A Socialite's Tragic Curtain Call
Casey Johnson lived her life searching for fame, always in the shadow of her close friend Paris Hilton. Jacob Bernstein on the troubled heiress' downward spiral.
On the list of things you can name your child, it’s probably not a great omen when you pick as your inspiration a misunderstood movie star who killed herself with prescription drugs at 36. Yet that’s just what Casey Johnson—who died in recent days at the age of 30—did when she adopted a one-year-old from Kazakhstan two years ago.
She named the young girl she took home Ava-Monroe, and the middle name was a nod to Marilyn, who was an icon for the blond Johnson & Johnson heiress over the years and served as a mirror in which she viewed herself.
Click the Image to View Our Gallery of Casey Johnson: Through the Years
“I see a lot of similarities between us,” Johnson later said. “I don't think she was very happy. She was just very, very complicated and sort of a deep person, and nobody realized that. They thought she was some dumb blonde, and she wasn’t. She was a smart, smart broad. And I think that sometimes people look at me and think, Oh, Casey Johnson, she’s stupid, she's blonde, she’s an heiress, blah, blah, blah."
But Johnson’s semblances to Monroe notwithstanding, she was also a prototypical socialite for this age. And as a team of doctors begins work on her autopsy, another examination is taking place–of what has become of society in an era of Twitter feeds, Facebook status updates, and blogs like Park Avenue Peerage.
Part of a generation of girls who are famous mainly for behaving badly, she never came to be as well-known as her childhood friend Paris Hilton, even if she came close several times. “It’s that thing that happens when a person desperately wants to be famous and when they don’t get it, it eats at them,” says a person who knew her well but didn’t want to be quoted because Johnson’s family is in mourning. “That is the thing that is so sad. And it’s really what this is.”
Johnson grew up on the Upper East Side, the daughter of Woody Johnson, who owns the Jets and is the great-grandson of Robert Wood Johnson, founder of Johnson & Johnson. As a kid, Casey attended the tony private school Chapin, and wound up at Dwight, where one of her classmates was Hilton, a young girl whose life would intersect with hers over the years. The school is known in wealthy circles as “Dumb White Kids Getting High Together,” but Hilton actually managed to flunk out.
By the time she left, the two had become close, and in a way, Johnson was the perfect foil to her more notorious friend. Like Paris, Casey was undeniably spoiled, having gotten her first Chanel bag at the age of 10. But where Hilton flitted through life seemingly unaware of the damage she left in her wake, Johnson was a brawler who told you exactly where you stood with her.
She was also quick witted and funny, and she did well enough academically at Dwight that she was admitted to Brown University. In the end, Johnson dropped out after less than a year, reportedly because the school would not allow her toy poodle Zoe to live in the dorm with her, and also because there just wasn’t enough action for Johnson in Providence, R.I..
Back in New York, Casey got a job in public relations, interning at Lizzie Grubman’s PR firm in event planning. “She was great,” says Grubman, who remained in touch with Johnson over the years. “She would bring her dog to work, which I didn’t love, but she tried hard and gave her all. She wasn’t a star employee, but she fit a niche and she introduced us to her friends, who were Paris and Nicky Hilton. She helped us to realize that there needed to be a database for the younger generation.”
One person who knew her on the party circuit says “It was this awful inner struggle of ‘Do I want to be Paris or do I want to be me,’ and ‘Who is me’?”
At the time, Paris was just starting to make a name for herself in the gossip pages, and Johnson was a loyal member of the crew, which also included Bijou Phillips (daughter of Mamas and the Papas' John Phillips) and Nicole Richie (daughter of Lionel).
Still, Johnson later said that she moved out to L.A. in an effort to get away from the glare of the gossip columns and the society pages. Moreover, when she was reportedly offered the role of Hilton’s sidekick on the reality show The Simple Life shortly thereafter, she turned it down.
Instead, Johnson tried her hand at becoming an actress, only to experience a series of near-misses. She got a small part in Sidney Lumet’s remake of the Cassavetes film Gloria but it tanked. She got a TV pilot, playing–of all things–a nasty socialite named Mimi von Lustig. The show never aired.
Then, in 2006, Johnson traveled to Cambodia with her aunt Libet to visit an orphanage Libet had established. Along for the ride was John Dee, a man Casey was reportedly dating. Dee had a respectable career, managing R&B crooner Maxwell and the heavy metal band Megadeth, but he wasn't rich, and several of Casey’s friends were not pleased at the news they were together. “He was bad news,” says one fixture on the social scene who knew Casey for a decade. “I told her ‘you better be careful.’ I thought he was a golddigger.”
As it turned out, Casey’s money didn’t turn out to be the thing at risk. Over the course of the trip, Libet—who had a history of pursuing younger men—became unusually close to Dee. In March, The New York Post’s famous gossip column Page Six obtained intimate e-mails between Libet and Dee, not quite evidence of a romance, but certainly too close for comfort.
No one said just who leaked the e-mails in the first place, but Casey certainly knew how to use the press to wage a war with her aunt. In her statement to The Post, Casey said of Libet: “I think she needs help. I feel sorry for her. She’s single. She’s been divorced umpteen times. She’s afraid to go out in public. On the other hand, she was sleeping with my boyfriend, who I was in love with."
Swatting her aunt like this may seem common now, but even just a few years ago in 2006 it was a scandale, a marked shift from the olden days, when one was supposed to appear in the newspapers when born, when married, and in death. (And perhaps when hosting a charity gala.)
Members of the family were horrified, but Casey didn’t back down. That September, she gave a rollicking interview with Vanity Fair’s Suzanna Andrews in which she acknowledged her breach in society etiquette, but declined to apologize for it. (She also posed almost naked for the magazine, smoking a cigarette). Recalling the episode in Page Six, Johnson told Andrews, “I said I didn’t have a comment, then I looked at my assistant and said, ‘Goddammit, I have a comment.’ And I went on my merry way and gave one.”
This was Casey Johnson, wittier and more pugnacious than her friend Paris, if somehow a beat later to the famous-for-behaving-badly set. Johnson’s burgeoning emotional exhibitionism even seemed to owe a debt to Hilton. In the same piece, Johnson said turning down the opportunity to appear on The Simple Life was, “the biggest mistake of my life.”
“I kick myself in the butt every day,” she said.
“I think she went through times where she wanted to be in the press and then she would become really resistant to it,” says another person who knew her on the party circuit. “It was this awful inner struggle of ‘Do I want to be Paris or do I want to be me,’ and ‘Who is me’? And that whole crew of people kept ending up in all these different places where they got into spats and didn’t know how to deal with each other so they did it in the press. And if you weren’t leaking, someone else was, and then you had to respond. It was this constant roller coaster for her.”
Even Johnson’s desire to adopt a child seemed to be to be a way of rebelling against her parents, at least one of whom was justifiably worried that the then 26-year-old wasn’t ready to be a parent. Casey owned four dogs, not one of whom was properly housebroken. (Hilton’s purebred dogs are also notoriously ill-trained.) And Johnson also was having issues with substance abuse, which only increased after adopting the little girl.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s romantic life seemed to be taking a darker turn. It wasn’t that she started dating women, but rather that she was dating women who clearly were in no position to help her straighten herself out. First came Courtenay Semel, the daughter of former Yahoo CEO Terry Semel, who had appeared on the reality show Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive. She allegedly beat Johnson up and set her hair on fire. Soon after their break-up, Johnson was arrested at the home of another woman she was pursuing, after having allegedly stolen jewelry, clothing and other knick-knacks from Semel. (Semel told Page Six that the violent details of the fight were "a major exaggeration," and was in litigation with Johnson at the time of her death.)
Still, others were mystified by the feud and thought that Johnson’s newfound lesbianism was really an act of defiance aimed at getting publicity and riling up her father, who had been one of George W. Bush’s biggest New York fundraisers. “It looked to me like a plea for attention, a way of acting out,” says the social fixture who knew her and previously warned her about Dee. “She’d always been totally boy crazy.”
Grubman agrees: “I didn’t buy it. Believe me, I have lesbian friends. But I didn’t see one ounce of lesbian in her. I think it was a call for attention. I found it borderline ridiculous and I told her that. She laughed.”
At one point, Grubman and others took heart that Johnson appeared to make efforts toward cleaning herself up. At a dinner last summer, the publicist says, “She seemed like she was in great spirits but apparently she’d just gotten out of rehab and went back a few days later.”
But by December (shortly after Johnson’s mother took in Ava-Monroe) things were clearly out of control. First came news of Johnson’s arrest. Days later, Johnson showed up at a party for a clothing launch with Tila Tequila, a reality-TV personality, where the pair announced that they were engaged. “My baby is a billionaire,” Tequila bragged. “She’s the heiress of Johnson and Johnson. We are going to make love tonight for our Honeymoon.” Then, she added to a camera crew: “This saga is to be continued. You’re going to be seeing a lot more of us.”
Indeed, throughout the final weeks of Johnson’s life, the couple provided nearly up to the minute coverage of their union via Twitter.
Not even tragedy could stop Tequila’s tweeting, which went on and on Monday night after TMZ broke the news that Johnson’s body had been discovered that morning. She ended with one last desire to send a message to her fiancée over cyberspace. “R.I.P my Angel. @caseyjonsonJnJ 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.”
The following day, Casey made the front page of both of her hometown tabloids. In death, she’d finally managed what she never could in life: upstaging her old friend Paris.
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.