Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Athina Onassis - The tragic childhood
After wresting control of her fortune from her father, Athina Onassis Roussel wants to claim her full legacy as Aristotle Onassis’s granddaughter and sole surviving heir—including, some say, the presidency of Greece’s most famous foundation. Behind her is her fiancé and fellow equestrian jumper, Olympic medalist Alvaro Alfonso de Miranda Neto. As “the richest little girl in the world” comes of age.
I met Athina Onassis Roussel, the last direct descendant of Aristotle Onassis, on a hot day in July 1999, when she was a tall, coltish, shy girl of 14. She was in Greece to attend the wedding of a second cousin at the seaside estate of her famous grandfather’s stepsister, Kalliroi Patronicolas. Wearing a long-sleeved white jacket over a summer dress, Athina stayed close to her father, Thierry Roussel, all afternoon, speaking French in a soft, hesitant voice, never making eye contact with the distant relatives he introduced her to, always standing slightly behind him, as if he were a shield between her and the world.
The next time I talked to Athina, five years later, she seemed a different person. She had separated herself from her father and moved out of his house, and she was immersed in a bitter legal battle with him to win control of her fortune. Hearing that I was writing an article about her, she called me at my hotel in Athens and peppered me with so many questions in fluent, nearly unaccented English that I hardly had an opportunity to ask her any of my own.
My investigation into the battle between Athina and her father over the Onassis wealth has produced what may be the first clear picture of their complicated situation since Christina Onassis died in 1988, leaving her three-year-old daughter as her only heir. I have uncovered details of the childhood she spent under her father’s strict control and come upon revealing glimpses of the person she is today. “The mere fact that she took on her formidable father at such a young age shows that there may be a lot more of her grandfather Aristotle in Athina than most people think,” says Alexis Mantheakis, who has known her since 1998 and who formerly served as a spokesman for Roussel in Greece.
Athina’s confrontation with her father and her newfound assertiveness are not the only surprising developments in the sole surviving heir of Aristotle Onassis, the Anatolian tycoon who revolutionized the shipping industry and captured the hearts of both opera diva Maria Callas and Jacqueline Kennedy.
In 1999, as a timorous 14-year-old, Athina went to a court for minors in Oberengadin, Switzerland, with her father and renounced everything related to her grandfather’s heritage. She made a statement in which she stipulated, according to a court report, that she felt “great aversion to anything that is Greek, even though she knows that her mother, her grandfather and her fortune come from Greece.” This extraordinary declaration, clearly encouraged by her father, was in defiance of certain specifications in the protocol that he had signed when he took custody of the three-year-old: “(1.1) As agreed with Christina Onassis when she was alive, Athina will be reared in the Orthodox religion. (1.2) … She will learn the Greek language so as to speak it fluently.”
On this issue, too, Athina has made a complete about-face. In the fall of 2003 she renewed the Greek passport her mother had obtained for her. This past January she joined an Athenian equestrian club called Avlona in the hope of riding in international competitions, including the 2008 Olympics, in Beijing, wearing the blue and white of the Greek flag. And when the former president of the Greek Equestrian Federation, Isidoros Kouvelos, enrolled her in the club under the name her mother used to register her birth—Athina Christina Roussel—a close friend of the young heiress asked him what she would have to do to change her name officially from Roussel to Onassis.
What has brought about this dramatic transformation in Athina, and what impact will it have on the fortune created by her grandfather? How has she changed from a frightened child, convinced that only her father could protect her in a world full of danger, to a defiant 20-year-old ready to fight him in court for her legacy and consider rejecting his name?
As her father’s countrymen might put it, “Cherchez l’homme.”
The man in this case is Alvaro Alfonso de Miranda Neto, the six-foot-two, dark-haired, muscular, boyishly handsome son of a Brazilian insurance executive. Doda, as his friends call him, is 12 years older than Athina and has won Olympic medals in the sport that is her passion, show jumping. Far from the home in Switzerland where she grew up, Athina now lives in São Paulo, Brazil, Alvaro’s native city. She has learned Portuguese and bought a duplex, reportedly for $5.8 million, in the city’s best neighborhood, and on December 3 she plans to wed Alvaro in São Paulo, according to Konstantinos Kotronakis, the honorary Greek consul in Recife, who says the couple has asked him to be best man.
“Doda’s been a strong influence on Athina and a very positive one, in my opinion,” Kotronakis told me on a visit to Athens. “He’s the one who urged her to take control of her own financial affairs and to take a new interest in her Greek legacy. He told her, ‘Onassis was a symbol of everything Greek. How can you turn your back on such a heritage?’ ”
Friends of Thierry Roussel, 52, who lost the long and bitter struggle for the management of Athina’s fortune but who is believed to have wound up with a munificent settlement, are not so sanguine about Alvaro’s motives. “Now that Athina controls the half of the Onassis money that her father fought for—her mother’s half—Alvaro is positioning her to ultimately take control of the other half, which Onassis left to a foundation in memory of his son,” one Roussel supporter told me. “That foundation is based in Greece and controlled by a Greek board, and that may well be the reason Alvaro is pushing Athina to re-discover her Greek heritage.”
If Athina does try to seek the presidency of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, it is certain to produce an international battle royal that will make the two past struggles—between her and her father for Christina’s money, and between Roussel and the foundation’s directors over the management of Athina’s fortune when she was a minor—seem tame by comparison. “This is the most prominent foundation in Greece,” says its president, Stelio Papadimitriou. “We are not going to turn it over to someone who has no connection with our culture, our religion, our language, or our shared experiences, and who never went to college or worked a day in her life. There’s nothing we would want more than to have a descendant of Onassis become president of the foundation, but Athina’s qualifications for the job are nil. She can do whatever she wants with what she inherited from her mother, but not with Onassis’s legacy to the Greek people in memory of Alexander.” According to Papadimitriou, the foundation has spent more than $80 million to build a state-of-the-art center for heart surgery in Athens, awarded more than 3,000 scholarships and grants to students over the past 26 years, funded competitions in the arts around the world, and begun construction of an $80 million arts center in Athens.
Athina’s legacy includes not only a vast fortune but also a grim family history that evokes the classic Greek tragedies and is often referred to as the Onassis curse. Her mother, Christina, died in 1988 in Buenos Aires at the age of 37, from a heart attack produced by acute pulmonary edema. Christina, who was found dead in her bathtub by her friend Marina Dodero and a maid, had battled eating disorders and depression most of her adult life, and she was considering marrying for the fifth time, having divorced Roussel a year earlier. Athina was then being cared for by a nanny on Christina’s estate in Gingins, outside Geneva, but as soon as Roussel returned from Christina’s funeral, on Skorpios, he had the little girl brought to him at his family’s home in France.
Christina had been smitten with Roussel from the moment she met him, and she fought desperately for the handsome playboy’s affections, even tolerating the discovery that, while she was married to him and pregnant with Athina, his longtime mistress, Swedish model and translator Marianne “Gaby” Landhage, was also pregnant with his child—a boy they named Erik, who was born several months after Athina. In an effort to keep Roussel by her side, Christina would invite him, with Gaby and Erik, to her estate and insist that they all be photographed together. What finally drove Christina to divorce was the discovery that Gaby had given birth to a second child, Sandrine, who is now 17.
Christina divorced Thierry but still hoped to make up and have another child with him. In the fall of 1987, she wrote a letter to Stelio Papadimitriou, saying, “I want to remind you that I was the first one who came to you … to ask for help, to protect me against Thierry.… I built a house made in cement, with a door to open the house. In this house I put all my capital, and the door was closed and the job of the protectors is to keep the door closed. They are there to help me, because they know too well that I have a weakness for this man, and therefore I will always be subject to abuse.”
Fifteen years before Christina’s death, her brother, Alexander, whom Onassis had groomed to take over his empire, died at 24 from injuries suffered in a freak airplane crash in Athens, which sent both of their parents into emotional tailspins that quickly claimed their lives. Their mother, born Athina Livanos but called Tina, had divorced Onassis in 1960, after he went public with his affair with Maria Callas. Tina died within a year and a half of her son, when she was only 45. Onassis, who left Callas in 1968 to marry Jacqueline Kennedy, died two years after his son’s fatal crash. “Both lost the will to live after Alexander died,” says Marilena Patronicolas, Onassis’s niece.
When Tina Livanos Onassis Blandford Niarchos died of a suspected overdose of barbiturates in 1974, she left most of her estate, estimated at $77 million, to her daughter, Christina, and upon Christina’s death in 1988 it passed on to Athina, who was named for her grandmother. But the bulk of Athina’s inheritance comes from her grandfather, Aristotle Socrates Onassis, and that fortune has had such a complicated journey since he died that it would take a team of accountants to trace it. I spent four years researching a book about Onassis called Greek Fire, which was published in 2000, and my contacts from that effort have helped me discover the facts about the famous inheritance that in 1988 earned three-year-old Athina the sobriquet “the richest little girl in the world.”
The first thing about the fortune that comes as a surprise is that, while it is large enough to make Athina one of the richest young women in the world, it’s nowhere near the $3 billion that was often reported. When Onassis died in 1975, he left assets valued at more than $1 billion, including $426 million in cash and securities; more than 50 ships; a half-interest in the Olympic Tower, in New York City; holdings in half a dozen countries; and his private Greek island, Skorpios. His outstanding liabilities amounted to $421 million—mostly bank loans on the ships and real estate, according to Stelio Papadimitriou, who was his lawyer—so the actual value of his estate when he died was about $500 million.
As directed in Onassis’s 1974 will, the estate was left to Christina and to a foundation to be established in memory of Alexander. The executors of the will divided the assets into two equal lots—A and B—and Christina was allowed to pick which lot she wanted. She chose Lot B, and Lot A was assigned to the foundation. The management of both fortunes was assigned in the will to four individuals who had been senior Onassis advisers in his business career.
Christina promptly threatened legal action if she could not oversee the management not only of her estate but also of the foundation, as its president. The trustees complied in order to avoid having her hold up the creation of the foundation with prolonged litigation. Christina pressured her stepmother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to accept a settlement of $26 million to abandon all claims to the Onassis estate. Under Greek law, as Onassis’s widow, Jackie could have received as much as 12.5 percent, or $125 million. By the time Jackie died at 64 in 1994, she had parlayed her settlement into more than $150 million through sound investments.
After Christina died, in 1988, her half of the Onassis estate, then estimated at $300 million in cash and securities and another $100 million in real estate, went to her three-year-old daughter. It was managed by the four Onassis advisers who served on the foundation’s board, along with Thierry Roussel.
What happened next leads to the second revelation about Athina’s inheritance. While both the Onassis assets that went to her and those that went to the foundation had essentially the same management for the next 11 years, they did not grow at the same pace. The foundation’s portion more than tripled, to over $1 billion, in that period, while Athina’s portion only doubled, to $600 million, according to Papadimitriou. These totals do not include real estate. Athina’s real-estate holdings, according to two informed sources, are estimated to total about $200 million and include two spacious apartments on the Avenue Foch, in Paris; a vacation home in Marbella, Spain; a home at Gingins, outside Geneva; a compound on Ibiza with eight swimming pools and a waterfall; Skorpios and three islands around it; two valuable seaside parcels outside Athens; and considerable property on the Greek island of Chios left by Athina’s grandmother Tina Livanos. The real-estate holdings of the foundation are now worth an estimated $600 million.
The reason Athina’s fortune did not grow as rapidly, according to Stelio Papadimitriou, is that Roussel demanded large sums for Athina’s care (some $150 million over 11 years) and made a number of bad business decisions. (Athina also had to pay $35 million in inheritance taxes, whereas the foundation, which pays taxes on income from its holdings, did not have to pay inheritance taxes.)
As an example of Roussel’s bad investment decisions, Papadimitriou cited his insistence that Athina’s estate sell all its holdings in the industry in which most of its money had been made—shipping. “Since then rates have soared, and Athina’s estate has not shared in the windfall, unlike the foundation, which stayed in shipping,” he said. Another reason Athina’s estate has not fared as well as the charity, he asserted, is that Roussel insisted that the foundation buy out his daughter’s half-interest in the Olympic Tower—just before real-estate prices in New York went through the roof. “Athina’s half-share in the building is now worth four times what her estate got for it, thanks to her father,” Papadimitriou told me. He would not specify the amount Roussel sold it for, but it is believed to have been $47 million.
I asked Roussel about this transaction in a series of questions I sent him, but he responded through his lawyer that he would not cooperate with me. His former spokesman in Athens, Alexis Mantheakis, however, insisted that the complicated ownership of the building and the leases held on it did not make it a good investment at the time. “Besides, key members of the foundation’s board managed Athina’s assets with Roussel in those days,” he added. “If the deal was not good for Athina, why did they approve it?”
Papadimitriou says that Roussel fought so bitterly with the board members over the management of the building that they went to a Swiss court and offered to sell the foundation’s share to Athina in order to end the bickering, but Roussel insisted that the foundation buy her out, and the court approved the sale.
Friction between Roussel and the board continued to grow until Roussel took legal action to have its members dismissed—a battle that was chronicled in a November 1997 article in this magazine. Lawsuits abounded in Greece and Switzerland, and charges and countercharges flew. Roussel has accused the group of mismanagement, defamation, and even trying to kidnap Athina. That incident occurred in 1997, when the British bodyguards assigned to the girl in Switzerland realized that they were being shadowed by men they identified as former Israeli commandos. Roussel called the authorities, who detained the Israelis but released them when they found no evidence to support Roussel’s allegation of an attempted abduction. “The foundation was paying for the bodyguards hired by Roussel to protect Athina, and the other men were hired by us to check the efficiency of the British guards,” says Papadimitriou. “Nobody intended to abduct the little girl.”
Nevertheless, the experience left Athina feeling threatened and vulnerable, even at home and on her way to school. Relatives and friends say that she lived in fear that someone would kidnap her, and that that is why she cowered during any appearance in public and constantly clutched at her father.
After being accused of plotting against Athina, the Greek “graybeards,” as the foundation’s board members were called in the press, in turn accused Roussel of wasting his daughter’s money in bad investments, and of isolating Athina from her Greek heritage despite the specific directions in the protocol he had signed when taking custody of her and the money for her upbringing. Alexis Mantheakis disputes criticism of Roussel: “He told me he feels he has done no wrong by his daughter, and as a mortal he has been 99 percent a correct father, something he feels proud of.”
In 1999 a Swiss court finally took the management of Athina’s fortune away from both the graybeards and Roussel and turned it over to a Swiss auditing firm, KPMG Fides, which managed it until Athina reached the legal age of 18, on January 29, 2003.
Athina had been awaiting that 18th birthday with trepidation all her life. Growing up, she had become aware of the family schisms, the court battles, the rumors of kidnappings, and threats to her life—all caused by the huge fortune she had inherited. When she went to Swiss public schools with her blond half-siblings or rode her beloved horse, Arco de Valmont, she was always under scrutiny. When she made the rare visit back to Greece with her father—as she did on the 10th anniversary of her mother’s death—she was besieged by journalists and locals who wanted to speak to her, touch her, ask her about her famous grandfather. She couldn’t understand a word of the excited Greeks who called her “koukla” (doll) and “chryso mou” (my treasure—an endearment universally used in Greece, but sadly ironic in this case).
All Athina seemed to want was to be invisible and to see an end to the fighting over her millions. When Roussel invited Diane Sawyer into his home in 1998 to interview him for 20/20 about his battle with the foundation, Gaby quoted Athina as saying, “If I burn the money, there will be no problem. No money, no problem.”
On her 18th birthday, the half of the Onassis fortune that her mother had left her—which by then amounted to at least $800 million—was turned over to Athina. Within days, however, her father had taken control of it. He managed to obtain power of attorney from his daughter, which gave him authority to supervise her estate.
Roussel then put all of Athina’s assets into a trust and brought in executives from several leading international banks, including Citicorp, Rothschild, and Julius Baer of Switzerland, to help him manage the fortune, according to a Roussel source. While the press has reported that Roussel, heir to a French pharmaceutical business, had not only squandered his own family’s money but also frittered away much of Athina’s wealth, the source says that during the nearly two years the assets were in the trust and overseen by Roussel and the banks they grew by 12.5 percent, and that Roussel has letters from the banks that helped manage them to prove it. I asked to see the letters or to have Roussel provide a written statement formally making that assertion, but neither was forthcoming.
A year before she turned 18, Athina, in a dramatic move for such a dependent child, left her home outside Geneva and moved to Brussels to pursue her passion for riding. She enrolled at a school run by the renowned Brazilian equestrian Nelson Pessoa, where, her friends say, she met Alvaro de Miranda Neto, the Brazilian Olympic show jumper whose team had won bronze medals in Sydney in 2000 and in Atlanta in 1996.
It’s hardly surprising that Athina was attracted to the handsome, sophisticated, multi-lingual champion in the sport to which she had dedicated herself. What she did not know at first was that Alvaro had long been involved with a Brazilian model close to his own age named Sibele Dorsa, with whom he had a baby daughter named Viviane. Sibele had grown tired of living in Brussels and returned to Brazil with the stated intention of joining the cast of the Brazilian version of the TV show Big Brother. Eventually Sibele and Athina learned of each other’s existence, and when it became clear to Sibele that Alvaro was dumping her for the teenage heiress, she gave a number of bitter statements to the press. “She can buy him horses and I can’t,” she complained. “He always told me he found her fat and ugly. He exchanged me for Athina’s money.” To one newspaper she said, “We were happy together until he met her. Our only problem was money, and Doda is useless with money. What he earns, he spends. He is a charismatic, persuasive man. She will hang on his every word, but she will learn, as I have.” According to a British newspaper, “the couple insist that their relationship began when Doda parted with Sibele.”
The amount of money 17-year-old Athina was then receiving was in fact quite small, because her father had put her on an allowance of 10,000 euros (then worth about $9,000) a month, according to what she and Alvaro later told a friend. But Athina had found her first great love, and restrictions on her buying power were the last thing on her mind. She had never been interested in jewelry or couture clothing. Her only extravagance was horses, and the bitterest memory of her childhood, according to one friend, was when her father refused to give her half a million dollars to buy a champion horse she had her heart set on.
In the first rush of love, the couple led a simple life in Brussels, going to films and inexpensive restaurants, spending most of their time in grueling training sessions. However, according to the Brazilian press, soon after Athina reached 18, Alvaro took her to São Paulo to celebrate his 30th birthday—February 5—and to meet his parents and his little daughter.
Although Athina resembles her mother, especially in her big, dark, Byzantine eyes, she was spared Christina’s large nose and her persistent weight problem, which led to yo-yo dieting and probably contributed to her death. Taller and fairer than her mother, Athina inherited a degree of her father’s good looks. The comments made by Sibele must have bothered her, however, for, according to Brazilian and international newspapers and magazines, on February 24, 2003, shortly after arriving in São Paulo, she checked herself into a clinic, reportedly to have liposuction done on her abdomen and derrière at the hands of Dr. Ricardo Lemos, who is noted for making Brazilian women thong-ready. Even though she left the clinic by the garage, Athina was photographed in a large, flowing man’s shirt and slacks, flanked by Alvaro and her bodyguard. (An assistant of Dr. Lemos’s would neither confirm nor deny that the doctor had treated Athina.)
Ten months later Athina and Alvaro were vacationing in Uruguay at Punta del Este, where they reportedly spent four days in the presidential suite of the Conrad resort and casino. Athina commented, “My grandfather Aristotle was a regular visitor to Punta del Este when he lived in Argentina”—a sign that she had been studying Onassis’s early history. Back in São Paulo, she reportedly bought Alvaro a prize cow named Esperanca (Hope) for his cattle farm, a $320,000 gift that was compared to the 40-carat-diamond engagement ring Onassis gave Jackie Kennedy, valued at up to $600,000.
Athina moved into a rented apartment in São Paulo and began to study Portuguese, in which she soon became fluent. (The heiress, who also speaks French, English, and Swedish, is said to have the same facility for languages that her grandfather had. Aristotle Onassis spoke six.) Then she began looking for a house to buy. “She loves Brazil because life is more relaxed there and she wasn’t harassed by reporters, as she was in Europe,” says Kostas Kotronakis. “She feels she can lead a more normal life there.”
In December 2004—close to Athina’s 20th birthday—she and Alvaro went to the consul and asked him to be the best man at their wedding. At first, Kotronakis says, they considered marrying on Skorpios, where her grandfather wed Jacqueline Kennedy 37 years ago. (A skeleton staff of 10 live on the island, keeping it always ready in case Athina should decide to visit—something that has happened only four times during the last 17 years, the most recent in 1998.) But, perhaps aware of the media circus that that earlier event had caused, they decided that security was not good enough in Greece and that they would marry in a Catholic ceremony in São Paulo. At the suggestion of Kotronakis, they are considering having a Greek Orthodox priest as well as a Catholic prelate. Alvaro and Thierry Roussel were both born into Roman Catholic families. Gaby and her three children are Protestant.
From the beginning, Athina’s relationship with Alvaro troubled Roussel, partly, some say, because he was no longer the main influence in her life, and partly, according to one friend, because he grew increasingly convinced that his daughter’s main attraction for the Brazilian was not her youthful beauty or her riding skills but her fortune. Roussel apparently conducted investigations of Alvaro and his family, and information passed on to me by one of Roussel’s friends indicated that a company in which Alvaro’s father has a non-controlling stake was involved in a long court case for not making full pension tax payments for its workers. A spokesman for the company, Pamcary, which is a large insurer of cargoes transported into and out of Brazil, says it has reached a settlement with the Brazilian government, and “installments are being regularly paid.”
As a result of his suspicions, Roussel, according to friends of his and Athina’s, kept Athina on a tight financial leash even though she had moved out of his home, and that caused a major breach between them. Early last year, when Athina’s monthly allowance ran out, according to a friend, she called Roussel’s assistant and asked for more money, only to be told that the funds she had requested were not available. When she learned that her father had tied her purse strings, a flash of the famous Onassis temper, frequently displayed by her mother and her grandfather, burst out.
Athina demanded an accounting of her assets, and the information she received from her father did not satisfy her, according to sources close to the principals in the case. Spurred on by Alvaro, she sought legal representation in London, hiring the international firm of Baker & McKenzie. A team of lawyers headed by senior partner Nick Pearson moved immediately in Chancery Court to nullify the power of attorney that Athina had unwittingly given her father and to try to freeze her assets.
Roussel resisted disclosing where the assets were, and hired his own team of lawyers, from the firm of Allen & Overy. (Neither law firm would confirm or deny anything about the case.) When Alvaro went to Athens last August to represent Brazil in the Summer Olympics, he complained to teammates, according to a witness, that at that point more than $200 million of Athina’s fortune was still unaccounted for and that most of her real-estate holdings had been mortgaged so that she wouldn’t be able to sell them. Athina, meanwhile, knowing what a scene would ensue if she showed up in Athens to watch her lover compete, kept strategically out of sight in Belgium.
Isidoros Kouvelos, husband of Athens mayor Dora Bakoyiannis and a leading figure in the Greek Equestrian Federation, hung out with Alvaro at the summer games and told me that the Brazilian’s dark good looks had women vying for his attention. “Whenever I was with him, every girl that passed by turned to look at him,” he said. “He enjoyed the attention but kept them at a distance. One went right up to him and asked him to autograph her breast, and he didn’t know how to respond. He looked around to see if there were any photographers nearby, then smiled sheepishly, signed his name as requested, and quickly walked away.”
By the end of the summer, Athina’s financial assets had apparently been established, because on September 10, according to a confidant of Athina and Alvaro’s, the two warring sides met and sketched the outline of a settlement. This was supposed to be refined and drafted over the next month, and both sides were scheduled to meet in October and sign it, but Roussel failed to appear. After further negotiations, however, he signed an agreement by the end of 2004 that released all control of Athina’s assets to her in return for a settlement that included both cash and real estate. (The actual amount is still a secret, but rumors in Athens put it at about $100 million.)
The struggle with her father took its toll on Athina. She continued to talk to Roussel on the telephone, but their conversations often became acrimonious, one friend says. She felt torn between her lifelong loyalty to him and her new dependence on her lover, who had taken her father’s place in her mind as her protector.
When Athina called me last November, she seemed highly agitated. “Did you talk to my father personally? Are you saying he criticized Doda to you? What did he say exactly?” she asked almost in one breath.
When I told her that I had not talked to her father directly and had not therefore personally heard his opinion of Alvaro, she seemed relieved, said that she had to take another call, and promised to phone me back. She never did.
Athina’s relationship with her father caused her anguish during certain periods of her life, she told a friend, though the outside world was unaware of it. Not only did Roussel warn Athina about omnipresent dangers—especially Greeks—he also demanded complete and unquestioning obedience. She has told friends that she was so frightened of angering her only surviving parent that his frequent outbursts devastated her.
According to a friend in whom she confided in São Paulo, Roussel would explode without warning. “Once, when she was about 12 or 13, he screamed at her so that she ran away and went to hide in an abandoned building, where she almost froze before they found her,” the friend told me. “Even later, when she was 17, she became so frightened when he exploded at her that she wet herself.” That was the year she left home for good.
The hard edge Roussel shows at times has not gone unnoticed even by his most ardent supporters. “Ironically, his good manners today conceal what he has always fought against in others—an authoritarian streak,” notes Alexis Mantheakis in a book he published in Greece in 2002, Athina—In the Eye of the Storm.
Despite her difficulties with her father, however, Athina loves him and continues to crave his approval. At the height of their difficulties last year, she wanted to give him half her fortune just to end the dispute, but Alvaro and her lawyers talked her out of it, according to a source close to the negotiations.
“Athina has no real understanding of what her fortune means,” says a Greek relative. “She thinks all she needs to live comfortably for the rest of her life is about $5 million, and she has no great interest in the rest. But she’s learning that having a big fortune is a big responsibility.”
Like her mother, Athina decided not to pursue a university education, choosing instead to go to riding school in Belgium at the age of 17. Her father, who also never went on to college after finishing the prestigious École des Roches, in France, is quoted by Stelio Papadimitriou as not having placed a high value on an education for Athina. “He once told me, ‘She doesn’t have to have an education. I don’t want a daughter with Coke-bottle glasses. She has me and her brother, Erik, to look after her affairs,’ ” said Papadimitriou. Alexis Mantheakis says, “I am sure Roussel in his heart would love Athina to go to university now or later.… He’s very proud of his son [Erik, now 19,] for passing his first-level baccalaureate last summer and is delighted that Erik is going to go to a good university.”
People who know Athina say that she comes by her strength of character through her stepmother, Gaby, who for 15 years reared her along with her own three children in the unpretentious, five-bedroom Villa Bois L’Essert, in Lussy-sur-Morges, a village outside Lausanne. In 1990, two years after Christina died and Roussel took the three-year-old girl to live with them, Gaby and Thierry were married, and Athina, Erik, and Sandrine were attendants at the wedding. Later the couple had a second daughter, Johanna, who is now 13. Gaby’s three children seem to be as affectionate toward Athina as they are with one another. (The settlement Athina made with her father reportedly includes generous amounts for her step-siblings and her stepmother.)
Throughout her childhood, Athina was on a firm schedule and a small allowance, enrolled at local public schools, and indulged only by being allowed to pursue her passion for horses (which is shared by Sandrine). Gaby, who comes from a middle-class Swedish family, got Athina interested in animals and the environment. Even at the height of Athina’s legal battle with her father, she spoke regularly with Gaby on the phone.
It’s generally believed that Athina had a much more stable life with Gaby than she would have had with her mother. Christina spoiled the child hopelessly, giving her dolls dressed in Dior couture, a private zoo, and, when she could sing “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” a flock of sheep and a shepherd to tend them. She would shower her with gifts and then disappear on another jet-set trip, in search of a man who would love her for herself and not her money.
If Gaby’s firm, loving influence has given Athina a solid foundation, her real mother’s life has served as a cautionary tale. In the last year Athina has taken dramatic steps to assert herself, to assume control of her fortune, and to re-establish her links to her heritage. She has even asked the Greek consul in Recife to find someone to teach her Greek. This rapprochement with her background, however, could be seen as an attempt to placate the directors of the Onassis foundation so that she can make a grab for the presidency of that half of the Onassis fortune. Friends of hers in Athens have been quietly trying to find out what exactly it would take for her to seek the presidency when she becomes eligible to do so at 21, in 2006.
The requirements are stiff. The will of Onassis says only that the president must be elected by a majority of the board, and the current members say that Athina is far from qualified for the job. While the bylaws pushed through by her mother stipulate in Article 6(b) that the charity’s president shall be a descendant of Onassis’s, as long as one is available, and shall assume the post “without the requirement of election … for life,” they also state that the president must be “eligible” by having reached “the age of 21 years” and by having the “capacity to serve and being willing to serve” its interests. “We spent millions trying to get Roussel to educate and train her to be able to take over, but she has not even finished high school, and she has no business experience whatsoever,” says Papadimitriou. “How can she serve the interests of the foundation?”
The educational background of Athina’s future husband is not much stronger than her own. Alvaro’s father, Ricardo, has a share in several companies under the banner of Pamcary. His mother, Elizabeth, is a psychologist. But Alvaro, like Athina, never finished high school, and he never showed much interest in his father’s enterprises. Since he was 10, he has pursued his passion for riding. When he began to compete professionally, he was financed by a $20,000-a-month allowance from his family and by rich sponsors, including the automaker Audi.
Clearly Alvaro is behind Athina’s efforts to become more Greek. He urges her to strengthen her national identity and her ties to the Onassis legacy on every front. He arranged for her to join the Greek riding club, and he encourages her to visit Greece and learn the language. The inevitable question that friends and relatives are asking about Alvaro’s influence on Athina is this: is he altruistically helping her gain the strength to stand on her own feet and assert her rights, or is he a fortune hunter motivated by greed, like so many of the men who victimized Christina? “She listens to him, values his opinion above all others, but she also asks others what they think, and in the end she makes her own decisions,” a confidant of both says. Alvaro has been careful not to seem to be influencing Athina. Whenever she met with her lawyers during her legal battle with her father, Alvaro made a point of not attending the meetings, a source close to the negotiations says.
How Athina will deal with her new wealth and responsibilities remains to be seen. “She is at a crossroads right now,” says Alexis Mantheakis. “Will she follow her mother’s path and have a turbulent private life, focus on the values her stepmother taught her and pursue her interest in animals and the environment, or fulfill her destiny as an Onassis and revive her grandfather’s legacy?”
Only Athina can answer those questions, and her decisions over the next few years will determine whether she becomes another victim of the Onassis curse or a survivor.