A Family’s Fortune

Undue Influence: The Epic Battle for the Johnson & Johnson Fortune

by David Margolick
Morrow, 624 pp., $23.00

David Margolick’s Undue Influence deals with the struggle to dispossess Seward Johnson’s widow as heir to the enormous entirety of his estate. It leaves Barbara Piasecka Johnson just where she was when she debarked to a New York pier twenty-two years before: “completely and utterly alone.” The $200 she had carried here from Poland had, of course, swelled to $240 million in the interim, but that distinction does not seem, on Margolick’s telling, to have made much difference. In the fairy tales little girls read, the heroine begins in solitude and ends living happily ever after; in the fairy tales women live, the heroine begins and has a way of ending in solitude.

Barbara Piasecka’s destiny would have been altogether less majestic but probably more serene if she had been a better cook. Mrs. Seward Johnson, Sr., had first employed her at the skillet with results so unsatisfactory as to make her preferable as upstairs maid. There she caught the eye of Seward Johnson, Sr., whose millions from Johnson & Johnson had gone on multiplying long after he had stopped pretending to executive duties in their accumulation. In time he and Barbara were married; and the displaced Mrs. Johnson seems to have felt well rid of him.

He seems to have been a dreadful old bear and so worthless a father for his six adult children as almost to excuse how pathetically short of being worthwhile they mostly were. He and his Barbara had twelve years together. For all her excesses as bully and profligate, she appears to have brought more savor to life than he had lately known; and Margolick fairly persuades us that theirs was a love story, however odd. If it hadn’t been, how could a woman as inherently shrewd as she have been so lost, so wild, and so foolish as she became after he died?

From the very outset, Seward Johnson, Sr., had doted on this wife; and as he declined toward eighty-seven, all his commands were her wishes. His will left her his whole estate with nothing for the children except the reminder that he had already made them rich with trusts. The children had been wounded by his neglect, and some were goaded by the sort of husbands the rich too often marry and then disappoint for being not so rich as expected. They sued to void their dead father’s will with the charge that, by scheming and hectoring, Barbara Johnson had forced her husband to yield her his fortune when he was too old and ill to know what he was doing.

That suit is Margolick’s stage; but his theme is civil justice, and its leading players are not the contending parties but lawyers whose rapacity perhaps exceeded Barbara Johnson’s and even her stepchildren. For this author the real case is Sullivan & Cromwell for Mrs. Johnson vs. Milbank, Tweed for the other Johnsons. Milbank, Tweed’s clients had started out on ground so swampy that Sullivan & Cromwell took victory for…

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