Famous Greek People from Modern Greece

Nikos Kazantzakis:

Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) was one of the most important and talented Greek writers and philosophers of the 20th century. His work includes essays, novels, poems, travelogues and translations of classic works, such as Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and Goethe’s “Faust”. Many of his novels deal with the history and culture of Greece and the mysterious relationship between man and God.

Nikos Kazantzakis was born on February 18th, 1883, in the town of Heraklion Crete. His father was Michael Kazantzakis, a farmer and a dealer in animal feed and his mother was Maria Kazantzakis. Nikos left Crete at a young age to attend the Franciscan School of the Holy Cross in Naxos and in 1902 he went to study law at the University of Athens for four years. From 1907 to 1909, Nikos studied philosophy at the College de France in Paris and he was greatly influenced by the teachings of Henri Bergson.

On returning to Greece, he began translating works of philosophy. Besides writing, Nikos dedicated a lot of time to public service. In 1919, he was appointed Director General at the Greek Ministry of Public Welfare. He was responsible for feeding and eventually rescuing more than 150,000 Greek people who were trapped in the Caucasian region of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Since then, Kazantzakis traveled widely around the world, visiting Berlin, Italy, Russia, Spain, Cyprus, Egypt, China, Japan and many other countries. While in Berlin, Kazantzakis discovered communism and became an admirer of Lenin. In 1945, he became the leader of a small party on the noncommunist left and entered the Greek government as Minister without Portfolio. He however resigned the post in the following year. In 1947-48, he worked for UNESCO. In 1957, he lost the Nobel Prize for Literature to Albert Camus by one vote.

He married twice, one to Galatea Alexiou and another to Eleni Samiou. Nikos Kazantzakis passed away in 1957 Freiburg, Germany, suffering from leukemia. He was buried on the wall surrounding the city of Heraklion, since the Orthodox Church had abolished him after his work “The Last Temptation” and ruled out his burial in a cemetery. However, Nikos Kazantzakis did not become truly well known until the 1964 release of the Michael Cacoyannis film “Zorba the Greek” based on a novel by him.

Literary Work:
Kazantzakis’s first published work was the 1906 narrative “Serpent and the Lilly”, which was signed with the penname, Karma Nirvami. In 1909, he wrote a one act play entitled Comedy. In 1910, after his studies in Paris, he wrote a tragedy “The Master Builder” based on a popular Greek folkloric story.

Kazantzakis began writing “The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel” in 1924 and didn’t finish till 1938. He actually wrote it seven times before it was eventually published. He considered it to be his best and most important piece of work. His other important works include Zorba the Greek (1948), The Greek Passion (1948), Last Temptation of Christ (1951) and Saint Francis (1956).

Throughout his life, Kazantzakis was spiritually inclined, constantly looking for answers. His thirst for knowledge made him travel around the world meeting numerous people with different backgrounds and ideologies.

The influence of Friedrich Nietzsche on his work is very evident especially in his atheism and sympathy for the superman. At the same time however, he felt bound by religion to a certain degree and at a point stayed in a monastery for six months. Many Greek religious authorities condemned his work to which his only response was “You gave me a curse, I give you a blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I”.

According to his will, the following phrase has been writen on his tomb: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free”.

Aristotle Onassis, the wealthy Greek shipping tycoon:

Aristotle Onassis was the most famous and wealthy Greek shipping tycoon of the 20th century and probably one of the most successful businessman ever. He was born in Smyrna Turkey in 1906. His father, Socrates Onassis, was also in the shipping business. He had 10 ships and 40 sailors working for him and he did very well in his business. Hence, Aristotle and his sisters had the opportunity to go to reputed schools and educate, in a time that education was a rare thing.

Smyrna of the early 20th century was a prosperous city with a large community of Greeks. However, things took an unpleasant turn after World War I, when the Turks started a serious pogrom against the Greeks and forced them to leave their homes. The father of Aristotle Onassis lost his job and they all moved to Athens.

However, Aristotle would not stay in Athens for long. He decided to go to Buenos Aires Argentina having only $60 in his pocket. There he got his first job at the British United River Plate Telephone Company. While in Argentina, Aristotle engaged in tobacco importing business with help from his father back home.

He knew that this Turkish tobacco had soft flavor, unlike the Cuban one. He thought it would be very popular with the modern American women. Due to his unsuccessful negotiation with Juan Gaona, head of a giant Argentine corporation, he launched his own line of cigarettes. His business acumen earned him lot of money.

By 1925, Aristotle’s fame as a wealthy and influential man enabled him to attend popular social events. Of course, his actions were sometimes disputed and he had to bribe certain politicians to achieve his goals.

All of Aristotle’s actions did not go unnoticed by the FBI. He was charged with violation of shipping laws and also resorting to fraud against the U.S. Government in 1954. At that time, all U.S. ships carrying goods abroad had to be owned by U.S. citizens. Aristotle, in the case that followed, pleaded guilty and paid a fine of $7 million dollars. In 1957, Onassis engaged in airlines business and established Olympic Airways, the first Greek air company.

The great chance for Onassis came when large petroleum companies, like Mobil and Texaco, addressed to him to transport their goods with his ships. That time he made enormous profits. As all of Aristotle’s ships had flags of Panama which transported goods tax-free and also ran at low cost. Though he charged much less from other companies, with each transaction of goods he had made maximum profits.

Aristotle’s personal life was quite unstable, too. His first marriage was to Athina Livanos, a daughter of a Greek shipping magnate. They remained married for 15 years but both were not happy. From this marriage, he had a son Alexander and a daughter Christina.

However, Aristotle was unfaithful to her and had many extramarital affairs. The most famous affair of Onassis was to Maria Callas, the famous Greek opera singer. They met in late 1950s and started an affair while they were both married to other people. For her, Onassis was her chance to find happiness, but for Onassis, things were not so romantic. Their relationship lasted for many years, but it was never stable. Some even say that Callas gave birth to their son in 1959, but the baby lived only for a few hours.

Although they were both divorced and they could easily get married, Onassis devastated Callas with his sudden decision to marry Jacqueline Kennedy, the window of the 35th USA President J.F.Kennedy, probably for reasons of prestige. They got married in October 1968 in his private island, Skorpios, opposite Lefkada Greece. However, rumors say the he kept visiting Callas in Paris, even after his marriage to Jackie.

The great strike of faith came for Aristotle Onassis when his beloved son Alexander crashed with his aircraft and lost his life in 1973, at the age of 24. This accident raised a lot of conspiracy theories and was the end for Onassis. He went ill and died two years later in Paris, of bronchial pneumonia, a complication of myasthenia gravis.

According to his will, his daughter Christina inherited 55% of his fortune and the rest 45%, which would be Alexander’s heritage, were used for the creation of Alexander S. Onassis Foundation to his honor.

The Famous Greek Poet Constantine Cavafy:

Constantine Cavafy is a prominent figure in Greek literature. Most of his literary works belong to the 20th century era. He published a lot of his poems when he was alive and many of them were translated in English, so he soon gained world reputation. His best known poems include “Ithaca”, inspired by Greek mythology and the specifically the trip of Ulysses, “Waiting for the Barbarians” and “Thermopylae”.

Cavafy was born in 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt, to Greek parents. Cavafy’s father was a prosperous businessman and his business earned him the British nationality. At the age of 7, Cafavy lost his father and then he and his family moved to Liverpool, where they lived till 1877. But due to financial problems, the family again had to move back to Alexandria. Political disturbances in Alexandria, in 1882, forced the family once again to move to Constantinople. It was only in 1885 that Cavafy finally returned to Alexandria, his birth land, where he built his career as a civil servant and poet.

Cavafy’s first occupation was that of a journalist, although not much is known about his journalistic endeavours. He served the British Government in Alexandria as a civil servant and at the same time he published his poems that were meant to be read by a handful of his most dear friends. Most of these poems received critical commendations only from Alexandria’s literary circles. It is strange to note that he was not that welcomed in the literary society of Athens at that time because of the creative difference that he had with the Athenian poets.

Themes of his poetry outlines ambiguous notions about future, indulgence in mortal pleasures, concerns about the spiritual character of human beings, exploration of homosexuality and a constant yearning sense of nostalgia. In most of Cavafy’s poems, it is noted that there is a subtle hint at homosexuality that gives us the most accepted notion that he was a homosexual. Such progressive themes were not acceptable as it differed a lot from the conventional Greek poetry of that time.

But this did not deter him from continuing his work. Cavafy’s perfectionist attitude made him rewrite every single line of his poem till they were polished and ideally suitable for expressing his opinions, thoughts and views in a free iambic form. A unique factor of these poems is that the verses do not rhyme as most of them have somewhere between 10 to 17 syllables. His vast knowledge of Hellenistic history compelled him to write poems consisting of themes from that time.

Cavafy during his lifetime had basically classified his work into three sections. They were the historical poems, where most of his ideas and concepts were imbibed from the history of Alexandria and also from his exclusive knowledge about Byzantine and Hellenic history. He would also put forth mythological references in his poems to express the dilemma that is so commonly faced by mortals and immortals. In his sensual poems, the emphasis lies on the vulnerability of human emotions while enduring and recollecting actions of the past, present and future. His philosophical poems closely resemble to monologues where the poet himself gives an account of experiences and circumstances that govern an individual’s life.

Constantine Cavafy passed away in 1933, on the day of his 70th birthday, suffering from larynx cancer. His huge body of literary work has gained since then a lot of admiration and popularity among critics. Today he is one of the most famous Greek poets worldwide.

Maria Callas, the divine opera singer:

Maria Callas is one of the most renowned opera singers the world has ever known. With her sheer musical genius, she revived the bel canto form of singing and added her own personal musical style to it. Her musical talent has led the press and celebrated musicians around the world to bestow her with titles like “The Bible of Opera” and “La Divina”.

Her beautiful captivating voice that had such a magnificent presence on stage and the intense emotional notes that she carried out altered simple dramatic performances into serious and entrancing dramatic showpieces.

Maria Callas (short for Maria Kalogeropoulou) was born in New York in December 1923 to Greek parents. Her childhood does not have many happy memories to recall because of the unending rows between her parents. Maria was the third child in the family. She had an elder sister named Jackie and a brother named Vassilis, who died a year before her birth. Her father’s mellow and moderate nature seriously contrasted with her mother’s highly aggressive attitude.

Moreover, her mother somewhat had a fascination towards beauty, which she found only in her elder daughter, thus favoured her more and completely ignored Maria, who she considered plump and ugly. Maria was myopic at an early age and also had to wear thick glasses but alternatively she was also gifted with charming singing capabilities.

As soon as her mother discovered the younger daughter’s musical talent, she began forcing her to sing from the age of five. When the family returned to Athens in 1937, Maria got basic musical education from two important musical instructors, Maria Trivella of the Greek National Conservatoire and Elvira De Hidalgo of Athens Conservatoire. Both of Maria’s musical educators realized during the training sessions that she had the making of a dramatic soprano. She was an extremely dedicated student and completely devoured her lessons.

Apart from a warm tone, Maria also had an impressive control over her voice and was very cautious not to extend her notes, proving that she was a careful musician as well. Such expertise bagged her dramatic roles in the operas of famous German composer Richard Wagner. Her very first major performance was in “Tosca” by Puccini, in 1941. In the opera by Giuseppe Verdi, she elegantly carried out the role of “Aida”.

Maria Callas reached the top of her career in 1949, when she undertook the challenge to perform both the roles of “Brunnhilde” and “Elvira” in the opera “I Puritani” by Vincenzo Bellini and that too in the same week. Both the works were completely different from each other and required contrasting vocal qualities.

She performed these two roles on stage with such unimaginable ease that musicians across the world would remember this musical feat as one of the main pillars behind her success and worldwide recognition. In 1951, Maria moved to Italy and joined the La Scala opera house in Milan. It is here that she performed a total of 37 musical roles and entertained audiences year after year.

It was also here that she came across Italian music director, Tullio Serafin, who became her mentor during her stay in Italy. He drew her interest towards bel canto that requires an adaptable vocal pitch, distinct articulation, a refined tonal quality and an ability to reach a high range. With sheer determination, she mastered this particular pattern of singing and was soon seen performing roles of Norma, Lucia and Rosina.

In 1953 and 1954, Maria realized that due to her fatty figure she was becoming too tired while performing and sweating profusely while moving about on stage carrying out roles of young girls. So, she resolved to lose enough weight and take on such a diet that would make her look more attractive on stage.

Maria lost 80 pounds and turned into a slender, graceful and more confident lady on stage. Her beautiful figure added a charming effect to her performances. In 1954, her presence in the United States was marked by some of her best performances that she imparted infront of the American audiences in Chicago’s Lyric Opera and exactly two years later in New York City’s Metropolitan Opera.

Unfortunately, such a great and talented singing maestro developed vocal problems in the late 1950s. Due to her continual vocal treatment, she completely withdrew from stage by 1962. Nevertheless she made a brief appearance once again in 1965 and performed the famous Tosca in Paris, London and New York City, reinstating herself as one of the best opera singers of the world.

The brightness of Maria’s career would hide the emotional turmoil that she went through in her own private life. According to the press, these events serve as scandals that became well known as she started to achieve accomplishment in her career. In 1949, Maria’s marriage to Giovanni Meneghini, a wealthy Italian businessman, 28 years older than her, caught the attention of the press.

Earlier her estranged relationship with her mother was much talked about. Maria’s comments about her mother’s ill treatment of her and her father were hungrily gobbled up. In fact, Callas accused her mother that she deprived her from a normal childhood that all children deserve. She even accused her mother that she pressed her daughters on dating German Nazi officers during the Second World War in Athens.

However, her marriage was no happier. Although her husband had helped her career by being her manager and encouraging her musical pursuit, Maria still felt that their marriage could not stir those passionate feelings that she so much desired to feel.

It was in the late 1950s that she came across Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. The two of them bagan a passionate relationship, which resulted pretty fateful for her. Callas had fallen in deep live with Onassis and even divorced Meneghini in 1966 to be with him. What for him seemed to be another extramarital relationship, for her it was the love of her life, the man she could do anything for.

One of her biographers even stated that in 1960 Callas gave birth to the son of Onassis in Paris but the child died after a few hours. In the 1960s, Callas was gradually failing her career and when director Franco Zeffirelli asked her in 1963 why she had stopped her performances, Callas simply replied “I am trying to fulfill my life as a woman”.

Unfortunately, their relationship had ill fate. Onassis betrayed her with his sudden decision to marry Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of the former US president John Kennedy, without even telling her. This devastated Callas emotionally but rumors had it that Onassis continued to visit her in Paris, even after his marriage.

When Onassis died in 1975, she went into total depression. After that, Maria led a very reclusive life away from friends and social events. On September 16, 1977, she passed away at the age of 53. She probably suffered a heart attack due to overdose of sleeping pills. After her death, her ashes were distributed in the Aegean Sea as was her wish.