Monday, October 01, 2007
What happened in Christina's Onassis disappearance
The sudden death of Christina Onassis in Argentina in 1988 presaged no changes in the shipping and real-estate empire founded by her father, Aristotle S. Onassis, according to several members of a multinational board that has run the business since he died in 1975.
The private fortune was estimated at $500 million to $1 billion (today's 5 billions), owned half by Christina Onassis and half by the Alexander Onassis Foundation, whose 14-member board has controlled the entire empire with minimial influence by Ms. Onassis as its president.
Several members said yesterday, after a meeting in Athens and calls to other members in Europe, the United States and Latin America, that the board would continue to manage the affairs of the Onassis family and contemplated no major changes in direction or organization.
The death of the 37-year-old heiress, whose four marriages and stormy personal life often obscured her role as a businesswoman, will apparently make her 3-year-old daughter, Athena, one of the world's richest people, family business associates in Athens said yesterday. A Dramatic Story
Like the tumultuous saga of the Onassis family itself, the story of Christina Onassis's death on Saturday was a dramatic, controversial and global affair, with implications in Europe and North and South America for governments, businesses and ordinary people touched by the family.
Not least were the implications for the infant, destined some day to control fleets of ships, skyscrapers in the capitals of the world, islands in the Ionian Sea and power beyond the dreams of all but a few people whose enterprise, or good fortune, sets them apart.
In Buenos Aires, authorities yesterday said they were investigating the cause of Ms. Onassis' death, which a judge called questionable, even though an aunt, Mary Onassis, insisted that she had died of a heart attack and ruled out suicide.
''She was at the best stage of her life,'' Mary Onassis said as she entered a Greek Orthodox bishopric, where the body was taken for a vigil after a mass. Other friends said, however, that Ms. Onassis had been undergoing an intensive weight-loss course, part of a constant fight against obesity that sometimes left her in excess of 200 pounds. Judge Orders an Autopsy
Ms. Onassis was found unconscious at a friend's mansion outside Buenos Aires and was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital, where officials said she had apparently died of a heart attack. But a local judge ruled the death suspicious and ordered an autopsy after a box of pills was found near her. Forensic experts were to analyze the pills.
In Athens, a half-dozen of the 14 members of the board of the Onassis Foundation gathered yesterday - and conferred by telephone with the other members around the world - to discuss funeral arrangements and the future of the business founded by Aristotle Socrates Onassis, a Greek maverick who immigrated penniless into Argentina in the 1920's and became one of the world's richest men.
A family spokesman in Piraeus said that the body of Ms. Onassis would be returned to Greece and buried beside her father and brother on the Ionian island of Skorpios, which is owned by the family.
''Christina's death was a complete shock to all of us,'' said Stelios Papadimitriou, secretary general of the Onassis Group, the family holding company, as well as a member of the foundation's board and Ms. Onassis' personal lawyer.
''She had no trace of a heart ailment - indeed, no health problems at all,'' Mr. Papadimitriou added. ''Yet there is not a shadow of a doubt that she died of a heart attack. The possibility of a suicide is categorically ruled out.'' Board Members to Meet
Mr. Papadimitriou declined to discuss the family fortune or details of the future of the corporate empire of which she was a part. But he noted that the board members abroad were converging on Athens and would meet soon.
Another board member, Ioannis Georgakis, who was named the acting president of the foundation, said: ''Christina hardly ever interfered in the functioning of the Onassis Foundation, and we were very grateful to her for this. We have decided, in tribute to her, to continue her work and that of her father.''
Apostolos Zambelas, treasurer of the Onassis Group and a board member, said it was difficult to assess the exact value of the family's assets, but he said he would not deny estimates in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
When Aristotle Onassis died at the age of 68 on March 15, 1975, the Onassis Group was worth somewhat less than that. It controlled hundreds of corporations, 47 ships, Olympic Airways and real estate on several continents. But the shipping industry was in its worst depression since the 1930's, and 80 percent of the Onassis fortune was in ships.
In his will, Mr. Onassis left half his assets to Christina and half to the foundation named for his son, Alexander, who had died in the crash of a private plane two years earlier. The foundation - with 13 of his closest associates as members and Christina as president for life - was set up in Liechtenstein, where paid minuscule taxes as a charitable organization. A Generous Foundation
To keep this status, it continues to allocate large grants to many individuals and groups. Recipients have included Amnesty International, former President Alessandro Pertini of Italy, former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Britain, Lech Walesa of the Polish labor movement Solidarity, former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany and Robert S. MacNamara, president of the World Bank.
As president of the board, Ms. Onassis wielded no extraordinary power beyond those of the other members. She had only one vote unless there was a tie, in which case she had two votes. Soon after her father died, it became apparent that he had ordered too many supertankers from Japanese and French shipyards.
Ms. Onassis, in her most forceful involvement, led a board decision to cancel the new ship orders. ''While we lost tens of millions of dollars, we could have lost hundreds of millions,'' Mr. Zambelas recalled. ''As the oil crisis worsened, nobody could say it was a wrong decision.''
Also shortly after Mr. Onassis died, Olympic Airways was taken over by the Greek Government, and the Onassis organization got about $104 million for its assets.
Over the years, the board and Ms. Onassis pared the shipping fleet down to about 35 tankers, freighters and other vessels by selling some and scrapping others. Meanwhile, it has increased real-estate holdings in the United States, Europe and Latin America. These include ownership of Olympic Towers, a residential and office condominium at 645 Fifth Avenue. Business by Telephone
In recent years, she had spent three to four hours a day conducting the family business by telephone from wherever her jet-set life took her. After marriages to Joseph Bolker, an American businessman, Alexander Andreadis, a Greek shipping magnate, and Sergei Kauzov, a Russian shipping agent - all of which ended in divorce - she married Thierry Roussel in 1984.
Mr. Roussel is a French phamaceuticals magnate who controls a dozen companies and is a multimillionaire. Their daughter, Athena, was born in January 1985, and the couple filed for divorce eight months later. The divorce proceedings had not been completed.
Ms. Onassis, who made frequent trips to Argentina, had been staying with Marina Dodero, one of her closest friends and a member of a shipping family. Ms. Onassis was born Dec. 11, 1950, in New York, but gave up her American citizenship for tax reasons after her father's death.