Who doesn’t know her story by now? An exotic-looking, raven-haired woman with striking dark eyes and an instinctual flair for the dramatic – admirers refer to her as “a very great tragic actress” – emerges from the relative obscurity of a New York childhood to international stardom. En route, she must endure family hurts: her parents’ bitter split, an uneasy relationship with her horribly pushy stage mother, a lifelong rivalry with a prettier sister. She transforms herself from an awkward girl with “kinky hair and bad skin” into a ravishing, couture-clad sylph, winning adulation for her public appearances around the world. There is a difficult marriage to a man who provides much-needed financial security but scant sexual satisfaction; then a stormy, headline-grabbing, carnally fulfilling relationship with a rich Greek. She loses a newborn child. After living a life of what she thinks of as rigorous self-sacrifice on behalf of her public, the glamorous, mysterious woman withdraws into a zealously defended privacy. She dies soon after, still young.
This is the story of Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. That it also happens to be the story of Maria Callas is a nice coincidence. This is partly because big, detailed books about the lives of both women are being published this month, and partly because each played a pivotal role in the life of the other: Jackie was the trophy wife for whom Aristotle Onassis left Callas, his longtime lover. To justify its presence in an already notoriously crowded field, each book promises “new” material: Nicholas Gage’s revelation that in 1960 Callas bore Onassis a son who lived for a few hours; Sarah Bradford’s extensive interviews with Jackie’s younger sister, Lee Radziwill. And yet despite the new juice, both books are weirdly bloodless. Each makes the mistake of missing the narrative forest for the scrupulous reportorial trees.
Nicholas Gage’s book is the more disappointing. Its cover – a jumbled paparazzi snapshot of Callas and Onassis chatting together at a swank dinner, partially obscured by the heads of two other guests in the foreground – could, in fact, serve as a symbol of the whole enterprise, in which masses of information (details of clothing, names of dinner guests, precise times of sailings and dockings) are indiscriminately jumbled together with little sense of an overarching composition. Gage is a former Times reporter who wrote the moving and vivid Eleni, about the murder of his mother during the Greek Civil War; here, however, his zeal for getting the facts obliterates his sense of story. In his foreword, he boasts that “almost all published books about Onassis or Callas are studded with errors,” but he doesn’t seem to have stopped to consider whether the new information he triumphantly proffers – especially his numbingly detailed day-by-day account of the cruise during which Ari and Maria began their affair, which takes up nearly one third of the book’s length – is worth having to begin with. (“Photos record that the parakeet’s cage was indeed at Sir Winston’s side at this moment …”)
This is a pity, because the story Gage has to tell is a terrific one: that of a great artist who, at the apparent height of her career (her voice had, in fact, already begun to fail, as Gage rightly notes), throws it all away for a man who never really appreciates her and abandons her for a more illustrious rival, a betrayal that precipitates the heroine’s decline and premature death. If this sounds eerily familiar, it’s because that’s the plot of many of the operas that Callas brought to life: Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, in which the queen is conveniently discarded by Henry VIII for a more appropriate bride, Puccini’s Tosca, whose opera diva heroine thinks with her heart and loses her life as a result. What makes the story of Callas’s affair with Onassis worth knowing about in the first place is that it’s a plot point in a bigger myth – about artistic burnout, about the dangers of living one’s art, about the cannibalistic demands of genius.
What makes Callas and Jackie and Onassis so compelling is that they have much to tell us about art and beauty and greed and despair and death.
But for Gage, Callas the artist – the only Callas that matters, ultimately – isn’t the real story. He sums up her whole, lightninglike career in a few hasty pages before getting back onboard with Sir Winston’s parakeet; as a result, the balance of this book is way off – you never really feel the tragic ironies of Callas’s life, which instead get lost in a welter of details. Do we need to know what time the Christina put in at this or that port (“No sooner was the yacht moored at 10:40 a.m… .”), or which poodles Maria and her husband, the wealthy Italian businessman Giovanni Battista Meneghini, got custody of during their split, or (even) how many times in a row the notoriously well-endowed Ari schtupped Jackie? (Answer: five.) I’m not so sure.
There are excellent accounts of Callas’s life and art around, none better than the appreciative essay by John Ardoin in his 1974 coffee-table book Callas; and Onassis, who emerges in both biographies as an engaging and impressive figure, surely deserves an excellent biography of his own by now. As for Greek Fire, it’s all facts but no story – as if Romeo and Juliet had been reported in the D section of the Times. For all its references to “fire” (in the title but also in not one but three epigraphs), Gage’s book is a waterlogged affair.
Before I picked up America’s Queen, the new biography of Jackie O. by Sarah Bradford (whose previous books include bios of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Grace), I thought there was nothing about her that I, a faithful if surreptitious checkout-line reader of the tabloids, didn’t already know. I was right. Bradford has done meticulous research and is admirably fair-minded: Her book is neither celebrity bio, the prose equivalents of Doritos, nor one of those hagiographies the Kennedys still manage to inspire. Her access to Mrs. Onassis’s personal papers, and to her sister Lee, will undoubtedly give this thorough life story an authority the others can’t claim. And yet there’s nothing here that’s fascinating or really new; I wasn’t very far into it before I started craving the taste of nacho-cheese-flavored you-know-whats.
Bradford, like Gage, constructs a narrative whose contours we already know: the privileged if not superrich East Hampton childhood; the womanizing father and horrible mother; the difficult marriage to the staggeringly unfaithful JFK (“I get a migraine headache if I don’t get a strange piece of ass every day”); the compulsive profligacy (Jackie’s personal expenses for three months in 1961 totaled $35,000); the history-making four days in November; the affair with Bobby (Jack had done Lee Radziwill, so why not?); the snaring of Onassis, followed by even more epic spending; and, finally, the post- White House years of children, a new career, Maurice Tempelsman, and a sadly premature death just as she had achieved a hard-won equilibrium.
Unfortunately, the new material doesn’t really add anything; and Bradford’s thoroughness, while laudable, manifests itself in a wearying tendency to support each narrative moment with numerous quotes from various sources. “Jack encouraged his staff to have sexual relationships,” she writes, and then dutifully quotes someone saying, ” ‘Everybody on earth had an affair in the White House.’ ” Five hundred dense pages of this makes for slow going. The result is a narrative with a dissertation-like quality that Onassis herself – who by all accounts was an exceptionally good editor and a passionate reader with a sly sense of humor – would surely have excised had she had the chance.
What’s missing in both books is drama. I’ve always been struck by how writers generally refer to Callas as being Greek, although she was in fact 100 percent American: She was born in Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital in Manhattan, and her English had the hard contours of a curb on the Grand Concourse. (“Lay off of me, will ya?” she once yelled at a reporter.) If she’s Greek, then my dad, also a first-generation American, is Latvian. And yet you can see where the temptation to call her Greek comes from – and why it’s so irresistible. The triumphs and defeats of Callas’s life (and Jackie’s and Ari’s, too) were so extreme, and their lives lived so publicly, that they ended up seeming less like real people than like archetypal characters from Greek tragedy or myth: the high priestess who sacrifices herself to an all-consuming deity; the youthful bride transformed by Chance into the suffering widow of a fallen king; the Eastern potentate whose vast hubristic wealth invites terrible punishment from Heaven. What makes Callas and Jackie and Onassis so compelling is that they’re merely reincarnations of familiar characters – Iphigenia, Andromache, and Priam – from age-old narratives that have much to tell us about art and beauty and greed and despair and death.
So the irony of these projects is that telling us more about these people – more facts, more details of the kind that both authors supply in such profusion – doesn’t add anything crucial. (In a way, it makes no difference whether Callas lost a fetus or bore a child: It’s her childlessness that’s crucial.) We’ve known everything about these people for a while now, and yet we keep wanting more. But more what? At this point, these three don’t need a biographer. They need a playwright.