Hundreds gathered at the Cathedral Church of Wroclaw in Poland on Monday, April 15, for the funeral service of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, the Polish-born immigrant who married into the Johnson & Johnson fortune. Mrs. Johnson died on Monday, April 1, near Wroclaw, Poland, where she spent much of her childhood. She was 76.
Ricky Stachowicz, General Counsel for Mrs. Johnson’s family office, said she died after a long and complicated illness, which he did not specify.
Mrs. Johnson’s was a rags-to-riches story of the maid who married the multimillionaire. But no matter how you look at this particular fairy tale, it did not have an altogether happy ending.
Known as Basia (pronounced Bosh-uh), Barbara Piasecka arrived in the United States in 1968 with less than $200 to her name. She was born in 1937, in the village of Staniewicze, then eastern Poland, and had studied art history and philosophy at Wroclaw University. She traveled to Rome and then to the United States where she hoped to work in a museum or on a Polish language newspaper.
In order to improve her English, Miss Piasecka was persuaded to work as a live-in domestic. She was hired first as a cook and then as maid by Esther Underwood Johnson, known as Essie, the second wife of J. Seward Johnson Sr., son of the founder of Johnson & Johnson.
In 1969, Ms. Piasecka left the Johnson estate in Oldwick, New Jersey, to take art classes at New York University. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Johnson moved in with her in an apartment in Manhattan.
When J. Seward Johnson Sr. divorced his second wife and married Miss Piasecka in 1971, she was 34 and he was 76. None of his six adult children attended the wedding.
During their 12-years together before Mr. Johnson’s death in 1983, the couple built a 140-acre estate in Princeton on Province Line Road, called Jasna Polana. The name means “bright glade” in Polish and it was also the name of Leo Tolstoy’s estate in Russia. Mrs. Johnson created a valuable collection of Flemish tapestries, 18th-century furniture and paintings and drawings by Rembrandt, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Raphael, and others.
But when Mr. Johnson died, leaving almost everything he owned to his third wife, reportedly around $500 million, his children challenged the will, claiming that Mrs. Johnson had exerted “undue influence” on their aging father.
Undue Influence: The Epic Battle for the Johnson & Johnson Fortune by David Margolick, a former reporter for The New York Times, described the Johnsons’ lifestyle and the case that was said to have more subplots than a soap opera. It’s been called, “the largest, costliest, ugliest, most spectacular and most conspicuous probate battle in American history.”
In his 1993 book, Mr. Margolick chronicles the three-year legal battle with legal costs of more than $24 million: “In the annals of American law, there had never been a case quite like this one.”
Mr. Margolick notes that all of Mr. Johnson’s children were millionaires as a result of trusts their father had set up for them. A well-thumbed copy of his book can be found in the Princeton Public Library.
The case was ultimately settled before it was to go to the jury. Mrs. Johnson kept more than $300 million. Her deceased husband’s children received more than $40 million in total. Harbor Branch, an oceanographic institute that Mr. Johnson had founded, also a party to the lawsuit, was awarded $20 million.
Mrs. Johnson was one of the world’s wealthiest women. She left Jasna Polana in the early 1990s and lived for many years in Monaco. She also had homes in Italy and Poland. She never re-married.
According to Mr. Stachowicz, Mrs. Johnson is remembered as a humanitarian philanthropist who used her wealth to collect and exhibit art and to support charitable causes, mainly in Poland. The Barbara Piasecka Johnson Foundation (BPF), founded in 1974 and headquartered in Princeton, “assists students and professionals from Poland in continuing their studies in the United States.” In 1989, she stepped in with an offer of $100 million to help save the the Gdansk Shipyard, home of the Solidarity trade union movement. She appeared with the famous Solidarity leader Lech Walesa on the cover of The New York Times Magazine where she was hailed as “Lech’s American Angel.” The investment was not realized, however, because no agreement could be reached with workers. In 1990, “Opus Sacrum,” an exhibition of her collection of Western religious art, drew critical praise at a time when Polish museums were struggling in the post-Communism era.
Currently, a selection of paintings and other objects from Mrs. Johnson’s Collection is on display at the Musée de la Chapelle de la Visitation in Monaco as well as at the National Museum of Poland in Poznań.
Through her foundation, Mrs. Johnson supported a program to increase awareness and understanding of autism and to create a center of excellence in early autism intervention in Poland that will give autistic children the chance for normal lives. The foundation established the non-profit Institute for Child Development (Instytut Wspomagania Rozwoju Dziecka) in Poland, modeled on the Princeton Child Development Institute in the United States.
Mr. Stachowicz, General Counsel for BPJ Holding Corporation, confirmed that Mrs. Johnson, at the time of her death, was the owner of the Jasna Polana estate where she maintained an apartment on the second floor.
In 1998, the property was turned into a golf course with the main residence as clubhouse and restaurant. According to its website, the championship course is a member of the Tournament Players Club network operated by the PGA Tour.
Mrs. Johnson’s funeral service took place at the Cathedral Church of Wroclaw in Poland on Monday, April 15. According to Mr. Stachowicz, a date has not yet been set for the reading of her will. She is survived by one brother, Peter Piasecki, and numerous nephews, nieces, and their respective children.
The BPJ Foundation is planning to hold a memorial service at Jasna Polana in the coming months, “probably late summer or early fall,” said Mr. Stachowicz.