Death of an Heiress
A mansion in shambles, her adopted daughter in limbo, and a troubled engagement to Tila Tequila. Peter Davis on the crumbling world of 30-year-old Casey Johnson.
On Monday night, socialites on both coasts were mourning the shocking death of 30-year-old Johnson & Johnson heiress Casey Johnson, whom TMZ reported was found dead in her Beverly Hills home earlier that day. The gossip site later updated that Johnson had been dead for “several days before her body was discovered.”
Friends suspected a drug overdose or suicide. “R.I.P. Casey Johnson,” DJ Samantha Ronson posted on Facebook, followed later by “Am so sick of those 3 letters, so tired of losing friends to something as senseless as a drug overdose. WAKE UP people. Drugs will kill you.”
Her rented house on Mulholland Drive was reportedly in shambles.
For a short while, some remained hopeful that Johnson wasn’t really gone. Elisabeth Kieselstein-Cord wrote on Johnson’s Facebook page: “I am crying too hard to read what happened. I don’t understand. I don’t believe this. Please tell me this is something made up.” Johnson’s fiancée, reality-television star Tila Tequila announced via Twitter: “I just got news that my fiancé is not dead but currently in a coma!!! Omg please pray that she will make it! Hang in there my love please!!!” Tequila then wrote, “I know u can feel me Casey! Don’t let go! I’m almost home baby please hang on! We have a beautiful life planned out for us! I LOVE u! Hang on!” Finally, at around 7:15 p.m., Tequila accepted the news that Johnson had died. “R.I.P. my Angel. U will forever be in my heart! I love u so so much and we will Marry when I see U in Heaven my Wifey.” Tequila told TMZ that she and Johnson had been fighting the previous week. Johnson had stayed at Tequila’s house on the 28th, but she hadn’t been able to reach her afterward as Johnson’s cellphone was turned off on the 29th.
• Jacob Bernstein: A Socialite’s Tragic Curtain Call Socialite Dori Cooperman told me: “Casey was one of the sweetest girls I knew. She was amazing and generous to her friends. I always laughed when we hung out together. Casey will be missed. This is a tragedy.” Another friend, Shane Aaron, recalls, “We grew up three blocks away from each other. She was the baby sister I never had. She was probably the only girl that I knew growing up that could understand the concept of having so many material possessions and then having it taken away. The fact that we could openly discuss our misfortunes and mistakes without shame was a gift that I will dearly miss.”
A Chapin girl, Johnson grew up incredibly rich on New York's Upper East Side. Her father, Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson IV, bought the New York Jets in 2000 for $635 million. Her inner circle of friends included Paris and Nicky Hilton, Bijou Phillips and Lindsay Lohan. She appeared alongside the Hiltons in the 2002 documentary The It Girls.
A Page Six staple, Johnson had a laundry list of scandals attributed to her. Vanity Fair photographed her naked, save for a flimsy scarf and cigarette, in their September 2006 issue, accompanying a feature detailing Johnson accusing her famously private, five-times-married aunt Elizabeth Ross “Libet” Johnson of stealing her then-38-year-old boyfriend, music manager John Dee. Openly bisexual, Johnson dated Terry Semel’s daughter Courtenay—who allegedly set Johnson’s hair on fire during a lover’s feud—before getting engaged to Tequila, announced in a racy Web video last December. The latest scandal in Johnson’s life involved Jasmine Lennard of Britain’s Make Me a Supermodel, who charged Johnson with stealing clothing, jewelry and legal documents from her Hollywood home. On November 30, Johnson was arrested and charged with grand theft. After being put in jail in Van Nuys, she was released on $20,000 bail. If convicted of the robbery, Johnson could have faced up to a year behind bars. Lennard claimed to the New York Post that she discovered a used vibrator in her bed and a wet towel on the floor. “I tried to get her off drugs,” Lennard told Page Six. “I tried to help take care of her daughter.”
Soon after, Ava-Monroe, the daughter Johnson adopted from Kazakhstan in 2007, was taken away from her by her mother Sale. “Ava was everything to Casey,” says a close friend. “She was really lost without Ava.” Johnson and Tequila reportedly flew to New York to retrieve Ava, but were unsuccessful. “Drama seems to kind of surround me,” Johnson told Vanity Fair.
One friend reports that Johnson had started to spiral out of control. Johnson had made numerous visits to rehab, but always left before the program was complete. Her rented house on Mulholland Drive was reportedly in shambles. Her mother Sale had restricted Johnson’s funds in an attempt to get her daughter to clean up. “She needs to get serious help,” Semel told the New York Post last month. “But what worries me is that she will hit rock bottom before she does that.”
When I first met Casey, she was 20 and living with her black toy poodle Zoe in a duplex apartment at Madison Avenue and 67th Street. She suffered from diabetes, and showed me a copy of the book she had written with her parents in 1994 about the illness, called Managing Your Child's Diabetes. Her walls were filled with photographs of her two idols, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna. A Stephen Meisel image from the Sex book, of a semi-nude Madonna squatting over an Evian bottle, hung over the couch. She said she wanted to act or sing. She played the Madonna song “Vogue” over and over.
That night, we hit the town. Casey did not dress like the typical preppy Chapin girl. Her curvy 5’2'' figure was squeezed into second-skin black leather pants and her blue eyes were dabbed heavily with thick black makeup. She had carefully placed a stick-on rhinestone tattoo of a heart on her right arm. When we got to the door of Lotus, the then-hot spot on West 14th Street, there was an enormous crowd pushing to get in. “I don’t do lines,” Casey told me. “They’re not my thing.” We left before even approaching the velvet rope. At the next party, photographers swarmed around Johnson and her friend, A&P heiress Juliet Hartford. For someone who wanted to be famous, Casey was uncomfortable with all the attention. “I’ve gotten in trouble by being rude to photographers,” she confessed, brandishing a faux smile as her picture was taken. Throughout the night, Casey gabbed non-stop on her cellphone to Paris and Nicky Hilton. The evening wound up at Moomba, where Casey knew everyone from Mark Ronson to Damon Dash. She called everyone “darling” from Moomba’s doorman to her best friend.
When I saw Casey in New York last year, she showed me photos on her phone of Ava and of her horses. “Isn’t Ava beautiful,” she beamed proudly. “I don’t know what I would do without her.”
Johnson is survived by her parents, her daughter, and two younger sisters, Jamie and Daisy. Johnson’s last Facebook status update, written on Tuesday, December 29, eerily reads: “Sweet Dreams Everyone.”
Peter Davis is the editor at large of Paper. His articles on style and celebrities have been published in Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The New York Observer.