John Seward Johnson I

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John Seward Johnson I
Born(1895-07-14)July 14, 1895
DiedMay 23, 1983(1983-05-23) (aged 87)
Spouse(s)Ruth R. N. Dill (m. ? -1937)
Esther Underwood (m. 1939-1971)
Barbara Piasecka (m. 1971-death)
ChildrenMary Lea Johnson Richards (1926-1990)
John Seward Johnson II (b. 1930)
Diana Melville Johnson
Elaine Johnson Wold
James Loring Johnson
Jennifer Johnson Duke
Parent(s)Robert Wood Johnson I (1845-1910)
Evangeline Brewster Armstrong Johnson

John Seward Johnson I (July 14, 1895 – May 23, 1983) was one of the sons of Robert Wood Johnson I (co-founder of Johnson & Johnson). He was also known as J. Seward Johnson Sr. and Seward Johnson. He founded the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution (HBOI), and was the grandfather of Jamie Johnson, who directed the documentary Born Rich.

Early life[edit]

He was born on July 14, 1895 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, to Robert Wood Johnson I and Evangeline Brewster Armstrong.[1][2] He had three siblings: Roberta Johnson, Robert Wood Johnson II, and Evangeline Johnson.

Personal life[edit]

Johnson's first marriage was to Ruth Dill, the sister of actress Diana Dill. They had four children: Mary Lea Johnson Richards, Elaine Johnson, John Seward Johnson II, and Diana Melville Johnson Firestone.[3] It was alleged that Johnson would later sexually abuse his eldest daughter from age nine to fifteen.[4][5][6][7][8]

In 1939, Johnson married Esther Underwood. They had two children: Jennifer Underwood Johnson and James Loring Johnson.[3]

During his thirty-two year marriage, he engaged in extramarital affairs with his chambermaid Barbara Piasecka. In 1971, they married with none of Johnson's children in attendance. Piasecka Johnson "often physically and emotionally abused her husband", trial adversaries said.[9][10][11] He signed his final will on April 14, 1983, leaving the bulk of his fortune to her. In that year, Johnson died of cancer at the age of 87.[12] In accordance with the terms of the will, she received $402,824,971.59.[13]

The exclusion of the rest of his family from the will led to at least three highly publicized legal battles: One in which his six children from his first two marriages sued on grounds that he wasn't mentally competent at the time he signed the will. It was settled out of court, and the children were granted about 12% of the fortune.[14] The second legal dispute was regarding the eligibility of Mary Lea Johnson Richards' husband's share of the fortune, which lasted twelve years. The court ruled in favor of her husband.[15] The third battle was regarding the eligibility of John Seward Johnson II's daughter's share of the fortune. The court ruled in favor of his daughter.[16] In addition, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution contested the new will, and eventually received $20 million in the settlement.[citation needed]

Today, the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution is the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, a research institute within Florida Atlantic University. The governing board of the former Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution then became the governing board of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation which retained other parcels of land and an endowment funded by the J. Seward Johnson, Sr. Charitable Trust Endowment Fund and the Seward Johnson Trust Fund for Oceanography. The Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation exists today with a mission to support Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

See also[edit]

  • Johnson v. Johnson (1988, ISBN 0-440-20041-5)
  • Undue Influence: The Epic Battle for the Johnson & Johnson Fortune (1993, ISBN 0-688-06425-6)


  1. ^ Cook, Joan (June 18, 1990). "Evangeline Johnson Merrill, 93, Prominent Supporter of the Arts". The New York Times. Retrieved May 7, 2010.
  2. ^ "John Seward Johnson in the World War II draft registration". Selective Service. Retrieved 2009-02-26.
  3. ^ a b People Archives
  4. ^ "The Battle of Bendel's: Crazier Than You and Me", New York Magazine, p. 129 (accessed October 9, 2010): "For six years, he committed incest with Mary Lea...."
  5. ^ Lovenheim, Barbara (June 21, 1987). "Family Fortune: Tangled Tale". New York Times. Retrieved October 9, 2010. "Mary Lea Johnson was a victim of incest..."
  6. ^ The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide. W. W. Norton. 2003. p. 126.
  7. ^ "Hey, Mr. Producer". New York Magazine. Retrieved October 9, 2010. "She did anything that men wanted," Richards says, sadly, "because of the abuse with her father."
  8. ^ "Author digging for dirt on Johnson family". New York Post. January 18, 2010.
  9. ^ Kristin McMurran, "The Band-Aid Heir Left All He Owned to His Widow, but His Children Claim It Was Just Seward's Folly", People, May 26, 1986.
  10. ^ "Jury gets two views of widow", Boca Raton News, February 28, 1986, p. 2A.
  11. ^ Samuel Maull, "Lawyers' speeches portray Johnson widow as shrew", The Telegraph February 28, 1986, p. 233.
  12. ^ Prial, Frank J. (May 7, 1987). "After Settling Estate, Johnson Lawyers Still Battling". The New York Times. Retrieved May 7, 2010.
  13. ^ Warner, Susan (April 10, 2005). "The Family Behind the Company". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-02-26. But it was Bobby's uncle, J. Seward Johnson Sr., who made headlines when at the age of 76 he married a farmer's daughter -- his 34-year-old Polish chambermaid, Barbara Piasecka -- setting the stage for an ugly feud over his estate after his death in 1983.
  14. ^ Margolick, David (May 4, 1990). "Mary Lea Johnson Richards, 63, Founder of Production Company". The New York Times. Retrieved May 7, 2010.
  15. ^ Ramirez, Anthony (April 4, 2008). "New Jersey Court's Ruling Ends 12-Year Fight Among Johnson & Johnson Heirs". The New York Times. Retrieved May 7, 2010.
  16. ^ The Silver Trust, Family Money: Using Wills, Trusts, Life Insurance and Other Financial Planning Tools to Leave the Things You Own to People You Love, Silver Lake Publishing, 2001, pp. 14-17.

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