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Basia Piasecka, a thirty-year-old Polish emigre, landed in New York in 1968 seeking work. Through Polish connections, she found her way to kitchen employment in the New Jersey home of Seward Johnson and his second wife, Essie. Within months, Basia became Seward's mistress. Seward, then seventythree, was an heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceuticals fortune. Although Johnson & Johnson treated Seward as a nominal officer, he played no role in the company. He spent his decades philandering and dabbling in oceanography through a foundation that he established. In 1971 Seward divorced Essie, settling $20 million on her to dissolve their thirty-two-year marriage. Weeks later Seward married Basia, who was more than forty years his junior. Their marriage endured a dozen years, until Seward died from cancer in May 1983.

Seward's estate was valued at his death in excess of $400 million. Seward was survived by his six adult children, four of whom were older than Basia. Seward had shown little interest in the children when they were young, and his relationship with them as adults was largely perfunctory, although Basia cultivated amicable relations with the children throughout her marriage to Seward. As adults, the children were embarrassing wastrels, constantly in debt to their trust funds. They fared as badly in their marriages and family lives as in their careers and business affairs. The extravagant marital and extramarital adventures of one of Seward's daughters, Mary Lea, would strain credulity in a work of cheap fiction. Beginning in the 1940's, Seward had used inter vivos trusts to settle Johnson & Johnson stock worth tens of millions on each child. In the many wills that he executed across the next four decades, he excluded his children from benefitting further in his estate. After marrying Basia, Seward revised his estate plan several times, making ever larger provision for her. His last will, executed in April 1983 when his struggle with cancer was near the end, devised a little of his estate to his foundation and the rest to Basia. The will excluded the children, as well as their spouses and descendants.

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