Estimating her net worth at $2.4 billion, in 2001 Forbes magazine rated Barbara Piasecka Johnson among the world’s twenty wealthiest women. Forty years earlier, the young, impoverished Barbara Piasecka had arrived in the United States from her native Poland and worked as a cook. In between, however, she had married medical and baby products heir J. Seward Johnson and nursed him through his final illness. She then fought a fierce legal battle against her six stepchildren to retain the fortune Johnson had willed her. In his detailed analysis of the Johnson case, New York Times legal reporter David Margolick called the will contest “the largest, costliest, ugliest, most spectacular, and most conspicuous in American history” (Margolick 1993: 12).
A few weeks after Barbara (“Basia”) Piasecka arrived from Poland, Seward Johnson’s second wife, Esther Underwood “Essie” Johnson, hired her as a cook. Basia cooked so badly, however, that soon the Johnson’s Polish maid (who had recruited her) switched jobs with her. Working as a chambermaid, Basia made $100 dollars a week. A year later, she quit her job with the Johnsons. But by that time she had caught Seward’s eye. He offered Basia, who had studied art history in Poland, a $12,000-a-year job as curator for his new art
collection. He also showered her with gifts: not only jewelry and furs, but also two Italian homes and a $500,000 trust fund.
By 1971, the now seventy-six-year-old Seward had divorced Essie and promptly married thirty-four-year-old Basia. Eight years later, in 1979, his health began to deteriorate. Off and on until his death in 1983, Basia nursed him and supervised his care. One of the attending professional nurses called Basia his “number one nurse” (Margolick 1993: 254). Indeed, during his final illness, Basia
massaged Seward. She gave him ice packs and heating pads where he ached. She salted his broth and prepared him her special herbal tea.. .. She read to him, bathed him, cut his nails, combed his hair, trimmed his beard, put on his clothes, wiped his forehead. She helped him walk, and when he could no longer lift up his hand, she could almost telepathically pinpoint his pain. .. . She wiped his rectum, uncomplainingly. (Margolick 1993: 161)
Another nurse wondered “why she wanted an R. N. when she would always do everything for him” (Margolick 1993: 161).
Seward’s will made Basia the principal beneficiary of his $400 million fortune. His six children from two previous marriages, however, objected to this arrangement. Their lawyers raised three complaints against the bequest: one, that Seward was not competent; two, that the will had not been executed in proper form; and three, that the will had been procured “by fraud, duress and undue influence on the part of Seward Johnson’s widow” (Margolick 1993: 215). The children’s attorneys portrayed Basia as domineering, even intimidating, thereby exerting undue influence on a debilitated old man. In response, Basia’s witnesses and legal team portrayed her as attentive, loving, and lavish in her care for the dying man.
Note what the disappointed heirs did and did not claim. They did not challenge the validity of the marriage itself, the fact of Basia’s energetic care, or even Seward’s devotion to her. On the contrary, they argued that the care constituted an improper campaign to influence the inheritance, isolating Seward from other influences, and thus excluding his children from their rightful heritage. After a pro
such responsibilities, a number of advocacy organizations provide advice to family caregivers. For example, family consultants at the Family Caregiver Alliance urge adults who are deciding whether to move a dependent parent into their home to consider such issues as these:
• What will the financial arrangement be? Should I charge rent? Will I have expenses for her to cover?
• How will my siblings feel about the financial arrangement?
• Will my work situation have to change, and if so, how will I cover the bills?
Here, as elsewhere, economic arrangements for the provision of care do not simply call up considerations of cost, convenience, and efficiency. They involve negotiation of the forms, representations, obligations, and rights attached to meaningful interpersonal ties.