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Libet in Love

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Libet at the New York City Ballet Gala in 1989.   

For the most part, though, Lionel was fun. She liked his rough edges, even his coarse humor. Sometimes Jungle Boy shouted into the phone like Tarzan: Ahh-uh, ahh-uh, ahh. Libet loved that—it was so outrageous.

One day, Libet called Lionel and screamed a Tarzan yell into the phone herself.

“How do you like that?” she asked proudly.

“Where are you?”

“I’m in Saks.”

“You’re in Saks!” he repeated.

“Yeah, but I feel comfortable,” Lionel recalls her saying. “I can do that with you.”

With Libet, not surprisingly, there was always a sensitive point in a romance. Libet liked to coddle her men; still, she worried that they liked her for what she could do for them. “She wants desperately to find a man who can appreciate her for who she is, not whence she came,” says her friend Paul Schwartz, a veterinarian. “She wants a man to love her for her capacity to love him.”

In an e-mail, Lionel wrote to her, “I have told you many times, I am only interested in you because of you. I don’t care what you have, how much you have … I look forward to dancing with you, not just the tango, but the dance of life. Love, Jungle Boy.”

It was just what she wanted to hear.

At about the same time that Libet was falling for Lionel, Cambodia “wrapped itself around my heart,” as she put it in a video about her charity. Libet thinks of herself as an idealist. Cambodia allowed her to put her wherewithal where her idealism was, something she’d rarely done before.

Of course, since Libet’s grandfather Robert Wood Johnson Jr. built Johnson & Johnson into a pharmaceutical giant, every Johnson has had the wherewithal to do anything—or nothing. The special existential challenge for the Johnsons has been this: What does someone who doesn’t have to do anything do?

Some Johnsons chose to dabble in scandal. J. Seward Johnson, Libet’s “perpetually libidinous” great uncle, as one author put it, took his Polish cook as a third wife, bequeathing her almost his entire fortune. On his death, his pampered children contested the will, leading to a bizarre and captivating trial. Two years ago, after Libet and Lionel split up, Casey, Libet’s niece, added to this family tradition. In the Post, Casey, then 26, accused her famously press-shy aunt Libet of a libidinous streak of her own. She said Libet had snatched Casey’s 38-year-old boyfriend.

Libet has no patience for Casey or her accusations. And yet, Libet probably understood her scandal-sowing niece better than she liked to admit.

One night in bed, Lionel recalls, Libet said that she could identify with the public escapades of Paris Hilton, Casey’s good friend.

“Why?” asked Lionel.

Lying on her back, she moved her legs and her arms like a baby.

“I’m a rich girl, I’m a rich girl,” she sang in a funny voice. She could do anything she wanted, seemed the point.

The rich girl’s dilemma, as Casey has said, is that “there’s nothing left to want.”

Of course, Libet had long told herself that what she really wanted was to do good. For years, though, she didn’t seem to be doing that much of it, except perhaps for high-end merchandisers. She collected expensive homes—she paid $9.1 million for Meryl Streep’s West Village townhouse, though she never lived there. She took Pilates, swam like an Olympian, took her kids traveling all over the world. And she shopped for ever more rarefied goods—as if the usual purchases no longer did the trick. She bought a gorilla sculpted from amethyst and an elephant of aquamarine, gifts to herself that grew out of her “creative relationship” with sculptor Andreas von Zadora- Gerlof, whose work can sell for close to $1 million. And she jumped on her plane and flew to Wichita to inspect the Big Dog, a new custom-made motorcycle. She bought four.

Shopping, though, doesn’t offer lasting satisfaction. “How many days a week can you actually go shopping?” Casey, an extreme case, explained to one reporter, “You think, What have I ever done to alter this world? What will people say? ‘Oh, she had a lot of shoes’?”

When Libet contemplated her set of talents, she decided they were all related to the fact that she’s a mother. “I’m very maternal,” she sometimes told friends. She liked to say that she hoped to find something to unite all her strengths and hopes and desires in a way that could be useful.

Then she discovered Cambodia, which she thought was the missing piece of the puzzle. The country is overrun with children, 9 percent of them orphans. For a small amount of money—$10 million is not much for a Johnson—Libet built Golden Children, a community for orphans on the banks of the Mekong River in Phnom Penh. She recruited, and paid, parents to raise the children and teachers to educate them.


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