Jackie’s Husband & the Onassis Mistress: JFK & Callas (& Marilyn Monroe) Get Together

President Kennedy with Maria Callas.

President Kennedy with Maria Callas.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy, born on May 29, had his birthday turned into a massive Hollywood meets Washington convergence at a May 19 fundraiser held in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

President Kennedy at his Madison Square Garden birthday, 1962.

The event proved highly successful, paying off the lingering $4 million debt of Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign with Lyndon B. Johnson as Vice President and laid the groundwork for the anticipated 1964 re-election campaign. It even, so joked the President, held the promise of reducing the federal deficit.

The draw was an array of Jet Age Pop Culture icons from a diversity of the performing arts including Diahann Carroll, Ella Fitzgerald, Jack Benny, Shirley MacLaine, Harry Belafonte,  Jimmy Durante, Marilyn Monroe,  Peggy Lee, Henry Fonda, Jerome Robbins, Robert Merrill, Gwen Verdon, Elaine Maye and Mike Nichols.

The biggest catch of all, however, was the one entertainer who lived overseas and flew over to participate. It was someone whose talents First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy very much admired and hoped to have showcased as the entertainment following a state dinner – but who the President got for his 1962 birthday. That person had, by 1962, become world-famous not only for her voice, but for her love affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.

An opera singer, her name was Maria Callas.

President Kennedy with Maria Callas.

In later years, several of Maria Callas’s operatic performances were filmed and released as feature films; thus, while she was not technically a Hollywood star, she was technically a film actress.  At the time of her performance at President Kennedy’s birthday gala, she was 38 years old and at the height of her fame and talent. Until President Kennedy thanked “Cal-los” (as he pronounced her name), few might have realized that she was a native-born American and spent her early years in New York, daughter of a Greek immigrant George Kalogeropoulos. Frm the podium he thanked Maria Callas, “who came all the way from Europe. She said to Mr. Rosenberg she came from Brooklyn. Her father works for the mayor in the city of New York’s services. And we are very complimented by your coming so far to help us out.” Here is a clip of her performance for him:

Maria Callas dancing with Onassis.

Three years before her performance in Madison Square Garden, Maria Callas had divorced her husband and manager, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, having been pursued for several years by Onassis and taken up with him by 1960.

Maria Callas with Leonard Bernstein, another friend shared with Jacqueline Kennedy.

A year later, however, it was Jackie Kennedy who began pursuing Maria Callas to come and perform at the White House. In a series of letters which Jackie and Callas exchanged, it was clear how strongly the First Lady hoped to have the opera singer sing for everyone’s supper. Maria Callas liked the idea, even suggesting she might be accompanied by their mutual friend, Leonard Bernstein, but her tour schedule did not permit her coming until possibly the spring of 1964. Here are copies of their correspondence in the spring and early summer of 1963:

Jackie Kennedy with her sister during their 1963 vacation in Greece as guests of Onassis.

Of course, as events unfolded, shortly within weeks of Jacqueline Kennedy’s second letter to Maria Callas, the First Lady prematurely gave birth to her second son, Patrick, and he died in August.

The First Lady and her sister while vacationing in Greece.

Two months later, through her sister Princess Lee Radziwill, who lived in London and had become a close friend of Onassis, the First Lady accepted his invitation to take a vacation on his famous yacht, the Christina, joined by her sister, brother-in-law Stanislaus Radziwill,  Navy Undersecretary Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. and his wife Suzanne.

Maria Callas, although usually invited aboard by Onassis to meet many of his famous guests, was not present during the cruise and thus never met Jackie.

Jacqueline Kennedy heads backstage to meet Maria Callas in 1965 during which meeting both women called each other magnificent.

Two years later, however, as a widow, Jacqueline Kennedy finally met Maria Callas, when she went backstage to meet her, following a Metropolitan Opera performance of Tosca. Reportedly both women kept calling each other “magnificent.”

Aristotle Onassis leads former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy from the Greek Orthodox chapel on his island Skorpios following their October 20, 1968 wedding there.

Jackie on the Christina.

Three years after that, on October 20, 1968, the far more famous and ironic turn came when Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis. Not only Jackie Kennedy but John F. Kennedy had met Onassis before their White House years, having been invited aboard the Christina in the early 1950s, while Kennedy was a U.S. Senator and was especially eager to meet former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whom he greatly admired and was a long-time friend of Onassis.

Callas and Churchill on the Christina.

John F. Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis also dined together on at least one occasion in New York and apparently both Kennedys invited him to dinner at their home in Georgetown, before JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign.

There are no known photographs of either Jackie Kennedy with Maria Callas or of John F. Kennedy with Aristotle Onassis. It was only after the show, when the President, his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his wife Ethel, his sisters Eunice Shriver, Jean Kennedy, and Pat Lawford and his brother-in-law, the actor Peter Lawford, joined the entertainers at a private party at the apartment of producer Arthur Krim that the husband of Jacqueline Kennedy met the mistress of Aristotle Onassis.

The actress sings to the President. The only second known image of Marilyn Monroe with John F. Kennedy.

The moment that has come down as the most legendary was, of course, when actress Marilyn Monroe famously sang a sultry version of “Happy Birthday.” The story of that appearance has taken on a life all its own and despite evidence strongly suggesting there was no after-show get-together between Kennedy and Monroe, the public’s fantasy of it as some furtive love story has proven so persistent that the mythology of it having happened has by now overtaken any rational argument that it did not.

It is a story worthy of its own Hollywood Meets Washington column and, if time permits to do it justice, will appear here next week, along with some rare images of others at the event that night.

Marilyn Monroe was also an apparent acquaintance of Onassis, though again no photo shows them together. More appropriately placed here, however, is one photo linking Monroe with her fellow entertainer at the post-birthday gala party held that night in the Krim apartment,when she and Maria Callas met for the first and only time.

Callas and Monroe.

Another image of the two performers, Maria Callas and Marilyn Monroe.


Categories: History, Hollywood & The White House, Presidents, The Kennedys

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21 replies »

  1. FDR’s birthday is Jan 30, 1882. McKinley’s is Jan 29, 1843.

  2. “magnificent” its this article… again!

  3. His “Birthday Balls” may have been held on January 29th, but FDR’s actual birthday was January 30th of 1882.

  4. I’ve read so many different accounts of JFK/MONROE/CALLAS/ARI/BOBBY/PRINCESS LEE meeting & making merry, it’s impossible to even guess how they really interacted. There has been lots of “stuff” out there re PrincessLee being almost engaged to Ari; only to loose him to Jackie. I believe Truman Capote was the author of that rumour. It was rumoured in those circles that Lee & Jackie were no longer close because of their relations with Onassis.

    I haven’t read the most recent books on Monroe, but hope to do so. I am wondering if the records of MM’s psychiatrist in Bev. Hills, Dr. Ralph Greenson, will ever be made public. What a strange relationship that was! My guess is that Dr. Greenson’s records might clear the air on this mess. I tend to think MM did have to pay dearly for her affair with JFK/RFK, if it really happened. These stars & their “personal physicians”make for some of the most sordid chapters in H’wood history.. Some of Truman Capote’s close friends, say his final novel, was never published because of “secrets” revealed in it, especially the secrets re Princess Lee & Onassis

    I look at the pictures for this story, and think of all the sad, unhappy endings many of their lives took.

    • Sad indeed – most of their endings, but then again it is a matter of what the public knows or is told or determines to collectively believe. The Monroe and JFK business is like the story about President Taft getting stuck in a bathtub – you may have seen my two-part story here last year on that – people so desperately want to believe a “good story” that they are almost disappointed when the less-titillating facts are laid out. Capote was a brilliant writer but I suspect his alcohol and drug addictions may have also wrecked havoc with his imagination. I don’t know. But I do think as much as we know about public people, it is only a fraction of the truth, be it more shocking or more mundane. Thanks for writing S.

  5. IThat was a golden age. At least in terms of the supersized talents and personalities that held public attention. Callas, Monroe, JFK, all at the same event!

    I wonder, however, whether Mrs. Kennedy brought too much high culture to the White House. At some point, would the public have felt it was condescension, not just “class” emanating from the Kennedy White House? Callas, Casals, the Mona Lisa, etc., probably meant little to the average American (OK, not the Mona Lisa).

    It’s hard to imagine Mrs. Kennedy having Patsy Cline or a Lawrence Welk (mercifully) perform, but maybe she should have embraced mainstream American entertainment as well as the “hoity-toity” stuff.

    I suspect that the Kennedys may have been trying to show that you didn’t have to be a Boston Brahmin to have good taste and that the gransdon of an Irish-American bartender had as much “culcha” as the Cabots and the Lodges. But, to paraphrase Mae West, was too much of a good thing here necessarily great?

    • I think though that there had been such an entire lack of “high culture” for so many generations that it was novel and the post-war nation was desperate for it – even in the less than three years of that presidency. There were no PBS evenings at the White House television specials at that time, so it was only a matter which people read about at that point. I think it was a balance between the Eisenhower preference for Fred Waring and Guy Lombardo and the LBJs having Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and Carol Channing, and then the Turtles and the Carpenters with the Nixons. And you are right in your assessment that it was part of her intention to show that American companies and American performers were equal to those of the classics (music, dance, art, etc) of what European leaders presented of their own home-grown talents to foreign visitors. She very much wanted to suggest America was no stepchild when it came to talent. And she did have a modern jazz performance too…! Thanks for writing.

  6. Great article. I always enjoy reading the stories you post.

  7. I am so glad you did this piece. I find Maria Callas captivating – loved watching the interviews I found on YouTube – and it’s so interesting to see how all of these bright lights interacted over the years. I sometimes wonder if, beneath the veneer of glamor that covers them, they didn’t just act rather normally with one another and we’d all be terribly disappointed if we heard what they REALLY talked about and REALLY thought. It’s also good to remember that just because people are famous, this doesn’t mean that they know one another or are immune to the same reactions as the rest of us. I can imagine that, with few exceptions, even most of the illustrious personalities who met Jackie or Marilyn or the Queen have been just as giddy as the rest of us. And, honestly, I love thinking about that.

    It’s also rather fun to remember that there were many more performers at the 1962 birthday gala – it wasn’t just a Marilyn Monroe performance. I sometimes envy the innocence of the people of that time when it comes to the private life of JFK and others. They could enjoy the whole scene without looking for all the clues that we seek now.

    Really looking forward to the bit on the Krim party. You know, there must be countless parties and receptions and dinners from that time, and before, that would be worthy of their own write-ups. I may be wrong, but I don’t think that the same could be said of today!

    Another good one, Carl!

    Best,

    Jake

    • Thanks Jake – I don’t think she strictly fell into the category of “Hollywood” but she did perform on film in several shorts and I think one longer version. From what I know, in my limited exposure to such meetings of the famous names, there is more often than not no words of great importance exchanged – as much as I think the public wants to infuse it with meaning and symbolism. And I think you hit the nail right on the head with your observation about all this but it is somewhat astounding when people actually believe that somehow wealth, fame, achievement, and power makes those who have it somehow escape the insecurities, indigestion, aging, excited anticipation of personal milestones that every flesh-and-blood human do. But as far back as the Greek civilization, when philosophers wrote plays about this imagined Pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, people have had a need to admire, adore, worship other humans as if they were super-humans. Maybe the reality of life, living, and death would be too mundane. Anyway, you catch my drift clearly, because you suggest it. I appreciate your being such a close reader and so frequent a reader. Seriously – it means a lot to me.

  8. OH MY CARL, THE STORIES, THE STORIES ARE SHOCKING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I ALMOST FELL IN MY GARDEN INTO THE ROSE BUSH, READING THIS STORY

  9. Wow! Love this story, you have me rereading “As We Remember Her”, but this time with a glass of Lambrusco (Maria Callas favorite red wine), I forgot about Kennedy’s loss of their second son, was it mentioned in your book? It has been a good 10 to 15 years since I read it, yet she is captivating! I love the section you wrote about her reduing the White House. Now off with some red wine, opera, and your book!
    Grazie tanto!
    Ciao!

    • Yes – I did mention that fact, pretty important turning point and coming in what proved to be such a turning point in time – weeks before their tenth wedding anniversary and then his assassination. Anyway, I greatly appreciate your writing – and enjoy your wine! Cheers.

      • I love “As We Remember Her”… I am going to get it out and read it again, too, now that you mention it. You know, Carl, I actually find all of your books highly rereadable. I love the book on the Kennedy White House so much, and I pick up “First Ladies” just to read a bit here and there quite often. I’ve read it through at least three times! Hopeful for that update you mention! You might also put together a little tome titled “First Ladies I Have Known”… I’ll bet you have some great stories.

        • Sorry for the response there Jake…..just so busy right now. You know there’s nothing you can tell authors that gives them a deeper sense of accomplishment than that their work is read repeatedly and mulled over. I think that when you write and rewrite and edit, and edit, the last thing you want to do yourself is read it again! Someday, I might include some of those more personal interactions in an overall memoir – who knows. But I agree, it would be best gathered in one cohesive place rather than spread out in articles. Thanks again for writing.

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