It was one of the great American immigrant success stories—a young Polish woman comes to America with shaky English and $200 in her pocket, takes a job as a maid ... and marries her way into a $500 million fortune. But not only did Barbara Piasecka Johnson strike it rich, she also survived one of the most expensive and infamous probate battles in American history, as told in a fascinating obituary in the New York Times. Johnson, who died at age 76 on Monday in Poland, came to America in 1968 and was soon hired by the second wife of J. Seward Johnson Sr., heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune. She worked as a maid but left nine months later to study in NYC.
As Forbes reports, Seward Johnson sent a car to collect her, declared his love, divorced his wife of 32 years, and married her at age 76 in 1971—having declined to invite his six kids to the wedding. (She professed shock: "I never expect it, because we could hardly talk to each other.") When Seward Johnson died 12 years later, he left her virtually all of his estate, estimated at $500 million, setting the stage for a massive, three-year-long, $24 million court battle that was soap opera-like in its twists. She eventually settled with his children for $40 million and ended up hanging onto more than $300 million. For the rest of her life, she lived in Europe and supported several charities, most based in Poland; last month's Forbes Billionaires list ranked her as the 42nd richest woman in the world. Click for more from the tumultuous court battle. (Read more Barbara Piasecka Johnson stories.)