From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Christina Onassis first saw the world's most luxurious yacht when she was 3½ years old. Aristotle Socrates Onassis cradled his daughter in his arms and asked her how she liked it. "What is it?" she asked.

"It's your home," he answered. "It's yours. She is named after you. Her name is Christina, too."

And so it was. Life aboard the $6 million Christina must have seemed like a voyage on the Good Ship Lollipop to the tiny child. A Gauguin, a Pissarro and two El Grecos hung on the bulkheads, and the murals in Christina's nursery were by Ludwig Bemelmans. The swimming pool could be emptied, raised and converted magically into a ballroom floor. Her father spoiled Christina with endless presents, even cooked Greek food for her himself. (She had an American nurse and preferred cheeseburgers.)

Christina's fellow passengers as she was growing up on the floating palace and in Onassis's other homes—luxurious apartments in Paris, London and New York, a chateau on the Riviera and the private fiefdom on the Greek island of Skorpios—were the world's rich, famous and beautiful people. Winston Churchill praised her childish paintings. She was fussed over by Greta Garbo and Gregory Peck. They all came to pay court to her father, one of the world's wealthiest men, with an empire that was anchored in his $500 million merchant fleet. At one time or another it has also included a Manhattan skyscraper, an airline and the casino at Monte Carlo. Her mother, Athina (Tina) Livanos, was a blue-blooded international beauty and a Greek shipping heiress in her own right. For Christina early childhood meant adoring parents and everything money could buy. But by last week, with her father gravely ill and a series of sudden deaths and sorrows only recently behind her, her life had become a Greek tragedy.

Now a sad-eyed young woman of 24, Christina still inhabits a privileged world, but with little joy. She regularly migrates from her Sutton Place mansion in New York to the family's opulent apartment on Avenue Foch in Paris. She skis in Gstaad and water-skis in the Aegean. She is always immaculately groomed, often in dark colors. (As a teenager she would insist on changing her clothes immediately if they became wrinkled or spotted.) She washes her own hair. "Fashions and hairdos do not interest her," says a close friend. Her escorts at the big European balls and occasional nightclubs have been titled playboys and heirs of great fortunes. Her most frequent companion now is Peter Goulandris, scion of another great Greek shipping family and a friend since childhood. Most of her friends expect them to marry eventually—for dynastic, but not burningly romantic reasons. "My most fervent wish," she has said, "is that I shall meet a man who loves me for myself and not my money."

Christina's first language is English (she was born in New York and is a U.S. citizen), and she is fluent in French, Greek and Italian. "She is not a particularly intelligent girl," says a friend. "She is bright without being clever." Recently she has taken an interest in her father's empire—seeking his continued approval, friends say—working long hours on the management of the Olympic Tower in New York and in his Monte Carlo offices.

From the time she was a small child, it was apparent that Christina would be overshadowed by the beauty and style of her mother and her mother's sister, Eugenia. Christina's dark Levantine features favored her father's side of the family. Plastic surgery improved her nose and dieting slimmed her hips, but Christina remained a shy girl drawn to her father, who affectionately called her "chryso mou—my gold."

When she was 8, the first note of sadness crept into Christina's world. It began on a Mediterranean cruise with guests Sir Winston and Lady Churchill and Maria Callas, then at the height of her operatic career, and her husband, Giovanni Meneghini. Ari was instantly smitten with the diva, and they danced the nights away while Tina Onassis smoldered. When the Christina docked at Monte Carlo, the Meneghinis left for Italy—with Ari in pursuit, to begin his long and notorious affair with Callas. Christina remembers her mother waking her and her brother, Alexander, and packing them off the yacht in a hurry. "That night was confused—Daddy wasn't there," she told a friend. "I imagined that I was losing something important. I didn't know what. Mother only said we had to leave, and she was sure we were not coming back." The following summer (1960) Tina obtained an Alabama divorce, and a year later she married the Marquess of Blandford. Christina did not like Callas, and when the child visited her father the singer was never in sight. By 1968 Christina, then 17, confided to friends that she knew Onassis was hopelessly in love with Jacqueline Kennedy—and she felt it was a mistake. At their wedding reception aboard Christina, Alexander and Christina cried—not for happiness, it was said—and both slipped away when the toasts began. In 1970 tragedy began to intrude upon Christina's life. Her aunt Eugenia, married to Ari's archrival, Stavros Niarchos, was found dead—of an overdose of pills authorities decided, but only after an ugly investigation. Before Christina turned 21 she herself made a move that devastated her family.

Onassis had planned to give his daughter 21 ships as a coming-of-age present. But shortly before her birthday, in a three-minute Las Vegas civil ceremony, Christina married Joe Bolker, a divorced Los Angeles Realtor. He was 27 years her senior, with a penchant for heiresses. Onassis was furious and threatened to cut off the estimated $75 million trust fund she was to claim on her 21st birthday. (An equal fund had been established for her brother.) Onassis is said to have screamed at her over the telephone: "It is the only bad thing you have done, ever! I cannot forgive you." At one point, the unhappy Christina was hospitalized because of a reported suicide attempt, denied by the family. After nine months, in May 1972, they were divorced. "Listen," Bolker explained later, "when a billion dollars leans on you, you can feel it."

Christina reconciled with her father, but both were due for more shocks. Tina, who had divorced Blandford, announced that she was taking a third husband—none other than archrival Niarchos. Then, in 1973, brother Alexander, 24, died in Athens from injuries suffered in a plane crash. It was a crushing blow that suddenly turned the dashing Onassis into an old man. Some say the tragedy brought father and daughter closer together and improved relations between Jackie Onassis and her stepdaughter. Others are not so sure: to them, Onassis in his grief over his dead son seemed to resent the surviving Christina.

In October of last year, at 45, Tina Niarchos died suddenly in Paris of a lung ailment, and Stavros Niarchos became the widower of Christina's aunt and her mother. When she arrived at the Niarchos apartment, according to one of her friends, Christina "found Niarchos sitting down to dinner with 18 people. Her mother's body was in another room. The entire ensemble—candles on the table, silver, wine—shocked her. She took a stiff drink of Cognac, went into the room where her mother's body lay, said her prayers and left." After Christina demanded an autopsy, Niarchos's office struck back with a statement that Christina had attempted suicide a second time, in London, two months earlier—implying that afterwards her mother was emotionally and physically exhausted. The Onassis family again denied the report.

The deaths in her family make Christina arguably the richest single woman on earth. Her brother's trust fund reverted to her, and her mother's estate will bring her more millions. When she inherits the bulk of her father's estate—reckoned at close to $800 million—her wealth will rival that of the oil sheikhs. But it will mean little to the star-crossed heiress.

"Happiness," Christina said a few weeks ago when her father first became ill, "is not based on money. And the best proof of this is our family."