How the Johnson & Johnson heirs became rich, bored and dangerously aimless

Drugs, murderous lovers and Paris Hilton

(Farzin Ghayour; Canadian Press; iStock)

(Farzin Ghayour; Canadian Press; iStock)

There’s a common misconception around the rags-to-riches story. Not about the notion of unhindered upward mobility itself—even the most optimistic have long since acknowledged that particular American Dream is more myth than reality. No, the fallacy is that rags-to-riches fables are the stories we want to hear in the first place. That they’re somehow the ultimate crowd-pleasers. In truth, the stories we most greedily devour are about people who are born rich. From Royal Baby news to Gossip Girl–style soaps to tabloid magazine pieces about the Hiltons, we love stories of heirs and heiresses and great dynastic families—particularly if those families meet a nasty end. Rags-to-riches is fine. Riches-to-rags, or at least to misery, is infinitely more appealing.

Crazy Rich, a new book about the family behind the Johnson & Johnson company, shamelessly appeals to these baser instincts. Subtitled Power, Scandal and Tragedy Inside the Johnson & Johnson Dynasty, the book is a gossipy compendium of five generations’ worth of bad behaviour by the wealthy heirs to America’s Band-Aid and baby powder fortune.

Author Jerry Oppenheimer has built a career chronicling the foibles of the very rich. He’s penned unauthorized tell-alls about the Clintons, Anna Wintour, Ethel Kennedy and the Hilton family. In the Johnsons, he has found a trove of juicy material. On the second page, Oppenheimer catalogues the family’s many misfortunes and humiliations: “Drug addictions, alcoholism, overdoses, adultery, homosexuality, child abuse in the form of molestation, suspected kidnapping, a murder plot, a shooting, tragic accidents, suicide, attempted suicides, and other mayhem.” It’s a list that promises a parade of scandal in the pages to come, and Oppenheimer dutifully delivers.

The original source of all this wealth and dysfunction is a simple medical bandage. Johnson & Johnson was formed in 1887 by three brothers, the sons of a poor Pennsylvania farmer. They produced antiseptic, ready-to-use surgical dressings—a newly important and growing market sparked by the discovery of the importance of keeping wounds sterile.

buffett-sideOppenheimer follows the growth of Johnson & Johnson over the decades, as the company cunningly appropriates the sign of the red cross as its symbol, develops its famous baby powder formula, invents Band-Aids, and grows into a health-care behemoth. Mostly, though, the author focuses on the clan’s bizarre personal lives.

He writes about Mary Lea Johnson, the heiress whose baby picture was on the first can of Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder and who later accused her husband of plotting to kill her with the help of his lover, the family chauffeur. He writes about J. Seward Johnson Sr., who left his wife to marry his Polish chambermaid. He spends chapters with Evangeline Johnson, whose final marriage was to a gay stylist three-decades her junior. After four hundred pages or so, you begin to notice a theme: the Johnson family, both men and women, make use of their enormous fortunes to find ever younger husbands and wives.

By the 1960s, the family was completely divorced from the day-to-day business of running the publicly traded Fortune 500 company. Free from any real responsibility, with more money than they know what to do with, the recent generations of Johnsons represent the idea of the wealthy family dynasty in its purest state: rich, bored and dangerously aimless.

The current patriarch of the Johnson clan is Robert (Woody) Johnson IV, the billionaire owner of the New York Jets. In Oppenheimer’s account, Woody was a not particularly bright kid, “the ultimate frat boy,” according to one cousin. One night in the middle of what would turn out to be a seven-year undergraduate degree at the University of Arizona, Woody drunkenly stepped off a cliff, nearly paralyzing himself for life.

The fact that he survived and went on to find some kind of identity as an NFL owner and Republican moneyman is, in Oppenheimer’s account, a victory on its own. The rest of his immediate family members weren’t as lucky. One brother died after slamming his motorcycle into a parking meter. Another overdosed on cocaine.

As Oppenheimer airs out the dirty laundry of generation after generation of Johnsons, the book threatens to become a wearying trudge. By the time he gets to Woody’s troubled daughter Casey Johnson—a tabloid mainstay throughout the 2000s who ran with Paris Hilton, feuded with her aunt in the pages of Vanity Fair and then died at the age of 31 in 2010—the tales are simply dispiriting.

We read books like Crazy Rich for the same reason we watch The Real Housewives TV shows or follow the exploits of the Trumps in Us Weekly or the Kennedy’s in the superficially more upmarket Vanity Fair. The lives of the very rich are fascinating, particularly when those lives turn grubby and sordid and tinged with tragedy. Crass wealthy people make us feel superior. The schadenfreude we feel while reading about the dysfunctions of the ultra rich reinforce the clichés we tell ourselves: that money can’t buy happiness. That, in many ways, money actually makes things worse, poisoning relationships, destroying families and breeding fundamentally flawed individuals emotionally deformed by unnatural wealth.

The truth, of course, is that money can’t guarantee happiness, but it insulates from all sorts of obvious discomforts. It protects you from your own mistakes. Enormous wealth is what allowed Woody Johnson to spend his seven years of college drinking and pulling pranks and still emerge as a powerful, respected individual. It’s what lets him buy a professional sports team for a record-breaking US$635 million as a means of “acquiring an identity,” and then watch his team’s value double. It’s what gives him the power to work closely with Mitt Romney, funnelling money into his campaign in return for prestige and political influence.

It’s difficult to know if wealth corrupted the Johnson family or merely enabled their bad behaviour. What’s clear from Oppenheimer’s book is that the rich may be crazy, but they can afford to be.