Living in the Trap of Luxury : ALL THE PAIN THAT MONEY CAN BUY: The Life of Christina Onassis By William Wright , (Simon & Schuster: $22.95; 384 pp.)

Maxa is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine

Pretend you can begin your life all over again as the child of, say, a Greek shipping millionaire. You grow up in a mansion on the French Riviera, a private island in Greece, and aboard a luxurious, oceangoing yacht. Forget about boring old college and that frustrating job search--just limp through Swiss boarding school and get set to party.

You live what others can only dream. You receive $50,000 worth of jewelry for your 18th birthday from Daddy. You date handsome, rich young men and travel abroad on a whim--if it's winter, it must be Gstaad. Before you're in your mid-20s, you have inherited more than half a billion dollars.

Sound like a swell time?

An examination of the short, unhappy life of Christina Onassis should quell the envy anyone feels for the very rich. The preceding paragraphs are a selective account of how Aristotle Onassis' daughter grew up. But it's only the good news. The bad news is that money, as has been pointed out in books before "All the Pain That Money Can Buy," can be its own kind of prison. Sure, wealth can shield those who possess it from unpleasant reality. But it can also cause the unwise to miss out on the joyful part of reality: familial intimacy, genuine friendships and the satisfaction of a job well done.

William Wright's chronological account of Christina's stumble through life before her mysterious death at age 37 is a dreary summation of one woman's pathetic quest for happiness. It is played out against a background of conniving family members, bounders, con men, false Romeos, gold diggers and other flotsam and jetsam from the world often called simply the "jet set." In fact, if this cast of characters is representative of the jet set, booking a seat near an emergency exit might be in order.

By the time Christina was born in 1950, her father already had escaped the streets of Buenos Aires, where he once peddled ties, to become a shipping mogul in the tradition of other Greeks such as his archrival, Stavros Niarchos. By all outward signs, he adored his daughter, naming his 325-foot yacht the Christina and showering his baby with such impossible luxuries as doll clothes made by the House of Dior. But Ari was a busy man. Rearing his daughter and son was left to an army of nannies and servants, though his wife tried to be a mother when her social schedule permitted.

This inattention didn't go unnoticed by Christina, who, at age 5, simply stopped talking one day. In what became a family trait at dealing with problems, Mom and Dad pulled out the checkbook and hired experts to examine little Christina. Apparently no one dared suggest her muteness was a silent cry for parental attention and hands-on love. Eventually, Christina began talking again.

She was cursed with her father's prominent nose and deep circles under the eyes, two imperfections that Wright reports were treated by a plastic surgeon when Christina was 17. Her weight also fluctuated wildly, sometimes topping 200 pounds, and her life was a struggle against the extra pounds she was certain kept her from landing the one man who would adore her.

It was Christina's search for Mr. Right that dominated her life after Swiss boarding school, and the best that can be said about her abortions, bad marital choices and suicide attempts is that they may have temporarily taken her mind off other family tragedies.

When Christina was 23, her brother Alexander was killed in the crash of the family's private plane. Months later, her father was diagnosed as suffering from a degenerative muscle disease. Then, less than two years after her brother's death, Christina's mother died of an overdose of barbiturates. Two seasons later, her father died. Within 27 months, all three members of Christina's immediate family died, leaving her in control of the family's millions.

After Aristotle Onassis lost his son, he resigned himself to the fact that Christina would have to control his empire, which consisted of Olympic Airways, a fleet of tankers, real estate and other investments. That had not been his plan, and when Christina heard that in his despair over Alexander's death her father had said, "Why wasn't my daughter killed instead of my son?" it didn't do wonders for her always fragile self-esteem.

But he took his daughter off the international party track and installed her in the family business in Manhattan. By most accounts, she worked diligently to learn the arcane world of tankers and shipping insurance. How much time she spent overseeing the empire following her father's death, and how good a job she did at it, is not made clear in Wright's book. What Wright does best is detail the heiress' profligate ways, though he points out that with all her careless spending, sponging friends and routine obligations such as staff salaries and airplane fuel, Christina spent less than $10 million a year--only about one-sixth her annual income from the family firm.

Of more concern to her than money was a husband. When she was 21, Christina married a Los Angeles builder named Joseph Bolker whom she termed a "dinky millionaire." Her father had in mind for her a Greek husband with ties to shipping fortunes, and he worked hard to sabotage Christina's marriage. During their courtship, Aristotle Onassis had his daughter's London phones wiretapped so he could monitor the progress of the romance with Bolker, as good an indication as any of the bizarre internal machinations of the Onassis family.

Christina soon tired of being a Los Angeles housewife. Four months after her father's death, she married a Greek she thought hailed from a substantial family, though he soon was revealed to be deeply in debt, and the marriage quickly collapsed.

Then, as if in answer to her prayers that she find a man "who doesn't love me for my money," Christina wed a Soviet trade official. The world's tabloids had a field day reporting the romance between one of the world's richest women and a member of the worker's state. The lovebirds shared a cramped apartment with Kausov's mother, and for a time, Christina reveled in the simple life (though she missed her single addiction, Diet Coke). By the time the wedding bells pealed in Moscow in 1978, Christina had had her fill of bad food and Moscow weather.

Then Christina married the very dashing Thierry Roussel, heir to a diminishing fortune that had its origins with a French pharmaceutical company. Roussel was a very bad boy, but he set about weeding from Christina's life the army of hangers-on who did nothing to discourage her increasing use of amphetamines.

He also banished, for a time, Luis Basualdo, a polo-playing society friend whose companionship Christina craved so much that she had put him on her payroll for $30,000 a month. For years, Basualdo and his girlfriend accompanied Christina everywhere, obligingly staying up late watching movies, and generally orchestrating whom Christina would see and whom she would not see. He was a paid-for friend who was not above pocketing even more than his $30,000 monthly retainer when he saw the opportunity.

But Roussel couldn't quite get over his long-time girlfriend, Swedish model Gaby Landhage. Shortly after the birth of Athina, Christina and Thierry's daughter, Gaby got pregnant by Thierry, too. It was about two years before Christina learned what most of society knew: that Thierry's main love was Gaby.

Christina fled to Buenos Aires, the homeland of her father's youth. There, with the help of friends, she nursed her broken heart and made plans to bring Athina to Argentina to begin a new life. Before she could do that, her heart simply gave out while spending a weekend at a resort outside of Buenos Aires. That left Athina, her sole heir, one of the world's richest little girls. Roussel and his wife took over her care.

In a previous book about Christina's life by London gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, Roussel is portrayed as much more of a money-grubbing cad than in Wright's account, which may suggest that he was a source for Wright. And that is one of the problems with "All the Pain That Money Can Buy": There is precious little attribution. You want to know how Wright knew the details of Christina's romances, abortions and mood swings. There is very little attribution of thoughts and quotes; anecdotes spring full-blown without any reference to point of view.

The depth of Christina's hatred for her celebrated stepmother, Jackie Kennedy ("my father's unfortunate obsession"), was startling. By the same token, the widow of an American President and a Greek shipping magnate emerges as the most crass gold digger of all. But how did Wright know of the clumsy attempts by Ted Kennedy to discuss his sister-in-law's financial needs at Aristotle's funeral?

The moral of Wright's story, however, is never in doubt. The reader wants to grab Christina Onassis by the shoulders and yell, "Get a life!" at those moments when she wallowed in self-pity and made half-hearted attempts to kill herself.

In the end, she was reduced to hiring her friends and paying the father of her child to at least accompany her in public even if he wouldn't have sex with her in private. The fortune of her father made a peculiar kind of prison for the heiress who failed in her life-long attempt to buy happiness.

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