The Battle to Control the Legacy of Aristotle Onassis
Aghia Foteini's dominance of Nea Smyrna's skyline is not a mere matter of geography. Twin belfries accentuate the grandeur of the church built by the Athens suburb's refugee residents in remembrance of the main Orthodox temple in the famed Asia Minor city of Smyrna-the home they fled in terror when Kemal Ataturk's troops set the city aflame in 1922. Among those forced to abandon his natal home was the 22-year-old Aristotle Onassis, the late shipping tycoon who became known around the world as "the golden Greek."
To the left of the church, scaffolding obscures an arch-wide enough for a car-above which rises an even taller bell tower, a replica of the one in Smyrna. It is being built with funds from the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation. For a church with two steeples, the third may seem excessive. But excess is a part of the Onassis legend. This may be why the Aghia Foteini bell tower, trivial beside the Foundation's other deeds, is perfectly evocative of the tycoon's legacy.
"We were asked whether we wanted to have a street in Athens named after him," Stelio A. Papadimitriou recalls. "I said 'No. We do not need that'. You give that to small benefactors, not to us." Made by anyone else, such a statement would smack of arrogance. But for Papadimitriou, the president of the Onassis Foundation, it is no more than a statement of fact.
Created under the terms of Onassis's will, the Foundation is not merely a patrimony; it is a legacy meant to reflect Onassis's beliefs and continue his life's work. Indeed, Papadimitriou bristles at the suggestion that the Foundation does no more than dole out donations. "Our foundation is unique," he insists in the course of a two-and-a-half hour interview with Odyssey. "All other foundations are controlled by business; ours controls its own business."
This unusual arrangement is pure Onassis. Instead of endowing the Foundation with a fixed sum, he bequeathed it half his business and thus the means of producing income. In the 23 years since Onassis died, Papadimitriou says, the Foundation has quadrupled the value of its estate. "It is an entirely new fleet. The average age of our ships is four or five years; at the time Onassis died the average age was 15. Just one of our ships is valued at almost as much as the entire fleet Onassis left us," he adds.
The Foundation was well-positioned to safeguard the Onassis legacy, since its members were all trusted colleagues. Its top officers include the same four men Onassis chose to manage his daughter's estate and whom Christina, in turn, selected to manage daughter Athina's trust. They are:
Papadimitriou, 67, whose intimate relationship with Onassis was underscored by the tycoon's deathbed request that he protect Christina "as his sister;" 74-year-old Pavlos Ioannidis-another trusted Onassis aide who served for almost four decades as his chief pilot and general manager of Olympic Airways-who is one of the Foundation's two vice presidents; Apostolos Zabelas, 71, an economist and financial analyst in Onassis's employ for over 30 years, who is the Foundation's vice president and treasurer; and Theodore Gabrielides, 63, who served as legal counsel to the Onassis group of companies. Papadimitriou, Ioannidis, and Zabelas all received $2 million in Christina's will and are life members of the Foundation's board; Gabrielides received nothing and serves as an elected member.
For all intents and purposes, these four control both the Foundation and Athina's trust, an arrangement that her father, Thierry Roussel, abhors. Athina's inheritance-whose value was estimated at $569.1 million in a court filing last March-reverts to her control when she turns 18 (on January 29, 2003). At the moment, Roussel receives roughly $12 million annually; in the 10 years since Christina's 1988 death, he has pocketed over $100 million from the Onassis estate.
But with Onassis's four associates dominating the five-man trust, Roussel feels locked out, and through a series of court actions in Switzerland he has sought to wrest away control of the inheritance. He has publicly accused his fellow trustees of embezzlement and corruption; last fall, he said they hired former Israeli secret agents to kidnap Athina. They replied that they had simply undertaken a five-month surveillance of Athina's security to fulfill the conditions of a British insurance policy that would pay the ransom should she be kidnapped.
It is unlikely that Roussel will relent, despite a Swiss judicial review last April that rejected Roussel's efforts to oust his fellow trustees; instead, the review credited the growth of the inheritance to the trustees' "diligent management." The Greek trustees, meanwhile, filed slander charges against Roussel's attorney in Athens. It is these skirmishes that have dominated the global media.
But in the midst of the frenzy over Athina's trust, the question of who might eventually control the Onassis Foundation has received less scrutiny. At first glance, Onassis's will seems to stipulate that his heirs should be in control; but Papadimitriou and his troops insist otherwise.
Currently, Papadimitriou, who became president in 1992, is the iron man of the Foundation, as he is of Athina's trust. He answers to the other 14 directors, among whom are such luminaries as Archbishop Anastasios of Albania and former New York University President John Brademas; more controversially, one son each of Papadimitriou, Ioannides, Zabelas, and Gabrielides have also joined the board over the years-an act of perceived nepotism for which they have often been attacked.
Described as one of the sharpest minds in maritime law, Papadimitriou fits the physical stereotype of a Balkan diplomat, an image belied by the sophistication of his conversation. Having spent a lifetime at Onassis's side-he and the tycoon's late son, Alexander, all shared the same office-Papadimitriou, too, seems as if he would be as comfortable at a quayside cafe as at a meeting of heads of state. And he appears to have made it his mission to run the Foundation, housed in an opulent neoclassical mansion across from Hadrian's Arch, with the same panache that Onassis lived his life.
"Onassis wanted us to continue his business," Papadimitriou says of his deathbed conversations with the shipping tycoon. "I had asked him what he would like us to do so he could be remembered. And he said: 'I am the business. If you carry on the business, people will remember me. If you do not carry on the business, the Foundation will die because no money will go into it. So if you wish to remember me, continue my business.' This is reflected in his will." Drafted by Papadimitriou-"I drew it up about 50 times because Onassis was not an easy fellow for whom to draft a will"-it is a model of simplicity given the complexity and enormity of Onassis's estate.
Valued at half a billion dollars at the time of his death in 1975, the estate included more than 50 ships, extensive real estate holdings-including the Ionian islands of Skorpios and Sparti, office buildings in New York-bonds, securities, and shares in companies throughout the world, including an airline. Everything was divided straight down the middle: Half went to the Foundation, which inherited the share that would have gone to Onassis's son, Alexander (who had died two years earlier in a plane crash at age 24), and the other half to Christina.
"I asked 'Why the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation' and not simply the 'Onassis Foundation,'?" Papadimitriou recalls. "And Onassis said, 'I had two children. Christina will take half and Alexander would have taken half. But since he is dead, the Foundation will take the place of my son.'"
Onassis left only broad guidelines as to how the Foundation should disperse its monies, but he was strict about how it should earn them. "While the will states the board can buy ships with the approval of a simple majority, a two-thirds majority is needed to sell a ship. And if we sell a ship, we have to reserve the money to buy another ship when the opportunity arises," Papadimitriou says. "Onassis was a shipowner. He wanted his name and his business to be continued."
Despite the tremendous leeway Onassis gave the Foundation in deciding what types of programs to underwrite, he did make one stipulation: The projects must benefit the public rather than the individual. "Onassis did not believe in charity. He believed in public benefit," Papadimitriou says. "The Foundation does not give money to Mr. So-and-So to go have an operation. It builds a hospital so everyone can have an operation."
His example is an allusion to the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center, a Pei-like pyramid on Syngrou Avenue, four kilometers from the center of Athens. The state-of-the-art, 118-bed hospital has four operating theaters and cost over $75 million to build. Its reputation rivals the world's best heart-surgery centers; doctors there have performed thousands of open-heart procedures and have treated over 130,000 outpatients since the Foundation presented it to the Greek state in 1992.
The Onassis Foundation also disburses $2 million in scholarships each year, primarily to Greek students doing graduate work abroad. There are about 1,000 scholarship program "alumni" and an equal number currently studying around the world with Foundation grants. "We don't give scholarships to the poor, we give scholarships to the worthy," declares Papadimitriou. "You get a bigger scholarship if you are poor but you don't get the scholarship because you are poor."
This, too, reflects Onassis's beliefs, Papadimitriou says. "We were walking on Skorpios one night-Onassis never slept before three in the morning-when he asked me this: 'You have three children. By the time you die, you will have some money. Assume you have one son who is very strong and one who is weak. How will you divide your estate?' I said I would give most of the money to the weak one and less to the strong one because he wouldn't need it.
"And Onassis said to me, 'You are a fool. Don't you ever do that. You give all your money to the strong one with an obligation to support the weak one. Because the weak one will do nothing with the money, he will spend it all and be a burden on the strong one. The strong one is going to make more money and he can take care of the weak one. Give all your money to the strong.' That was Onassis." As a coda, Papadimitriou adds: "It would have been a horror to him if the Foundation simply gave to the poor. We don't forget the poor. We take care of the poor, but in a different way."
The Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center and the scholarship program are hardly the Foundation's only projects. Among hundreds of other grants, it is providing millions for the construction and operation of an Onassis Library for Hellenic and Roman Art at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art; has given generously to the American Hospital in Paris and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York; and supports the Patmos Monastery, the Anglo-Hellenic League, the World Wide Fund for Nature, and Piraeus's Seamen's Home.
Its signature awards are the biennial Onassis International Prizes, worth a quarter million dollars each, which are bestowed on individuals and organizations that have furthered international understanding, and contributed to culture and the environment. Recipients have included CNN Founder Ted Turner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Hermitage Museum, Amnesty International, Elizabeth Taylor and Association AIDES, and the International Maritime Organization.
Last year the Foundation also held its first international cultural competition-a playwriting contest that attracted 1,460 entries from 76 countries. Why the phenomenal response? With a first prize of $250,000, a second prize of $200,000 and a third prize of a mere $150,000-easily the highest purses ever offered for original theatrical works-legitimate writers and gold digging hacks the world over scrambled for a shot at the big time. "Harvest," a play by Manjula Padmanabhan of India, took top honors. Asked if the size of the prizes reflects Onassis's flair for the grandiose, Papadimitriou replies simply: "Bravo!"
The response, plus the high quality of the submissions-Papadimitriou says there were 45 works of great merit-have encouraged the Foundation to expand the competition to more disciplines. "Next time it will be theater plus ballet and music...then philosophy...then the visual arts," he says. "I hope this will be a good evocation of the cultural games of the ancient world." The program seems to jibe with Onassis's belief in encouraging creativity and in fostering the new-something Papadimitriou says benefits society more than simply rewarding someone for what he has already done. The program also dovetails with the Foundation's plan to build a performing arts center in Athens; a $6.5-million plot of land on Syngrou Avenue has already been purchased for the center.
Papadimitriou takes great pride in finally introducing the element of competition into the Foundation's prizes, something Onassis certainly would have applauded. But he says he also derives great satisfaction from having created a Foundation that, in its broad strokes and in its details, is true to Onassis's vision.
"In his will, Onassis outlines the Foundation in general terms. The specifics and its administration were left entirely up to me. He wanted it and he approved it, but he recognized that I knew administration better than him. It is my pride that the Foundation has passed the acid test, that 22 years after Onassis's death, the Foundation works and performs as it does," he says.
The Roussel Factor
The Foundation was not the only "heir" Onassis placed in Papadimitriou's care. In his will, the tycoon also put his daughter's share of the estate under the Foundation's management, asking him to look after Christina "as his sister."
The obligation has weighed heavily on Papadimitriou, for whom Onassis was both mentor and father. ("I am a child of Onassis," he says. "My father died when I was 13. Onassis was a father to me.") It has also put him at the center of a dispute that, to his annoyance, detracts from the Foundation's work.
Papadimitriou warned Onassis that Christina would never agree to her father's terms and that the will would place Papadimitriou at odds with her. Contrary to his fears, his fight was never with Christina, who, like her father, came to regard Papadimitriou as a confidant.
"After Onassis died, we divided everything up into two lots, A and B. In the presence of a notary public Christina chose B," he says. "The moment she did, she turned to us and said, 'Okay, now I am giving my assets back to you to manage. Not because my father says I have to, but because of me. I'm the boss.' So we agreed to manage her fleet along with her other assets." (Christina subsequently asked them to ease her out of shipping. "At the time, there was a crisis in shipping and she was not a person that had a long-term view," Papadimitriou says.)
But since Christina's death in Buenos Aires in 1988, Papadimitriou has been famously at odds with Thierry Roussel. The nasty battle, fought in the courtrooms of Greece and Switzerland, has all the elements of a Sidney Sheldon bestseller.
In her will, also drawn up by Papadimitriou, Christina left the bulk of her estate to Athina. The will is structured to shield Athina's fortune from Roussel, about whom Christina had increasingly expressed doubts. The row between the two sides began immediately after Christina's death when Roussel, unaware she had had Papadimitriou draw up a new will, publicly claimed he was now in charge of the Onassis fortune.
Relations between Roussel and the Greek trustees have deteriorated as the Frenchman has stepped up his efforts to win control of Athina's patrimony. In 1996, he took the dispute public, openly accusing the trustees of mismanagement and embezzlement. Papadimitriou and the others retaliated in kind, publicly revealing the extra amounts paid out to Roussel over the years for commitments he has failed to meet, such as Greek-language lessons for Athina (for which Roussel reportedly has been given $2 million). Reporters, meanwhile, have dug up old reports of Roussel's checkered economic past and of massive debts from failed ventures such as a strawberry farm in Portugal.
"It all started with Roussel," says Papadimitriou, who insists the Foundation loathes publicity but must defend itself. "He has two weaknesses: One, he likes the press and, second, he is very fond of litigation. From day one, he has been in litigation against us." An Athens court has cleared the Greek trustees of mismanagement allegations, while another petition to a Swiss court to have the Greek trustees removed has been tainted by the trustees' allegations of judicial conspiracy. Roussel did not respond to Odyssey's request for an interview.
Matters of Succession
The Foundation and Athina's trust are separate patrimonies, but the dispute with Roussel has cast a pall over the Foundation for the past two years, if only because of the confusion that arises from the involvement of the same people on both boards. Papadimitriou says that even though Roussel has tried to undermine the Foundation by claiming it is on the verge of bankruptcy, he has failed "because people in the world of finance are more serious than people who aren't...and they know our assets." Papadimitriou hints that Roussel's campaign might have a different purpose.
"If Athina's money exists today it is because of us," he says of the Greek trustees. "Roussel's real dispute is against his daughter...to get more money. All his attempts were either claims against his daughter...or to compel us to give up and say: 'What is this business distracting us from our job? Take it!' and leave, as all the relatives have done."
One thing Papadimitriou is not is a quitter. Nor is the row with Roussel solely about money; for Papadimitriou it also seems to be a battle for the heart and mind of the young girl who, under the Foundation's statutes, could become its president when she turns 21.
Ironically, it was not Onassis who made the Foundation bearing his son's name a family affair.
"He did not want Christina as president...he would have turned in his grave," Papadimitriou says. "We made Christina president. Onassis didn't wish any member of his family to be president or vice president or whatever. Nowhere in his will does he say that Christina or any descendant will become president. He chose the strongest from among his associates. We made her president out of respect for him, but I don't believe he would have appreciated it."
Today Papadimitriou expresses regret at Christina's appointment, even though the Foundation's board did not grant her any powers.
"Under our statutes, the president has only such power as the board gives him. Ioannis Georgakis (Papadimitriou's predecessor) had the prizes and the scholarships-nothing else. Christina, when she was president, had zero. It was an honorary post, but even that can become a burden on the Foundation," he says.
The Foundation's continued growth has created new demands on its overseers.
"The president has gradually acquired a role that far exceeds the requirements of a common human being," Papadimitriou asserts, before qualifying his solipsism. "I'm not saying I'm uncommon, but simply that you have to be able to speak with heads of state and have the culture necessary to speak with professors, authors, and artists...and also know how to make money. Otherwise, you have to compromise and have a figurehead president with a real one behind, as was the case with Christina. Is this to the Foundation's benefit? I don't think so."
As with Christina, Athina would not become president by right. But she does have, in legal terms, the "expectation" that she may chair the foundation's board-provided its members believe she has the education and ability to fulfill the president's basic duties. "The statutes and bylaws make clear that more is needed than the desire to serve as president," says Papadimitriou. "Really, all of us would have liked Athina to become the Foundation's president subject to her Hellenism being maintained, subject to her education being tip-top, and her culture also being good."
His description of the post's basic qualifications seems a tall order, even for someone groomed for the job. And clearly Athina is not. This is a major source of friction between Papadimitriou, who laments the lack of attention to her cultural upbringing and education, and Roussel, who says he does not wish his daughter to be a "wise monkey."
Bemoaning Athina's Lack of Greekness
Since Christina's death, Athina has been raised by Roussel and his Swedish wife, Marianne Landhage, a former model. Gaby, as she is nicknamed, and Roussel were married in 1990; they have three children, one of whom were born while Roussel was still married to Christina.
As Roussel's war with the Foundation has heated up, he has intensified his campaign through the media to showcase Athina as enjoying a happy, "normal" upbringing. Photo spreads in Paris-Match and Hello and interviews aired on Greek television show a beaming Athina either on her horse, Arco, or playing with her parents and siblings.
Neither Papadimitriou nor anyone else has questioned Athina's happiness. What seems to have irked them is the lack of any preparation for assuming responsibility for the billions to come under her control in just five years.
Athina's Greek background seems to have been deliberately neglected; she is said to speak five languages, but Greek is not among them. In her 13 years, Athina has spent a grand total of 17 days in Greece, mostly in isolation on Skorpios.
Roussel has enlisted his daughter in getting across the message to the media that this is because Athina wishes it so. In recent interviews with Italy's Oggi and France's Le Figaro, she has been quoted as saying that she does not want to bear the name Onassis and that she hates Greece because the media's attention makes it like a prison for her. "I want to forget the name Onassis," she told Oggi. Of her grandfather, she said simply: "He was rich. He was loved. I don't know much of him." Roussel has demanded that the Foundation's trustees not use the name Onassis when addressing his daughter.
But Papadimitriou finds such statements preposterous. "Greece is not a small thing that Athina can reject," he says, visibly agitated by both statements. "We would have liked for the only granddaughter of Onassis to be worthy of the name. I'm not saying she should hate the French or the Roussel family. But she should show due respect for her grandfather, for her mother, and their country."
Papadimitriou is careful not to blame Athina for this. "Much to my distress, I see this is not happening. I do not hold the girl responsible. I hold the father and the stepmother responsible. Greece will not be lost if Athina is not Greek or doesn't feel Greek. Because 'Greek' is not a matter of nationality or blood; 'Greek' is a matter of mentality. And the kind of mentality Athina is acquiring is not Greek."
And what is his concept of being Greek? "It is the way I brought up my children and the way I was brought up. First of all, to be respectful of my ancestors," says Papadimitriou. "And second, to cherish education and to try to acquire it."
He is convinced that Athina is not encouraged to learn. By way of example, he refers to an interview on Greek TV in which she responds to polite, yet persistent questioning about her favorite subject by saying she doesn't like school or lessons but only likes horses. At first glance, Papadimitriou's argument may seem flimsy-many kids often say they hate school. But displaying some sensitivity to child psychology, he says such assertions are usually made to friends or other intimates and are not meant to be taken seriously. The TV interview was a formal situation in which most children would have been very concerned about making a good impression.
"She could have said 'I like music' or 'I like reading a book' or 'I like a movie'," Papadimitriou insists. "And when Roussel says 'I'm happy that my daughter is not becoming a wise monkey'-would you say that to your daughter? He's saying he doesn't have respect for education." Yet in spite of all this, Papadimitriou does not seem to have given up hope on the upbringing of Athina, whom he has met three or four times. He appears smug when he says that he may try to save her education at a later stage, but won't reveal how.
Only the Foundation Will Remain
Regardless of whether the trustees are successful in bringing Athina back into the Onassis fold, the Foundation will ensure that the Greek tycoon's legacy survives.
"All the Foundation's staff, all the people who work here, have a sense of mission. And that sense of mission does not concern Onassis. He wouldn't have liked us to serve him or to just propagate his name; he was a decent man. The mission is to do good work. We are pleased to be able to make money and distribute it to public-benefit projects," he says.
The Foundation's mission may not be to serve Onassis as such, but his legacy is being perpetuated through the centers and programs that bear his name, and through the Foundation's thriving shipping business.
Even Papadimitriou, who may still feel that seeing Athina one day at the helm of the Foundation will fulfill his duty to Onassis's vision, seems to be reconciling himself to the possibility that Christina may have been the last Onassis.
"I'm wiser now than I was 23 years ago, much wiser in this sense. Whatever will be left from Onassis will not come from his life or his granddaughter," he says. "What will remain forever is this Foundation."