As her Dad wages war over her fortune, Onassis heir Athina Roussel, struggles to live like any other teenage girl

June 29, 1998 12:00 PM

The austere, sun-bleached splendor of the Acropolis has drawn sightseers for centuries. But on a bright, breezy day this spring, Athens’s majestic monument ceded center stage to a shy 13-year-old girl visiting it for the first time. Clutching her father’s arm, the willowy brunette made her way up the rocky incline. She smiled slightly when onlookers who had come to witness the moment shouted, “Koukla, Koukla! [Doll, Doll!] Live as long as the mountains!” At one point an elderly man approached. Identifying himself as her grandfather’s personal photographer 30 years ago, he gave her a photo he had taken of him. Touched, the only direct descendant of legendary Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis—and daughter of the late Christina Onassis—said thank you. But the interchange had to be translated: Athina Roussel, the world’s richest girl, understood hardly a word of Greek.

Sadly, such dissonance has become a part of Athina’s daily life. An escalating battle for control over her S600 million inheritance pits her father, Thierry Roussel, 45 (Christina’s fourth husband), against the four Greeks who are his partners in managing Athina’s fortune and shaping her future. Athina inherits the trust at 18; at 21, she could head her grandfather’s multimillion-dollar charitable foundation. With both sides having already reaped millions from her assets, the machinations seem as Byzantine as they are bizarre. Last fall, Thierry, who says he manages a $20 million travel-agency conglomerate, accused his fellow trustees of plotting to kidnap Athina. The Greeks claimed that the Israeli commandos they hired to keep tabs on Roussel were simply checking on Athina’s safety; a Swiss court threw out the case.

For his part, head trustee Stelio Papadimitriou, 67, a longtime Aristotle Onassis associate, told a reporter this spring that he had “incriminating” pictures—which he had discarded—of Thierry. The Greek trustees also accuse the French-born Thierry of staging the trip to Athens—only the fourth time Athina has visited her ancestral home. The March 21 visit was occasioned, they charge, by his April 3 date in a Greek court to face the $16 million slander-and-defamation suit they had filed against him. (The case has been postponed until October.) “The Greeks had said Thierry never comes to Greece, so he comes,” says one of his friends. “It was calculated. Athina didn’t enjoy it much, poor kid.”

Indeed, Athina is learning early what others in her family found out the hard way: Extraordinary wealth doesn’t buy ordinary happiness. Still, even with numerous lawsuits over her money pending in Greece and Switzerland, the girl so rich she owns her own island is, by all accounts, a remarkably well-adjusted child.

Since her mother’s accidental death in 1988, she has lived with Thierry, stepmother Gaby, 46, and half siblings Erik, 13, Sandrine, 11, and Johanna, 6, in the Roussels’ large but unspectacular pink home in the Swiss village of Lussy-sur-Morges near Lake Geneva. She attends public school and loves her yellow Lab puppy Nicky, the Spice Girls (she does a mean imitation) and, most of all, her horse Arco de Valmont. “She’s very poised,” says an acquaintance. “The main thing she animates about is horses. Her eyes spark up. It’s her safe subject.”

Even at her tender age, she’s aware of the combustion around her. Peering through a window at a PEOPLE reporter visiting her home recently, she ducked out of view when she was spotted. Thierry, more settled-looking than when he wed Christina in 1984, was less timid. Surrounded by legal binders in his dining room, he called trustee Papadimitriou a “lie factory.” “Justice is slow,” he says, “but it will unravel his web.”

Though the inheritance dispute, which began in the early ’90s, is a morass of legal wranglings, the basic issues are clear: Thierry contends that the Greek trustees, who were selected by Christina, have mismanaged Athina’s holdings and excluded him, the estate’s fifth trustee, from meetings. “They are dishonest,” says Thierry, who has filed an array of lawsuits, most already dismissed, aimed at turning over the estate’s management to a new board. “I want neutral administrators,” he adds.

The trustees, meanwhile, see themselves as keepers of the Onassis flame—and fortune. They say Thierry (whose yearly allowance from the trust is $6 million for himself and $6.5 million for his family) has used family funds to pay business debts. “He has an endless appetite for money,” says Papadimitriou, who received $2 million from Christina’s will and, as a trustee, is paid well for board meetings. “He’s plotting our moral assassination to get it.”

In addition the Greeks complain that Thierry has failed to honor a 1989 agreement—which they say he signed in return for $2.28 million a year, part of his annual stipend, until Athina turns 18—to have her learn Greek (she is fluent in French, Swedish and English), be raised in the Greek Orthodox religion (baptized in that faith, she attends church occasionally) and be “well aware” of her Greek relatives. If Athina remains unacquainted with her roots, the Greeks—as board members of the Onassis foundation—may refuse to hand over the board’s presidency to her. Thierry says the board should have no say in Athina’s upbringing. So far the courts have agreed.

Final judgments have yet to be rendered, but most of Athina’s assets have been frozen since March, when a Swiss court agreed to the audit Thierry had requested. But while a higher court also began a procedure aimed at replacing the board, Papadimitriou assured reporters, “we aren’t losing any sleep [over it].”

What should keep both sides up, however, is the toll the war is taking on Athina. The Israeli commandos’ presence caused the family to “live a nightmare” for months, says Thierry. Athina worried that the publicity would result in “one of her friends asking her for a million because she’s supposedly the richest little girl in the world,” he continues. “She said, ‘Things will never be the same.’ ” (Indeed, the girl who once relished taking the school bus—albeit with bodyguards—now commutes with two bodyguards by car.) Thierry adds that he’s incensed by Papadimitriou’s claim of having incriminating photos. “If he had them, they would have been published,” says Thierry. “Does he want Gaby to leave me so Athina can lose her mother a second time?”

Not that Thierry has always taken the high road. Though he begs for Athina’s privacy, he has allegedly profited from several stories with pictures of her that have appeared in Paris Match. Last year he invited a group of European journalists to spend a day with his family. (The Italian magazine Oggi reported that Athina, asked about her grandfather, replied, “He was rich. He was loved. I don’t know much about him.”) And Thierry’s press representative tipped off photographers even before she touched down in Athens in March.

If Athina’s mother is watching from on high, the goings-on probably don’t surprise her. Often ignored by her own father, who adored her older brother Alexander (killed in a plane crash in 1973), Christina was raised mostly by nannies. Her mother, Tina, died of a suspected sleeping-pill overdose in 1974, and Christina came to despise her father’s second wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Christina lived in luxury—there were homes in St. Moritz, London and Paris—but feared she would be loved only for her money. Marrying Thierry after divorcing her third husband did little for her self-image. “I loved her,” the heir to the now-dwindled Roussel pharmaceutical fortune says. Papadimitriou, Christina’s financial adviser, never bought it. “I refused to go to the wedding,” he says.

Athina (“Koukla” to Christina) was born a year after the wedding, in 1985, and her besotted mom installed a zoo at their mansion in Switzerland and filled her closet with Baby Diors. The marriage imploded after Christina learned that Thierry had fathered Erik (five months younger than Athina) with Gaby, a former Swedish model and his mistress since ’74. Christina divorced Thierry after Gaby bore him another child in ’87. But after the split, Christina—who often ate to dull her pain and had ballooned toward 200 lbs.—wanted a second child and reportedly even offered him money to father one.

Yet she wasn’t so victimized that she lost all reason. When she died at 38 of pulmonary edema believed to have been brought on by protracted use of diet pills, she left the bulk of her fortune to Athina, and a trusteeship granted her ex only limited say in Athina’s estate. She had cause to doubt his financial acumen: A reported $50 million of her wealth had already financed his business ventures, a number of which failed. In a letter she asked Papadimitriou to “help protect me against Thierry. I built a house…. In this house I put all my capital, and the job of the protectors is to keep the doors closed.”

Interestingly, for all his flaws, Thierry may have turned out to be the better parent. “The child is happy, and they would do well to leave her like this,” says Christina’s longtime maid Eleni Syros. “She loves her mother, her father and her environment.” After school, where her bodyguards stick close, Athina and Sandrine often head for a nearby stable, where Athina’s horse and Sandrine’s pony are boarded. Both girls “want to enter jumping competitions,” Thierry says. “Athina used to want to be a trapeze artist. Then it was taking care of horses. Now she’s not sure.”

The family will spend a week next month vacationing on Greece’s Attica coast, at a villa by the same bay in which Aristotle Onassis used to anchor the yacht Christina. They also plan to rent a home near Athens. Thierry says his most fervent wish is for his daughter to “blossom and be happy”—and, oh yes, he adds, “to make sure she gets her inheritance.”

As for Athina, she barely spoke during her recent foray into Athens, but one statement she made was quietly eloquent. At the entrance to the Acropolis, a young girl handed her an olive branch, the age-old symbol of peace. Athina was still clutching it two hours later, when she and her family boarded the plane for home.

Kim Hubbard

Cathy Nolan in Lussy-sur-Morges, Toula Vlahou in Athens and Elizabeth Leonard in Los Angeles