I discovered Gill Paul almost by accident, when her publicist for The Lost Daughter wrote to me asking if I was interested in interviewing her. At the time, I was booked solid, so I passed the opportunity on to fellow New Books Network host Jennifer Eremeeva. But I read both The Lost Daughter and its predecessor, The Secret Wife, with great interest. So when I received an advance copy of Gill’s latest, Jackie and Maria, I followed up immediately.
Alas, the message got lost in transit, and months passed before I found out what had happened. But Gill was kind enough to answer my written questions instead. And since William Morrow released her book just this past Tuesday, the timing couldn’t be better. Read on, and find out more about three fascinating women and at least one equally fascinating man.
Last I heard, you were writing about the Russian imperial family. What drew you to the story of Jackie Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis, and Maria Callas?
It’s quite a leap, I agree! The idea of writing about the Kennedy/Callas/Onassis love triangle was suggested to me by a reader in Athens, who got in touch via Twitter, and immediately I was desperate to do it. The story is most often told from Jackie Kennedy’s point of view, but I wanted to explore the other angles, filling out Ari’s character and telling Maria’s side too. I love writing unconventional love stories, with heartbreak, betrayal and infidelity—not sure what that says about me. This story ticked all the boxes, and it had glamorous locations too. Fortunately I wrote it in 2019 when I was still able to travel to the Mediterranean and explore them.
You’re quite explicit in your Historical Afterword that this novel is your own take on the world you depict. How would you describe your Jackie Kennedy and how she decides to marry Aristotle Onassis?
I’ve been a fan of Jackie Kennedy for decades, but her decision to marry Onassis always puzzled me. We know she was an intelligent woman, who had many well-qualified suitors in the years after Jack Kennedy died, yet she chose a man with whom she had little in common. Was it solely for the money? Her mother had raised her to prioritize wealth, and Jackie was a compulsive shopper, so Ari’s bank balance was definitely a factor, but if that were the only reason it makes her seem very cold-hearted. In the end, I was persuaded by biographer Barbara Leaming’s theory that Jackie was suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder when she married for the second time. She wanted to feel safe and thought Ari’s millions could provide security—but it soon transpired that they couldn’t.
Jackie knows that her sister Lee had an affair with Onassis, yet this doesn’t deter her. What does this tell us about them and their relationship?
Isn’t it odd? In the unlikely event that I wanted to date one of my sister’s exes, I would at the very least ask if she minded. It seems to me that the Bouvier sisters were never especially intimate: they both liked clothes and holidays in sunny locations, but any friendship was on a superficial level. Lee was always competitive, trying to outdo her older sister. I suspect Jackie didn’t approve of Lee’s extramarital affairs during her marriage with Stas Radziwill, especially since she had personally interceded with the Pope to help get Lee’s first marriage annulled. Although Lee was supportive after Dallas, the rift between them widened throughout the 1960s. It’s widely documented that Jackie asked Onassis to telephone and tell Lee they were getting married, rather than calling herself, implying that she knew Lee would be upset. Gore Vidal reported Lee screaming, “How could she do this to me?”
I learned a lot about Onassis from reading this novel; he was always a name to me before. How would you summarize his character? What’s important to know about his past?
Ari had a tragic childhood: his mother died when he was three, and many family members were murdered when the Turks drove the Greeks out of Smyrna in 1922. He had a difficult relationship with his father and set off alone to make his fortune in South America, through a mixture of hard work, shrewd investment, and innate canniness. He didn’t treat women with much respect, but in that he was no different from many other men of his era. A key to his character is that he always wanted the best of everything, from champagne to yachts to women, and I have Maria comment in the novel that it’s as if he’s still trying to prove himself to his father. In marrying Jackie Kennedy, he hoped to establish himself as a great lover, worthy of the world’s respect, and instead he became an object of ridicule.
The real love of Onassis’s life, at least in this book, is not Jackie or Lee but the opera star Maria Callas. I would guess that most of my readers have heard her name, but as with Onassis may not know much about her as a person. What would you like us to understand about her and her long relationship with Onassis?
The first thing to know about Maria is that many opera experts still judge her to have been the greatest first soprano of all time. The voice is spectacular, giving me goose bumps whenever I listen. Her life wasn’t easy, but her years with Ari were her happiest. His closest friends liked her the best of all his women, and I think that says a lot. Their relationship was volatile—glasses were thrown and faces were slapped—but they were lovers in the true sense, as well as close companions. I hadn’t realized till I began researching this book that they were still a couple at the beginning of August 1968, just over two months before he married Mrs Kennedy—and that he tried to win Maria back three weeks after the wedding. Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it! In my opinion, he made a big mistake in not marrying Maria. She is the woman who would have looked after him through the illness and tragedy that beset him as he grew older, the only one who loved him for himself instead of his money.
This book has just come out. Are you already working on something new?
I’ve delivered the next one but I’m not allowed to divulge the subject yet. And I’ve started researching the one after, which will be my eleventh novel. I feel incredibly lucky!
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Gill also writes historical nonfiction, including A History of Medicine in 50 Objects and a series of Love Stories. Published around the world, this series includes Royal Love Stories, World War I Love Stories, and Titanic Love Stories. Find out more about her at http://www.gillpaul.com.