We’re not accustomed to so much excitement. Normally it’s very, very quiet in Villeny,” said the flustered gendarme, explaining why the tiny cobblestoned hamlet in the forested hunt country south of Paris was atwitter over the impending nuptials of French entrepreneur and pharmaceuticals heir Thierry Roussel, 37, and Swedish former model Gaby Landhage, 38.
But that was only part of the reason for the pandemonium. True, Roussel was finally formalizing the 19-year relationship with Gaby that produced their two children, Sandrine, 3, and Erik, 4. But the main motive for the press horde congregating in the town square was a rare public appearance by Roussel’s far more famous progeny, the richest little girl in the world—5-year-old Athina, his daughter from a rocky three-year marriage to the late heiress Christina Onassis that ended in divorce in 1987.
After a brief morning civil ceremony at Villeny’s quaint one-room town hall, 280 invited locals turned out for a luncheon of cold cuts and coq au vin (“No foie gras,” groused a journalist). But the real attraction was little Athina, in a pink-and-white party dress, arriving in a limo with Sandrine and Erik for a brief wave to the crowd and a quick circuit around the rose-and lily-strewn luncheon tables.
Later that afternoon the formal wedding took place at Villeny’s 17th-century Church of Saint Martin, where Gaby arrived chapelside suitably radiant—and paparazzi chanted, “Athina, Athina!” When the little lady of the hour did arrive, she waved brightly to the crowd before taking her place near the altar with Erik and Sandrine beside their parents’ red velvet chairs.
The ecumenical ceremony went smoothly before a congregation that included family, friends and Christina’s nanny-maid-confidante, Eleni Syrros, who was at her side during her fatal heart attack in November 1988. “At one point the kids almost knocked over the candles, and Sandrine got a bit restless,” said one guest. “But they were very good.”
Meanwhile, back at the chateau (Roussel’s secluded country estate nearby), Brazilian dancers, a mariachi band, chefs and florists were capping two weeks of preparation for the evening’s reception. That night 550 guests, hailed by trumpeting red-coated hunters, drove down a flare-lighted winding drive to a peach-and-blue tent decorated with 28,000 pink roses and a tiered, 10-foot high wedding cake topped with a spun sugar chapel. After a lavish spread of caviar, fresh fish, lobster and roast lamb, guests gathered outside for a 12-minute fireworks display.
For her part Athina, who has lived with her father since her mother’s death, sat at the bridal table and minded her manners. “She had the ‘only-child syndrome,’ and she was self-centered because of the way Christina had raised her,” says one intimate, “but Gaby and Thierry are very good at bringing her back to reality if she gets too full of herself.”
So far the strategy seems to be working. The little girl, who already has an annual income of $4.25 million and who’ll inherit the bulk of her mother’s $1 billion fortune when she turns 18, spent most of the afternoon playing quietly on the château’s front lawn with her mother’s former nanny—and charming fellow guests. “She’s really incredible. I heard her saying that little children should not be given lots of things,” marveled one of the dazzled, “because then they’re spoiled.”
—Susan Schindehette, Cathy Nolan in Villeny