Picks and Pans Review: Johnson Vs. Johnson

updated 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Barbara Goldsmith

As a miniseries, which it could well become, this engrossing tale of greed, misogyny, satyriasis, incest, treachery, legal incompetence, corruption, wealth and weakness would light up TV tubes across America. The real-life drama, estimated to cost more than $24 million in legal fees, was played out in Manhattan surrogate court. It pitted the six middle-age children of J. Seward Johnson, the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical heirs, against their middle-age, Polish immigrant stepmother, Barbara (Basia) Piasecka, Johnson's erstwhile chambermaid. At stake was his $500 million estate. When he died in 1983, his will excluded all but one of his children; the 17-month trial that ensued was the longest and one of the most sensational in U.S. history. There was a small court riot of Basia's mostly Polish employees, who accused a witness against her of being a Communist. Judge Marie Lambert received death threats. The children and Basia raked Johnson's and their own reputations back and forth over the coals. Although Goldsmith's reporting is excellent, she chronicles much of this more than she writes it. She uses transcripts verbatim and juxtaposed quotes, an editing technique her publisher employed on the bestseller Edie. Goldsmith also tends to accept uncritically the Johnson children's view of Basia as a shrew. The author never probes into why the widow appeared to be so angry-how, for instance, the stress of caring for a dying spouse might have fueled her rages. That the book was rushed to press helps explain some of its lack of polish—even the dust jacket is sloppy looking. With all its shortcomings though, Johnson vs. Johnson is a fascinating read. When the case was settled out of court, most of the combatants had been held up to public ridicule. As recompense, the children each got, after taxes, $6.2 million. Basia ended up with more than $350 million. (Knopf, $18.95)

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