Barbara Piasecka Johnson, whose rags-to-riches tale — an immigrant maid marries a multimillionaire and inherits all of his money, fending off the furious claims of his children — was at the center of what one writer called “the largest, costliest, ugliest, most spectacular and most conspicuous” probate battle in American history, died on Monday near Wroclaw, Poland, where she spent much of her childhood. She was 76.
(Barbara Piasecka Johnson in 1986 at her 140-acre estate.)
Ricky Stachowicz, the general counsel for Mrs. Johnson’s family office, said she died after a long illness, which he did not specify.
Mrs. Johnson — she preferred Mrs. to Ms., Mr. Stachowicz said, and was known as Basia (pronounced BOSH-uh) — lived a fractured fairy tale of a life. When she arrived in the United States from Poland in 1968, she had perhaps $200 in her pocket. She spent her first night in New York City in a dingy hotel room.
Through a series of serendipitous connections, she was hired shortly thereafter as a cook by Esther Underwood Johnson, better known as Essie, the second wife of J. Seward Johnson Sr., heir to the Johnson & Johnson Band-Aid and baby powder fortune.
Miss Piasecka was not much of a cook, it turned out, so her duties at the Johnson estate in Oldwick, N.J., became more of a maid’s. She left in 1969 to take art classes at New York University; Mr. Johnson set her up in a Manhattan apartment, and later moved in with her. In 1971, Mr. Johnson divorced his wife and married Miss Piasecka. She was 34; her husband was 76.
None of Mr. Johnson’s six children were invited to the wedding.
During their 12 years of marriage, Mrs. Johnson, who had studied art history in Poland, created a valuable collection of Flemish tapestries, 18th-century furniture and paintings and drawings by Rembrandt, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Raphael and others. Together they built a 140-acre estate in Princeton, valued from $20 million to $30 million, and called it Jasna Polana — “bright glade” in Polish — echoing the name of Leo Tolstoy’s Russian home.
When Mr. Johnson died in 1983, one of the great celebrity soap operas of the 20th century ensued.
He bequeathed to his wife virtually all of his holdings, reported to be worth as much as $500 million, and omitted all but one of his children from his will altogether.
The children, all of whom were millionaires themselves as a result of trusts their father had set up for them, challenged the will, claiming that Mrs. Johnson had exerted undue influence on their father and that he had been too enfeebled to resist changes to the will that his wife had bullied him into making.
Thus began a furious three-year legal tussle that involved leading law firms — legal bills totaled more than $24 million — mountains of paperwork and four months of sometimes tawdry testimony that exposed the unhappy private lives in one of America’s richest families.
Witnesses testified that Mrs. Johnson had screamed at and even hit her aging, bewildered husband; others said that they were affectionate with each other and evidently happy and that Mr. Johnson was alert and coherent at the time he changed his will.
Among the many subplots in the case, the lawyer who drew up the contested will, Nina S. Zagat, was accused by the children’s lawyers, as a friend of Mrs. Johnson, of having a conflict of interest in the case; and Marie M. Lambert, the judge who heard the case in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court, was asked by Mrs. Johnson’s lawyers to recuse herself because of what they perceived as blatant favoritism toward the children.
The case was settled shortly before it was to go to the jury. Mrs. Johnson kept more than $300 million of the estate, the children received more than $40 million in total, and Harbor Branch, an oceanographic institute that Mr. Johnson founded and that was also party to the suit, was awarded $20 million. Legal fees and taxes also claimed a share. In the aftermath, both sides claimed victory and held celebrations. The jurors and the judge attended the children’s party.
“The Basia that emerged from the case was alternately compassionate and cruel, cunning and naïve, loyal and fickle, generous and selfish, explosive and meek, articulate and tongue-tied, helpmate and tormentor, cheerful country girl and urbane shrew, someone who spent her husband’s final weeks either wiping his rectum or circling in auction-house catalogs the antiques she would soon buy with his money,” David Margolick, a former reporter for The New York Times, wrote in “Undue Influence,” his 1993 book about the case.
“But Basia survived what she called her ‘American hell,’ ” he added, “and when she walked out of Surrogate Court in June 1986, nearly three years after the battle began, her fingers raised in the sign of victory, she was one of the world’s wealthiest women, a person whose fortune and good fortune seemed to guarantee her a life of nearly limitless possibilities.”
Barbara Piasecka was born on Feb. 25, 1937, in Staniewicze, a village in what was then eastern Poland, where her father was a farmer. The family was uprooted by World War II and settled in the southwestern part of the country, in Wroclaw. She studied art history and philosophy at Wroclaw University and enrolled in a doctoral program at Jagiellonian University in Krakow before traveling to Rome and eventually the United States.
According to Mr. Margolick’s book, a Polish janitor in the Manhattan hotel convinced her that working as a domestic, where she would get free room and board and would improve her English, was preferable to seeking a job at a museum or a Polish newspaper, as had been her plan. Soon she was invited to move in with a Polish family in Perth Amboy, N.J., and with them she went to a party, where she met one of the Johnsons’ maids, who told her about the open cook position.
Mrs. Johnson, who lived for many years after the trial in Monaco and had homes in Italy and Poland, never married again. She is survived by a brother, Peter Piasecki.
According to a death notice placed in The Times on Wednesday by Mr. Stachowicz, Mrs. Johnson used her wealth to collect and exhibit art and to support charitable causes, mainly in Poland. In 1990, “Opus Sacrum,” an exhibition of her collection of Western religious art, appeared at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, drawing critical praise at a time when Polish museums, still emerging from the burden of Communism, were struggling to pay for important loan exhibitions.
Her attempt to rescue the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, home of the Solidarity trade union movement, which was set to be shut down, was less successful. In 1989, she promised to invest up to $100 million in the shipyard — she appeared with Lech Walesa on the cover of The New York Times Magazine next to the headline “Lech’s American Angel” — but the deal foundered when, on the advice of consultants, she asked for too many concessions from the workers, including a no-strike guarantee and a reduction in staffing.
The Barbara Piasecka Johnson Foundation, her death notice said, “assists students and professionals from Poland in continuing their studies in the United States.”
“Over the years,” it added, “Mrs. Johnson also extended significant support to the Solidarity movement, the victims of martial law in Poland, various nursing homes for single mothers, selected health care facilities and a number of other important humanitarian projects.”
Jasna Polana is now a golf club.