Like a Greek tragedy, Maria Callas’s life was riven with torment, says Lyndsy Spence in Cast a Diva, a forthcoming biography based on previously unpublished letters. La Divina, as the singer was known, was adored around the world, yet never knew real love. Her “louse” of a first husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini (26 years her senior), put everything in his name after they married, but took half of her possessions with him when he left her. “I was a fool… to trust him,” said Callas.
In 1957 she was drawn into the world of Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who caused her to neglect her voice and in effect ended her career. He physically threatened her and, according to Callas’s friends, drugged her for sex before abandoning her for Jackie Kennedy. But just a few weeks after he married Jackie, Onassis returned to Callas, threatening to crash his Mercedes into her front door if she wouldn’t see him. “Maria Callas was Onassis’s one true love,” said Onassis’s driver Yaikinto Rossa. “She was his true wife, though they never married.” They continued to meet secretly and she was by his side when he died in 1975 – despite Jackie’s instructions (from the ski slopes in Aspen) to keep her from his bedside.
The singer’s relationship with her parents was just as painful. The letters reveal the tragic truth of Callas’s childhood in Europe. She “resented her mother, who worked as a prostitute during the war, for trying to pimp her out to Nazi soldiers”, says Spence. Later her mother blackmailed her and sold stories to the press, while her father wrote to her asking for money, “pretending he was dying in a paupers’ hospital” when really “he had a minor ailment”.
The letters also reveal the depth of her rivalry with Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi, the other star at Milan’s La Scala opera house, which became Callas’s artistic home in the 1950s. Callas compared their voices to champagne and Coca-Cola, and Tebaldi hit back: “I have one thing that Callas doesn’t have: a heart.” Callas died at 53 in September 1977, alone in her Parisian apartment, relying on her estranged sister, Jackie, to sedate her. Her ashes were scattered over the Aegean Sea, off the coast of her homeland.