For much of her young life, Athina Onassis, daughter of oil heiress Christina Onassis, was known as the “poor little rich girl”, cut off from a world her mother thought would take advantage of her. Now that she’s divorcing an unfaithful husband, writes Wi
tragic heiress – the Onassis curse strikes again
Eleven years ago, when Athina Onassis, heiress to one of the world’s great fortunes, married raffish Olympic riding star Alvaro “Doda” de Miranda Neto, the 750 guests witnessed not just a spectacular ceremony, but a rare moment of happiness in the troubled history of the Onassis dynasty.
Dressed in whispering white silk by Valentino, her hair styled in the manner of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, Athina seemed to have miraculously recaptured the tarnished glamour of her family name. With her handsome husband at her side and a bouzouki band strumming merrily, the bride led the wedding party into a traditional, hand-clapping dance.
The music stopped abruptly earlier this year, when a security guard at one of the couple’s homes found Doda,
43, in bed with a young blonde. Hard as Doda tried to hush things up, the news soon reached Athina, 31, who is now suing for divorce.
With the end of her marriage comes an ominously familiar echo of betrayal, tragedy and scandal. One of the richest, most chronicled young women of the age, Athina was raised to vanquish the “curse” that supposedly hangs over the Onassis family, but seems instead to have succumbed to it.
Doda, who rode for his native
Brazil in this year’s Olympics, begged for forgiveness, later telling a Brazilian newspaper that he hoped the couple could rebuild their marriage. “I am going to fight to the end,” he said. “I cannot accept that this is over.” Athina appears to have reached a different conclusion, storming out of the lavish, ranch-style home they were sharing in Florida and heading back to Europe, where she is now in a guarded Swiss villa overlooking Lake Geneva.
The fall-out from the couple’s split is unlikely to be pretty. Athina has hired the fearsome
New York divorce lawyer Robert Cohen, whose previous celebrity clients include actress
Uma Thurman, supermodel Christie Brinkley and Ivana Trump, ex-wife of the US Presidential candidate Donald Trump. Described by a US magazine as “every errant husband’s worst nightmare”, Cohen famously forced Christie’s former husband, architect Peter Cook, 57, to give evidence in open court about his infidelity with his 18-year-old assistant. Peter later likened the experience to being given “a public flogging”.
The break-up, though, will be no less painful for Athina, who seemed for a while to have an immunity to her family’s misfortunes. “I don’t believe in curses, but I’d really rather forget the name Onassis,” she once said. “It’s the cause of a lot of our problems.” Aged 17, she met Doda on the equestrian circuit and married him against the advice of those who warned that she was too young and unworldly.
“She is a beautiful girl, quite sensitive,” says Alexis Mantheakis, a former Onassis PR executive, who has known her since childhood. “But underneath, she’s a steel doll. There’s a very obstinate nature behind the outward appearance. Her grandfather was just the same.”
Athina’s grandfather was the legendary shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis – known to international high society as the Golden Greek. A ruthless, self-made billionaire, his loves included opera diva Maria Callas and second wife Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of assassinated US President JFK. For all he achieved, Ari died in 1975 a tormented soul, who had come to bitterly regret his life of excess and self-indulgence.
Habitually dressed in a dark, doublebreasted suit and wraparound sunglasses, Ari’s macho style extended into the treatment of the women in his life. He publicly humiliated his first wife, Tina Livanos, with his infidelities, left Maria a brokenhearted wreck, and used Jackie as little more than a jet-set visiting card.
Such goodness as he could muster was almost entirely invested in his adored only son, Alexander, who died in a freak plane crash in 1973. Distraught, Ari finally reached out for comfort to his surviving child, Christina, only to discover that the emotional gulf between them – the result of his years of neglect – was too great to breach. Desperate to atone before his own death, Ari divided
his enormous fortune into two parts. One went to establish a charitable foundation in Alexander’s memory. The other went entirely to Christina.
The inheritance included everything from supertankers to Manhattan skyscrapers, from old masters to oil wells, but it didn’t make Christina happy. Socially awkward, plagued by weight problems and emotionally damaged by her father’s coldness, she had endured an unhappy childhood, much of it spent living in hotel suites in Paris, London and New York. Heavily dependent on antidepressants and appetite suppressants, she married, unsuccessfully, three times, with none of the marriages producing the child she longed for.
Then, in 1984 Christina married Thierry Roussel, a cash-strapped French playboy, who would become Athina’s father.
Among most followers of the Onassis saga, Thierry is one of the prime villains. Born into a distinguished industrial family, he had squandered much of his own inheritance on parties and the pursuit of beautiful women. Christina quickly became infatuated with him and after offering to “regularise” his finances to the tune of $40 million, they were married within a year.
Thankful as he was for her money, Thierry appeared embarrassed by everything else about Christina. He disliked even being photographed with her and, behind the scenes, remained close to his long-time girlfriend, Gaby Landhage, a blonde model from Stockholm. Whenever he could slip the marital leash, Thierry would be off to Paris or Monte Carlo, where he’d tell his louche friends that he had the worst of everything – a wife who was both unattractive and sexually insatiable.
In January 1985, Athina was born. Her mother was ecstatic. Not only did she have the child she so wanted, but the endangered Onassis line would continue through another generation. Christina called her daughter Koukla – Greek for “baby doll” – and her indulgence knew no limits. She dressed the little girl in fine designer clothes from Paris and when Athina showed an interest in the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep, Christina bought her a flock of sheep.
Thierry had reason to be pleased, too. Having given his wife the baby she craved, he felt able to spend less time at home and more with Gaby. Unbeknown to Christina, in the course of her marriage to Thierry, he sired two other children by his girlfriend.
Within a year of Athina’s birth, Thierry and Christina were effectively living apart and, in 1987, they were divorced. It wasn’t what Christina wanted and she tried – touchingly, but to no avail – to win her unfaithful husband back. Aware that he found her ugly, she booked into a Swiss clinic to have the fat surgically removed from her thighs and midriff. Together with the constant antidepressants that she was taking, the various treatments became a slow, remorseless drain on her health. The reconciliation plan didn’t work out. Thierry stayed away and, in November 1988, Christina, aged 37, was found dead in the bathtub of her suite at a country club near Buenos Aires, Argentina. The cause of death was given as a pulmonary oedema, a condition that can cause the lungs to suddenly fill with fluid. Among Christina’s friends, a different diagnosis was preferred. Thierry, they said, had broken her heart.
Thierry is one of the prime villains.
Now tagged The Richest
Little Girl in the World, Athina was raised under conditions of extraordinary security. From the family home in Switzerland, where Thierry quickly installed Gaby, Athina was ferried to school in a convoy of blackedout, bulletproof limousines, and when she holidayed on a Mediterranean island, armed guards patrolled the clifftops.
Horse-mad from an early age, Athina turned down the chance of attending university to train for an equestrian career with the renowned Brazilian showjumper Nelson Passoa at his riding school in Belgium.
Within a few days, Nelson had introduced her to another of his protégés.
The tall, dark-haired son of an insurance executive, Doda already had a reputation as a ladies’ man. When he met Athina, he was entangled with Cibele Dorsa, a Brazilian actress, model and former Playboy centrefold, with whom he had a young daughter.
Outraged by his desertion, Cibele told a Brazilian newspaper, “We were happy together until he met her. Our only problem was money and Doda is useless with money. What he earns, he spends. He is a charismatic, persuasive man.”
She later committed suicide.
By contrast, Doda was Athina’s first love and in true Onassis fashion, she fell for him desperately and incautiously. With her 18th birthday approaching – and with it the right to claim her inheritance – she brushed aside her father’s objections and moved with Doda to live in his home city of Sao Paulo, where she bought an $8.5 million duplex in an exclusive neighbourhood. Her father was not invited to the wedding.
Like Athina, Doda had left school as soon as possible to pursue his horseriding career. His good looks and early prowess in the saddle brought him fame and sponsorship in Brazil, but he yearned for a bigger stage and when the chance came to work under Passoa, he seized it.
For a while, he and Athina seemed happy – even normal – avoiding the razzle-dazzle of Sao Paulo’s social scene and spending most of their spare time at a farm they bought north of the city.
In the years after their wedding, Athina seemed strangely anxious to ditch as many of her Onassis associations as possible. In quick succession, she sold her mother’s jewels, the family’s fabulous ski lodge in St Moritz, and the Aegean island of Skorpios, which Aristotle had considered his private kingdom.
“These places are all emblematic of the Onassis name. Many people in Greece wondered why she was doing this,” says Alexis Mantheakis.
“It wasn’t as though she needed the money.”
Many fingers pointed at Doda. It was claimed that he resented the influence of the Onassis set, which he felt looked down on him as a gold-digger. There were also serious tensions between Athina and the powerful Onassis Foundation, which accuses her of breaching the conditions of Aristotle’s will by failing to spend sufficient time in Greece.
“She has no connection with our culture, our religion, our language, or our shared experiences,” complained former Foundation President Stelio Papadimitriou. “And she’s never worked a day in her life.”
Many Greeks, including Alexis, blame Doda for Athina’s poor relations with her ancestral home. “He isn’t going to bring her closer. Why should he? He has no connection with us.”
Last year, however, Athina made a conciliatory gesture by asking to represent Greece at the Brazilian Olympics. The offer was accepted, but by then rumours were already circulating that her marriage was in trouble. Doda was said to have become close to Pilar Lucrecia Cordón, a top Spanish rider. Pilar, 43, denied the claims, but soon afterwards, when she came face-toface with Athina at a showjumping event on the French Riviera, the two women pointedly ignored each other.
At Athina’s next horseriding event, which was also in France, she was no longer wearing a wedding ring, and, according to a Greek newspaper report, looked “unhappy and exhausted”.
Now estranged from her husband, her father and the guardians of her grandfather’s legacy, Athina cuts a forlorn figure. She may not believe in the family curse, but like almost every other Onassis, has had to learn the hard way that riches are no guarantee of love or happiness.
It wasn’t as though she needed the money.
Athina’s grandfather, Aristotle, with wife Jackie.
TOP: Athina and mother Christina share a loving moment in the 1980s. ABOVE: Athina with her wayward husband, Doda.
ABOVE FROM LEFT: Ari in the 1950s with the yacht he named after his daughter. Christina aged three. Ari and Jackie cruising the Nile.
Christina on her honeymoon with Thierry Roussel.
Athina at an equestrian event.