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Barbara Piasecka Johnson: The Maid Who Launched 1,000 Prenups

Barbara Piasecka Johnson, 49, poses at her estate in Princeton, N.J., Wednesday, June 4, 1986.  (AP Photo/Jack Kanthal)
Jack Kanthal, AP Barbara Piasecka Johnson poses at her estate in Princeton, N.J., Wednesday, June 4, 1986.
It's a classic story: Aging wealthy man meets younger woman. They fall in love (or some variation thereof), get married (or at least cohabitate) until he dies (or she gets greedy) and then, a legal battle begins. The two principals, or some of their relatives, hire a passel of lawyers, file mountains of depositions, and pay vast sums to lawyers before reaching some sort of settlement.

And though it's a tale oft told, it remains endlessly fascinating as it's replayed, every year or two, with a fresh cast and a new set of headlines. Even years after the events, in the most notorious cases, the principals retain the kind of fame that is so powerful that it doesn't even require a last name. Kimora Lee. Anna-Nicole. Ivana.

And Barbara.

Barbara Piasecka Johnson was the first contemporary version of the story, the one who arrived on the scene just when celebrity culture was ramping up, fueled by an explosion in mass media and a fascination with the lifestyles of the rich and famous. She was the prototypical rags-to-riches girl, a Polish woman who arrived in New York City in 1968 with $200 in her pocket. Before long, she was working as a cook and maid for the Johnson family, of Johnson & Johnson fame. And it wasn't too long after that before she was winning the heart of J. Seward Johnson Sr., heir to the makers of Band-Aids.

The pair were married in 1971, and remained so until J. Seward's death in 1983. And that's when the probate battle began. Barbara was in line to receive the bulk of Johnson's estate, valued at $500 million. Johnson's children disagreed. What followed was a three-year legal battle complete with all the trimmings: character assassinations aimed at Barbara Johnson, claims of abuse, counter-claims of loving care in Johnson's final days, counter-counter claims of gold digging, on and on, ad nauseum.
As a side-note, you may recognize the last name of Nina Zagat, the lawyer who wrote J. Seward Johnson's will. She and her husband later went on to found a now-famous restaurant rating system.

Ultimately, with the lawyers fed (to the tune of $24 million) and the newspapers filled, all parties reached an agreement that left Barbara Johnson with $350 million, her in-laws with $40 million, and an oceanographic institute that J. Seward Johnson had founded with $20 million. Barbara Johnson faded from the scene, moving to Europe, where she invested in art and spent millions of dollars on charitable causes.

But while Barbara Johnson's tale faded from the public consciousness, the trail that it blazed continues to be well-traveled, pouring fodder into the celebrity press -- while feeding endless fears of probate battles, worries about wills, and a rich culture of painful legal stories. But whether viewed as a loving widow or a cautionary tale for estate planners, one thing remains certain: Barbara Piasecka Johnson, who died on Monday at age 76, made an outsized mark on American culture.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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up to I looked at the draft which had said $9703, I be certain that my friend was like they say truley taking home money parttime on-line.. there dads buddy has been doing this 4 less than and just cleared the morgage on their appartment and bought a new Honda. we looked here, FAB33.COM

May 02 2013 at 3:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Why is she called "greedy" and the family isnsn't. A person has the right to leave their assets to whomever he wishes. As a wife she has a legal right to a percentage, but I am not sure the children were.

April 19 2013 at 9:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

she was his blessing, and he was her blessing rest in peace

April 19 2013 at 8:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It doesn't really matter who he married because as rich as he was people would have talked no matter what. He was rich so she's a gold digger right? Does that mean only marrying poor proves true love? It's honestly none of our business and we'll never really know what happened behind closed doors.

April 19 2013 at 1:48 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Once Upon a Time................................I Dream About YOU !

Happens all the time.

She was a good Woman....................he was Lucky !

April 19 2013 at 12:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Don't outlive your money! You'll never know who really loves you. Heard of anybody wth lots and lots oif money that wasn't loved deeply?

April 18 2013 at 11:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Renato's comment

My father.

April 19 2013 at 2:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Vimala Nowlis

He didn't marry her because she's a maid in his mansion. He married her because she was his "art collection advisor". She has a degree in art history from Poland. She couldn't get a job here in America in museums or art gallaries that's why she got a job as a maid. He's not stupid. He realized she was more valuable to him as an assistant. He stayed married to her because she took good care of him.
But the truth is boring and shows the difficulties immigrants have in America. The fiction is much more interesting and more fairytale.

April 18 2013 at 10:16 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Vimala Nowlis's comment

Well, all new immigrants have to work at blending into a new country/culture. ALL of our ancestors did. Interesting background you've given if accurate though. And maybe he didn't marry her just because she was an "art collection advisor". You don't need to marry someone for that. If she "took good care of him" then perhaps he was grateful for her kindness. Anyway, he had the ability to do whatever he wanted with his money whether his family liked it or not. And according to this she gave a lot to charity. Very cool. How many millions did his family need ?? Oh, and to think/remember all the "Friday night hang outs" at Ho-Jo's back in the 60's....;o>>

April 18 2013 at 10:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It sounds like Barbara did very well for herself. The thing that bothers me is the slant that she "was winning the heart". Hearts are not won. Hearts want what they want and evidently he wanted her. They were together for 12 years. so it wasn't a one night stand sort of marriage. I also noticed it doesn't say she married again, so maybe she didn't marry him for his money.
As far as any will goes, there should be a simple solution to those disagreements, unfortunately they would still involve the lawyers, when that much money is involved. IMO, if you make the money, you have a right to say where it goes..

April 18 2013 at 10:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I just have to say....WHO CARES???

How is this news? Have we sunk so far as a nation that THIS tittilates us?

April 18 2013 at 10:09 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to entheoscht's comment

It's because she just died...

April 19 2013 at 10:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

shes queen of adultrists

April 18 2013 at 10:03 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply