It’s hard to remember after the vicious custody battle, after the charges of kidnapping and countercharges of extortion, that the whole thing started because Libet Johnson had fallen in love. Deliriously in love. Of course, Libet, one of the richest women in New York, fell in love with some regularity—she’d been married, and divorced, five times and had had a slew of boyfriends besides. But at the beginning, she was certain that this romance would last. Lionel Bissoon, a handsome weight-loss doctor, was “the best man by miles that I have ever met,” she wrote in an e-mail.
For Libet, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, the romance arrived in the nick of time. She’d been worrying that at her age—she was 53—she’d never have another boyfriend. Lionel was, she thought, her last shot. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” she e-mailed him.
In fact, her life seemed to be improving across the board. As her relationship with Lionel developed, she was growing more deeply involved with an orphan community she’d founded in Cambodia. The charity work had given her a sense of purpose that, for all her wealth, hadn’t been there before.
And then, there was another piece of happy news. One day, she called Lionel from Cambodia. Lionel still recalls the phone message: “I found your son.”
Libet denies that she said these words. Still, on July 18, 2003, a typically hot and muggy Cambodian day, she waited for Lionel in the Phnom Penh airport. In her arms, she cradled a 6-month-old orphan, a boy whose brown skin and dark ringlets reminded her of Lionel.
Lionel couldn’t help but register how wonderful Libet looked. She wore white pants, a white T-shirt, and over her loose blonde ponytail a wide-brimmed straw hat. Then Libet put William—she’d named him after her brother—into Lionel’s arms.
Lionel, 41 at the time, had never wanted children. Like William, he didn’t live with his parents as a child. His father was in and out of his life, a lack that seemed to engulf him as he took William into his arms.
“You have this medical training,” he said later. “You know it’s not possible. But I heard a voice in my head saying, ‘Papa, where were you? Why did you leave me?’ ” Recounting that moment later, Lionel stumbled over the words. “I knew this baby was my father,” he said, then corrected himself. “I mean, I knew he was my son.”
A few months later, Libet and Lionel spirited William out of the country on a medical visa—the United States has suspended adoption of Cambodian children—and into their lives.
On February 12, 2004, Lionel e-mailed Libet:
“Hi Baby … I am so happy to be with you, never have I felt so content. You are an amazing woman. And William is the cutest boy ever. I am so lucky.” Lionel sometimes signed his e-mails “JB,” for Jungle Boy; that was Libet’s nickname for him.
Libet wrote back:
“I am the one who is so lucky. We have everything we could ever want in our little family. I am feeling much more relaxed about everything. i love you so much … Can’t wait to see you.” She signed “DG,” for Dancing Girl, the name she called herself.
A decade earlier, Elizabeth Ross Johnson—a brother called her Libet, which stuck—had commissioned a portrait of herself. Painted by society portraitist James Childs, and shown on the preceding page, it’s a remarkable work, both for its skillful execution and for Libet’s fastidiously constructed vision of herself. For the painting, Libet had her decorator redesign the artist’s studio, hanging $5,000 worth of lush Fortuny silk on the wall and adding a dark faux-bois wainscoting. On a table draped in blue sat a nineteenth-century candlestick and bright fuchsia peonies, which her florist continually refreshed over the two years it took to make the painting. In the foreground, Libet reclines on a chaise longue, wearing a stunning Valentino dress of chiffon, silk, and diamonds. The dress is hiked toward her knees, ruffles cascading carelessly to the leopard-skin rug on the floor. She floats a pink-hued arm in the air. It’s the portrait of a seductress.
“Libet loves boys,” explains one of her friends. And boys have always been drawn to her. She’s adventurous, fun-loving, spontaneous. (She flew in a Russian MiG just for kicks.) Also, there’s the money—“Money is a very powerful aphrodisiac,” Libet’s niece, Casey Johnson, once explained.
By the age of 40, Libet had attracted five husbands, who had given her four children. Libet had always wanted children. Fortunately, while the men departed, the children stayed.
For Libet, husband-and-father stock had been mostly Waspy men from her social background. After the husbands, though, she seemed attracted to a more exotic sort: rougher-edged, often darker, and usually younger. “She’s never been conventional, going to the country club,” says a friend. She dated Frédéric Fekkai, the hairdresser turned hair-care mogul; he’s French, though ethnically Egyptian and Vietnamese. She dated Jerome Jeandin, her chauffeur at the Ritz, where she always stayed when in Paris; he received a Ferrari when they split up, according to news reports. Libet also dated a South American man some twenty years younger, a romance that apparently fizzled when she met his family. She briefly dated Michael Nouri, the actor, who is of Iraqi descent; even more briefly Michael Bolton, the singer.