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The Saga of Jasna Polana

Barbara Piasecka Johnson, widow of J. Seward Johnson Sr., celebrates her “victory” in front of her mansion gate in Princeton, N.J., June 4, 1986. (AP Photo/Jack Kanthal)

A Look Back at the Story Behind the Famed Property

By Anne Levin

Last fall, the luxury golf club Jasna Polana was listed for sale. Set on 222 park-like acres bordered by Route 206 and Province Line Road, the property boasts an 18-hole Tournament Players Course designed by golf great Gary Player, and a palatial, 46,000-square-foot clubhouse.

Jasna, pronounced “yasna,” has earned a reputation for its meticulously manicured fairways, lush setting, challenging greens, and pricey entrance fee. But the expansive, gated property is best known — or notorious — for the chapter of its history that preceded the creation of the golf club in 1998.

A pair of gilt-bronze wall lights, Louis XV, c. 1745. (Sotheby’s Auction House)

Johnson & Johnson (J&J) pharmaceutical heir J. Seward Johnson Sr. and his third wife Barbara “Basia” Piasecka, who was 42 years his junior, built the lavish estate in the mid-1970s, sparing no expense. After Johnson died at the age of 88 in 1983, the probate battle that raged between the widow and his six children made international headlines and racked up legal bills of more than $24 million, according to Undue Influence: The Epic Battle for the Johnson & Johnson Fortune by New York Times reporter David Margolick, who wrote the exhaustive account in 1993.

Though already millionaires many times over, the trust-funded siblings claimed that their father had left virtually all his $400 million fortune to Basia because she had manipulated him into doing so.

“The will contest that followed was the largest, costliest, ugliest, most spectacular, and most conspicuous in American history,” Margolick writes in the book’s prelude. “But Basia survived what she called her ‘American hell,’ and when she walked out of Surrogate’s Court in June 1986, nearly three years after the battle began, her fingers raised in the sign of victory, she was one of the world’s wealthiest women, a person whose fortune and good fortune seemed to guarantee her a life of nearly limitless possibilities.”

The saga dates from 1968, the year that 31-year-old Basia, who came from modest means but with a master’s degree in art history, left her native Poland — first for Rome, and then for the U.S. She spent one night in a dingy New York hotel before making some connections that led her to be hired as a cook by Johnson’s then-wife Esther “Essie” Underwood Johnson, at their home in Oldwick. But Basia wasn’t much good in the kitchen, so Essie soon switched her to housework.

It wasn’t long before Johnson, a known philanderer who looked and acted younger than his 73 years, fell for the attractive new maid. According to Margolick, Johnson first set eyes on Basia while cutting through the kitchen one morning on the way to his office. “‘My wife told me we have a pretty cook,’ he said to her pleasantly, as Essie stood not far away. “I’m Mr. Johnson. I hope you will be happy here.”

By the time Basia left Oldwick a year later to take art classes in Manhattan, Johnson was completely smitten. He set her up in an apartment, and soon joined her there. He divorced Essie, and married Basia in 1971.

A Flemish biblical tapestry. Audenarde, third quarter 16th century. (Christie’s)

The newlyweds began to amass a valuable collection of art, from paintings and Flemish tapestries to 18th-century furniture and drawings by Rembrandt, Botticelli, and Fra Angelico. They owned properties in several locations, but they wanted to build a home not far from J&J’s New Brunswick headquarters that could keep these treasures secure.

“Hilltop,” a 140-acre property between Princeton and Lawrenceville with rolling hills, meadows, brooks, and bridle paths, was just the thing. After the death of owner Mrs. Ferdinand White Sr., Johnson bought the property from her son for $1 million.

The building and grounds at Jasna Polana. (Photo courtesy of Jasna Polana)

And so the five-year project began. Almost immediately, the property was fenced off. The Johnsons hired architect Wallace K. Harrison, designer of the United Nations headquarters and the Metropolitan Opera House, to create Jasna Polana — which means “bright glade” in Polish. But before the house was completed, Harrison removed his name from the project. Apparently, Basia was not an easy client.

The accounts of her efforts to build “the biggest and best house in the world,” according to Margolick’s book, are incredible. “The new house would be a monument to her megalomania,” he writes. Indeed, it was one of the most expensive private homes in the U.S.

The building and grounds at Jasna Polana. (Photo courtesy of Jasna Polana)

The mansion was more than 50,000 square feet, but it only had two bedrooms — and 32 bathrooms. There were 15 fireplaces, one cellar for wine and another for artworks, an air-conditioned doghouse, and a breakfast room imported from Poland. Basia hired some 60 people to run the place: maintenance workers, groundskeepers, farmers, maids, and security personnel.

A painting by Jan Baptist van Fornenburgh. (Sotheby’s Auction House)

According to Margolick, costs for construction and plantings around the estate were estimated around $18 million by 1975. The finest materials were shipped from all over the world. Walls were built to Basia’s specifications, then torn down and rebuilt when she wasn’t satisfied with the results. Changes to the stonework alone totaled some $284,000. Antique fireplaces from Europe were repeatedly assembled, then taken apart and reassembled until they met her standards. A servants’ wing was built and then demolished to make room for a spacious dining room that could accommodate up to 200 people.

The imposing staircase was meant to look as though it had been carved out of one piece of travertine. If Basia saw or felt any seams in the material, she screamed at the workmen. She ordered changes to newly installed doors, switches, and trees, sometimes involving just a fraction of an inch.

Understandably, Johnson was obsessed with security. The project was veiled in secrecy at first, and press coverage was not welcomed. But several outlets managed some coverage of the ongoing process. The Princeton Packet estimated a $17 million price tag for the project. The New York Daily News ran a column in January 1975 by “Suzy” headlined “That’s a lot of Band-Aids.” In an early issue of People magazine, reporter Richard Rein, who went on to found US1 newspaper and is currently the editor of the TapintoPrinceton news site, managed to speak with Johnson after calling him directly at Fort Pierce, his home in Florida. Johnson answered the phone himself.

Hispano-Netherlandish School, 16th century. A triptych: central panel: The Pietà; the wings: Saints Francis of Assisi and Antony of Padua. (Christie’s)

A carved oak “Beeldenkast,” Netherlandish, first half 17th century. (Sotheby’s Auction House)

Rein asked Johnson if Jasna Polana would one day become a museum. “I just want to live with some pictures, that’s all,” Johnson snapped back. “Whatever I have, I want to live with — privately.” Rein described Basia as “an aloof chatelaine who has few friends,” and quoted a workman as saying, “A jackhammer comes in handy around here,” referring to her tendency to order things redone.

Once the mansion was completed in May 1978, the Johnsons brought famed chef Paul Bocuse over from France, complete with crew, to cater the dinner for their opening party. The list of invitees included such notables as President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter, Energy Secretary Cyrus Vance, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Governor and Mrs. Brendan Byrne, and Mr. and Mrs. Walter Cronkite. But so few of them accepted that Basia had to scramble to find lesser celebrities to invite. The party was less of a success than she had hoped.

During Johnson’s last years of battling prostate cancer, Basia is described as doting and devoted. Before he died, Johnson had rewritten his will numerous times. When he finally succumbed on May 23,1983 and his children were informed the final terms of the will, the soap opera began.

It was three years, and millions of dollars in legal fees, before the trial began in the New York City courtroom of Surrogate Court Judge Marie M. Lambert. The children portrayed Basia as an opportunist who bullied their father into signing virtually everything over to her. Basia, in turn, described them as greedy and spoiled. Basia’s lawyers tried to get Lambert to recuse herself, accusing her of favoritism toward the siblings.

Each side produced witnesses attesting to Basia’s treatment of her husband. On the children’s side, there were ex-employees who said she berated, and even beat him. Basia’s defenders claimed she treated him with love and kindness.

An out-of-court settlement was reached in June 1986. Basia got $350 million, and the children got $5.9 million each. The Harbor Branch Foundation, an oceanographic research center Johnson had founded, received $20 million. Each side claimed victory. Tellingly, Lambert and the jurors attended the celebratory party held by the siblings.

A view of the golf course at Jasna Polana. (Photo courtesy of Jasna Polana)

Basia also got Jasna Polana and all of its furnishings. But after the trial, she spent most of her time living in Monaco. She also kept homes in Poland and Italy. Once she decided to turn the estate into a luxury golf club, she returned once or twice a year and stayed in a private suite. Converting the two-bedroom mansion to a glamorous clubhouse did not require an extensive renovation. The library and living areas became a formal dining room, and the kitchen was upgraded for commercial use. Guest suites were turned into the women’s locker room.

Basia never married again. Her death notice mentions the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Foundation, which “assists students and professionals from Poland in continuing their studies in the United States.”

Poland’s Solidarity movement was another focus of her support. Basia was featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine with Lech Walesa in 1989, when she tried to rescue the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, Poland.

“What’s a delicate woman like you doing in a shipyard with cranes and rusting metal?” he asked her in the article. “You belong in a garden of flowers, or in a coffee shop, with me.”

But the honeymoon didn’t last. Basia promised to invest up to $100 million in the shipyard, but the deal fell through when she asked for too many concessions from the workers.

On April 1, 2013, Basia died at the age of 76 after an unspecified illness. Describing her after the trial, Margolick summed her up:

“The Basia that emerged from the case was alternately compassionate and cruel, cunning and naive, loyal and fickle, generous and selfish, explosive and meek, articulate and tongue-tied, helpmate and tormentor, cheerful country girl and urbane shrew, someone who spent her husband’s final weeks either wiping his rectum or circling in auction-house catalogs the antiques she would soon buy with his money.”

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