Christina Onassis: The Short Life of an Unfortunate Heiress

On a warm South American night 29 years ago, on November 19, 1988, Christina Onassis, golden heiress of the Onassis fortune passed away in a friend’s house in Argentina at the age of 38.

Being the only daughter and sole heiress of Aristotle Onassis, Christina was supposed to live a sheltered, carefree life. Yet all testimony from friends and staff around her point to an unhappy woman, haunted by family death and unfortunate choices in love.

She married and divorced four times. Her struggles with her weight and pill-popping were legendary. Her parents divorced in 1959 when she was 9, and the resulting scandal that arose from news her father had cheated with opera singer Maria Callas was a lifelong embarrassment.

She was further distressed when her father married the widowed Jackie Kennedy in 1968, a match that raised eyebrows across the world. Christina Onassis saw Kennedy as a gold-digger, referring to her as “my father’s unfortunate obsession.”

When Onassis was in her 20s, the personal losses came quickly and mercilessly. Her only sibling, Alexander, died in a plane crash in 1973. A year later, her mother died of a suspected drug overdose that many speculated was a suicide. Her father died in 1975, prompting Christina to lament, “I am all alone in the world now.”

A native New Yorker, Onassis gave up her American citizenship. She learned about business and finance in the New York offices of her father, beginning as a 20-year-old secretary.

After his death, she gradually strengthened her hold over the Onassis Group, although some questions remained in the late 1970’s as to just how much control she exerted and how much she left to day-to-day managers.

Christina spent her life as a spoiled rich girl. She spent $30,000 a pop to send a private jet to America to keep her stocked in Diet Coke, and once sent a helicopter from Austria to Switzerland to retrieve a David Bowie cassette she’d left there.

When friends said they were too busy to spend time with her, Onassis would give them cash –– as much as $30,000 a month –– to clear their schedules. She once told Peter Evans, who wrote a biography of her father, that she liked to wear diamonds to breakfast.

But Onassis was notably unlucky in love. Her first marriage –to a divorced father of four who was 27 years her senior– ended within a few months in 1971. Her second husband, a Greek shipping and banking heir, lasted 14 months. A third marriage in 1978 to a Russian shipping agent also sputtered out quickly.

Onassis’s fourth union, to the French pharmaceutical heir Thierry Roussel in 1984, lasted less than three years and produced Christina’s only child, Athina.

Roussel was not faithful; his mistress gave birth to two of their three children during his marriage to Onassis. Onassis reportedly self-medicated with drugs and food as a way of dealing with the betrayal. The marriage inevitably broke up.

According to some reports, Onassis was considering starting a new life for herself and her daughter in Argentina, visiting friends who lived near Buenos Aires in November of 1988. She had been staying with them at an exclusive country club outside the Argentine capital.

On November 19, Christina was found dead in her friend’s home. Though her last moments were shrouded in mystery, her death was attributed to a heart attack brought on by years of drug abuse.