Many years ago there was an article in New York magazine about a bitter dispute among the heirs of Charles Lazarus, the Toys ‘R’ Us founder. At the time, I was young and single, scraping by on a measly salary. I could not understand the greed of these children, who felt that the world owed them a lavish and lazy life. I was so appalled by the story that I wrote a letter to New York magazine, which was printed, after having a lot of my ranting edited out.
Fast forward to last year, when my curiosity could not stop me from jumping in to the Crazy Rich drama of the Johnson family. Having worked for one of the many “Davids” in the health and beauty industry against the “Goliath” J&J, I could not help but feel eager to read a little dirt on the dynasty. It was one of the first books I received after joining NetGalley, but there was a glitch in my download, and I didn’t realize until too late that I could not access it again. This was the first time anything like this happened, so I wasn’t sure what to do. I felt like I owed them a review, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pony up the money to buy a copy. I waited for the library to get one. Then, when they didn’t have the ebook, I was able to get an audiobook instead.
Well, it’s a lot of listening. The book is just shy of 500 pages, so you can imagine how long it takes to slog through the very detailed biographies here, especially when most of the characters have five or six names: Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson IV (also known as Bobby, because everyone has at least two nicknames), Nancy Sale Frey Johnson Rashad, Sale Trotter Case “Casey” Johnson, and Mary Lea Johnson Ryan D’Arc Richards... And I thought keeping track of the characters in The Westing Game required paper.
So yes, the title is apt. These people bring crazy to a whole new level. On the one hand, I thought many of them were nuts. On the other hand, I didn’t blame them. Many of them were left with fortunes so massive they could comfortably live through several generations without having to work. Anyone looking to marry into the family is thought of as a gold-digger, and the high preponderance of this happening seems to confirm their paranoia.
But hey, it is interesting stuff. There are celebrities pulled into the fray, there are questionable characters, deadly addictions, and a multitude of weddings and subsequent divorces. I was constantly pulling out my earbuds to tell my husband juicy bits of gossip. I listened to it at work, in the car, at home. (I know, it took a while. I had to renew it, twice.) I was amazed at Woody, the current Jets owner, who built several careers away from the family business (yes, funded by it, but still, he did something.)
It taught me about what money could buy, and what it can’t. Woody Johnson is floored when he finds that no matter how big a check he writes, nobody can hand him a cure for his daughter Casey’s diabetes. But later, as a struggling and mentally unstable adult, this same daughter is somehow able to adopt a child — a feat that stymies many middle-class, emotionally solid couples. How much did that cost? Sadly, but also not surprisingly, Casey’s daughter is barely four when she loses her mother to diabetes.
Truthfully, money can buy cures – but not instant ones. It can fund research, innovative businesses, charities, and also excessive lifestyles. Just like everything in life, it’s what you do with it that matters in the end. I would say that for every crazy Johnson out there, there is possibly another one building a school or chairing a charity, to help keep the balance. For me, it was compelling until a point where I just started to think, blah, blah, blah, heiress…blah, blah, blah money. But then again, I did not stop listening until the credits finished.
One note about the audiobook. The reader sounds like a very authoritative gentleman, but at times he’s a bit too genteel for some of the racier parts you feel he is being forced to read aloud. Oddly, his pronunciation of some words is just wrong, which I found jarring to the story. I don’t really recommend the audio, especially since it required major focus and a lot of rewinding as the cast got more complicated. But maybe that’s just me.