Picks and Pans Review: Undue Influence
by David Margolick
When Band-Aid heir J. Seward Johnson Sr. died in 1983 at the age of 87, he left behind more than $400 million—and a will that would ignite, Margolick writes, “the largest, costliest, ugliest, most spectacular, and most conspicuous [inheritance battle] in American history.” On one side stood the principal heir, Johnson’s third wife of 12 years, Barbara “Basia” Piasecka, an imperious Polish former chambermaid 42 years his junior. On the other were marshaled Johnson’s six spendthrift adult children from his first two marriages. (Each child had previously received a trust that untouched would have been worth $110 million at the time of Seward’s death.)
But according to Margolick, national legal affairs correspondent for The New York Times, the key players were hired guns from several of New York City’s most prestigious—and in his view overrated—law firms, plus one wildcard judge whose “hand was always on the scale. Herblatantly anti-Basia rulings so handcuffed the widow’s already bumbling team that Basia was pressured into a settlement that ended up costing her some $150 million to avert an even more catastrophic jury verdict.
Displaying the same panache as in his Times column, “At the Bar,” Margolick for the most part guides readers through the legal thickets with compelling intelligence and incisive writing, sprinkling humorous bread crumbs liberally en route. Though the epic struggle and resulting travesty of justice are his focus, the author never loses sight of the people involved, whom he came to know over six years of dogged reporting. Bizarre, pretentious, greedy and, occasionally, charming, they make for juicy reading—even if you wouldn’t want to trust them near the silverware. (Morrow, $23)