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- May 26, 1986
- Vol. 25
- No. 21
The Band-Aid Heir Left All He Owned to His Widow, but His Children Claim It Was Just Seward's Folly
J. Seward Johnson Had More Money Than He or His Children Could Spend in Their Lifetimes, but Not Enough to Keep Peace When He Died. This Is the Third in a Series Examining Families Divided Against Themselves
Did you ever see Barbara Johnson hug Mr. Johnson?
Did you ever see her express any affection toward him?
She showed greater tenderness toward our dog.
Thus, in New York Surrogate's Court last month, did a former servant of J. Seward Johnson characterize the late pharmaceutical heir's marriage to his third wife—now his widow—Barbara Piasecka. At issue in the case of Johnson vs. Johnson, still unfolding amid squalid revelations and bitterness, is the imposing bulk of Johnson's $400 million estate. His Polish-born widow, known as Basia, has it; his children want it—not so much for themselves, they insist, as for charity. They maintain that their 87-year-old father was not of sound mind when he signed a will that virtually excluded both them and the Florida oceanographic institute he co-founded and loved. They claim the document, signed only 39 days before the elder Johnson died of cancer in 1983, was coerced from him by Basia, who, they say, "bullied and terrorized" him until he was too enfeebled to resist her demands. Accused of complicity is Johnson's lawyer, Nina Zagat, who, as co-executor of the will, stands to earn $6.2 million in fees.
The elder Johnson first met Barbara Piasecka in 1968, when she came to work in his New Jersey home as a cook and chambermaid. He married her in 1971, eight days after divorcing his wife of 32 years and the mother of two of his children. He was 76, Basia was 34. What happened over the next dozen years is the stuff of which bloody litigation is made. The six grown children, ranging in age from 41 to 59, and all multimillionaires themselves, thanks to individual trusts established long ago by their father, now sit stoically side by side in the courtroom with the stepmother they portray as a monster. Basia, a handsome, high-cheekboned woman, observes the proceedings, flanked by Zagat, 43, and one of her three bodyguards. In the early weeks of the trial she smiled slightly as witnesses in her behalf testified both to her husband's alertness on the day he signed the disputed will and to the couple's obvious affection for one another.
For every witness attesting to Basia's tenderness, the children have produced more to discredit her. Perhaps the most surprising witness was a Polish maid, once fired by Basia, who came forward with a recording she had secretly made of one of her mistress's outbursts of temper. Played in the courtroom at full, shrieking volume, the tape sounded like an excerpt from a Wild Kingdom sound track. Another witness, security specialist Anthony Maffatone, recalled visiting the Johnsons' Princeton, N.J. estate in 1980 to discuss plans for the couple's trip to Italy. While Maffatone was talking with the Johnsons, he testified, J. Seward, then 84, suddenly blurted, "Who are you and what are you doing here?" "With that," said Maffatone, "Mrs. Johnson stood up and shouted, 'You stupid, stupid, gaga man!' and smacked him in the face." Former employees, including a maintenance man who said he somtimes took refuge from Basia's alleged tirades by locking himself in a closet, provided a litany of similar tales. And a former manager of the estate testified that Johnson had once asked him to remove a pistol from his bedside, explaining, "I'm afraid she's going to use it on me."
Even more titillating was the testimony of Reid Edles, a beefy security man who was once employed at the Johnson mansion. During a party in 1978, he said, he overheard Basia tell her husband to go to bed, then, a short time later, saw her "conversing in Polish with one of the hired musicians. He had his hand around her." What else? "He touched her breasts," Edles testified in a monotone. "He touched her buttock. They walked down the hall." Edles had been fired after a few weeks' work, he said: "I was told that Mrs. Johnson didn't like my face."
Between court sessions, the Johnson heirs have endured the attentions of a curious press. Invariably Basia Johnson finds herself encircled by reporters thrusting microphones and demanding, "Mrs. Johnson, are you mad at these children?" or "Mrs. Johnson, was your husband afraid of you?" or "Mrs. Johnson, did you love your husband?" She responds, almost shyly, "He was the love of my life."
No one would have been more appalled by the proceedings than J. Seward Johnson, who prized his privacy as highly as his pocketbook. "He was very quiet, very shy," says Seward Jr. of his father. "He didn't like social pretensions or people catering to him." J. Seward's father was Robert Wood Johnson, a New Jersey druggist who invented adhesive tape and founded Johnson & Johnson, producer of Band-Aids and an array of pharmaceutical products including, eventually, Tylenol. His eldest son, Robert Jr., went on to build the J&J empire, while Seward distinguished himself primarily as a playboy and yachtsman.
Seward's first marriage, to Ruth Dill of Bermuda, produced four children: Mary Lea, now 59, the first Johnson & Johnson baby-powder baby, who is a theatrical (Sweeney Todd) and film producer; Elaine, 57, a Florida housewife; Diana, 53, a Virginia horse breeder, whose filly, Genuine Risk, won the 1980 Kentucky Derby; and Seward Jr., 56, a sculptor. The children were shunted off to boarding schools, and Mary Lea learned of her parents' broken marriage in a letter in 1937. "When he divorced Mom, it was the end of a chapter," she says. "It was like he divorced us too." Two years later Johnson married Esther Underwood (of the deviled-ham family), who gave birth to Jennifer, now 45, co-owner of a Manhattan art gallery, and James, 41, a painter.
When Johnson & Johnson went public in 1944, J. Seward set up trusts for each of his children that at his death ranged in value from $23 million to $100 million. In the '60s he tunneled more stock to his children and 15 grandchildren in the form of gifts and charitable trusts. Then, in 1966, he added a disinheritance clause to his will, explaining that while he was pleased to have given the children what he had, he now believed they were financially secure.
In pretrial affidavits, Basia's lawyers charged that Johnson had good reasons to disinherit his children: irresponsible spending by some of them and scandalous behavior by others. Relations between J. Seward and his eldest son had been strained for years following Seward Jr.'s humiliating 1964 divorce battle, during which Seward Jr. accused his wife of having driven him to attempt suicide and of inviting lovers to move into their home on two separate occasions, allowing each to "fondle" her in front of him.
Seward Jr. wasn't the only one to provoke his father. In 1965, during a trust dispute, J. Seward fired off a furious letter to his daughter Mary Lea. "You are turning out to be a troublemaker beyond my imagination," he wrote, "...submitting yourself and others to the disgrace of court appearances." Mary Lea says her father later apologized, but in 1977 she upset him again with a splashy second divorce, during which she charged that her estranged husband had not only engaged in a homosexual affair with her chauffeur but also tried to have her assassinated. "It's too bad about all this goddamned money," one of her sons wrote to J. Seward in 1979. "If it were not there, maybe we could be a closer family."
Now, for the first time perhaps, the sometimes contentious Johnson siblings have come together against a common enemy, their stepmother. "I'm very sorry these children are ridiculing their father," says Basia. "They were out of the will long before I came to this country." Indeed, Barbara Piasecka did not arrive in the U.S. until 1968. She brought with her a degree in art history, $100 and very little English. It did not take her long to enchant her employer. When she resigned from his household staff after nine months and moved to Manhattan to study English, Johnson sent his chauffeured car to bring her to his New Jersey office, where he professed his love. Basia, in turn, professed shock. "I never expect it, because we could hardly talk to each other," she later explained. But conversation wasn't everything, and soon she sailed off to the Caribbean with Johnson on his 63-foot ketch. "He was one of the most handsome men in the world," says Basia. "I deeply fall in love with him, and I never stop loving him." According to Basia, Johnson told her he dreamed of building an art collection but needed her expertise. Under her tutelage, he purchased works by Monet, Mondrian and Picasso. Then he divorced wife No. 2, marrying Basia with none of his children present. "My mother never fully recovered from losing my father," says his youngest daughter, Jennifer. "She was devastated. It changed everything."
Including J. Seward himself, who began spending money as he never had before. "He absolutely adored [Basia]," says lawyer Zagat. "They were both interested in collecting art, but he wanted her to be the one to do the research. He was very proud of her accomplishments." Basia, in turn, encouraged her husband's lifelong interest in the sea. He founded Harbor Branch, an oceanographic research institute in Fort Pierce, Fla., and built a waterfront home on the property. A housekeeper there has testified that whenever Basia was expected to join him, J. Seward would personally go over the evening menu, order the house filled with orchids and meet her plane with an armful of roses.
If his third marriage was to be Johnson's last fling, it was also to be an expensive one. First he and Basia built a $30-million Georgian-style mansion on 140 acres in Princeton, naming it Jasna Polana, after Tolstoy's estate. It had an air-conditioned kennel, a greenhouse for Johnson's orchids and, one month, an electricity bill of $52,133. Soon it housed a princely collection of paintings by masters including Rembrandt, Titian and Bellini, as well as a treasury of sculpture, tapestries and antiques.
During the course of his marriage Johnson executed no fewer than 22 wills and codicils, gradually enlarging his wife's share of the estate. Lawyers for the children have charged that the wills "betray a struggle to gain dominion over Johnson's wealth [when he was] disadvantaged by age, ill health, isolation and increased physical dependency on Basia." Not so, says Zagat, who maintains that Johnson had always intended to leave his wife as much as he could and that the changes in his will were made in response to adjustments in federal tax laws.
Matters began moving to a head in 1981, when Johnson discovered he had prostate cancer. In January 1983 he left Jasna Polana for the last time and moved to Florida. His children visited him there. In March, while his father was receiving a blood transfusion at a Boca Raton hospital, Seward Jr. urged him to resign as head trustee of Harbor Branch and to appoint his eldest son in his place. Under the terms of two wills J. Seward had signed only that month, Harbor Branch would have received a $72 million trust upon the death of his wife. In his last will, signed in April, after Seward Jr.'s visit, he gave Basia sole power to decide which charity would be given the money. "It was a statement of love and confidence that Mr. Johnson could trust her to carry out his wishes—to carry on in his place," says Zagat. Lawyers for Basia say Johnson was angered by his son's request that he step down as trustee; Seward Jr. denies it. "Would it make sense, if he was angry with me, to make me an executor?" he asks. Seward resigned his co-executorship in order to join his brothers and sisters in challenging the will, but if the document is accepted for probate he will regain the title and receive millions in fees.
Ultimately, the battle in Surrogate's Court will be resolved not on the basis of the personal excesses of Basia and the Johnson children, but on J. Seward's competence to sign his last will and on the question of whether undue influence was exercised by his wife and his lawyer. The trial is expected to continue into June, and there are those who will welcome the drama. "It all boils down to greed," says a spectator in Courtroom 503. Observes another: "You couldn't spend these people's money in three lifetimes. Of course," she adds, "if it wasn't for all this money, it wouldn't be as fascinating."
April 27, 2015
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