04.04.139:12 AM ET

Barbara Piasecka Johnson Dies

The immigrant maid who married the Johnson & Johnson heir was at the center of one of America’s most famous probate battles.

It sounds like a fairy tale come true: an immigrant maid married the heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune. But perhaps teaching that there are no happy endings, Johnson faced a protracted legal battle after she inherited all of her husband’s $500 million fortune after his death, setting off what one writer called the “largest, costliest, ugliest, most spectacular, and most conspicuous” probate war in American history. Born in Poland, Johnson had around $200 in her pocket when she moved to the U.S. in 1968. She was hired shortly afterward as a cook for Esther Underwood Johnson, the second wife of J. Seward Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson Band-Aid and baby-powder fortune, at the Johnson estate in Oldwick, New Jersey. Lacking any real cooking skills, she was soon reassigned as a maid, although she left in 1969 to study art at NYU. Seward Johnson paid for an apartment for her in Manhattan, but he soon moved in and divorced his wife. They were married in 1971, when she was 34 and he was 71—and it seemed that none of his five children approved, since not one attended the wedding. He died 12 years later.

Johnson was an avid art collector, and the couple also built a 140-acre estate in Princeton, New Jersey, valued at between $20 million and $30 million. At the time of Seward Johnson’s death, he left all his holdings, worth an estimated $500 million, to his wife, and his children were left with just the trusts set up. They contested the will, setting off a three-year legal battle that eventually ran up a $24 million bill. The children claimed that Johnson had taken advantage of their father and been abusive toward him. They settled out of court, with Johnson keeping more than $300 million of the estate and the children receiving about $40 million in total—the rest having gone to legal fees and taxes. Both sides claimed victory. Johnson later moved to Monaco and Poland, and she never remarried.