On a warm South American night 30 years ago, on November 19, 1988, Christina Onassis, the golden heiress of the Onassis shipping fortune, died in a friend’s house in Argentina at the age of 38.
The only daughter and sole surviving heiress of Aristotle Onassis, Christina was supposed to live a sheltered and carefree life. Yet all testimony from friends and staff around her point to a star-crossed and an unhappy woman, haunted by family death and her unfortunate choices in love.
She married and divorced four times and her struggles with her weight and drug use were legendary. Her parents divorced in 1959 when she was nine years of age, and the resulting scandal from the news that her father had had an affair with opera singer Maria Callas was a lifelong embarrassment for her.
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 Jackie as a gold-digger, referring to her as “my father’s unfortunate obsession.”
When Christina was in her twenties, the personal blows came quickly and mercilessly. Her only sibling, Alexander, died in a plane crash in 1973. A year later, her mother, Athina Onassis Niarchos, died in a suspected drug overdose which many speculated was actually suicide. When her father died in 1975, it prompted Christina to lament “I am all alone in the world now.”
A native New Yorker, Onassis gave up her American citizenship after the death of her father, becoming a dual citizen of Greece and Argentina for the remainder of her life. She had 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 rich girl, living a life of almost-unheard of wealth and luxury. She spent $30,000 to send a private jet to America to keep her stocked with Diet Coke, and once ordered a helicopter to fly 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 Christina was notably unlucky in love. Her first marriage -– to divorced father of four Joseph Bolker, who was 27 years her senior -– ended within a few months in 1971. Her second husband, Alexander Andreadis, a Greek shipping and banking heir, lasted 14 months. A third marriage in 1978 to Russian shipping agent Sergei Kauzov, also sputtered out quickly.
Onassis’s fourth union, to French pharmaceutical heir Thierry Roussel in 1984, lasted less than three years but produced Christina’s only child, Athina.
Roussel was not faithful to his wife; his mistress gave birth to two children during his marriage to Christina. Diagnosed with clinical depression at the age of 30, she had been living for some time on an array of prescribed drugs, but she also reportedly self-medicated with other drugs, and used food as a way to deal with her demons. Her fourth marriage eventually broke up.
According to some reports, Onassis was considering starting a new life for herself and her daughter in Argentina as she visited 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 there. Upon her death, her only heir, Athina, was due to inherit an estate worth a reported $250 million. Though Christina’s death was attributed to a heart attack brought on by years of drug abuse, her last moments have continued to be shrouded in mystery, another sad act in the Greek tragedy of the Onassis family. She is buried alongside her beloved father Aristotle and her brother Alexander in the family cemetery on Skorpios island.