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Johnson v. Johnson

Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York

With her extraordinary investigative acumen and sensitive narrative skills, Barbara Goldsmith now gives us the most sensational case of a contested will in American history?weaving a hypnotic tale of vast wealth and moral corruption.

When J. Seward Johnson, the pharmaceutical heir, died in 1983 at the age of eighty-seven, his six children (each of whom was already in possession of an immense fortune) were outraged to learn that he had willed his entire $500-million estate to their stepmother Basia?a woman forty-two years Seward’s junior, a Polish refugee who had once worked as a chambermaid in his household. They came to believe that Basia had used undue influence to “enchant” their father, prying his fortune away from him and turning him against his own children. They wanted “justice.” The legal battle that followed spawned a seventeen-week-long trial, the involvement of 210 lawyers (some of whose behavior was legally and ethically questionable), $24 million in legal fees, and public disclosures of the often scandalous details of the lives of many of the parties involved, including attempted suicide, drug addition, and accusations of a murder plot.

Going beyond the courtroom itself, Goldsmith delves into the family’s past and present, demonstrating that, from the start, the poisonous effects of overwhelming wealth were a tacit but powerfully felt subtext to the proceedings. From her insider’s position, she reveals the true Johnson legacy - one of profound emotional damage. In their own voices Seward’s children, his first wife, relatives, friends, employees, and Basia herself express their thoughts and feelings with a startling degree of frankness, revealing a past of incest, malignant neglect, and betrayal. Through this deepening of the story, Goldsmith had been able to elucidate the profoundly complex reasons why each of the Johnsons believed that what was most emphatically at stake was not financial remuneration but emotional reparation.

Throughout the four-month trial, Goldsmith (who researched the case for over a year and examined thousands of pages of documentation) was in constant attendance, and she tells the dramatic story of what occurred in spellbinding detail. We see the contesting parties, their innumerable lawyers, and the trial’s remarkable judge, Marie Lambert (“part Portia, part Tugboat Annie”), playing out their roles in a courtroom packed with press and spectators, and rife with animosity, mistrust, and uncontrolled emotions (which erupted into a near-riot and death threats against the judge). Goldsmith illuminates how and why, as the trial progressed, it was transmuted almost entirely into a battle among lawyers, about lawyers, and for lawyers. She provides a masterful and devastating indictment of American law and lawyers, seen here as an out-of-control juggernaut fueled by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of money.

Family drama, courtroom drama, explosive psychological drama, a trenchant and sometimes shocking portrayal of lawyers at work today - Johnson v. Johnson is a brilliant synthesis of the legal, the social, and the human aspects of a society in disarray.