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.
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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, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

Pop Quiz: What Were the Costliest Affairs in History?
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Barbara Piasecka Johnson: The Maid Who Launched 1,000 Prenups

Gen. David Petraeus has long been a controversial, larger-than-life figure, but the recent revelation of his affair with his biographer has transformed his name into a household word -- and into a cautionary tale. As the former head of the CIA watches a promising political future evaporate around him, it's clear that he has only begun to face the consequences of his tryst with Paula Broadwell.

But in the grand history of marital infidelity, Petraeus barely warrants a footnote. His affair, while personally and professionally costly, will not result in the end of a political dynasty, the loss of a crown, or a payout of billions of dollars. In the hopes of getting a little more perspective on the subject, we've done some research into history's most expensive affairs. So if you're interested in exploring just how much a little infidelity can cost, click through the gallery above.

A. Teddy Kennedy's relationship with Mary Jo Kopechne
B. John Edwards' relationship with Rielle Hunter
C. Barney Frank's relationship with Steve Gobie
D. Gary Hart's relationship with Donna Rice

While all four relationships were costly, Teddy Kennedy's late-night assignation with campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne, and her subsequent death after he drove his car off a pier in Martha's Vineyard, likely cost him the presidency. Kennedy decided not to run in 1972 and 1976, and his last stand on the presidential stage was a 1980 primary battle that he lost to Jimmy Carter. His defeat in 1980 was partially due to a devastating interview with Roger Mudd, in which the newsman grilled Kennedy on -- you guessed it -- Chappaquiddick.

A. Tiger Woods
B. Michael Jordan
C. Kobe Bryant
D. Alex Rodriguez

While Tiger Woods' cheating ultimately led to a divorce from his wife, Elin Nordegren, his estimated $100 million settlement pales beside that of Michael Jordan. At an estimated $150 million, Jordan's divorce remains one of the most expensive in history.

A. Anne Boleyn
B. Camilla Parker-Bowles
C. Wallis Simpson
D. Henrietta Pussycat

While Anne Boleyn was partially responsible for the creation of the Church of England, her boyfriend -- later husband -- King Henry VIII managed to hold on to the throne. The same cannot be said of King Edward VIII, who abdicated the British throne to marry the woman he loved, Wallis Simpson.

A. Rupert Murdoch
B. Adnan Khoshoggi
C. Donald Trump
D. John Paul Getty

While Donald Trump's divorce from Ivana Trump generated more headlines, his ultimate payout of $25 million is pocket change compared to the amount that Rupert Murdoch had to shell out in order to leave his wife, Anna, so he could marry his girlfriend, Wendi Deng. At an estimated $1.7 billion, it is the most expensive divorce on record.

A. Harrison Ford
B. Steven Spielberg
C. Kevin Costner
D. Mel Gibson

Answer: While all four actors were caught in expensive, embarrassing divorces, the winner -- by far -- is Mel Gibson. In 2009, following the publication of photos depicting Gibson with Russian pianist Oksana Grigorieva, his wife Robyn filed for divorce. The ultimate settlement was for $425 million -- half of Gibson's total wealth.

A. Christine Keeler
B. Monica Lewinsky
C. Rielle Hunter
D. Ashley Dupre

Although the $1,720 per hour that Ashley Dupre allegedly received from New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is certainly on the high end of the compensation scale, it pales beside the money that Monica Lewinsky has earned as a result of her affair with Bill Clinton. Her interview with Barbara Walters netted her an estimated $1 million, while her involvement with "Monica's Story," a book about the scandal, paid a further $500,000. She also received $300,000 to be a celebrity spokesperson for weight-loss company Jenny Craig and, more recently, was offered an estimated $12 million to tell her side of the story.

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