in 1959, both wanted then-parents to remarry each other. The Onassis children kept their distance from Jackie, and Christina—always a jealous competitor for her father’s attention—called her widowed stepmother jinxed, destined to bring bad luck to her father. Still, Christina’s rage only alienated her father, who criticized her appetites for chocolate, diet pills and dubious men. “Once I got a call that Christina had tried to kill herself,” Moutsatsos recalls. “When I told Onassis, he said, ‘Let her go to hell.’ He was just exhausted by her.”

Onassis had a different reaction when the dashing Alexandros perished in a plane crash in 1973. “He went crazy with grief,” Moutsatsos says. His hair gone white, Onassis grew sullen, conversing with his dead son at his mausoleum on Skorpios. Unmoved by Jackie’s—and even Callas’s—efforts to ease his pain, he withered and, on March 15, 1975, died of a muscular disorder at the American Hospital in Paris.

Two years later, Moutsatsos arranged for Callas to take a secret trip to her lover’s grave on Skorpios. Holding white roses at the airport, the heartbroken diva, who died of a heart attack weeks later, seemed to know she too would soon be gone. “We had nothing but each other,” she said to Moutsatsos of the man who had found that even wealth and power could not buy good fortune. “And for a little while, but just a little while, that was enough.”

Peter Ames Carlin

Toula Vlahou on Santorini

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