December 05, 1988 12:00 PM

For Christina Onassis, family was fate, and her sudden death near Buenos Aires brought full circle the melancholy saga of her star-crossed clan. It was in that Argentine city 65 years ago that her father, Aristotle, had begun to build his fortune, and it was with that fortune that his daughter’s endless troubles began.

An emotionally deprived heiress to a treasure that was once measured in billions, Christina, 37, 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. The world knew about her compulsive eating, her icy relationship with stepmother Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, her improbable husbands and reluctant lovers. Every misstep had been magnified, every unhappy love affair transformed into gossip. After a private funeral Mass last week at the Greek Orthodox archbishopric in Buenos Aires, even Christina’s body, which lay in an ornate oval coffin lined with white satin, was subjected to the public scrutiny she had endured all her life. Camera crews were allowed into the chapel for a few moments, and the deceased—in a white tunic, with her hands folded around a single red rose—was photographed for the last time.

As Christina lay in state, rumors about her death were already quickening. The coroner reported that she had died of a heart attack, but Christina had no history of heart trouble, and the question persisted—why? Some speculated that, weakened by exhausting rounds of punishing diets and dramatic overindulgence and battered by years of amphetamine and barbiturate use, her body might simply have been stressed to the breaking point. Others suggested that Christina had purposely killed herself with an overdose of drugs, as she had reportedly tried to do in the ’70s.

Yet if her life was a well-mapped landscape of emotional peaks and desolate valleys, Onassis had appeared to be in good health and high spirits when she arrived in Argentina on Oct. 20. Traveling with Atalanta Politis, a decorator friend, she had come to visit her childhood pal Marina Dodero, whose husband, Alberto, is an administrator of Aristotle Onassis’ estate. Three weeks from her 38th birthday, Christina had completed one more of the strenuous weight-loss regimens that marked her periodic attempts to become captain of both her fate and her uncooperative body. She had reportedly lost 45 lbs. of the 70 she was trying to shed at a strict Swiss clinic, and now, for once, she seemed to have much to live for: She had settled into the leadership of her family’s shipping and financial empire, she was devoted to her daughter, Athina, 3, and “a series of family problems she had been going through had been resolved,” according to Argentine Archbishop Gannadios Chrysoulakis, who met with her three days before she died. “Christina,” claimed her aunt, Maria Onassis, “was at the best stage of her life.”

Thierry Roussel, the French dream-boat and venture capitalist who was ex-husband No. 4 and Athina’s father, had broken Christina’s heart when he left her in 1987. But Christina had rebounded, recently pinning her perpetual hope for true romance on a new prospect, Marina Dodero’s brother Jorge Tchomlekdjoglou, an Argentine businessman. Reportedly, she considered this solid, older man a likely candidate to be husband No. 5.

On the evening before her death, Christina had dined with Jorge and the Doderos at the exclusive Tortuguitas Country Club, close to her hosts’ mansion outside Buenos Aires. After a postprandial stroll with Jorge on the country club grounds, Christina is said to have returned to the Dodero mansion at around 1:30 A.M. AS averse to being alone as only the lonely can be, Christina asked Marina to come to her room for a chat. Pleading fatigue, her friend declined. Onassis’ maid Eleni, who had once been her nanny and remained a close confidante, then gave Christina her customary sleeping pills and left open the door between their rooms so that Onassis could call for her if she were needed.

By one account, Marina suggested at 10 the next morning that Christina be awakened, and Eleni replied, “Let her sleep—she’s so tired.” Marina is said to have peered into Onassis’ bathroom some time later and spotted her guest in the tub. “Christina is taking a bath,” she told Eleni. The maid was taken aback. “No,” she replied. “She never has her bath before she has her coffee.” Running back into the bathroom, the women found Christina unconscious, lying in a few inches of water. A doctor at the country club was summoned; she was dead when he arrived.

Her body was transferred by ambulance to the exclusive Clinica del Sol in Buenos Aires, where she was officially pronounced dead on arrival at 3 P.M. A judge ordered an inquiry into her death, which he termed “questionable.” Even as family members were preparing to fly the body to Skorpios, the family-owned Greek island where she would be buried beside her father and her brother, Alexander, the story of her final hours was still shrouded in mystery.

Those who observed Christina in the months before her death quickly dismissed the idea of suicide. Last September in Paris, Paul Hagnauer, a friend who owns a modeling agency, gave a party at the Tour d’Argent, which Christina attended with her ex-husband Roussel. “She was divine,” Hagnauer says. “She’d never been so funny. She animated my whole dinner. She was by nature depressive, but not then—not at all. She had already planned a birthday party for herself at Maxim’s and then Christmas in Saint Moritz.” Ettore Tenchio, Christina’s divorce lawyer, saw his client just days before she left for Argentina. “She was very outgoing, very happy,” he says. “She seemed contented.”

No matter the cause of her death, Christina seemed to have chosen a self-destructive path long before. Carnal excess was her way of assuaging psychic pain, and she had turned to diet pills to offset the effects of frenetic junk-food binges. Desperate fasts and visits to expensive spas would work for a time, but these victorious battles won her no wars—she was known to have carried as much as 200 lbs. on her sturdy 5’5″ frame.

Amphetamines weren’t Christina’s only crutch; she drank as many as two dozen Coca-Colas a day, and she used tranquilizers and powerful sleeping pills whenever she needed to take the edge off. Unable to resist chocolate, caviar, Coke or truffles, Christina craved instant gratification, and nobody could better afford it. Her excesses were legendary, inspiring stories that frequently defied credibility. According to a bizarre report in the British tabloid press, one of her household staff once saw her grab a steak and salad in her hands. According to the story, “she stuffed the food into her mouth and nonchalantly wiped her greasy hands on her expensive silk blouse as the waiter looked on in amazement.” Then there’s the tale that she once dispatched her private jet to New York to fly crates of genuine American-bottled Coke to her home in Paris. But her self-discipline, sporadic though it was, could be as obsessive as her self-indulgence. Determined to keep off the weight she had lost before she arrived in Argentina, she had reportedly eaten little but lettuce in the days before she died.

Onassis’ choice of men was likewise impulsive and disastrous. Her first husband, Joseph Bolker, whom she married when she was 21, was an American real estate man 27 years her senior. The marriage, which her father had opposed, lasted just nine months. Four years later the family arranged for her to wed a more suitable candidate, Greek shipping heir Alexander Andreadis. When that 14-month merger collapsed, Christina picked Sergei Kauzov, a Russian bureaucrat in a Moscow-based shipping firm. Kauzov, who was rumored to be a KGB agent, moved his bride into his Moscow apartment after the two were united in an August 1978 civil ceremony. After 17 months, that marriage succumbed to Christina’s boredom. Within a few years she was swooning over the handsome Roussel, heir to a pharmaceutical-company fortune. They married in 1984, and while the union was brief and stormy, it produced Christina’s beloved Athina, who was born the following year.

“When a marriage or relationship broke up, Christina would sink into a depression, but she didn’t want to show it,” observes Lady Henrietta Gelber, whose father, the Marquess of Blandford, was once married to Christina’s mother. “She would immediately plunge into another relationship to try to forget the last one. The phases she went through on her weight depended on who was around at the time. She needed someone to give her motivation, and if there wasn’t a man around, she had nothing to aim for.”

Unfortunately, there never was a man around whom Christina could depend on—not even in the beginning. “She may have had hundreds of millions of dollars, but she never really had a chance in life,” laments a former executive of the Onassis-owned Olympic Maritime Co. in Monaco. “She was the classic rich daughter of a rich daddy who never had time to bring her up.”

In 1923, her father, Aristotle, had arrived in Buenos Aires with a few hundred dollars in his pocket, a refugee from the Greco-Turkish War. He washed dishes and worked as an electrician for the telephone company before opening a tobacco store and subsequently moving into the import-export business and finally into shipping. He was a millionaire by the time Christina was born in New York in 1950.

Raised amid fairy-tale luxury—dolls dressed by Dior, ponies presented by Saudi Arabian King Ibn Saud—Christina was a lonely, solemn-faced child who was shuttled between family homes in Paris, Athens, Antibes and Skorpios. Her early years were marked by trauma and tragedy. In the midst of a notorious affair with opera star Maria Callas, Aristotle was divorced by Christina’s socialite mother, Tina, when Christina was only 9. And she was shaken by his marriage in 1968 to Jacqueline Kennedy, whom she distrusted and disliked.

Two years later the family drama took a truly gothic turn when Tina took as her third husband Aristotle’s archrival, the shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, whose first wife, Tina’s own sister, had died under mysterious circumstances. In 1973 Christina’s beloved older brother, Alexander, perished in a plane crash; the following year Tina died of pulmonary edema. When Christina’s doting father (who called her “chryso mou,” or “my golden one”) died of myasthenia gravis in March 1975, Christina lamented, “I am all alone in the world now.”

She was not without resources, however, and wealth was not her only asset. She had intelligence and, when it wasn’t subsumed in depression, personality. Her stepsister Henrietta Gelber remembers Christina as a bright, cheeky teenager who was “always up to pranks. We used to have water fights in the bath, and she was always playing the fool.” As an adult, she says, Christina was “a very good friend to a lot of people, and in spite of everything, she had the ability to set aside her problems and make you howl with laughter.”

Companionship, says Gelber, meant everything to Onassis. “She desperately needed love and friendship. She hated being alone. When I visited her on Skorpios she would keep us up talking until 3 or 4 in the morning. But she was not the best picker of friends. People were always latching onto her because she had so much money. And she was so generous—she could easily be taken in by a sob story.”

Her stepsister believes that Christina could never have found fulfillment. “She was one of those people who would never be happy,” she says. “She would become impatient. It had all come too easily—all the money, houses all over the world, few real responsibilities.” But she suddenly found herself with responsibilities aplenty when her brother and father died and she had to take over the Onassis empire. Though she proved a competent business manager, relying heavily on family advisers, she took little satisfaction from her role as shipping magnate. “She lacked a sense of achievement,” says Gelber. “What she was striving for was just to be a normal human being with normal family relationships, which was virtually impossible in her situation. She had houses all over the world, but she never really had a home.”

By all accounts, Onassis was ecstatic when Athina was born in Paris in 1985. She reportedly had spent millions on visits to fertility specialists and later invested millions more on nurseries at her homes in Switzerland and New York. From her first breath, Athina was swaddled in the sort of luxury that Christina had known as a child: couturier doll clothes, a private zoo at the lakeside villa she shared with her mother in Switzerland, opulent birthday parties. For her third birthday, the story goes, Athina was given a sheepdog—along with a shepherd and flock of sheep.

An attentive mother, Christina spent hours every day with her daughter. In Saint Moritz, where she owned another villa, she was often spotted leaving the house for long walks with Athina, who was usually outfitted in Baby Dior. In Paris, where Onassis maintained a large apartment on the Avenue Foch, Christina often took the little girl to the amusement park in the Bois de Boulogne. A nurse and two bodyguards always came along; terrified of kidnapping, Christina was meticulous about security for her daughter.

As Christina’s only heir—and Aristotle Onassis’ only living descendant—the blond toddler will now become one of the world’s richest people. She stands to inherit a fortune estimated at as much as $1 billion, including fleets of ships, skyscrapers in the capitals of the world and islands in the Ionian Sea. Her father, Roussel, is expected to gain custody of the little girl and will help watch over her fortune until she reaches the age of 18.

Whether Athina’s life will follow the same path as her mother’s is, of course, uncertain. Christina herself hoped that it would not. Just weeks before she left for Buenos Aires, she told a friend in Paris, “I can’t possibly have any complaints about my life, but I hope Athina gets a better one.”

—Michelle Green, and bureau reports