“The Secret Son” of Maria Callas – Facts and Fiction
by Brigitte Pantis
In the years after Maria Callas’ death the frantic, never-ending search for new revelatory intimate material about her private life has led to ever more trashy fiction flooding the market. Nicholas Gage’s best-selling Greek Fire is yet another striking example.(1) The reader who expects, as the dust jacket promises, previously unpublished “secrets” about Callas’ love affair with Aristotle Onassis and “startling revelations” that will “forever change what is known about the protagonists,” is never let down. In fact, Gage’s scandalous account offers the reader a voyeuristic view of the couple’s sex life and emotional turmoil that outdoes much of what others have already extensively written about the woman behind the legend, and one can only recoil in horror at the indecencies and indignities heaped upon a great artist.(2)
The author, relying on information culled from previously published books about Callas and Onassis intermingled with gossip, second-hand accounts and ‘intimate’ recollections by the couple’s associates, friends and relatives,(3) strings together a narrative filled with inaccuracies, inconsistencies and overt fabrication.(4) Though he puts the spotlight on the legendary cruise on the Christina, no doubt the real ‘highlight’ of the book is the spectacular story of “the secret son,” to which the author dedicates an entire chapter. Clearly, this is a tale of incredibilities and improbabilities that are too numerous to count and to escape any reader’s attention. There are many aspects which defy reason and/or are simply not consistent with known facts. It seems best to focus on some key passages in order to show that under more careful scrutiny Gage’s account turns out to be based in every respect more on speculation and fantasythan on fact.(5)
In a lengthy overture to the story Gage sets out to dismiss the rumor of an abortion, first reported by Stassinopoulos,(6) as a fabrication and then makes strenuous efforts to circumvent the obstacle of Meneghini’s dictum that his wife was unable to conceive a child(7) in order to arrive, after much speculating and conjecturing and much he-said, she-said reporting (which is altogether the trademark of his writing), at the hypothetical conclusion: “If Maria had been receiving these injections … then … in August of 1959, she might have been superfertile.” (p.201)
“Upon learning that she was pregnant, she was overjoyed,” (p. 201) Gage recounts as if he had witnessed it himself, but Callas kept this good news to herself. As the author emphasizes a few pages later (p. 207 and again on p. 212), “the story of [her] baby’s birth and death has never been told. Maria spoke of it to only three people:” her servants Bruna and Ferruccio and many years later to Vasso Devetzi. This is indeed a most curious statement, to say the least. Because within a short time, according to the ineluctable law of nature, her condition of being pregnant would have started to clearly show and become ever more visible every month. What then would prevent Callas from sharing her great joy with her closest friends Hidalgo, Lantzounis, Lomazzi, the latter accompanying her everywhere in the fall of 1959, for instance to Dallas and to the courtcase in Brescia when Callas was 4 months pregnant? How is it possible that her good friend Giovanna, who “shared a hotel suite with her during the trip to Dallas,” (p. 191) and was thus at her side day and night, wouldn’t have noticed or suspected anything? And, mysteriously, even Mme Biki, who would by now (November) have been busy designing maternity dresses for her famous client, did not perceive any physiological changes!
An interesting mystery, of course, is how did Callas (by that time the world’s most famous woman and besieged by reporters round the clock) manage to fool the world, friends and foes alike?(8) As her sister Jackie pointedly wrote in a fax sent to Gage on 18 September 2000: “Maria couldn’t be wearing a coat or something like that 24 hours a day at the crucial last months of pregnancy.”(9) Marilena Patronikola, Onassis’ niece, similarly pointed out that a pregnancy “is not something that can be kept secret and hidden.”(10) After all, the thought must have occurred to Gage that one of the most important physiological changes evoked by pregnancy is the increasing swelling of the abdomen. The question is: confronted with this most troubling and most pressing issue, how does he tackle this big problem? The answer comes readily. He resorts to the simplest trick: he removes Callas from the public scene and jumps straight to the end of the pregnancy. After December, we learn, “she would not appear in public for the next several months,” (p. 201) with the notable exception of an interview she granted Marlyse Schaeffer of the France-Soir.
This claim, of course, is ludicrous for there is abundant evidence to the contrary. In particular, there are many photographs taken in February 1960 and all of them show Callas in public, as slim and slender as ever, – and this is indeed fascinating when one considers that she was seven months pregnant at the time! – wearing dresses tightly fitted at the waist. For instance, accompanied by Ghiringhelli she appeared at the première of Fellini’s La dolce vita, on 5 February 1960, in the Teatro Capitol in Milan. During her stay in Paris in the second week of February photographers spotted her everywhere: visiting the exclusive salon of famous coiffeur Alexandre; attending a performance at the opera and chatting backstage with ballerina Yvette Chauvirée; dining with the Rothschilds at Maxime’s. As these photographs vividly and irrefutably demonstrate, it is not possible by any stretch of the imagination to claim that in February 1960 Maria Callas was 7 months pregnant.
As regards the “notable exception,” the interview published in the France-Soir on 13 February 1960, Gage seeks to turn it flamboyantly with his shrewd composite of diffusive quotations and allusive comments into a vehicle for proving his case. And as a skilled columnist he is a master of all the tricks of his profession. Let us see what he fails to mention: “Ensuite, quand je l’ai vue à l’Opéra,” writes Schaeffer about Callas, “j’ai pensé: «Elle a maigri»” (this borders on the miraculous: at 7 months pregnant she appears even to have lost weight!), and what he adds: “elle tapota sa robe de faille raide,” which he describes this way: “the voluminous [!] dress of«stiff faille» that Maria wore might have suggested that she had something to hide.” (p. 202) A few days later Callas was seen dining with Meneghini at La barca d’oro, a fashionable Milanese restaurant, an event that set the city buzzing once again with rumors of a reconciliation. It is in this context that the Greek newspaper Ελευθερία (Eleftheria) reported on 19 February 1960: “Maria Callas returned from Paris on the eve of her meeting with her former husband. To friends she had expressed her anger at certain statements attributed to her by a reporter from the French newspaper France-Soir and especially at what was written about her husband.” And the article went on to note, “Immediately after her arrival in Milan Maria Callas officially denied the whole interview.”(11)
“«I don’t want to sing anymore. I want to live, just like a normal woman, with children, a home, a dog.»(12) This was Maria’s goal as she entered the eighth month of her pregnancy.” (p. 204) – This simply does not coincide with the historical facts. As performance schedules and contracts with artists are drawn up months in advance by the management of opera houses, Kosti Bastia, then director of the Athens lyric theatre, had been negotiating with Callas since January 1960 the details of her first performance at Epidaurus in August of that year, the official announcement of which was expected at the beginning of April. Because it was the first time ever that, exclusively for Callas, an opera would be staged at this pantheon of ancient Greek tragedy, this ‘big news’ received major coverage by the Greek press in the first months of 1960.(13) The French press on the other hand reported that Callas met on 10 February with A.M. Julien, director of the Paris opera, to restart negotiations for Medea and that the work would now be given at the Palais Garnier in November 1960. In Italy, meanwhile, it was circulated that Ghiringhelli had proposed to Callas to open the 1960/61 season at La Scala, suggesting Norma, Medea or Beatrice di Tenda, which were finally all abandoned in favour of Poliuto.(14)
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Gage’s account is the premature childbirth at the diva’s request. Let us turn to the description of what happened and how: “But Maria’s loneliness at his [Onassis] absence slowly gave way to dread at the prospect of his return,” Gage relates as if Callas herself had confided her innermost thoughts to him. “She feared having him see her swollen and nine months pregnant. She felt ugly and awkward and wished he could find her slim again, and holding their baby in her arms.” (p. 204) In short, Callas couldn’t wait any longer and that is why she pressured her gynaecologist “to deliver the child early – by cesarean section – as soon as it was safe [!!] to do so.” Thus, early on the morning of March 30, she arrived at Clinica Dezza on Via Dezza 48 and Dr Palmieri (who went to his grave taking the secret with him) “delivered a baby boy. Soon, however, the tiny infant began to have difficulty breathing. The clinic was not equipped [!!] to deal with the crisis and an ambulance was called to rush the baby to a better-equipped [!!] facility [?].” (p. 205) – This is utterly fantastic and scientifically cannot be taken seriously: neither a Caesarean section nor a premature childbirth is such an easy thing as Gage wants us naively to believe.
First of all, it should be remembered that in those days a Caesarean section was not an optional choice for childbirth. On the contrary, in the 60ies this operation still carried a definite hazard and would only be performed if severe obstetrical abnormalities were detected and when a natural birth was impossible.(15) Second, 50% of all deaths of newborn infants at the time were due to pre-maturity, i.e. birth at less than 37 weeks after conception. It was and is widely known that the chief specific causes of death among premature infants are respiratory disturbances, infections and haemorrhages, especially into the brain or lungs. For this reason a premature delivery requires skilful obstetric management and specialized nursing and paediatric care in a clinic equipped with an intensive care unit for newborn infants. Third, thanks to further medical improvements, today the chances of survival of premature infants born alive have significantly increased, but the fact remains that premature babies are liable to permanent defects (such as reduced stature, disturbed neuromuscular development and low intelligence quotient).
In view of the above, it is flagrantly absurd to assume that Callas in complicity with her gynaecologist would have been prepared to take the risks involved in a premature childbirth by Caesarean section, so dangerous for both mother and child, moreover in an ill-equipped third-rate clinic, not to mention the possible serious after-effects on the prematurely born child. It is also good to remember that in catholic Italy physicians were forbidden to assist their patients in either the prevention or termination of pregnancy. In short, it would have amounted to a medical malpractice with serious legal consequences and would at the very least have cost Dr Palmieri his licence. Gage’s (former) good friend Dr Andreas Stathopoulos, himself a physician, pretty well sums it up: “What Gatsoyannis [Gage] writes is outrageous. It’s a ridiculous contention… Never ever could any physician be pressured to terminate a pregnancy, to perform a premature delivery by Caesarean section for those ridiculous reasons a month before the expected time of birth. In no civilized country could this happen, let alone with Callas as the protagonist. Ask whomever you like, scientifically this is untenable.”(16)
Finally, let us focus attention on the core of the issue: the documentary evidence the author provides to support his allegation. Actually Gage’s ‘proof’ rests on 2 claims. First: “The description of the birth and death of Omero given above is based on her [Bruna’s] recollections, and is supported by the picture and documents left behind by Maria in her private papers.” (p. 209) Second: “Most of this chapter [The Secret Son] is based on documents from Maria Callas’ private papers that I was able to obtain. I confirmed the authenticity of the papers through individuals [!] who saw them shortly after Callas’ death on September 16, 1977.” (p. 401)
The alleged testimony of Callas’ loyal maid Bruna Lupoli, who has steadfastly refused to speak to anyone about her mistress, raises a string of tantalizing questions: she waited 40 years for Mr Gage to come along to make this bombshell disclosure, i.e. she revealed to a complete stranger [!] through a mysterious, never-identified intermediary [!] and many undocumented telephone conversations [!] this sensational secret she had kept in her bosom for decades…(17) Only to the staunchest admirer of Gage’s fantasies would this make any semblance of sense.
Regarding the key issue: obviously in order to bolster the authenticity of his story, Gage repeatedly emphasizes that the purported birth and death certificates provided on page 206 (no doubt intentionally reproduced in a scarcely decipherable format, so that the reader merely glances at them and concentrates instead on Gage’s doctored translation) are authentic Callas papers which came mysteriously into his hands. There is only one problem with this contention – it isn’t true. For these certificates were in fact issued (see bottom left) on 23/10/1998 and 22/10/1998 respectively, that is 21 years after Callas’ death. In other words: Gage pretends to present papers from 1960 that in fact date from 1998. Thus these documents could not possibly have been left behind byCallas in her “private papers” because they did not exist at that time. To put it bluntly: the documentation on which his claim is based is actually false and manipulative. Consequently, Gage’s “strong proof, including documents that Maria left behind in her private papers,” (p. 199) vanishes into thin air and the “mystery” surrounding the surname as well.
Equally significant is the fact that the questionable papers are by no means “birth and death certificates,” (p. 211) as Gage boldly claims.(18) By international standards, a birth certificate, to be considered valid, must be a certified copy of an extract from an original entry of birth in the official vital statistics records of the state, etc. of the place of birth, must be issued on an official form and must show the parent’s (parents’) surname and first names in full. Likewise the so-called death certificateis not issued on an official form, and it fails to state not only the parents’ names but also the exact place and hour of death. What Gage provides can at best be described as some sort of unofficial papers, issued at request of ‘someone’ 38 years after the sad event, which state the birth and death of a certain Lengrini Omero on 30 March 1960 in Milan.
It’s also worth noting that Gage’s translation on page 205 of the so-called ‘birth certificate’ is false and misleading. The Estratto per riassunto di atto nascita states as place of birth “nella casa posta in Via Dezza n. 49,” while Gage translates: “at the house listed as Via Dezza number 48” (= the location of ‘Clinica Dezza’). There are also discrepancies with regard to the registration numbers and naturally the date of issue (23/10/1998) is omitted.
To sum up, as a skilled investigative reporter Gage pulls all the stops in order to successfully market a fabricated story – no matter how false or ridiculous. The main focus of Greek Fire has been the sensational ‘secret boy story,’ pointedly placed exactly in the middle of his narrative, serving as “the lure to sell the book because otherwise it has nothing new to add.”(19) This story is simply an invention. All other absurdities aside, conclusive evidence emerges from the forged documentation proving beyond any doubt that there never was any baby boy secretly born by Maria Callas. It is a real scandal that the author largely got away with it. But what is even more appalling and truely incredible is that the apologists for the book, ignoring a basic scientific principle, did not even take the trouble to verify the authenticity of the fabled “private Callas papers” which provide the core support and sole ‘proof’ of the story. This failure to seriously investigate the whole issue is simply baffling.
Ultimately, Gage’s chronique scandaleuse sets a precedent which is certainly much more than just a question of factual errors and deliberate distortions. It is a moral issue and raises deeply troubling questions regarding the integrity of investigative journalism and the quality of disseminated information in today’s profit-orientated ‘culture’, dominated by stupid and vulgar entertainment. The fact that ‘the secret son’ story has already reached mythic proportions (see recent DVD and films) is revealing of the rapidly deteriorating standards in the present market society. Callas “sells” – and this is perhaps the only thing that matters.
It is more than disturbing and infuriating that this much-ballyhooed trashy novel, which is a disgrace and an insult to Callas, has been uncritically accepted by some reviewers(20) and Callas-experts instead of prompting an outpouring of indignation. As a result EMI, by championing Greek Fire on its Maria Callas website (cf. section ‘Articles’), has the dubious distinction of being an accomplice to the selling and spreading of Gage’s baby story. For the sake of historical truth, this myth must be challenged and exposed at every turn for what it is: an outright fairy tale.
©2005 by Brigitte Pantis
(1) Nicholas Gage, Greek Fire. The Love Affair of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2000. All citations from this edition.
(2) In his review of Greek Fire (entitled Obsceneties on the dead, or how to murder the icons with a book published in the BHMA Magazino of 21.01.2001) the well-known Greek critic Kosmas Vidos writes: “It is a “dirty” book written […] to cause a sensation […] and the only thing it achieves is to make an artist of Callas’ stature look petty, mean and fake. […] As for the delving into her personal life, the bad taste and meanness of the book are literally hairraising […] culminating in the “revelations” about her sex life such as the smut that Onassis prodded her to describe to third parties all the details of their sexual encounters […] filthy beyond words.”
(3) It is highly enlightening that both parties, Jackie and Andreas Stathopoulos as well as Marilena Patronikola on behalf of the Onassis family, strongly dissociated themselves from Gage’s writings even before and more so after the book had appeared. See footnotes 8 and 14.
(4) Just to mention one egregious example which demonstrates the astounding unscholarly nature of Gage’s so-called “meticulous research”: while the Harewood interview was filmed in Callas’ apartment in Paris in the last week of April 1968, Gage (cf. pp. 263-65) has her cruising from March through mid-May on the Christina in the Caribbean.
(5) It is particularly revealing what Gage is providing as primary sources to back up his story: the interview in the French tabloid France-Soir and, perhaps his main source of inspiration, the short story Chronicle of a testimony that was not written (Regarding the Diva) by the Greek writer Vasilis Vasilikos published in his book Το σφράτο (The Eviction). 2nd ed. Athens: Gnosi, 1989, pp. 231-309. In this autobiographical story, in which the author relates his failed attempt to write a book about ‘the Diva’, Vasilikos twice refers casually (p. 243 and pp. 255-56), quasi in a parenthesis, to the birth and death of a child in the first year of “the Diva’s” affair with “the Shipowner”. What Gage “translated from his [Vasilikos’] original Greek” (p. 207-08), including the title of the short story, is far from being accurate. Gage’s unnamed source of information on this subject is Nikos Petsalis-Diomidis’ book Η άγνωστη Κάλλας (The Unknown Callas). Athens: Ekdosis Kastanioti, 1989. Petsalis-Diomidis was the first author to report on Vasilikos’ reference to a baby boy, based on Devetzi’s account (interestingly, he dismisses this allegation, cf. p. 820) and the disappearance of the archive of Callas’ documents (thus burying all evidence) after Devetzi’s death (cf. pp. 482, 820 and 829-834).
(6) Arianna Stassinopoulos, Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1981, p. 277-78.
(7) Giovanni Battista Meneghini, My Wife Maria Callas. Written with the collaboration of Renzo Allegri. Translated, with an introduction, by Henry Wisneski. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1982, pp. 5-6.
(8) This is the pivotal question of Vasilis Kavathas’ investigation in his book Κάλλας: Τα επίγεια πάθη μιας θέας (Callas: The Earthly Passions of a Goddess). Athens: Stachi, 2001. In the main section, The “child” of Callas. Was it really born or is it a vile product of imagination?, the author examines in great detail the pregnancy story. Based on his research in the coverage of Callas’ and Onassis’ activities during this period in the Greek and Italian press, interviews with the couple’s relatives and documents supplied by Jackie Callas, Kavathas exposes the story in vivid and convincing detail as a fabrication.
(9) Kavathas, op. cit., p. 91. – Interestingly, both Jackie Callas and Marilena Patronikola stated that Gage had kept this matter secret and that they were aghast and shocked when they learnt about the birth of a child from the newspapers and television. Thus alarmed by media reports on Gage’s allegation expressed in his forthcoming book, Jackie had pointed out in a previous fax of 12 September 2000, listing a good many arguments, that a pregnancy of her deceased sister in that particular period was a completely baseless allegation. Ibid. pp. 84-86. – Marilena Patronikola similarly categorically rejected the birth of a child as an “absurd claim”. Ibid., p. 120.
(10) Ibid., p. 120.
(11) Ibid., p. 100.
(12) This is literally copied from Stassinopoulos but Gage deliberately presents it as a quote from an undated letter to her godfather Lantzounis. Cf. A. Stassinopoulos, op. cit., p. 221.
(13) Cf. Kavathas, op. cit., pp. 108-111.
(14) Cf. Jean-Jacques Hanine-Roussel, Maria Callas in Paris. Successes and death in Maria Callas’ beloved city. In: Maria Callas Magazine. No. 36 – July 2002, p. 9; Kavathas, op. cit., p. 99.
(15) This has also been pointed out by Anne Edwards, Maria Callas – an Intimate Biography. New York: St. Martin Press, 2001. Edwards questions Gage’s baby story and disputes key elements of his account, pp. 217-227. Particularly interesting is that she (1) raises the question of illegitimacy and (2) argues that in Italy the father’s consent to such an operation would have had to be given. To this could be added that at the time Callas allegedly conceived (August 1959) she was still living with and married to Meneghini and thus a paternity suit would have been inevitable.
(16) In a lengthy interview (titled Gage deceived us – he told us lies) with Kavathas, op. cit., p. 125.
(17) With regard to Ferruccio Mezzadri, Gage’s second authentic witness who up to now had kept silent: he poses for a photograph but doesn’t “confirm” anything at all, although the author deploys, with streams of effusive chatter, all his skills to convey to the gullible reader the impression that Callas’ loyal butler ‘somehow’ acknowledges ‘something’. As for the picture of a baby, it can be dealt with in a footnote: “It doesn’t prove anything,” in the words of Jackie Callas. Cf. Kavathas, op. cit., p. 91.
(18) As Gage is naturally well aware of this fact, he takes great care to avoid these terms and usually refers vaguely to “documents” from Callas’ “private papers.”
(19) Comment by Andreas Stathopoulos. Kavathas, op. cit., p. 116.
(20) Robert Baxter, for instance, in his review of Greek Fire (in: The Opera Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 4, Autumn 2001, circulated on EMI’s Callas website) emphatically embraces the baby story and calls Greek Fire an “engrossing and well-documented book.”