Billionaire Watch: The Life of a Maid Who Came to America With $100 and Married a Billionaire

Victoria S. Barton

There are 1,426 billionaires in the world. Sure, you know the big names from the list like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg, but what about the other 1,423? With that in mind we bring you Billionaire Watch, highlighting the undercover billionaires, their Gulfstreams, and oftentimes celebrity love interests.
At first glance, Barbara Piasecka Johnson lived the ultimate Cinderella story. She moved to the United States from Poland in 1968, was hired as a chambermaid to a Johnson & Johnson heir, and became one of the wealthiest women in the world when they fell in love and he left his family. She’s back in the papers today as she just passed away at 76-years-old in Poland. Find out her story below.
Name: Barbara Piasecka Johnson, nicknamed “Basia”
Age: She passed away on Monday at 76.
Worth: In 2013, she was listed in Forbes 400 with an estimated net worth of $3.6 billion. Considering she came to New York with $100, we’d say that’s quite a step up.
Background: After growing up in in Poland, she moved to the United States in 1968 with little money and elementary English language skills. In New Jersey, she was hired as a chambermaid to Johnson & Johnson heir John Seward Johnson I, and his wife Esther Underwood. In 1969, she quit her housekeeping job to take art classes at NYU. At the time, John Seward Johnson I set her up in a Manhattan apartment, and later moved in with her. At 34 years old, she married the Johnson tycoon (he was 76—coincidentally the same age she was when she passed away), breaking up a 32 year marriage to his second wife. None of his children attended the ceremony. In 1983, a widowed Barbara was involved in one of the messiest and most expensive lawsuits in America over her late husband’s estate.
Family Lawsuit: In the court case, her six estranged step-children alleged that she had coerced their dying father into changing his will to exclude them. During the trial, she was quoted in People magazine saying, “I’m very sorry these children are ridiculing their father. They were out of the will long before I came to this country.” She walked away with $300 million of the original $500 million that was left to her in his legal will, making her one of the richest women in the world.  The 1986 lawsuit lasted 17 weeks, involved more than 200 lawyers, and set her back $160 million that she was ordered to pay her late husband’s children. With inflation and trust funds, she eventually gained it back—as she died a billionaire.
Business: Johnson & Johnson is a well-known pharmaceutical and consumer goods business that’s listed in Fortune 500. The New Jersey based company owns pharmaceutical brands including Band-Aid, Tylenol, and Neutrogena, and that essentially gave her her net worth. She never technically worked—outside of being a chambermaid and later a volunteer.
Residences: While married to John Seward Johnson I, they lived at the Jasna Polana Estate in Princeton, New Jersey. The 46,000-square-foot neo-classical mansion was built in the 1970s by famed architect Wallace Harrison and sits on 140 acres of land, with an approximate total value of $25 million. After his death in 1983, the home was converted into a private golf course and she became a resident of Monaco. They also owned homes in Italy and Poland.
Hobbies: Barbara was an art lover who studied art history in college. While she was alive, the Johnson’s collected art from the likes of Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt, and Titian. Her hobby turned into a business when she sold a Badminton Cabinet for $36.7 million to Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein, making it the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold. She also sold Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man With Arms Akimbo” to Steve Wynn for $33 million in 2009.
Philanthropy: She founded the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Foundation to support Polish students in the United States, worked on humanitarian projects in Poland, and most recently worked with Art for Autism.
Where the Money Will Go: There has been no set announcement as to where the money will go, however she has one living brother, and previously donated part of her large art collection to her foundation—so it’s likely much of her money will be bequeathed to charity.
Photo via Bloomberg