Barbara Piasecka Johnson: Heiress to a disputed fortune

 

In her way, Barbara Piasecka Johnson epitomised the American dream. She came to New York in 1968, an immigrant from Poland with a degree in art history and barely $100 in her pocket. She left some 18 years later as one of the richest women in the world, her fortune sealed by victory in one of the largest – and surely the most unpleasant – probate battles in US history.

This bittersweet fairy tale began when, soon after her arrival, she found herself at a party where she met a maid in the New Jersey household of J Seward Johnson, Jr, an heir of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical empire. The maid told her there was a vacancy as a cook. Barbara applied and was given the job by Johnson's second wife, Essie.

Both her English and her cooking skills, it quickly became evident, were limited, but that hardly mattered. Johnson was besotted with her. When she left the household in 1969 to study art at New York University, he set her up in a Manhattan apartment and then moved in with her. Two years later the Johnsons divorced and he married Barbara. She was 34, he was 76. "I never expect it," she claimed later, "because we could hardly talk to each other."

With her new husband's money her life was transformed. In particular, she could indulge the love of art that he also shared, building a collection of tapestries, paintings and furniture. When Johnson died in 1983 he left the bulk of his $500m estate to his widow, virtually disinheriting his six children in favour of the stepmother younger than almost all of them.

What followed was a 17-week mudfight in a Manhattan courtroom costing $24m in legal fees and laying bare the tensions and feuds in one of the country's richest families. At the heart of it was the immigrant woman from Poland who, her stepchildren claimed, had "bullied and terrorised" their father into changing his will. The suit accused her of using "fraud, duress and undue influence" to divert his fortune her way.

The proceedings, which would surely have appalled her shy and private husband, were a sensation, not least for the conflicting depictions of Barbara that emerged. Some witnesses defended her as loving nurse of her ailing husband, while a servant testifying for the family said she treated her dog with greater affection.

In his 1993 book on the case, Undue Influence, author David Margolick described the Barbara that emerged as "alternately compassionate and cruel, cunning and naïve, loyal and fickle... – cheerful country girl and urbane shrew – someone who spent her husband's final weeks either wiping his rectum or circling in auction-house catalogues the antiques she would soon buy with his money."

Ultimately the case was settled in 1986, just before it was sent to jury, in a way permitting all sides to claim victory. The widow retained around $350m of the estate, including 18m J&J shares and the couple's 140-acre spread in the woods outside Princeton, New Jersey (named Jasna Polana, after Leo Tolstoy's estate south of Moscow). Later she had it turned into a country club, complete with a golf course designed by Gary Player. The children received $40m, while $20m went to a Florida-based oceanographic institute her husband had founded.

With her "American hell" finally behind her, Barbara moved to Monaco, devoting her life to her art collection and good works, many of them in her native Poland. Over the years she was involved in various headline-making art deals, including the $36.7m sale in 2004 of an 18th century Florentine cabinet, the highest price paid at auction for an item of furniture.

In Poland she offered $100m to revive the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, birthplace of the Solidarity trade union movement, even appearing on a US magazine cover with the future Polish president Lech Walesa, as "Lech's American Angel". That scheme failed, but she supported various artistic and charitable causes, including a foundation in Gdansk for autistic children. A month before her death she was listed by Forbes Magazine as one of the world's 50 richest women, worth an estimated $3.6bn.

Rupert Cornwell

Barbara Piasecka Johnson, heiress and philanthropist: born Staniewicze, Poland 25 February 1937; married 1971 John Seward Johnson (died 1983); died Wroclaw, Poland 1 April 2013.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power