Stavros Niarchos, the great Greek benefactor and tycoon, passed away on this day in 1996, leaving behind a foundation that continues his philanthropic work.
Born on July 3, 1909 in Athens, Stavros Niarchos was a self-made businessman and shipping tycoon of immense wealth who possessed an exceptional ability to make money.
Niarchos was also known for his adventurous love life, as he married five times, with two sisters being among his five brides.
After his death, his legacy continued with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation that has become a leader in philanthropic donations in the areas of arts and culture, education, health and medicine, and social welfare.
Niarchos was born in Laconia, Greece three months after his parents, naturalized U.S. citizens Spyros Niarchos and Eugenie Koumantaros, had returned to their native country after making their fortune with a department store in Buffalo, New York.
Niarchos studied Law at the University of Athens. After graduating, he entered the business world through a chain of flour mills owned by his mother’s family.
In 1930, Niarchos married Helen Sporides, a daughter of Admiral Constantine Sporides. Yet, the marriage only lasted one year.
It was during his time working in the mills that he convinced his uncles that the grain business they owned would flourish if the company owned its own ships.
By the time he was 30, Niarchos had built up the shipping side of the business, chartering vessels to carry wheat from Argentina among other places.
In 1939, he married Melpomene Capparis, a widow of a Greek diplomat, whom he divorced in 1947.
The war and the building up of Niarchos’ fleet
When Greece entered the war, Niarchos joined the Royal Hellenic Navy, serving on North Atlantic convoys with the rank of lieutenant commander; he later served as Honorary Naval Attache to the Greek Embassy in Washington from 1944 to 1948.
In 1947, he married Eugenia Livanos, daughter of another Greek shipping magnate, Stavros G. Livanos, thus planting his foot firmly in the shipping business.
As a diplomat in Washington, Niarchos was instrumental in securing the favorable sale of a hundred Liberty Ships from the U.S. government to Greek shipowners in compensation for damage suffered in the Allied war effort.
Niarchos’ rival Aristotle Onassis had said about him: “No one has been so smart or so lucky to make the right moves at the right time as Stavros Niarchos.”
The sale revived the fortunes of Greece’s depleted merchant marine and made possible its great post-war renaissance.
By 1952, Stavros Niarchos had the world’s largest supertankers built for his fleet. Propelled by both the Suez Crisis and an increasing demand for oil, he and rival Aristotle Onassis became giants in the world of global petroleum shipping.
Niarchos Ltd. was an international shipping company that, at one time, operated more than eighty tankers worldwide, including substantial modern and super tonnage. His investments had also diversified into stocks and real estate.
Niarchos’ and Onassis’ phenomenal success was primarily due to the early realization— others would call it vision—that oil would replace coal as the primary fuel of the world economy.
In 1956, Niarchos agreed to build and operate the Hellenic Shipyards, the first such private investment in Greece, which rapidly became the largest shipyard in the Mediterranean.
The Stavros Niarchos – Aristotle Onassis rivalry
The two shipping magnates had stood as rivals to each other since the late 1940s. This was heightened in 1947. While in the process of obtaining his second divorce, Niarchos wanted to marry Tina Livanos, who was only fourteen at the time. She was the daughter of the other major shipping rival at the time, Stavros Livanos.
Niarchos asked her father for his permission, but Livanos refused to allow his daughter to marry Niarchos, saying she was too young and that her groom-to-be had not finalized his divorce procedures yet.
Two years later, Niarchos expressed his wish to marry Tina Livanos again. This time, her father offered Niarchos his older daughter Evgenia. Niarchos agreed and married her. The couple had four children together.
Alas, three years later, Niarchos’ rival Onassis married Tina Livanos. That move naturally enraged Niarchos, who believed that his rival had stolen Tina from him just to spite him.
From then on, it seems that both men tried to outdo each other in every way—in business, lifestyles, and romantic conquests. Their stories featured both in the business section of newspapers and in the tabloids.
Both men were among the first to buy a private island in Greece: Onassis bought Skorpios while Stavros Niarchos bought Spetsopoula.
Onassis dated soprano Maria Callas and married the widow of John F. Kennedy, while Niarchos married the daughter of tycoon automaker Henry Ford II, Charlotte Ford, in Mexico in 1965 (his fourth marriage).
That marriage lasted only a year, but the couple had a child together, Elena. They actually spent a lot of time together and with their children on Spetsopoula.
The Greek tycoon was unfortunately not divorced from Eugenia Livanos at the time, however, and in 1970, Eugenia died of an alleged barbiturates overdose on the island, with the coroner refusing to sign the cause of death.
In 1971, one could say that Niarchos took his final revenge on his rival by marrying Tina Livanos, who had recently been divorced from Onassis and had taken the name and title from her second marriage, Athina Spencer-Churchill, the Marchioness of Blandford.
Three years later, Tina died under circumstances that, again, were mysterious. Initially, it was thought that she, like her sister, had taken a drug overdose although it later transpired that the cause of death was edema of the lung.
Bon viveur and benefactor
Niarchos’ yacht was the largest private schooner on the open seas while his Mystere aircraft established Niarchos as one of the first true members of the jet set.
On his yacht, old royalty and aristocracy cruised the seas together while, at the same time, Niarchos always maintained close ties with Greece and, in addition to operating most of his fleet under the Greek flag, invested heavily in the country’s industrial base.
Niarchos’ taste in women continued to be eclectic from the late 1970s and onward as he reportedly had affairs with Princess Firyal of Jordan and Princess Maria Gabriella of Savoy.
Alongside his huge fleet, Niarchos developed an impressive modern art portfolio, and was also a thoroughbred horse breeder.
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation
In 1996, the great Greek man’s legacy was honored by the establishment of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, an international philanthropic organization.
Since 1996, SNF has committed grants totaling more than $1.57 billion, through more than 2,800 grants to nonprofit organizations in 111 nations around the world.
The foundation’s largest single gift of $796 million (€566 million) enabled the creation of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) in Athens.
The project includes the construction and complete outfitting of new facilities for the National Library of Greece and the Greek National Opera, as well as the creation of the 170,000-square-meter (1,829,864.7 square foot)) Stavros Niarchos Park.
The SNFCC serves as a lasting reminder of the almost unimaginable power and influence that the shipping tycoon represented during his lifetime.