Jack Kanthal, AP Barbara Piasecka Johnson poses at her estate in Princeton, N.J., Wednesday, June 4, 1986. It’s a classic story: Aging wealthy man meets younger woman. They fall in love (or some variation thereof), get married (or at least cohabitate) until he dies (or she gets greedy) and then, a legal battle begins. The two principals, or some of their relatives, hire a passel of lawyers, file mountains of depositions, and pay vast sums to lawyers before reaching some sort of settlement.
And though it’s a tale oft told, it remains endlessly fascinating as it’s replayed, every year or two, with a fresh cast and a new set of headlines. Even years after the events, in the most notorious cases, the principals retain the kind of fame that is so powerful that it doesn’t even require a last name. Kimora Lee. Anna-Nicole. Ivana.
Barbara Piasecka Johnson was the first contemporary version of the story, the one who arrived on the scene just when celebrity culture was ramping up, fueled by an explosion in mass media and a fascination with the lifestyles of the rich and famous. She was the prototypical rags-to-riches girl, a Polish woman who arrived in New York City in 1968 with $200 in her pocket. Before long, she was working as a cook and maid for the Johnson family, of Johnson & Johnson fame. And it wasn’t too long after that before she was winning the heart of J. Seward Johnson Sr., heir to the makers of Band-Aids.
The pair were married in 1971, and remained so until J. Seward’s death in 1983. And that’s when the probate battle began. Barbara was in line to receive the bulk of Johnson’s estate, valued at $500 million. Johnson’s children disagreed. What followed was a three-year legal battle complete with all the trimmings: character assassinations aimed at Barbara Johnson, claims of abuse, counter-claims of loving care in Johnson’s final days, counter-counter claims of gold digging, on and on, ad nauseum. As a side-note, you may recognize the last name of Nina Zagat, the lawyer who wrote J. Seward Johnson’s will. She and her husband later went on to found a now-famous restaurant rating system.
Ultimately, with the lawyers fed (to the tune of $24 million) and the newspapers filled, all parties reached an agreement that left Barbara Johnson with $350 million, her in-laws with $40 million, and an oceanographic institute that J. Seward Johnson had founded with $20 million. Barbara Johnson faded from the scene, moving to Europe, where she invested in art and spent millions of dollars on charitable causes.
But while Barbara Johnson’s tale faded from the public consciousness, the trail that it blazed continues to be well-traveled, pouring fodder into the celebrity press — while feeding endless fears of probate battles, worries about wills, and a rich culture of painful legal stories. But whether viewed as a loving widow or a cautionary tale for estate planners, one thing remains certain: Barbara Piasecka Johnson, who died on Monday at age 76, made an outsized mark on American culture.