01.07.10

The Johnson Family Tears

Casey Johnson's death was the latest chapter in the tragic saga of an American dynasty. Barbara Goldsmith, author of Johnson v. Johnson, on the family's struggles, including how, according to a relative, the heiress and her father hadn’t spoken in years.

What’s left to say about the “wild child” Casey Johnson who died at 30?

I’ve always thought you are who you aspire to be, and Casey’s idols and role models were Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, and her contemporary, Paris Hilton. She thrust herself into the gaping maw of the media, and hers was a 21st-century media death first announced on TMZ.com, then confirmed on E! Online. Her lesbian “fiancée,” the small-time reality-TV personage Tila Tequila, incessantly tweeted her reaction to Casey’s death in Internet shorthand: “Everyone please pray 4 my Wifey Casey Johnson... Thank u for all ur love...'' By day’s end, there were more than 5,000 Tweets about Casey on Twitter. The following day, 4,000 more. A front-page picture and four pages of text appeared in yesterday’s New York Post.

Seward Johnson’s branch of the family, as I discovered, has a bizarre past involving accusations of extortion, bribery, incest, drugs, and attempted murder.

It is ironic that Casey’s family so closely guarded its privacy, and then: va voom! Suddenly, they had a daughter who put them directly in the media’s unwanted glare. Casey had two younger sisters, Jaime, now 27, and Daisy, 22—by all accounts, both smart, accomplished young women. You’ve probably never heard about them. You probably won’t. Casey was the one who chased the spotlight and exposed her demons, breaking the rules to feed the Pantagruelian appetite Americans have developed for gossip.

Jacob Bernstein: Casey Johnson’s Tragic Curtain Call

Peter Davis: Death of a Heiress
Two decades ago, I wrote Johnson v. Johnson about the largest, most expensive will contest to that date between Seward Johnson’s six children and his widow, Basia Piasecka Johnson, who had served as a domestic in his household. I spent over two years researching the Johnson family and speaking to many Johnson heirs. From these conversations emerged a shadowy, selfish past, a pattern of neglect and narcissism among plenty, of wealth without a higher purpose, of no rules and no communication except through surrogates. (Even now, there are at least eight lawsuits still pending between members of this family.) It reminded me of an epic Greek tragedy, and Casey’s death feels like its latest act.

Almost every report on Casey’s death noted that she was a “Johnson & Johnson heiress, a company founded in 1886 by the first Robert Wood Johnson.” In fact, the founders were Robert’s younger brothers Edward and James. Robert Wood Johnson superseded his brothers and summarily replaced James as president. It was a small operation with 14 workers on the fourth floor of a New Brunswick, New Jersey, factory, manufacturing pre-packaged surgical dressings that were the forerunners of the Band-Aid. The first Robert Wood Johnson paid almost no attention to his family—he had two sons, Seward and Robert Wood Johnson, Jr. and a daughter, Evangeline. He rarely left the factory, but he built the company into an enterprise consisting of 40 buildings.

When his father died, Robert Wood Johnson, Jr. promptly dropped the Junior from his name and, at age 38, assumed the presidency of the company. He was a dynamic, visionary businessman, obsessed with power. He controlled Johnson & Johnson with an iron hand. His weak and self-indulgent brother, Seward, followed his every command. The two brothers controlled 84 percent of the stock of Johnson & Johnson. To avoid taxes, among other reasons, Bob Johnson (known as the General, a title he held as a brigadier general during World War II while serving on the War Production Board) set up trusts for each of his offspring and those of his brother Seward and their descendents. Each trust contained 15,000 shares of Johnson & Johnson stock, then valued at approximately $500,000. They were classic generation-skipping trusts patterned on those of the Rockefellers. Up until that time, the Johnson families had lived modestly. After Seward divorced, for example, the children of his first marriage lived in the chauffeur’s cottage on his property. But soon enough, things changed irrevocably.

At that time, Betty Wold Johnson, Casey’s grandmother (now Mrs. Douglas Bushnell), was married to the General’s son, Robert Wood Johnson III (known as Bobby). They had five children, the first of whom, Robert Wood Johnson IV (“Woody”)—Casey’s father—was born in 1947.

One fall afternoon, I sat in Betty’s cozy living room talking over tea. Betty granted no other interviews, but she had grown to trust me. Although not directly involved in the will contest, her brother Keith Wold was married to Elaine Johnson, one of the will contestants. She said she thought I was “fair,” and as a doctor’s daughter from St. Paul, Minnesota, that was important to her. She had seen many tragedies in her life.

The trusts set up for the Johnson & Johnson heirs steadily gained under the General’s hand. They stipulated that when any child died without issue, his or her trust interest was to be divided among the surviving siblings. Betty’s son, Keith, born a year after Woody, died at 27 of a drug overdose. He was found with a drug apparatus near his nude body. Within months, her 23-year-old son, Willard (“Billy”), was also dead in a fatal motorcycle accident. His aunt, Mary Lea Johnson, told me he flew over the front of the motorcycle and impaled himself on an iron picket fence. Their two shares of the burgeoning fortune were divided among Casey’s father Woody, Elizabeth “Libet” Johnson, and Christopher Johnson, making them the richest of all their generation of heirs. “My gosh,” Mary Lea told me, “they must be billionaires.”

The General began by elevating his son Bobby (Betty’s husband) in the company, but then brutally turned on him. In a power struggle, the General, who had neglected his children and left Bobby in the care of the chauffeur, now denigrated his son and said he would amount to nothing. He criticized him as weak and obese. Both Seward, Jr. and Bobby were drummed out of the company, leaving General Johnson in sole charge. Friends turned on Betty and Bobby the minute they were no longer associated with Johnson & Johnson. “It was a company town. They were interested in keeping their jobs,” Betty told me. Bobby’s health failed, and within five years of his dismissal, he was dead of cancer. When I finished writing Johnson v. Johnson, Betty said she wanted her children to read it as cautionary tale.

As an adult, Betty’s son Woody has donated millions to research auto-immune diseases. There was his daughter Casey’s diabetes, and the lupus that affected his next daughter, Jaime. Woody covets privacy (although he bought the New York Jets for $635 million, hardly a private act) and he and his wife, Sale, repeatedly tried to see that Casey was rehabilitated from her self-destructive ways. The Johnsons divorced in 2001, and Woody went on in 2009 to marry Suzanne Ircha, an actress and stock specialist, with whom he had two sons, Robert Wood V in 2006 and Jack in 2008. Sale went on to marry the sportscaster Ahmad Rashad. After years of unbridled spending, Casey’s money was cut off. At the time she died, I was told by a relative that her father had not spoken to her for five years. When Casey gave an interview to Vanity Fair accusing her aunt, Woody’s five-times-married sister Libet, of seducing Casey’s boyfriend, he also said that even Betty washed her hands of the whole situation.

Seward Johnson’s branch of the family, as I discovered, has a bizarre past involving accusations of extortion, bribery, incest, drugs, and attempted murder. Ever since the General made his heirs among the richest families in America, there have been no working Johnsons at Johnson & Johnson, yet the cornucopia of wealth still flows forth. How much of these problems can be credited to the deleterious effects of enormous inherited wealth, we will never know. Such speculation brings up more questions than answers.

There’s a lot more to say about this, but when I heard of Casey Johnson’s death, the lines of the British poet Philip Larkin kept running through my head. In 1971, Larkin wrote:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

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Barbara Goldsmith is the bestselling author and historian of five award-winning books.  Ms. Goldsmith has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was recently designated a “Living Landmark” by the New York Landmark Conservancy.