The African tortoise is a Princeton legend. Known as George, the 200-year-old reptile — said to have been a part of Queen Victoria’s court — has amused visitors to a certain Cleveland Lane house since the 1960s, and his reputation extended to New York circles.
Kookie Johnson grew up in that house with George as her pet. On a recent winter day, in the sprawling kitchen of the Cleveland Lane house, with baskets and ceramics suspended from the ceiling, George ambles out of hiding, moving at the speed of, well, a tortoise. He — Kookie corrects me: it’s a she — doesn’t look a day over 199. Part of George’s shell is coated with fiberglass, a repair job after an accident with a lawn mower.
“He’s always looked the same except for the plastered-on plates,” says Kookie.
He? Or she?
George eats fruit and lettuce.
Kookie’s mother, Barbara “Kristina” Johnson — who died almost a year ago — looks at us from a circa-1960 photo, disembarking from the Queen Mary in New York Harbor. George is on a leash, and Kristina appears even more elegant than Jackie Kennedy, wearing a mink hat and with a fur piece slung over one arm, white gloves in hand.
Kookie says she likes a sense of mystery, not revealing everything, leaving a bit to pique the imagination — as did her mother, who never revealed her age, not even to her daughter. “She never let truth get in the way of a good story,” says Kookie.
Princeton has had at least three Barbara Johnsons, all with a degree of notoriety or celebrity or both. The Barbara Johnsons often get mixed up, so let’s set the record straight:
There’s the mother of Superman actor Christopher Reeves, a one-time writer for Town Topics who served on the board of the Princeton Public Library.
Then there’s Barbara “Basia” Piasecka Johnson, who married J. Seward Johnson Sr., son of the founder of Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical firm. Basia started as a cook and moved up to maid when it was determined she couldn’t cook.
But the way to her man’s heart was not through his stomach. Forty-two years Basia’s senior, Seward Sr. replaced wife number 2 with the Polish immigrant. Basia went on to earn a master’s degree in art history, so it is cruel to recall her as a maid — she worked her way up. She remained married to Seward Sr. for 12 years and inherited most of his fortune after a sensational court battle with his six children in the 1980s, becoming one of the world’s richest women. A philanthropist and collector, she owned works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Gauguin, and Raphael. Basia turned her former estate, Jasna Polana, into Tournament Players Club in Princeton.
Then there’s Barbara “Kristina” Johnson, first wife of sculptor and Grounds For Sculpture founder J. Seward Johnson Jr. — it is she who this story is about. It’s often Basia with whom Kristina is mistaken, and coincidentally both died in April, 2013.
The mix-up is often made because each was married to a J. Seward Johnson, albeit a generation apart (though the two women were of the same generation) and Kristina had her own tabloid scandal in the 1960s. Seward Jr. — seething with jealousy over her alleged lovers — hired detectives to see who she was sleeping with. Mistaking them for intruders, Kristina, sleeping alone, shot at them in self-defense. Allegations and legal actions continued until 2001.
In order to distinguish herself from the other Barbaras, Kristina choose to be called by her middle name.
Like Basia, Kristina was also an art collector. She made a name for herself as an expert on scrimshaw and American folk art, now being auctioned off by her daughter, Jeniah “Kookie” Johnson.
Kookie is planning a May estate sale at Material Culture, a Philadelphia auction house that specializes in fine and decorative arts, antiques, and collectables . It will include everything that didn’t sell in auctions this winter at Christie’s, Pook & Pook, and Swann Gallery: folk art, outsider art, a Grandma Moses painting, decoys, hooked rugs, and ephemera.
Kookie, who recently left her job in development at the Arts Council of Princeton, has plenty to keep her busy with settling her mother’s estate and assuring that her mother’s “favorite things,” as Kristina called them, are in good hands. It makes Kookie sad to part with some of these. “It’s a tough decision. I didn’t want to keep it all so I couldn’t keep the best.” She’s had to part with works by American self-taught artists Sister Gertrude and Bill Traylor.
“Kristina believed her art had soul — she didn’t collect as much as adopt her finds,” writes Kookie. “She nurtured her pieces, providing unconditional love and an education. Just as she was ready to quit this world, the pieces in her collection are ready to mature, move on, and pursue lives of their own. I believe in karma. I hope the items go to nice people who give their chosen works a higher education; allow for publication, better display, modern lighting.
Best would be if some went on to public venues in businesses or museums where adults as well as children can learn about the culture from which these items emerged, the men and women who were poor, uneducated, bound to their lives, yet had the wherewithal, more like burning desire, to make art. These self-taught men and women are just as symbolic of the American spirit of ingenuity and freedom of expression, as any politician, educator, or entrepreneur. They represent what makes us human — freedom to create, to learn from, to surround ourselves by, and to enrich our lives with art, no matter the odds. This was Kristina’s passion and purpose.”
Kristina Johnson thought of herself more as an art collaborator than collector. “For me, collecting is an adventure that opens up new worlds,” she told Art & Antiques in 1996. “Every work of art has its own soul and feeling, and that’s what I want to absorb.” She once said, about the disposition of her collection, “I want to take it with me.”
Having grown up working as assistant to her mother’s business, Kookie says being a collector is like being an artist — it’s something you have to do. “To support that, she had to sell. My feeling is things need to move on.”
Kristina dreamed of having a museum, or a children’s museum, open to the public. “She loved children, loved art like her children, and loved the playful genre of art. It had an innocence that appealed to children. She had a great sense of humor, joking to her dying breath.”
Henry and Josie Sheeran, Kookie and husband Tom Sheeran’s two children, grew up in a fantasyland, often staying with their grandmother in the Cleveland Lane house while Kookie worked at the Arts Council. Kristina’s life partner, sculptor Robert Cannon, would also play with the children, tea parties in the greenhouse or adventures in the garden. Kristina had a low table in the house filled with sand and little animals, some of the toys folk art. “They spent hours at the play table, developing their imaginations. They would return wearing the wrong clothes or her clothes, but they owe the richness of their souls to that life. They got to live what she was too busy to do for me. (My mother) had been so obsessed with the whaling.”
Before her death, Kristina experienced a gradual decline over three years, first breaking one hip and then the other — ironically, she tripped over one of her prized hooked rugs. Her hooked rug collection numbered more than 400, many in use on the floor. “She would never compromise for her age, not in how she dressed or in going to parties — she never gave in to being older,” says Kookie. “She should have used a cane but was too vain and so held someone’s arm, or would sit on a couch at a party where everyone would gather around her.” The second hip became fatally infected.
Her mother was always attracted to handsome men, Kookie recounts. She called her geriatrician “Dr. Handsome” and flirted with him to the end, making jokes about dying.
As Kookie goes through her mother’s papers, she is beginning to put together the pieces of her mother’s very private life. Born in Berlin, Barbara Kristina Eisenfuhr’s father was a banker who harbored Jewish clients during the Holocaust. Her mother was a socialite from Russia — the two met at a dance. “The whole family was respected Berlin upper class intellectual,” says Kookie. “The intelligentsia were anti Nazi but would go to prison if they didn’t play along with the politics.” After the bombing, Kristina’s family was separated, and she was raised by her grandparents in Switzerland, Italy, and Schleswig-Holstein,the northern Germany state where the family had a country house.
She came to the U.S. as a teenager, without papers, and because of her ability to speak many languages and her eye for art she was able to find work as an advertising agent representing foreign illustrators. “She was artist, model, and muse for photographers such as Naomi Savage,” says Kookie.
When she married J. Seward Johnson, she started to amass her whaling collection, said to have been the largest private whaling collection in the world. “I grew up traveling for whale watching and sea captains,” says Kookie. “It was her life, her passion. I spent summers putting together sales.” Kristina became a leading historian in the field, founding the Whale Research Foundation in Princeton. She also served on the boards of the South Street Seaport Museum and the National Maritime Society.
The Seward Johnson years were what Kookie refers to as Kristina’s era of wealth. It was only later, when Kookie was 14, that her mother went back to school to get a law degree. She went to Suffolk Law School in Boston without an undergraduate degree, bringing Kookie with her. Kristina’s family had been lawyers, so it was partly following in their footsteps, but also to pursue intellectual property law, where she could combine her love for art with law.
After graduating from Princeton High School, Kookie wanted to go to Brown and become a writer, but instead went to Georgetown. “My mother didn’t encourage me to go to college. I had to do all my application work on my own. She said she didn’t go to college but was so much better read than Harvard, Yale, and Princeton grads.”
Being an autodidact may have led to Kristina’s interest in self-taught artists, Kookie postulates. Perhaps because she was an immigrant, she loved American art. This led to her interest in American maritime art, and also art featuring George Washington. Hooked rugs, Kristina once said, “convey the spirit of this country, as do songs and folk paintings. They are at once artistic and simple, emotive and functional.” She called them apple pie for the eye.
To store her collection, Kristina purchased the former Stony Brook schoolhouse at 527 Stockton Street, across from Quaker Road, a brick Federal-style building. She also stored her antique cars there, another passion. Both the schoolhouse and cars have already been sold off. There had been a 1956 Thunderbird Kristina loved to drive. She would take the antique vehicles to car shows, and when Kookie showed up at high school driving the Thunderbird she was instantly popular with boys.
Unlike her mother, Kookie is not a collector. Married to artist Tom Sheeran, Kookie does have her own art collection, displayed throughout her sprawling J. Robert Hillier-designed home. Whereas Kristina’s personality was channeled in her selection of folk art, outsider art, and antiques, Kookie’s personality comes through in a more eclectic contemporary style, including works inherited from her mother. Kookie has kept some of the paintings of Ethel Wallace, a mid 20th-century Bucks County modernist and friend for whom Kristina became executor of estate. Wallace died destitute, and Kristina ended up with her oeuvre.
The Olivetti typewriter Kristina used is another relic in her daughter’s home, along with leather trunks filled with photographs and memorabilia.
When Kookie was born, her father wanted to name her Jenny Ann, but Kristina thought that it was too common, says Kookie. Kristina was looking at a Medieval print of a whale when someone said “that’s kooky.” At the same moment the nurse brought Jeniah into the room, and Kristina decided to call her daughter Kookie, for the actor Edd “Kookie” Byrnes who starred in the television show “77 Sunset Strip.”
When Kookie was a toddler, a Life Magazine photographer made a series of the dimpled-cheek girl riding and playing with George the tortoise. In the end Kristina was afraid the publication might lead to her daughter’s kidnaping and so canceled it.
As a young adolescent Kookie often found herself dragged to artist studios, trying to find a place to sleep. It was a very bohemian lifestyle, she says.
Kristina served on the board of trustees of the American Folk Art Museum from 1968 through 2010 and served as board president in the 1970s, organizing an exhibition “Hunt for the Whale.” To the Folk Art Museum she donated a sizable number of artworks, including significant examples of scrimshaw. While at the museum she curated exhibitions, inaugurated a lecture series, created a scholarship fund, and helped establish The Clarion, one of the most respected folk art journals, according to her New York Times obituary. She lectured nationally and internationally.
She also consulted and curated for the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney Museum, the White House, and Gracie Mansion, and was an advisor to the Ford Foundation and American Federation of the Arts.
But the house on Cleveland Lane was itself a museum of sorts, where her collection could be suitably displayed. Designed by Ernest Flagg, who also designed the Singer Building on Broadway (New York’s tallest building from 1907 to 1909), it is reminiscent of a French country house, with fieldstone walls encircling the property.
The three-story foyer, with Spanish tile flooring and a wrought iron balustrade, was lined with portrait paintings and other folk art, including a 16-by-12 foot painting on a barn door. In the great room on the second floor, Kristina’s rugs hung from the ceiling beams.
The house and collections were also a fantasy land for the kids who grew up here, with a trunk full of kimonos and a room full of swans (“The Swan Room”). Kookie moved from room to room while growing up, and one of her bedrooms is now the “Fish Room,” where biplanes, Zeppelins, and other antique toys are suspended.
“I played with antique toys as a kid, including a big crazy antique rocking horse,” Kookie says. “Many of the Circus collectibles have already been sold by Memorabilia.Expert Kieta and Victor out of Las Vegas. “We have entrusted very few auctions to handle the estate. Each auction has been wonderful and has represented the collection as it should be, extra-ordinary.”
Though her childhood overlapped with the whaling era, Kookie says her mother always had some folk art, such as fish decoys. It was only when Kookie was in college that her mother began seriously collecting rugs and art by self-taught or visionary artists.
With 16 rooms, the house is sprawling with a master suite (including the tile sunroom floor painted by Cannon), staff bedrooms, and a gift room. As a teenager, Kookie had a room with a balcony from which she could climb out. There are long corridors with glass cases filled with collectibles, reminiscent of museum storage.
There is, of course, a greenhouse — Kristina loved to garden, and Kookie recalls her garden as magical. She grew up gardening with her mother and thus inspired, worked as a landscape designer after graduating from Georgetown with a degree in English literature and art history. Taking landscape design and horticulture classes at Rutgers and Mercer County Community College, Kookie had landscaping clients all over town.
“My mother always paid me to work (as her assistant) so I didn’t have ambition or direction,” she says. “I forged a nice life here as a young adult, going to New York City.”
Kookie met Sheeran, a trompe l’oeil mural painter, during the summer after high school in Nantucket. She had been friends with his little brother. “That was a wild summer,” she says.
Sheeran moved into the Cleveland Lane house in 1984, and the couple lived over the garage, then married in 1992, moving into their own home in 2005.
When Kookie started at the Arts Council as director of community relations, she had no development experience but liked to plan parties. Kookie helped grow Dining by Design from a $50,000 to more than $100,000 event, according to Arts Council executive director Jeff Nathanson. Part of the job was marketing. “I fell into it because I was the best person to do it. Now they can hire a real director of development with a master’s degree. I’ll remain involved but not to run parties. And of course I’ll continue to advocate for and donate to the Arts Council.”
Nathanson, who is sad to lose Kookie, says there was never a dull moment working with her. “She is an incredibly dedicated and hard-working development professional,” he says. “I have never known anyone who could inspire such creativity, generosity, and loyalty in other people. With Kookie we have been able to build our fundraisers into some of the most popular and successful annual events in the state.”
Kristina was an Arts Council of Princeton trustee, donor, and volunteer for nearly two decades. “She was truly one of a kind, a spirited contributor to our success, especially as co-chair of our capital campaign,” says Nathanson. “She was generous and repeatedly opened her home to host fundraisers. She was fun-loving, infinitely interesting, and made every meeting and event memorable. We miss her.”
Kristina’s interests were wide ranging — she would often be seen at Princeton football games and advocated for such politicians as Edward Kennedy, Ed Koch, Bill Bradley, and Rush Holt. Among her friends she counted Paul Muldoon, who commemorated both tortoise and Kristina in his poem “George and You.”
And oh, the parties! First there had been cocktail/dinner parties in the 1960s and 1970s. Kristina, a teetotaler, held many teas. “She had this enormous Tiffany coffee/tea set that will sell at Material Culture,” says Kookie. Most of the parties were associated with house and collection tours to school groups and for friends of the Folk Art Museum and historical societies. A photo of Kirsch, the butler, shows him serving on the lawn — she liked lawn parties, especially with children.
“Every year since I was small she had Easter egg hunt parties,” says Kookie. “Little kids in their Sunday best with baskets, searching for the elusive Steiff (toy) skunk. Finding the skunk meant winning the toddler-size chocolate Easter bunny.”
A christening was the most lavish talk-of-the-town party with the American Boychoir singing and champagne fountains.