Barbara Piasecka Johnson (Associated Press/David Bookstaver)
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Barbara Piasecka Johnson, a Polish farmer's daughter who worked as a maid for an American heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune before marrying him and eventually inheriting much of his wealth, has died at the age of 76.
Johnson, the widow of J. Seward Johnson Sr., became embroiled in a nasty and prominent legal battle when her husband died in 1983. The feud pitted her against her late husband's six children, from two previous marriages. She prevailed and got much of his fortune.
Her family announced her death Thursday in the daily Rzeczpospolita, saying she died Monday "after a long and serious illness." It didn't give any further details about her illness or place of death but said that she will be buried April 15 in Wroclaw, the southwestern Polish city where she grew up.
A resident of Monaco, Johnson was one of the world's richest women and an avid art collector.
Barbara Piasecka, who went by the diminuitive "Basia," was born in 1937 in an area of prewar eastern Poland that now lies in Belarus. Her family resettled after the war in Wroclaw, where she obtained a degree in art history. She later left communist Poland for the United States, where she arrived in 1968 with almost no money or knowledge of English. She got a job working as a cook and maid in the New Jersey home of Johnson & Johnson heir J. Seward Johnson Sr. and his wife of 32 years.
Johnson soon began an affair with her and in 1971 divorced his second wife, the mother of two of his children, and married Piasecka eight days later with none of his children present, according to a 1986 article in People magazine. At the time he was 76 and she was 34.
He bequeathed most of his fortune to his wife, largely excluding from his will his children and an oceanographic research institute in Florida that he founded and had a strong attachment to. The children, portraying their stepmother as aggressive and manipulative, said she coerced him into signing the will and that he was not of sound mind when he did so.
Barbara Johnson disputed that portrayal and said her late husband chose to leave his children out of his will because he was disappointed in what she said was irresponsible spending by some and scandalous behavior by others, People magazine reported, citing pretrial affidavits. Large trust funds had been set up for the children years before, which they held on to.
Barbara Johnson was not known in her homeland until 1990, just after the fall of communism, when she stepped in and offered millions of dollars to save the bankruptcy-threatened shipyard in Gdansk that had been the center of Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement.
On one occasion she was given an enthusiastic welcome by workers at the shipyard, though her plan to save the shipyard fell through.
She later set up a foundation in Gdansk for autistic children.
A funeral Mass is planned at noon on April 15 in the Wroclaw cathedral, after which she will be buried at a cemetery in the city, the death notice for her said.
VANESSA GERA,Associated Press
Copyright © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.