We are terribly excited to present to you the next edition in our series of guest posts. Here, the talented Oline Eaton (King’s College London) explores the implications of stereotypes in her work on biography. We look forward to hearing your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below!
Pirates of the Aegean
Halfway through the writing (which is far too simple a word as it’s more like an exorcism) of the third chapter of my biography of Jackie Onassis, I was surprised to see the emergence of a piratical theme. Images of rubies, treasures, pilfering, and plunderers studded the text, along with an embarrassment of similes involving semi-precious gems.
The imagery was vivid and the story read well, almost too well, which is why it struck me as off.
These pages covered the early months of Jackie’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis, quiet months wherein she was often alone whilst Onassis, working to close a business deal, commuted to Athens. Not the stuff of high drama, so it was odd that the prose had the momentum of a swashbuckler.
Re-reading these pages, I realized that, though Onassis emerged from them as a colorful and memorable character, it was a character steeped in stereotypes.
While it was tempting to dismiss this as the fault of lazy writing and re-write the whole thing, as I’m doing a PhD that explores how we can re-tell Jackie’s story by engaging with the ways it has been told in the past, that wasn’t an option. And so I examined the story telling.
Jackie’s is a story with which I’m now intimately familiar. Why, then, was I telling this particular part of it in this particular way? There had to be a reason.
There was. I’d fallen back on this portrayal because, historically, it is how Aristotle Onassis has been depicted: as a pirate.
This image took root early. In 1954, two years before he and Jackie met, the Peruvian press reportedly called him ‘a whaling pirate.’ In 1963, when she was planning to vacation on Onassis’s yacht, we’re told JFK warned Jackie— in dialogue more evocative of a made-for-TV movie than real life— of the shipping tycoon’s pernicious ways. ‘Onassis is a pirate,’ John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, allegedly cautioned his wife. ‘That’s not just a turn of phrase. He is a real pirate.’
A real pirate! The image, presumably, stemmed from Onassis’s business success, to which—in America, at least—the stink of ill-gotten gains would always cling. Often, he would be identified as ‘The Greek Tycoon’, with the emphasis on his Greek-ness (an inaccuracy as he was born in Turkey) implying that Onassis’s success was the result of foreign and, therefore, not entirely legit tactics.
Pirates are, at times, romanticized, but make no mistake, his was a decidedly un-sexy business. In the press, the man was always found wanting: he was too short, too Greek, too rich, too ugly. In October 1968, the Italian publication L’Espresso celebrated his marriage to the former Mrs. Kennedy— a woman still, five years after her husband’s death, receiving letters addressed simply to ‘Lady Kennedy, USA’— by pronouncing the happy bride-groom a ‘grizzled satrap, with his liver-colored skin, thick hair, fleshy nose, the wide horsey grin, who buys an island and then has it removed from all the maps to prevent the landing of castaways.’
It’s unclear whether the writer found Onassis’s purchase of the island or his cartographical interference more repellent, but this screed from Italy captures the general vibe in America then. As Jackie’s sister, Lee Radziwill, observed shortly after the nuptials: ‘If my sister’s new husband had been blond, young, rich, and Anglo-Saxon, most Americans would have been much happier.’
Jackie was a national treasure and Onassis was Blackbeard come to plunder America’s queen.
Not surprisingly, this characterization of Onassis leeched into the biographies. In Kitty Kelley’s Jackie Oh! (1978), he is ‘an international buccaneer with a sixth grade education,’ whilst Lee Guthrie’s Jackie: The Price of the Pedestal (1978) casts him as ‘a modern pirate, a Mediterranean womanizer, social climber, and shipping tycoon who also happened to be one of the richest men in the world.’
Sarah Bradford’s America’s Queen (2000) seemed to auger a more nuanced portrayal when she introduced him in her text as an Odysseus figure, a comparison Onassis himself was evidently wont to make. Unfortunately, when her narrative arrived at the marriage to Jackie, Bradford reverted to the old trope, flatly declaring, ‘Onassis was a pirate,’ and, a few lines later, again referencing ‘Onassis’s piratical image and jet-set baggage.’
As Jackie’s biographer, it’s tempting to give into this notion of Onassis as pirate—his biographical baggage, if you will—not because it makes for easy story telling, but because it aligns so well with my sense of who Jackie might have been.
She liked calculated risks and adventure. She was, repeatedly, attracted to successful men of dubious repute and questionable character. Upon her death in 1994, George Plimpton wrote: ‘I’ve always identified Jackie with pirates […] Her father looked like a pirate. She married a pirate, Ari Onassis.’
In her story, the image of Onassis as a pirate makes sense. Which is likely why it’s been so frequently used.
But can we justify its continued use? Just as it’s an injustice to Jackie to impose Freudian readings on her remarriage and say she only married Onassis because he reminded her of ‘Black Jack’ Bouvier, so it seems equally unethical to reduce Onassis’s complex self to piratical imagery. What goes missing in such limited portrayals? In the forty years wherein Onassis has been nothing but a pirate, what aspects of his character have been obscured? What have we lost?
Never mind that Elizabeth Taylor called him ‘charming, kind, and considerate,’ an acquaintance declared him ‘a moral leper’ and a business associate said ‘He is black in his heart!’ I daren’t think he was all sweetness and light, but was he all bad? By and large, the biographical portrayals would suggest so, a circumstance for which the piracy imagery is, in huge part, to blame.
He’s always a tycoon, always a pirate, always misleadingly identified as Greek. And yet, how irresponsible and inhumane to suggest that’s the full extent of who he might have been.
Oline Eaton is a doctoral student at King’s College London. Her current work- a mix of theoretical and practical interrogations of biography- uses the Greek life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as a case study to experiment with a gossip-based, adventure-driven, reader-directed form of life narrative.
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