updated 12/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Shortly before she died of heart failure at 37 in November, making her 3-year-old daughter, Athina, the richest little girl in the world, Christina Onassis told a friend, "I can't possibly have any complaints about my life, but I hope Athina gets a better one."

The child's namesake, Athena, was the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, and Onassis' beloved koukla, "doll," will need plenty of that if she is to fulfill her mother's wish. At 18, she will inherit a Homeric financial empire worth as much as $1 billion, including fleets of ships, choice real estate in capitals all over the world, and two islands in the Ionian Sea. Long before then, a fascinated public will be avidly following her every deed and folly.

Gossip is already swirling around Athina's father, Thierry Roussel, the handsome French venture capitalist and jet-setter, who is now her guardian. Christina's fourth husband, Roussel, 35, remained an attentive father even after his 1987 divorce from Onassis, according to one of her friends. But Athina's Greek relatives are said to consider him an avaricious playboy.

His opportunities for plunder are limited, in any case. He has but one vote on the five-man board that will manage Athina's fortune. (The other board members are all associated with the Onassis Group, the parent company that oversees all the family enterprises.) However he may chafe under this restraint, Roussel should hardly feel himself ill-used by his ex-wife. Under the terms of Christina's handwritten will, drafted less than six weeks before her death, he will receive $1.42 million a year for life.

Meanwhile, Athina, apparently innocent of her unique financial status, has been seen at play on the fenced and guarded 86-acre grounds of the Roussel family's Château de Bonneville in Sologne, 110 miles southeast of Paris. Accompanied by the two British bodyguards and the Swiss nurse, Monique, who have watched over her since she was born, she skips about on twice-daily outings, walking her dog, feeding the ducks and swans and stopping to see her chestnut Shetland pony. Surrounded by familiar faces, she has plenty of time yet to learn that her mother is gone forever.

As she grows up with that loss, Athina may come to understand the craving for affection that tormented Christina, who hoped that the balm of love between mother and daughter would heal the wounds of her own neglect in childhood. "It is not money that will make this little girl happy," observed Stelios Papadimitriou, one of the trustees of Athina's fortune. "It is to have a real home."

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