Maria Callas would have been 92 years old today and almost four decades after her death, the Greek American opera singer still commands the news and media. At her peak, Callas was one of the most famous and written about women in the world.
A symbol of jet-set elegance and sophistication and a staple on the world’s tabloids, top stages and red carpets, Callas was a hot-headed temperamental celebrity who had a fiery love life, including a sordid on again off again affair with Aristotle Onassis.
Callas was born Maria Kalogeropoulos in New York City in 1923 to Greek immigrant parents. She impressed many as a child singer and pursued her training when her family returned to Greece. She began singing professionally in 1941 and was soon performing in major opera houses throughout the world.
Her voice is considered as one of the most dynamic in operatic history.
She died in Paris in 1977 at age 53 following a heart attack but her persona and legendary status as a diva on and off the stage is entrenched in the public’s persona until this day.
Two of the best (of numerous) books that have been published chronicling the life of Maria Callas came from two fellow Greeks— Arianna Huffington and Nicholas Gage.
In Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend, Huffington taps a wealth of previously unpublished material and numerous first-hand interviews to document Callas’ interminable conflict with her mother, her deeply emotional relationship with her voice, the gradual unraveling of her first marriage, her passionate love affair with of Aristotle Onassis, her agony and humiliation at his leaving her, and her secret abortion.
Nicholas Gage, best known for his best-seller Eleni, spent years researching for Greek Fire: The Story of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis, which like its title suggests, focuses on some of the most scandalous years of Callas’ life— her love affair with Onassis, which captivated the world from the moment it began in 1959.
To commemorate her 90th birthday two years ago, The Los Angeles Times published five extraordinary rumors about the soprano that have never been confirmed— nor denied.
(1) Callas once swallowed a tapeworm to lose weight. A rotund child who battled the bulge well into adulthood, Callas was deeply insecure about her weight — at one point, the 5-foot-8 singer was believed to have weighed more than 200 pounds. Urban legend has it that the soprano ingested a live tapeworm in an attempt to shed fat. Another rumor has her experimenting with a special kind of pasta. Callas rejected the gossip, claiming that she lost weight naturally.
(2) She bore a son with Aristotle Onassis, but the child died soon after birth. Though she is believed to have been infertile, Callas was rumored to have had a love child with Onassis, the shipping tycoon and a Greek compatriot. The son was born in 1960, the rumor has it, and died hours later. Other rumors state that she had at least one abortion while she was with Onassis. Her relationship with the multimillionaire was stormy, as he is believed to have been compulsively unfaithful.
(3) Callas continued her affair with Onassis during his marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy.Onassis left Callas to marry the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968. But it was widely believed that Callas continued her liaison with Onassis well into his marriage with the former first lady. “Greek Fire,” Nicholas Gage’s 2000 book about their love affair, portrays Onassis banging on Callas’ door, begging to be let back in.
(4) Richard Burton rejected her entreaties to costar in “Medea.” Callas’ one foray into the movies came in a 1969 big-screen adaptation of “Medea,” directed by Italian provocateur Pier Paolo Pasolini. The singer wanted Burton to portray Jason, her lover in the tragic story. But the Welsh actor, who was then involved with Elizabeth Taylor, is believed to have rejected the offer. In the actor’s published diaries, he wrote that Callas came calling once and “and since I was in a reading mood she was not welcome.”
(5) Callas insulted her biggest operatic rival by comparing her to Coca-Cola. Among Callas’ many rivals was Renata Tebaldi, the Italian soprano. The women’s mutual hatred was widely reported in the media, with the two exchanging insults and barbed criticisms. One account has Callas saying that comparing Tebaldi’s voice to hers was like “comparing Champagne with cognac. No, with Coca-Cola.” Some accounts have downplayed the rivalry, claiming that Callas had profound respect for Tebaldi’s vocal talent.