A prolific biographer of the rich and infamous, Oppenheimer (Madoff with the Money, 2009, etc.) digs into five generations of the Johnson family, “the most dysfunctional family in the Fortune 500.”
Founded in 1887 by three Johnson brothers, Johnson & Johnson became synonymous with products such as Band-Aids and baby powder. The author occasionally reveals corporate strategies and secrets but mostly focuses on the members of the extended Johnson family, detailing their mind-boggling personal wealth. Hundreds of names come and go throughout the narrative, with Oppenheimer concentrating on 15 blood relatives, their spouses and business partners. The book is largely a fast-paced chronicle of births, courtings, marriages, divorces, estrangements, bitter lawsuits, drug and alcohol abuses, crimes, memorable deaths and other unpleasantness. After the first generation, members of the Johnson family found it difficult to decipher whether outsiders cared about them for their personalities or only for their wealth. That kind of doubt can cause havoc with emotional stability, as Oppenheimer demonstrates with frequent salacious details of the lives of his protagonists. As is the case with his other unauthorized biographies, the author usually reveals little about whether his information derives from primary or secondary sources. The writing is clear but often painful to read due to the use of clichés and trite metaphors. One Johnson family member emerges as the chief subject: Robert Wood Johnson IV, a great-grandson of a company founder. Oppenheimer uses the nickname “Woody” to identify the protagonist, frequently coming back to his fundraising for Republican presidential candidates and his ownership of the New York Jets.
A gossipy, character-driven saga suggesting that the spoiled rich are their own worst enemies.