Crazy Rich: Power, Scandal, and Tragedy Inside the Johnson & Johnson Dynasty

Crazy Rich: Power, Scandal, and Tragedy Inside the Johnson & Johnson Dynasty

by Jerry Oppenheimer


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From the founders of the international health-care behemoth Johnson & Johnson in the late 1800s to the contemporary Johnsons of today, such as billionaire New York Jets owner Robert Wood "Woody" Johnson IV, all is revealed in this scrupulously researched, unauthorized biography by New York Times bestselling author Jerry Oppenheimer.

Often compared to the Kennedy clan because of the tragedies and scandals that had befallen both wealthy and powerful families, Crazy Rich, based on scores of exclusive, candid, on-the-record interviews, reveals how the dynasty's vast fortune was both intoxicating and toxic through the generations of a family that gave the world Band-Aids and Baby Oil.

At the same time, they've been termed perhaps the most dysfunctional family in the fortune 500. Oppenheimer is the author of biographies of the Kennedys, the Clintons, the Hiltons and Martha Stewart, among other American icons.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250049087
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/12/2014
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 267,965
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

JERRY OPPENHEIMER is the New York Times bestselling author of Crazy Rich: Power, Scandal, and Tragedy Inside the Johnson & Johnson Dynasty, as well as unauthorized biographies of Hillary and Bill Clinton, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Anna Wintour, Barbara Walters, Jerry Seinfeld, and the Hilton and Kardashian families. He has also worked in several different capacities as a journalist, including as an investigative reporter and a producer of television news programs and documentaries.

Read an Excerpt

Crazy Rich

Power, Scandal, and Tragedy Inside the Johnson & Johnson Dynasty

By Jerry Oppenheimer

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Oppenheimer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-01093-3


When Woody Johnson was vigorously and aggressively raising funds for what would become the failed 2008 Republican presidential campaign of the Vietnam war hero and conservative senior U.S. Senator from Arizona, John McCain, and his controversial vice-presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, he began hitting up as many masters of the universe and captains of industry as he knew—and, in his American Express Black Card milieu, he knew many.

Woody, sixty-one at the time, had actually turned the notoriously secretive fifteenth-floor Rockefeller Center offices of his privately held investment firm, the bland-sounding Johnson Company, of which he was chairman and CEO—no relation to the Johnson & Johnson empire of his forebears—into McCain campaign central. It became a war room from which he was making dozens of calls every day, soliciting money for his candidate.

Woody was working the phones like a maestro conducting a symphony orchestra, much like the legendary baton-wielding Leopold Stokowski, who was the first of the three husbands of Woody's eccentric great-aunt, Evangeline Brewster Johnson.

The walls of Woody's office had once been covered with splendid family photographs. His favorite showed Woody's father, Robert Wood "Bobby" Johnson III, looking down at his father, Robert Wood Johnson Jr., known as the "General," holding baby Woody. Looming behind was an oil portrait of Woody's great-grandfather, Robert Wood Johnson. There was also much Johnson & Johnson memorabilia on the wall, including a framed copy of the corporate Credo penned in 1943 by the General.

All of it, though, seemed a bit misplaced and a trifle hollow since Woody's father, Bobby, had been harshly treated throughout his life by Woody's grandfather, the General, who ultimately punished him by firing him from the presidency of Johnson & Johnson. Woody would never be a part of the family business, and would have to find his own way. The dynastic ephemera on his office wall made for fascinating decoration, however, and impressed visitors.

Now that wall of memories had been stripped bare, replaced with slips of paper imprinted with the names of superrich potential McCain-Palin contributors from whom he hoped to extract six-figure amounts.

Among those Woody hit up were some prominent classmates from his prep school days at Millbrook School, an elite British-style academy in the Hudson Valley of New York State where the caustic conservative author and commentator William F. Buckley Jr. first learned to write an essay. One of those from Woody's class of 1965 who took his call was the Wall Street legend Steve Kroll, managing director at Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Company, where Martha Stewart was once a broker.

For a number of years Kroll and another classmate, Robert Anthony, who became Millbrook's director of alumni relations—and who along with Kroll had played Millbrook varsity football with Woody—had been trying to get the billionaire scion to contribute to the school fund, but without much great success. If Woody gave some, Kroll believed, the billionaire certainly had the wherewithal to give much more.

So Kroll was a bit taken aback when Woody turned the tables and was asking him for money, big money, to support the McCain-Palin ticket.

"Bobby Anthony and I would call Woody once a year and try to take him out to lunch, or dinner at '21,' and try to hit him up for donations to his alma mater," says Kroll. "But now Woody calls me up and says, 'You've got to come to my benefit.' I said, 'Great, send me the paperwork.' Now to go to the benefit for drinks and to rub shoulders with McCain was going to cost me one hundred and fifty grand! I don't know about anybody else, but I didn't like McCain that much."

It wasn't the first time the baby oil and baby powder scion had hit up Kroll for money. It had initially happened almost a half century earlier when they were preppy sophomores.

At the time, Kroll didn't have a clue about the pudgy, blond-haired, blue-eyed kid's family background because he was "nondescript. So I gave him the money and then somebody asked me, 'Why the fuck is Johnson borrowing twenty dollars from you?'"

Kroll, who was far less wealthy, might have known more about the Johnson boy's heritage before he gave him the double sawbuck, but he had missed that Kodak Moment at Millbrook, the morning when a huge, twin-rotor Sikorsky helicopter hovered over the prep school's bucolic grounds, and then landed on the football field, and Robert Wood Johnson IV—known as Bob back then, not the hip-sounding Woody—was spotted running down the sweeping lawn toward the chopper. Another student from Woody's class, Tom Doelger, who, like Kroll, didn't know anything about the Johnson youngster's family, because "no one knew how wealthy anyone else was at Millbrook," had witnessed the scene, was impressed, and thought, "My goodness, that must be something special."

Immediately afterward the inquisitive Doelger, who would be named the editor in chief of Woody's class of 1965 yearbook The Tamarack, and publish a cutting profile of him, asked the assistant headmaster, "'What was that all about?' And I was told that Johnson was being flown to New York City for a dental appointment—a dental appointment and by helicopter—and I thought, wow!"

While Steve Kroll didn't write the big check for the McCain fundraiser, a star-studded event that Woody and the Republican National Committee hosted jointly at the Sheraton Hotel on May 7, 2008—McCain's first major New York money-raising affair—many other leaders in the city's hierarchy of financiers, media moguls, and industrialists contributed a whopping seven million dollars in just one razzle-dazzle, ka-ching, win-one-for-the-Gipper-style evening.

It was clear from the flowing money and masters of the (Republican) universe turnout that Woody was of weight. Everyone in attendance that evening had dreams of another four years of Republican rule in the White House after two terms of Woody's political idol George Bush, for whom he was a major supporter, financially, politically, and philosophically. Even more, Woody and his compatriots surely had nightmares about what would happen to the country if the liberal Democratic hopeful, the black guy with the funny-sounding name, won.

Immediately after the hotel shindig, Woody personally hosted a dinner party at his spectacular apartment high above Fifth Avenue. Those invited included a group described as McCain's "biggest bundlers," who had each pledged to raise $100,000 or more, with the sky being the limit.

Bundlers in both political parties have been defined by groups such as, which billed itself as the Center for Responsive Politics, as, "People with friends in high places who, after bumping against personal contribution limits, turn to those friends, associates, and, well, anyone who's willing to give, and deliver the checks to the candidate in one big 'bundle.'"

One of the successful McCain bundlers working in Woody's high-powered operation who could deliver a big bundle was his cousin Keith Clinton Wold Jr., a multimillionaire self-employed New York City attorney, also a Johnson & Johnson trust-funder, who had personally contributed $57,700 in a half-dozen separate donations to the McCain Victory Committee, and was listed as a bundler in the $100,000 to $250,000 category.

The Wold name was important in Woody's branch of the Johnson dynasty because two of the four Wold siblings—Woody's mother, Betty, and her brother Keith Sr.—had won what is wryly whispered about within the dynasty as "the Megamillions Jackpot" by marrying into the super-wealthy Johnson family back in the 1940s.

Betty Wold had wed Bobby Johnson, grandson of one of the company founders, and Keith Wold had followed his sister to the altar by tying the knot with Elaine Johnson, one of the three heiress daughters from the first marriage of playboy J. Seward Johnson Sr., then second in command at the family business.

Not everyone in the Johnson dynasty agreed with Woody's staunch Republican beliefs—he wasn't considered by them to be the brightest bulb in the chandelier—and his politics had even caused fissures within the dynasty. While the Johnsons were once a GOP stronghold dating back more than a century to the Johnson & Johnson company founders, more contemporary Johnsons had turned to liberal Democratic politics. Among them was John Seward Johnson III, son of the controversial sculptor, J. Seward Johnson Jr. John had worked as hard in the successful 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign as Woody had labored in the failed McCain run.

"John [III] certainly contributed intellectual capital as well as physical capital, particularly in terms of Obama's use of social networks like Facebook, which was a big part of Obama's campaign," says his cousin Eric Ryan, also a liberal Democrat. "John was out on the dais with Obama during the inauguration with the president's closest friends and supporters."

Ryan's own liberalism ran the gamut to include the legalization of marijuana.

John Johnson's father, Seward Jr., had himself turned from the Grand Old Party to become a liberal as he aged.

In his eighties in the second decade of the twenty-first century, he was one of the remaining elders of the third generation of Johnsons, and he was aghast when he learned that Woody had invited Sarah Palin to be his very special guest in the owner's booth at a Jets game during the 2010 season. "I don't know that we could have a relationship, we're so different. He's a Republican through and through." He recalls attending the wedding of one of Woody's nieces—a daughter from one of the five marriages of Woody's sister, Elizabeth Ross "Libet" Johnson—where Woody was treated as a virtual pariah because of his conservative politics, crazy as it sounds. "Everybody kept moving their place away from Woody," Seward Jr. says. "It was because he had just been the biggest giver to George Bush."

Even Woody's first wife, Nancy Sale Frey Johnson Rashad, mother of his three daughters, and a born and bred Missouri Republican, turned against him when it came to his rabid support of McCain-Palin. "Woody and I always had the same views on politics until he backed that ticket, and then my views changed. I said to Woody, 'I just canceled out your vote—all that work you've done and now your vote doesn't count.'"

The 2008 Republican National Convention was held in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in early September. Three other cities, including New York, had vied for the honor, but the Republican National Committee decided on the Twin City, causing some political insiders to wonder whether Woody, so powerful as a moneyman in the party, had influenced the decision because Saint Paul just happened to be the hometown of his mother, Betty, and her brother Keith. Their father, Dr. Karl Christian Wold—Woody's maternal grandfather—had been a prominent local opthalmologist, and a staunch Republican who had once written an exposé about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the New Deal Democrat.

Because of the longstanding Johnson-Wold family ties to Saint Paul, and the fact that the convention's host committee was facing a budget deficit of some ten million dollars, Woody, his mother, and their wealthy and powerful friends were believed to have generated some sizeable checks to help out for what became the first ever national political convention held there.

While federal law had some limits on actual campaign contributions, no such limits are imposed on the big money spent by billionaire high rollers like Woody Johnson for such hoopla as costly political conventions.

But as Woody brashly boasted when Saint Paul was chosen, "I'm not a real believer in limits."

The long and storied saga of the Johnson dynasty well supports that philosophy of no limits, absolutely none. Members of the very secretive family have always played by their own set of rules—it's often been about them vs. us, for better or for worse—and Woody Johnson, of the fourth generation of Johnsons, was no exception.


The Saint Paul convention was a very special, well-deserved honor for Betty Wold Johnson Gillespie Bushnell, Woody's spry, shrewd, eighty-something, thrice-married philanthropist-dowager mother—thought to be the largest holder of Johnson & Johnson stock in the dynasty, and its de facto matriarch in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

People who knew the Johnsons intimately often compared them to America's royal family, the Kennedy clan, not because of politics, or public service, but rather because of the many scandals and tragedies faced over generations by both of the wealthy and powerful dynasties.

And Woody's mother was often compared to Ethel Skakel Kennedy, that clan's eighty-something de facto matriarch, because of what both had gone through during their lifetimes.

Both women had had eerily similar lives, both glorious and sorrowful. They both had very wealthy, charismatic husbands named Bobby who had died in their prime. Betty's husband—Woody's father—died at fifty of cancer in 1970 a few years after being shot down from his high post at Johnson & Johnson by his own father.

Ethel's husband, the popular former U.S. Attorney General, U.S. Senator from New York, and the 1968 Democratic presidential candidate, died at forty-two when he was shot down by an assassin's bullet like his brother Jack.

And both Bobby Johnson and Bobby Kennedy were known to have been womanizers like their fathers before them.

Moreover, without their husbands at the helm, both Betty Johnson and Ethel Kennedy suffered deteriorating relationships with their eldest sons. Worse still, after becoming widows, both matriarchs lost sons to tragic drug overdoses and horrific accidents.

Two of Betty Johnson's four beloved boys shockingly died just six weeks apart in 1975. The troubled and self-destructive twenty-seven-year-old Keith Wold Johnson, the second of Betty's brood of five, overdosed while shooting up cocaine in a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, apartment.

Ethel Kennedy's fourth-born, twenty-nine-year-old David Anthony Kennedy, also long troubled with drugs, died shooting up heroin in 1984 in a Palm Beach, Florida, motel room.

Just a few weeks after Keith Johnson died, Betty's fourth child, twenty-three-year-old Willard "Billy" Trotter Case Johnson, thought to be the brightest and most creative of her sons, but also a recreational drug user and often reckless, was killed driving at high speed on a motorcycle at a time when Billy was struggling to break into the movie business as a producer.

Ethel Kennedy's thirty-nine-year-old son Michael Lemoyne Kennedy died in 1987 when he skied at high speed into a tree, at a time when he was struggling with allegations that he had had an affair with his family's teenage babysitter.

For Betty, there would be a couple of points in her firstborn Woody's life where she almost lost him, too.

The tragedies and their similarities seemed so endless and unendurable to Johnson friends and family that they had begun living with the wrenching questions: Who's next? What's next?

"In our family we said, 'Oh, my God, these people are cursed just like the Kennedys,'" says longtime Johnson family friend Neil Vicino, who along with his brothers, Guy and John, had grown up with the Johnson boys, and continued to be close as they grew into manhood.

While Ethel Kennedy went to Catholic mass every day, it was Betty Johnson who had earned the sobriquet "Mother Superior" behind her back among other members of the Johnson family because, according to the sculptor Seward Johnson Jr., "She always would talk down to everyone as though her word was law, and it would almost make you laugh as though you were actually going to do what she said. She tried to straighten everybody out. She tried to straighten me out. If you had anything that was different, well, she'd try to straighten that kink out."

If she had tried more with her sons Keith and Billy—and especially with Keith—she was sadly unsuccessful.

Betty Johnson and Ethel Kennedy were lifelong loyalists to their families, the only difference being that Ethel had never remarried after her Bobby's death, while Betty had two marriages after her Bobby died. But like Ethel, who never let go of the Kennedy name, Betty always kept the iconic Johnson surname through her subsequent marriages to two husbands, one of whom she divorced, both of whom she had outlived.


Excerpted from Crazy Rich by Jerry Oppenheimer. Copyright © 2013 Jerry Oppenheimer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Leading Cast of Characters ix

Family Tree xiii

Prologue 1

Part I Power Broker (Ch. 1-6) 7

Part II Genius Forebears (Ch. 7-10) 33

Part III Eccentric Evangeline (Ch. 11-12) 73

Part IV Seward's Folly (Ch. 13-25) 93

Part V Woody's Secrets (Ch. 26-37) 189

Part VI Troubled Mary Lea (Ch. 38-40) 277

Part VII Acquiring Identity (Ch. 41-49) 301

Part VIII Family Matters (Ch. 50-54) 369

Epilogue 439

Acknowledgments 453

Author's Note on Sources 457

Selected Bibliography 459

Index 461

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