Greek Fire: The Story of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis
By Nicholas Gage
Illustrated, 422 pp. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95
Reviewed by Christos and Mary Papoutsy

Ariel during meeting with President Moshe Katzav
Nicholas Gage has scored another triumph with Greek Fire. Just as Maria Callas' stage performances have forever transformed operatic art, so too has Gage's superb account of the love affair of Onassis and Callas permanently altered this literary genre by setting a new standard for biographical works. Not only have his investigative skills succeeded where efforts of previous researchers failed, leading to the first fully accurate reconstruction of this world-fascinating romance, but he also presents the account with consummate literary and scholarly talent.   Greek Fire is an eminently readable and informative text, one deserving of an extended standing ovation.

Gage's book has received excellent reviews from many sources and readers, a few of which we will cite because of the ease with which readers may consult these on the Internet: Richard Dyer, "Onassis-Callas Myths Burn Up in 'Greek Fire,'" review of Greek Fire by Nicholas Gage, The Boston Globe, 23 October 2000; Sally Bedell Smith, "The Diva and the Tycoon," review of Greek Fire by Nicholas Gage, The New York Times on the Web, 5 November 2000; Janet Maslin, "A High-Rent Romance Full of Mythic Minutiae," review of Greek Fire by Nicholas Gage, The New York Times on the Web, 9 November 2000; Maria C. Bagshaw, review of Greek Fire by Nicholas Gage, Library Journal (June 2000); and Aristotle Christou, review of Greek Fire by Nicholas Gage, "Customer Reviews" section of Barnes &, 9 February 2001.

The author details this romance from its incipient moments aboard the luxurious yacht Christina, through the marriages of both celebrities, up to their deaths. He carefully refutes some claims of earlier biographers and reporters with new evidence uncovered during his research, presenting readers with a substantiated picture of their tempestuous and lasting love affair. Not content to repeat the impressions -- or mistakes -- of previous writers, Gage has gone back to original sources for this story.  A number of key employees, close friends, and relatives have shared their personal recollections and memorabilia with Gage, some of them for the first time ever, to shed new light on this enduring relationship. Touching the innermost thoughts of Callas, Gage has reproduced some of her letters and interviews for dramatic impact and so that readers can more fully understand her anguish.

Oh, no,  I've had enough of these ups and downs. I'd rather stay down...Damn it all, what does one do? Sit in the four walls?...The day is easy to go by. What about the evening?  What about when you shut the door to your bedroom and you are all alone...There's lots of times I can't sleep...At night you get lots of funny ideas, pessimistic ideas. And I'd like to shake them. Can you go for a walk, really walk your feet off, get tired, do something?  A woman can't do it...What does a woman do?

And during another recorded interview with Schaeffer, she talked about her wish to have a baby:

But now, I refuse to sing. I can last for some time longer with the sale of my records.  Then, we shall see...I want to have a baby; I'm thirty-six years old, with no one in my life, and I do not even know if I am capable of giving the day to a being [i.e., giving birth]...Do you understand? Do you understand this? What a lovely story to write: La Callas would like a baby.

But sadly enough, her greatest wish never fully materialized. Although Terrence McNally had immortalized her pregnancy and reported abortion in his play Master Class, one of Maria's closest employees, Ferrucio Mezzadri, her butler, came just short of refuting McNally's version when confronted by Gage with some evidence suggesting that Maria had given birth by Caesarian in her eighth month to a baby boy who died shortly afterward. Here Gage is at his best, putting all of his investigative skills to work.

What readers learn from Gage's painstaking reconstruction is that the affair of Callas and Onassis was based upon a strong, reciprocal bond, one that transcended birth, death and marriage. Gage sets the record straight after many decades choreographing a modern-day Greek tragedy punctuated by choral odes of international observers and filled with the lines of ill-fated protagonists who hurtle headlong toward their destined ends.

For Greek American readers the book will hold special appeal, since many followed the lives and careers of both celebrities. Callas and Onassis were -- and still are -- icons of ethnic pride. Their careers and individual biographies have been repeatedly investigated and reported by writers, but in Gage's Greek Fire we see for the first time a dual account dealing principally with the romance between them. It is their love affair which elevated their celebrity status and which so interested the world. But with Gage's rendering of their love affair, Greek-Americans, particularly, will recognize the futility of the Onassis marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy. She never understood or loved Aristotle Onassis as Maria Callas did. Maria's Greek heart and temperament were as passionate as Aristotle's. The result? Greek Fire, as Gage has so aptly titled his book.

Nicholas Gage, a former investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal, is the author of six previous books: Eleni, Hellas, A Place for Us, Greece: Land of Light, Bones of Contention, and The Bourlotas Fortune. His native Greece is the subject of half of them, including Eleni, which received the National Book Critics Circle's nomination for best biography, was awarded first prize by the Royal Society of Literature of Great Britain in 1984, was a Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection, and was made into a motion picture. Mr. Gage lives in North Grafton, Massachusetts, with his wife Joan, who is also a writer. They have three children, Christos, Eleni, and Marina.