WROCLAW, Poland (AP) — Barbara Piasecka Johnson, a former maid who married the American heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, was buried Monday in her hometown in Poland after a modest funeral.
An art collector and philanthropist, Johnson died at age of 76 on April 1 near Wroclaw, in southwestern Poland. She lived and studied art history in Wroclaw before moving to the United States in 1968.
She was buried at a Wroclaw cemetery in a ceremony attended by her brother, Piotr Piasecki, family members and a few dozen city residents. Local archbishop, Marian Golebiewski, led the funeral Mass over her wooden casket at the Wroclaw Cathedral.
Johnson, one of the world’s richest women, was praised by another priest, Adam Drwiega, for remembering and helping Poles when they were experiencing hardship under communism in the 1970s and 80s.
“Poland always held the most important place in her heart,” he said, according to the Polish news agency PAP.
This farmer’s daughter traveled to America in 1968 with just $100 and no knowledge of English. She soon found a job, as a cook and then chambermaid, in the home of J. Seward Johnson and his second wife.
She soon left the family to take art courses at New York University, and Johnson Sr. rented an apartment for the woman known as “Basia” in Manhattan and moved in with her.
In 1971, he divorced his wife, the mother of two of his six children, and married his former housekeeper eight days later. None of his children attended the wedding. At the time he was 76 and she was 34.
After her husband’s death in 1983, Johnson inherited some $300 million from a fortune of over $500 million, following an ugly legal battle with her late husband’s children.
Johnson invested the money wisely, multiplying its value, using it to help disadvantaged people and people with autism.
She became popular in her native country in 1989, when she visited the financially troubled Gdansk Shipyard, the cradle of the Solidarity freedom movement that helped end Communist rule in the country. She offered to invest $100 million to save the shipyard but that idea fell through.
The Johnson & Johnson fortune was made principally from bandages, baby oil and pharmaceutical products.