Christina Onassis (Getty Images / AGIP)
Her devoted father called her "chryso mou," or "my golden one." And from the outside, Christina Onassis seemed to have a golden life.
Her father was shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, whose fortune reached the billions and whose yacht bore his daughter's name. Her dolls wore Dior dresses. She grew up in homes in Paris, Antibes, and Skorpios, her father's private Greek island.
Yet while Onassis, who was 37 when she died in 1988, was one of the world's richest women, she may have also been among the most unhappy.
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. "Jackie, How Could You?" implored Motion Picture magazine in a cover story. 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," People magazine reported after her death.
Onassis "had followed in the uneasy footsteps of Barbara Hutton, Gloria Vanderbilt, Doris Duke and all the other poor little rich girls whose private lives had become public amusement," People said. "Every misstep had been magnified, every unhappy love affair transformed into gossip."
Who knows how money warped Onassis? In the 1991 biography All the Pain That Money Can Buy, author William Wright details how Onassis 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.
Yet Onassis also earned her own money. After her father's 1975 death, "she devoted herself to working at her father's headquarters in Monaco, soon proving herself to be a savvy, intelligent businesswoman," www.Biography.com reported. "Before long, she was running the family business," In 1982, she was "the first woman elected to the board of the Greek Union of Shipowners, one of the richest men's clubs in the world," according to the Los Angeles Times.
She once told Peter Evans, who wrote a biography of her father, that she liked to wear diamonds to breakfast. "They look so pretty in the morning sun. You have no idea how erotic men find dew on the rocks," Evans wrote in the New York Social Diary.
But Onassis was notably unlucky in love. Her choice of men, People reported, was "impulsive and disastrous." 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.
"Unfortunately, there never was a man around whom Christina could depend on — not even in the beginning," People wrote. "She may have had hundreds of millions of dollars, but she never really had a chance in life," a former executive of the Onassis-owned Olympic Maritime Co. told the magazine. "She was the classic rich daughter of a rich daddy who never had time to bring her up."
In 1988, Onassis died of an apparent heart attack while visiting friends in Argentina. Athina, her 3-year-old daughter and only heir, was soon dubbed "the richest little girl in the world."
The Onassis family continues to make news. Athina, described as reclusive, married a man 12 years her senior when she was 20 years old. The pair are equestrian jumpers, he an Olympic gold medalist, she an aspiring one.
In April 2011, the Daily Mail reported that the "Onassis curse" was still claiming victims after 36-year-old model Cibele Dorsa jumped from the window of her seventh-floor home in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Dorsa was Athina's husband's previous paramour and the mother of the two children he and Athina are raising as their own.
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."
Images, from top: Christina Onassis (Getty Images / AGIP), Onassis with her first husband Joe Bolker in 1971 (AP Photo), Onassis in 1979 (Getty Images / WireImage / Ron Gallela), and Onassis, age 3, on her father's yacht, the Christina (Getty Images / Time Life Pictures / Dmitri Kessel)