Barbara Piasecka Johnson, a former chambermaid who married into the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical family and walked away with part of its fortune following a bitterly contested battle over her husband’s will, has died. She was 76.
She died on April 1 in Poland after a long illness. One of the world’s richest women, she was a resident of Monaco.
Born in Poland, Mrs. Johnson was known as Basia. In 1971 she became the third wife of J. Seward Johnson, a son of J&J cofounder Robert Wood Johnson and a director of the company for 50 years. She was 34; he was 76 and had left his marriage of 32 years to be with her. They had met in 1968, when she began work in his New Jersey home as a cook and chambermaid.
J. Seward Johnson’s death in 1983 sparked a legal battle in Surrogate’s Court in Manhattan, between his six grown children and his widow over his will, which left her the bulk of his $500 million estate. In a 17-week trial in 1986 involving more than 200 lawyers, the children alleged that Barbara Johnson had coerced her dying husband into changing his will to her benefit.
Barbara Johnson insisted her husband’s children were blaming her for family rifts that predated her arrival.
‘‘I’m very sorry these children are ridiculing their father,’’ she said during the trial, according to People magazine. ‘‘They were out of the will long before I came to this country.’’
The two sides reached a settlement that awarded $350 million to Barbara Johnson and the rest to the children and to Harbor Branch, the oceanographic institute in Fort Pierce, Fla., that J. Seward Johnson had helped create.
In addition to the money, the agreement gave Barbara Johnson possession of the mansion she had built and shared with her husband — a 46,000-square-foot Georgian-style villa on 140 acres in a wooded section of Princeton. She turned the property into a private golf club with a course designed by professional golfer Gary Player and the Johnson mansion serving as clubhouse.
Barbara Johnson resettled in Monaco and became an art collector and philanthropist. In March, Forbes magazine estimated her net worth to be $3.6 billion, making her one of the 50 richest women in the world.
Barbara Piasecka was born in Staniewicze, Poland, to Pelagia and Wojciech Piasecki.
She earned degrees in art history from the University of Wroclaw and immigrated to the United States from Rome in 1968, arriving with $100 and speaking little English.
She went to work for J. Seward Johnson and his second wife, the former Esther Underwood, at their estate in Oldwick, N.J. She left after nine months to study English in Manhattan, at which point J. Seward Johnson dispatched his chauffeur to bring her to his office, where he professed his love, according to People.
‘‘I never expected it, because we could hardly talk to each other,’’ she later explained, the magazine said.