SOCIAL HISTORY: CHRISTINA O – the greatest yacht of them all. Aristotle Onassis, Jackie Kennedy, Sir Winston Churchill, Maria Callas and the fabulous boat. The famous yacht heads up the Hudson River – 1960s…
In 1954 Aristotle Socrates Onassis created the greatest yacht of all, Christina.
Named after his beloved daughter, she was a sleek, 325-foot, shimmering-white masterpiece proudly displaying the Onassis signature, the yellow funnel.
(Above: Aristotle Onassis and Churchill in the yacht’s swimming pool. It doubled as a dance floor – Onassis’ party trick was to flood it while people were still dancing.)
While the ship had begun life in 1943 as the Canadian naval frigate Stormont, a convoy escort, Onassis purchased her in 1948 for just $34,000 and converted her during the early 1950’s into the most sumptuous private yacht that the world had ever seen, at the cost of more than $4 million.
(Above: CHRISTINA O’s canopied decks are the ideal venue for any extra special occasion – 1950s.) When Onassis bought the yacht in 1954, he converted the yacht at an expense of over $4 million, into the largest, most modern and most exalted yacht of her era. CHRISTINA O became his floating mansion and headquarters for over two decades until his death in 1975. Onassis’ guests on board the yacht were some of the most famous and influential people of the time. At night, CHRISTINA O served as the stage for Onassis’ celebrated social life, as he played host to Presidents and Prime Ministers, royalty and film stars.
(Above: Elizabeth Taylor and Aristotle S. Onassis aboard the yacht.) CHRISTINA O’s fame owes itself to names such as Maria Callas, The Begum of Aga Kahn, John Paul Getty, John D Rockefeller, Eva Peron, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Rudolf Nureyev, John Wayne, Greta Garbo and Dame Margot Fonteyn.
John F Kennedy and Sir Winston Churchill first met as guests of Aristotle Onassis on board CHRISTINA O and two of the century’s most celebrated wedding receptions were held on CHRISTINA O; Prince Rainier to Princess Grace, and Onassis to Jackie Kennedy.
(Above: Churchill with the ‘terribly irritating’ opera singer Maria Callas on her lover Aristotle Onassis’ yacht, Christina, in 1959)
Churchill was a frequent guest and he didn’t care for the diva Maria Callas.
(Above: Mrs. Aristotle S. Onassis (L), formerly Jacqueline Kennedy, greeting guests on her husband’s yacht ‘Christina O’ during their wedding reception.)
Whether he was in Monaco or at Skorpios, his private Greek island, Onassis’ real home was Christina. His first wife, shipping heiress Tina Livanos, said, “The yacht is his real passion. He is like a housewife fussing over it, constantly looking to see that everything is impeccable.” Impeccable indeed—a crew member once explained, “You could smash up a $20,000 speedboat into pieces and not a word would be said, but spit on the Christina’s deck, and you were out of a job.”
At the time of Onassis’ death in 1975, the ship was turned over to his daughter and only heir, Christina. She donated the vessel to the Greek government for use as the presidential yacht in 1978. Sadly, the Argo (as the Greek government renamed her) was little used and eventually fell into despair.
(Above: Winston Churchill, his last visit to America, with Onassis and (left) being helped up on the CHISTIANA O as it sailed up the Hudson River.) In keeping with all good Greek tragedies, a new administration tried to sell the yacht in the early 1990’s, for upwards of $16 million. Interested parties emerged, but it seemed no one was willing to pay that sum for what would obviously end up costing much more during the refit stage. The Greek administration gradually lowered the price throughout the decade, and it finally appeared that all was well for Christina in 1996 when she was sold to an American, Alexander Blastos, for $2.2 million. But the Greek government revoked his ownership a few months later—although the government wouldn’t elaborate, the Associated Press reported that Blastos’ $220,000 deposit check bounced—and the yacht continued to languish. (Blastos was later imprisoned for wire fraud relating to his attempts to purchase the yacht.)
All was not lost, however. In 1998 John Paul Papanicolaou, a Greek national in the shipping business and an old friend of the Onassis family who had cruised aboard the yacht as a child, secured the yacht at a new government-sponsored auction. He made it his goal to rebuild Christina in a way that would have awed Onassis himself, renaming her Christina O as a tribute.
The elegant yacht.
Proudly embarking on the most extensive refit project ever launched, and using his considerable knowledge and shipping background, Papanicolaou assembled a gifted team of experts. Naval architect Costas Carabelas spearheaded the group. Interior architecture and construction were done by Apostolos Molindris and Decon, respectively. The refit work was executed by Viktor Lenac, a Croatian shipyard.
A major priority was enhancing the physical integrity of the yacht and re-powering her. Upgrading systems and reconfiguring her interior were also key. The initial survey showed that 65 tons of steel in the hull needed to be replaced. When she was put in dry dock, it actually turned out to be 560 tons. Fifty-six miles of new wiring and 140 tons of pipe work were replaced. This large task, along with the refurbishment and redecoration of gathering spaces, was stunningly accomplished in only 16 months, with more than 1.2 million man-hours and at a cost of more than $50 million. Now she was ready for charter and cruises for an exclusive worldwide clientele.
The dining salon.
On the technical front, to improve her efficiency, the original 1943 steam engines and boilers were removed. Two new MAN diesel engines and three MAN gensets were installed. She now has a cruising speed of 18 knots and a top speed of 22—not bad, considering Onassis cruised at 14 knots and could rev her up to 24.
This change opened up a cavernous space in the middle of the yacht the size of a three-story New York brownstone. New accommodations were added. The middle deck now houses a banquet-size, split-level, formal dining room that seats up to 40 guests. Its Baccarat wall lamps are original. As with Onassis, only the best is available: The porcelain service is by Bernardaud of Limoges, Waterford crystal by Rochas, and silverware by Ercuis and St. Hilaire of Paris.
(Left: Jackie Kennedy with her children; going shore the day before her wedding to Onassis.)
Alongside the dining hall is a raised music room with grand piano and a pair of conversation areas. It contains a collection of Maria Callas memorabilia, including the only Gold Record that was ever awarded to her. On the main deck there is a new gym, and for guests in need of a bit more pampering, there is a new massage room and beauty salon. The Italian master Renzo Romagnoli created the new Sports Lounge, featuring Onassis’ original sextant wall lamps and gaming tables with large, comfortable seating. New guest and service elevators were installed for efficient circulation onboard.
Much of the splendor Onassis created has been retained. Spanning her massive stern is the open pool deck where opera diva Maria Callas loved to relax during her tumultuous relationship with Onassis. Its centerpiece is the bronze-bordered pool inlaid with mosaic frescos of ancient Crete. To the delight of the guests, at the push of a button, the bottom raises to the deck level, becoming an instant dance floor. The area has been freshened with glistening varnished handrails and treatments over rich teak decks.
(Above: Ari’s Bar – bar seats covered with the foreskin of a whale!)
“Ari’s Bar,” undoubtedly the most famous spot on the yacht, has been retained. This is where Onassis presented the young John F. Kennedy to Sir Winston Churchill, who was a frequent guest throughout his retirement. Covered by a glass top over a lighted replica of the sea, it has tiny models that display the development of ships and shipping throughout history. On the wall is the original map that showed the daily position of the Onassis fleet. The circular bar was adorned with footrests and handholds of ornately carved and polished whales’ teeth collected by Onassis’ whalers. The stools were covered with the foreskin of a whale, which led to Onassis’ favorite ditty, “Excuse me, Madame, did you know you are sitting on the world’s largest….!” The stools have been recovered in fine leather.
The elegant yacht today.
Aft, the Lapis Lounge remains a central gathering point. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton loved to relax in the sitting room in front of the fireplace, whose mantle was covered in deep-blue lapis lazuli. Its oak and iroko paneling is living with original works of Renoir, Le Corbusier, and de Chirico. Forward on the same deck, past the central atrium and spiral staircase, the original guest staterooms, which Marilyn Monroe, Eva Peron, Greta Garbo, and John Wayne once occupied, have been reconfigured. With Jesurum of Venice, America’s JR Scott, and the UK’s house of Mulberry, the renowned Italian house of Imart oversaw the redesign. Each air-conditioned and soundproofed suite now has a large seating area, bureau, walk-in closet, twin or double beds, and large portholes. The original bathing salons have been replaced with luxurious en-suite marble bathrooms with showers. Each suite is equipped with a full entertainment system with TV, DVD, and CD players. In addition, on the lower aft deck, eight elegant new staterooms have been fitted out, offering the same style and elegance of the original suites.
(Left: Chrintina Onassis next to a life jacket of her namesake yacht.) Up on the main deck, a new central gathering point was created. Forward of the atrium and concierge office, the original semicircular dining room, where Onassis once brokered blockbuster deals with industrial titans such as J. Paul Getty, King Faud, and the Saudi Royals has been converted into an elegant library. Forward, the reception hall that hosted some of the the 20th century’s most famed wedding receptions—Princess Grace and Prince Rainer of Monaco in 1954 and Onassis’ 1968 marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy—has been elegantly updated with sofas, armchairs, cocktail tables, and accent pieces by Giorgettio. It also converts into a state-of-the-art cinema.
Outside and aft, the original boat deck has been converted into a spacious “Jacuzzi deck,” complete with alfresco dining facilities, a large circular bar, and a raised sun terrace with spa pool and teak chaise lounges. Farther aft, the plane deck, where Onassis kept his seaplane, is now a helipad.
The main lounge and library.
On the upper deck, Onassis’ private apartment has been refurbished. The sitting room, with its original onyx fireplace, has library shelves, beamed ceiling, and classic armchairs and sofas. It opens to the master bedroom, fitted with a king-size bed, original Baccarat crystal fixtures, brass-framed windows, and delicate linens from Venice. There is also a new en suite Penteli marble bathroom. Forward, there are new captain’s quarters behind the bridge.
Topping the yacht, the huge sundeck is now fitted out with teak sun lounges and a wet bar. On the bow are two specially designed RIBs and PWC, plus a service crane. Aft on the bridge deck are two glistening Hacker tenders and two lifeboats.
Christina O lives up to her legendary past in modern splendor. Somehow, one can’t help but wonder if there is a smile in the heavens from “an old Greek sailor,” satisfied that his legend lives…
(Photos courtesy the JFK Libary)