February 06, 1989 12:00 PM

Last year on Jan. 29, when Athina Roussel turned 3, she was feted much like any other fabulously wealthy heiress apparent whose family has been split by divorce. At teatime her mother, Christina Onassis, staged a luxe celebration at the Villa Cristal, her two-story wood-and-stucco home on a police-guarded private street in St. Moritz, Switzerland. About a dozen children, among them neighbors and the preschool scions of other, not-quite-as-rich families, gathered in a large, cheerful salon filled with gifts. After the birthday girl received her presents, including a doctor’s kit, the doting Christina helped her cut two massive cakes—one a chocolate fantasy topped with a miniature St. Moritz, the other a strawberry confection bedecked with sugary animals. The celebrants sat down to a boisterous tea, then put on costumes and face paint and danced away the afternoon. Two days later the scenario was repeated on a smaller scale. This time Athina’s father, Thierry Roussel, Christina’s fourth ex-husband, presided over a second celebration at the Villa Cristal. Christina was tactfully absent.

This year, following Christina’s Nov. 19 death in Buenos Aires, Roussel was responsible for Athina’s birthday celebration. He was the parent in charge of parceling out the hugs, kisses and presents. While Athina is too young to fully understand, this birthday marks the beginning of her new life—that of a super-rich motherless child who will be brought up under the varied scrutiny of trustees, family retainers, watchful bodyguards and a scandal-prone father.

Already she has attracted the fervid attention of celebrity hounds and armchair psychologists. How, they wonder, can Athina escape the Onassis Curse? (Her mother died at 37 from an apparently accidental overdose of diet pills and tranquilizers, Argentine authorities say; Christina’s brother, Alexander, perished in a 1973 plane crash at 24; the next year, Christina’s mother, Tina, died of pulmonary edema amid rumors that she’d overdosed on sleeping pills.) How will this innocent fare in the hands of a man who fathered two illegitimate children during his on-again, off-again three-year marriage to her mother? Is she destined to inherit her mother’s perceived role as love-starved little rich girl, or will she somehow disprove the popular notion that the very rich are fated to be very unhappy?

Since Christina’s funeral on the Onassis-owned Greek island of Skorpios, Athina’s father has maintained a low profile. According to a friend of Christina and Roussel’s, Christina’s death left the 35-year-old Roussel “in despair”—not least because he must now assume responsibility for raising his daughter. While the burden of administering Athina’s financial affairs will be shouldered by four Onassis factotums who, with Roussel, serve as trustees of her future empire, Thierry will be the primary overseer of her personal life up to the age of 18. Christina’s relatives, who see the suave venture capitalist as a ruthless gigolo, are among those who are pessimistic about his ability to perform that role. “It’s unfortunate,” says one Onassis family intimate. “The guy is her father, and that’s all there is to it. [His control is] a fait accompli, and they’re very upset about it.”

Members of Roussel’s entourage claim that he is observing a period of mourning and concentrating on making Christina’s absence easier for Athina. Cynics suggest that Roussel, who is drawing a $1.42 million annual stipend from Christina’s estate (and is said to have complained that it is not enough), is being careful to avoid antagonizing either the Onassises or his fellow trustees. But even those who see the worst in Roussel concede that his concern for Athina is genuine: After his 1987 divorce from Christina, he was in frequent telephone contact with the child, and he plied her with presents whenever he came to visit. “He cares a lot about his daughter,” says a prominent Parisian who is a Roussel family friend.

Roussel has tried to cushion the blow of her mother’s death by sheltering Athina within his own family circle. His older sister, Christine de Luynes, an attractive socialite whose husband is the Duke of Chevreuse, apparently helped to care for the little girl in the days after Christina’s death, when the child’s nurse was extremely distraught. Athina spent Christmas with the Roussel family in Sologne, France. The following week she was flown by Lear jet to San Pedro de Alcantara, a picturesque village near Marbella on Spain’s Costa del Sol, where her grandfather, Henry Roussel, an industrialist whose family fortune is said to be more than $160 million, owns an opulent estate. A host of visitors, including other children, were on hand to celebrate New Year’s Eve with Thierry and his daughter at the Roussels’ massive pink-brick house overlooking the Mediterranean.

According to a Parisian businessman who is a close friend of Roussel’s, the richest little girl in the world is “doing very well” in her new milieu. Roussel, he says, “is taking good care of her. She has got her nurses and her guards, she’s surrounded by family. She’s too young to realize what has happened.”

Ultimately, of course, bathed in the same white-hot glare of publicity that was trained on Christina, Athina will realize what has befallen her. From the beginning, Roussel has been worried that the paparazzi and the tabloids would destroy his daughter’s chances for a normal childhood. According to friends, he realizes that his own playboy reputation has fanned the flames, and he has been considering ways to present himself to the world as a loving and responsible father.

That task is likely to be complicated by public awareness of his amorous past. Just a week after Christina died, the British press revealed that Henri Pessar, a Paris-based journalist who is writing a book about Christina, had tracked down 37-year-old Marianne “Gaby” Landhage, Roussel’s longtime lover and mother of his two other children, and was offering up the details of their clandestine relationship. By Pessar’s account, at least, their ongoing affair began in 1974, 10 years before Roussel married Christina. And though some of her own friends knew about the liaison, Christina may have been unaware, when she married him, that Roussel was involved with Landhage.

According to Gaby’s friends in the port city of Gothenburg, Sweden—where Landhage lives in a comfortable bungalow reportedly bought by her lover—Roussel’s Swedish-born inamorata is “a wonderful person” who, despite her stunning beauty, hardly fits the scarlet-woman mold. Acquaintances describe her as “kind” and “shy.” Says one: “She has her feet on the ground and a good reputation in Gothenburg.” Described as a devoted mother to Erik, 3, and Sandrine, 1½, she is often seen with them in stores, at the beach and at their local Lutheran church.

Landhage met Roussel when she was living in Paris, where she worked as a fashion model and translator. The two became lovers, and the affair continued after she returned to Sweden, completed a marketing course and took a job as a product manager for the Malmo-based cosmetics firm of Pierre Robert. Even after Roussel took up again with Christina in 1984—he had first romanced her on Skorpios in 1972—he made frequent trips to Malmo to visit Gaby.

It was in 1984 that the lovestruck Christina pressed Roussel to marry her. According to an unnamed friend of Chassis’s, who spoke to her French biographer, “She told him that she would give him all the money he could ever imagine…. [Roussel] explained to Gaby that it would be better for his business affairs if he was to marry Christina, and she agreed. He told her nothing would separate him from her—and marriage certainly did not.”

A well-placed source in Paris confirms that money was the tie that bound Athina’s father to her mother. “All Roussels love money,” he says. “They have more than they know what to do with, but they still want more. Roussel never felt any physical attraction for Christina, but she paid him a fortune to father a child.”

Gunnar Larsen, a Paris fashion magazine publisher who gave Landhage her start as a model, claims it was the Roussels’ avariciousness that kept Thierry from considering marriage to Gaby. “She wasn’t good enough for Roussel’s family,” he says. When Roussel finally did marry money, says Larsen, “Gaby accepted everything, because of love.”

Although it seems unlikely, Pessar maintains that Christina didn’t know about Roussel’s double life until after Athina was born. He says that shipping magnate George Livanos, Christina’s uncle, broke the news to her in July 1986 at her apartment on Paris’ Avenue Foch—about a mile from the fiat where Landhage was living with Roussel’s infant son. Roussel reportedly confessed when the “shattered” Christina confronted him. Then, instead of calling her lawyers, she offered to pay him if he stayed with her and Athina. But in May 1987—the same month that Landhage gave birth to Sandrine—the Roussels were finally divorced in Switzerland. Landhage’s friends theorize that although Christina had reconciled herself to the existence of baby Erik, she was shocked when she learned that Roussel had another child on the way.

Despite her unhappiness, Christina generously befriended the woman Roussel loved. Landhage has said that Christina often invited her to parties and bought presents for her children. “There was never any problem between my daughter and Christina,” her mother, Maj Lis, told a Swedish newspaper. Maj Lis said that she had met Christina and Athina on visits to Switzerland, and that “in spite of language problems, I could see that Christina was very friendly with my daughter and my grandchildren.” According to Gunnar Larsen, the two women grew so close that shortly before Christina’s death, all involved—Landhage, Onassis, Roussel and his three children—were living together at Boislande, Christina’s alpine estate overlooking Lake Geneva in Gingins, Switzerland.

“Christina accepted that Athina had a brother and sister,” says Christos Korontzis, her personal photographer for 10 years, who took the exclusive photos on these pages. “She wanted Athina to know them.”

Landhage and her children reportedly spent the Christmas holidays with Roussel and Athina, and there is speculation that they will marry now that Roussel is collecting his stipend from Christina’s estate. Even members of the Onassis family have said that they would support the match; they feel that Landhage would be a suitable mother for Athina and that the child should be part of a family. “Everybody says, ‘Poor little Athina, all alone in the world.’ But she is not alone, with Gaby and a sister and a brother,” says Larsen.

If Roussel follows Christina’s lead, Athina will be raised as normally as possible, given the fact that she will command a fortune that could be worth some $1 billion when she reaches 18. Since her baptism on Skorpios, she has spent time in five different residences, aside from the Roussel château: the elegant apartment at 88 Avenue Foch, where she has her own floor; Boislande, the villa her mother bought after she married Roussel; the Villa Trianon, Christina’s rented summer home in St. Jean Cap Ferrat in the South of France; the Villa Cristal; and a bucolic country property in Fontainebleau, about an hour’s drive from Paris. There are miniature zoos with rabbits, chickens, pigs and a peacock for Athina’s amusement at Boislande and Fontainebleau, and she has her own bedroom, bathroom and playroom in each home. All are stocked with dollhouses, finger paints, stuffed animals and rocking horses. Fisher-Price toys abound, and Athina has five or six flashy, battery-powered cars to drive around the grounds under the watchful eye of the adults who attend her. But her favorite possession is still a shabby plush baby doll she calls Molly.

Aside from Archie, Topper and Mike, the three armed British bodyguards Christina retained for her, Athina is always attended by Monique, the Swiss-born nurse who has been with her since she was born, and a second nurse who takes over in Monique’s absence. There is no indication that Roussel plans any changes in Athina’s staff. Trained in child care at a Swiss university, Monique makes most of the decisions about Athina’s carefully orchestrated routine. “Christina followed Monique’s program,” says Korontzis. “When she wanted to do something with Athina, she would always discuss it with Monique.”

Up at 8:30, Athina is given her bath before breakfast. She plays until lunch, which is followed by a nap, a walk, and at 5, a snack. Another play period lasts until dinner at 7:30. Bedtime is at 9, unless Athina makes an appearance at a grown-up party; in that case, she stays up until 10 or so.

“Monique is a very good person for Athina,” says Korontzis. “She brings her up like an ordinary person, not like Athina Onassis. When she and Archie take her for walks in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, they let her play with other children. That’s good for her.”

Although she is an only child, Athina is rarely alone. Her usual playmates, until recently, were the children of her mother’s friends or staff; in St. Jean Cap Ferrat, the gardener’s two little daughters often swam and ate meals with her. Only infrequently is Athina taken on visits to the homes of her playmates; usually they come to her.

Last fall Athina began learning to read and write. Like her mother, who was fluent in English, French, Spanish and Greek, she undoubtedly will be multilingual. Monique speaks to her in French, and Athina is learning English from her bodyguards. (Her first phrase in English was “God bless you, Archie.”) Christina—who called her “Koucla,” or “doll”—also taught her a few words of Greek. Having attended elite private schools in America, Switzerland and England, Christina was eager for Athina to be extremely well educated, starting at age 6—and that wish will probably be honored.

Often disheveled herself, Christina “liked Athina always to be well dressed,” says Korontzis. Partial to Baby Dior children’s clothing, Christina sometimes bought the same dresses, suits and jackets in several different colors. Her daughter’s closet in St. Moritz (where shops sell toddler-size ski suits for $500) is filled with a selection of fashionable ski wear, and cotton T-shirts and jeans are a summertime staple. Thus far the tiny heiress sports no extravagant bijoux; her only adornment is a gold bracelet that she has worn since her baptism.

A cheerful, sociable child, Athina is also strong-willed and has a capacity for tantrums. “Sometimes she gets angry with everybody,” says Korontzis. “Sometimes she is just like her mother.” When Athina fell into a fury, he says, “Christina would try to find out why she was angry, and try to calm her down. Christina wanted Athina to be always happy.”

Whether Athina will grasp the happiness that eluded Christina remains to be seen. No misstep will go unrecorded, no bit of folly unforgiven by the public that mocked her troubled mother. She is a child to whom much has been given, and much will be expected of her.

—Michelle Green, and Cathy Nolan in Paris, and Mirka Gondicas in Greece

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