Greek American soprano Maria Callas’ life off stage was no less dramatic than her performances on stage, unpublished letters have recently revealed.
For the past two years, biographer Lyndsy Spence has sifted through previously unpublished correspondence and other material, which document the painful relationships Callas had with her husband, mother and Aristotle Onassis.
The startling revelations appear in Spence’s new book ‘Cast A Diva: The Hidden Life of Maria Callas‘ which is published by The History Press on 1 June.
Among the most shocking are letters to her secretary in which Callas reveals shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis – who was married to Jackie Kennedy and with whom Callas had a long-running affair – physically threatened the singer.
Spence said that the letters relating to Onassis reveal the terrifying ordeal she suffered: “There is also disturbing information from the diary of one of her close friends detailing how Onassis drugged her, mostly for sexual reasons – today we would class that as date rape.”
On the pain of her marriage to Meneghini, Callas despaired: “My husband is still pestering me after having robbed me of more than half my money by putting everything in his name since we were married … I was a fool … to trust him.”
She described him as “a louse”, lamenting that he “passes for a millionaire when he hasn’t got a dime”.
Spence said: “I was given access to three enormous collections which were bequeathed to various archives in 2019 and, until now, have never been published. Among the papers were Callas’s letters revealing her innermost thoughts.”
In other letters, Callas alleges that she was stopped from returning to Juilliard School in New York to teach, after she rejected advances from then president Peter Mennin.
She wrote to her godfather: “Peter Mennin fell in love with me. So, naturally, as I did not feel so towards him, he is against me.”
Callas was equally scathing of her mother, who sold stories to the press and blackmailed her: “If she was a real mother to me a long while ago, I would [have] cherished her.”
Her father wasn’t any better, Spence said: “He wrote her a letter, pretending he was dying in a pauper’s hospital in an attempt to get money from her. In fact, he had a minor ailment.”
Callas wrote: “I am fed up with my parents’ egoism and indifference toward me … I want no more relationship. I hope the newspapers don’t catch on. Then I’ll really curse the moment I had any parents at all.”
On September 16, 1977, Maria Callas died in Paris of a heart attack at the age of 54.
Spence said: “I tracked down the neurologist who treated her before her death. Callas suffered from a neuromuscular disorder whose symptoms began in the 1950s, but she was dismissed by doctors as ‘crazy’. It also explains the loss of her singing voice, which cut her career short.
“The death of Callas is a harrowing tale. Alone in her Parisian apartment, she relied on her estranged sister, Jackie, and companion, Vasso Devetzi, to supply her with [a sedative]. Her life was full of tragedy, but I wanted to give her her voice.”