“To Have a Home Here…”
In June of 1961, following her famous visit to Paris with President Kennedy and further itinerary to Vienna and London, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and her sister Lee Radziwill made their first visit to the nation of Greece.
Jackie became especially excited about the visit after her conversations with Greek Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis and his wife during a luncheon she and President Kennedy hosted for them on April 1 and she learned about just how much ancient history was still to be found in evidence there.
The experience, however, far exceeded her expectations.
There was a call on the Greek royal family, like the one she’d just had with the British royal family. There was water-skiing and swimming while luxuriating on a private yacht, as pleasurable an experience as those she’d relish on taly’s Amalfi coast.
Greece, however, especially moved Jackie Kennedy not because of the expected welcome of ceremonial flourish by the Greek government for her as an official but rather the unexpected embrace by the Greek people of her as a person.
She arrived there with an impressive knowledge of its traditions but left with an emotional grasp of how entirely integrated those were in the daily lives of even the village peasants she encountered.
The more ancient ruins she visited and classical plays she attended, the more spontaneously she would taste its food specialties and dance barefoot to its music at a street festival.
When it was over, she declared to a gathering of Greek reporter with conviction, “I want to return and bring my children here.”
She added, with conviction, “I want to have a home here someday.”
Seven years and four months later, she got one.
She could never have imagined then, however, the circumstances under which her dream would be realized.
In all the running commentary which still continues about why Jackie Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis half a century ago, and what the two of them could have possibly shared that would sustain them as a happy husband and wife, the premise always defaults to her presumed motive of securing unfathomable wealth and his of possessing the world’s most famous person.
Others, in seeking to further understand the marriage of a woman who was a public symbol of the national tragedy of her first husband’s assassination that millions to a ruthless pirate of a tycoon usually list a series of external factors to more rationally conclude that they could possibly have loved each other.
Even among those who knew them as real people and appreciated their human complexities, the marriage of Jackie Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis is often reduced to a clash of identity labels: age, social backgrounds, physical appearance, nationality, education, ethnicity, religion.
A number of internal yet powerful factors, however, allowed their genuine mutual affection to develop into a mature appreciation if not romantic love for who each really was as a person.
Ari and Jackie could turn on intense passion for what moved them. His was more verbal and explosive and hers was more poetic and ethereal. Often neglected in examinations of what made their marriage tick is their mutual passion for one subject which came to the fore when they were literally on common ground.
For well over half of their six year and five month marriage, Ari and Jackie Onassis shared a depth of knowledge about Greek culture and continuously pursued even more of it. No place seemed to focus this passion more than the base they shared, a place in that country of unearthly natural beauty, their home of Skorpios Island (which they tended to spell with a “c” not a “k”).
As the previous article in this series showed, the immediate public reaction to the October 20, 1968 Onassis marriage was hostile shock.
Within two weeks, however, an intense curiosity about the newlyweds arose around the world, arousing seemingly everyone with an opinion about the match.
Even the usually humorless Mao Tse-tung, revolutionary Chairman of Communist China, couldn’t refrain from a bit of speculative, amused gossip about the marriage: “If Soviet premier Khrushchev had been killed instead of Kennedy, I don’t think Mr. Onassis would have married Mrs Kruschev.”
Not only supermarket gossip magazines but legitimate news sources were soon enough offering sweeping assessments about the newlyweds, based on tidbits emerging in off-handed remarks by those who had been with them on Scorpios.
Ari’s wealth and Jackie’s fame were always an element in the stories about them.
Most of the news about them was drivel, reporting what diamonds Ari allegedly placed on her breakfast tray or what type of caviar Jackie ordered for their baked potatoes in restaurants, all tapping into the mythically outlandish assumptions always made about the outrageously rich.
Then a story about a pre-nuptial contract appeared.
As the media evolved the story of just what was in this reputed legal document between Ari and Jackie, the more prurient the claims of codicils dictating the number of nights they must share a bedroom or the weekly allocation of funds he gave her which she must spend in Greece.
No copy or original of such a document ever appeared if, in fact, it ever existed.
With or without a news story that might be factual or fantastical, photos of Ari and Jackie Onassis by the thousands continually appeared in newspapers and magazines.
Invariably, however, the pictures showed them entering or exiting cars, restaurants and airports.
All the public really learned about them as people was that they didn’t drive themselves, liked to eat out and took planes more than boats to get around the world.
Only those very few people invited to spend time with both of them in the rooms of their private spaces shared by the couple who had a real sense of how they lived, be it on the yacht or the island.
The Yacht: Christina
The most prurient yet persistent question, however, remained unanswered: what did the room they shared look like?
Certainly, if one looked for indications of the presumably extravagant lifestyle in the private home shared by one of the world’s wealthiest men and one of the world’s most famous women, there was more than ample evidence for it in the outfitting of the famous Onassis yacht, the Christina.
There were tales of solid-gold bathroom fixtures, the bar with stools covered in whale scrotum skin, the wood-paneled library with working fireplace, and the mosaic tile dance floor which could be lowered into a swimming pool.
As photos showed, all three claims were true.
At one point early in their marriage, Ari and Jackie Onassis gave access to the rooms of their yacht and island to a native Greek paparazzi they trusted. Several years ago, some of the images he snapped appeared on the market for sale.
These somewhat grainy, black and white pictures of the primary rooms of the Christiana are rarely seen in the public domain, but not unique.
Certainly, the one of the yacht bedroom at the time it was being shared by Ari and Jackie Onassis is published here for the first time.
The images offer a suggestion of how the couple lived, at least while aboard the yacht.
The Island: Skorpios
Unlike the photographs of the yacht, those taken of the Onassis family, and the former First Lady in particular, and their life on Skorpios and Athens are almost all previously unpublished, certainly in the U.S.
Since the $153 million sale and recent possession of Skorpios and its three residences by Ekaterina and Dmitry Rybolovleva,, a family photo album was discovered.
The color images provide the first pubic glimpse into the place Ari and Jackie Onassis called home, although it is difficult to always discern which rooms are from which house.
The main house is a large villa situated at an elevation affording breathtaking views of the water from stone terraces.
Apparently built by Onassis for Jackie, its grand exterior seems to belie a simple and modern interior architecture.
Nearer the shore is a smaller house, Its exterior walls covered in the sandstone which traditionally mark those seen in Mediterranean homes but painted a soft shade which gave it a magical glow at dusk.
He called it “The Pink House.”Onassis had purchased Skorpios only six years before Jackie Kennedy came to live there with him as his wife.
There are three residences on the island and several smaller buildings which can house up to almost fifty guests, the thirty servants and eighteen gardeners who worked there full-time and utility centers for the considerable upkeep of the entire property.
The recently-discovered color images of the Onassis Skorpios island rooms, appearing in numerous Greek publications but none thus far, apparently, in the U.S. do not delineate which room is from which home, but some scrutiny of the exterior structure of “Jackie’s Villa,” and the “Pink House” offer some suggestion. It is unclear if a family member took the images in the 1970s or later, during the brief occupancy of Christina Onassis alone, or who the original photographer and thus copyright holder may be.
Certainly, an inviting space seen in the new pictures is a large living room with breathtaking views of the island. It seems fairly clear that this room was located on perhaps of the second story of “Jackie’s Villa.” Some of the images, once enlarged, become blurry but nevertheless provide a sense of the room.
There are two clay tennis courts, a swimming pool with an impressive fountain beside it, even a farmhouse where goats and other livestock were raised to produce fresh dairy products, meats and cheese.
A greenhouse afforded freshly-cut flowers all year. There was a helipad built to permit the Onassis helicopter a place to land. His two seaplanes were docked at an interior cove, reached by small launches.
There is also a modest Greek Orthodox chapel. This was not only where Jackie Kennedy married Onassis but also where he remains buried in a crypt, along with his son, daughter and one of his sisters.
A lushly wild but otherwise barren property when Onassis first purchased it, he immediately began landscaping portions of Skorpios with pine and palm trees and those bearing fruit and nuts. Paved roadways encircle the island and a drive through an endless grove of olive trees is said to be an especially magical experience.
There is also a desalination plant but no fresh-running water, which must be brought from a nearby mountain top. Onassis bought the mountain. There is also a large electrical generator.
After coming to live on Skorpios, Jackie Kennedy would introduce wild blueberry bushes into the loamy soil near the shoreline, the moisture and temperature being a perfect match to that of Long Island’s East Hampton in New York where she’d spent many hours of her childhood summers rambling through the brush gathering and snacking on her favorite fruit.
The thick underbrush of bushes and shrubs that Onassis had also transplanted seemed to have matured right on schedule by the time of his second marriage.
The couple happily discovered that it served as a protective wall of cover resistant to the prying telephoto lenses of paparazzi who rowed as close as they could to the island without getting arrested for trespassing.
The foliage is also home to a wide variety of native and exotic birds who flocked their feathers there permanently for several generations now.
While the edges of the island were landscaped and maintained, the vast majority of it remained wild and overgrown with a forest variety indigenous to other Ionian Sea islands.
The simple homes and the relatively plain rooms seem to have been created to give fuller attention to the more remarkable natural beauty of Skorpios which surrounds them.
Almost more impressive than any structure on the island is the precise and meticulous stone masonry work of the courtyards, terraces and balconies around the homes, the stairs and the walls which lined the paved driveways and walkways.
None of this was ever apparent in the relatively few images of Skorpios which had been previously seen publicly.
On another side of the island, in a lagoon cove of quieter waters, Onassis found the perfect spot for a private beach.
To create it instantly, he shipped in tens of thousands of tons of fine sand. Here he built a one-story beach cottage with terra-cotta walls and open-air windows through which soft breezes wafted.
The family referred to it as the “taverna.”
Alongside the beach cottage was an outdoor brick terrace, shaded by a cover of reed twigs and the thickening green leaves of growing grapes which ripened, ready for picking in summer.
Beneath there were rattan scooped-out oval chairs with white-piping blue cushions, similar to those found in the houses and on the yacht. Inside was a simple kitchen where afternoon luncheons of freshly-caught fish, and salads of greens, onions, peppers and beets which were all grown on Skorpios, were prepared. A big fan of cucumbers, Jackie also had a small garden of these also planted, yielding enough of a harvest to supply her and her guests with the green in all forms, including her particular favorite cold cucumber soup.
Jackie Onassis especially protected her time on Skorpios when she could be there alone with Ari. It was on the island, she later reflected, that he was at his best, relaxed, generous, philosophical and funny. The moment he was on the Christina, he would inevitably retreat after breakfast to his office, entirely absorbed in his business matters, emerging only briefly for meals, working into the wee hours with very little sleep.
Yet even on this remote paradise with all of its houses, this person who fiercely protected her personal privacy needed not only time alone for herself, but an isolated place for her solitude.
Also on Skorpios, tucked into a cove which is so shrouded in a tall, leafy grove where the water laps the shore is a small and simple cottage, with one door, that Ari built for Jackie Onassis. More than any other place, this was “Jackie’s Villa.”
This is the second installment of the “Ari & Jackie Onassis” series . You can read the first article by clicking here.