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
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone