It’s the kind of dilemma a lot of 21-year-old women in New York might like to face: What do you do if you come from a fabulously wealthy establishment family, brought up in a tradition of good manners, good works and no publicity, but your best friends are Young Society’s wild girls, dancing on table-tops in stiletto heels and performing impromptu stripteases at nightclubs, to the delight of the tabloid press? Do you stay home and lick envelopes for the next charity event, or do you party till dawn downtown? Casey Johnson, the cherub-faced, 21-year-old heiress to the Johnson & Johnson health-care-product fortune, could be said to embody the new social schizophrenia that faces young adults from money. Take Monday, Sept. 25, for example: Ms. Johnson was playing hostess at her parents’ Fifth Avenue apartment to Michael Douglas, Barbara Walters, Paul Newman and Christopher Reeve, at a kick-off party to benefit Mr. Reeve’s paralysis foundation. But on another Monday, she might be found at karaoke night at the velvet-roped club Moomba, where she sings Madonna songs with friends like Charlotte Ronson, a T-shirt designer who is the sister of D.J.’s Mark and Samantha Ronson. In fact, Ms. Johnson, who’s been taking voice lessons since she was 12, wouldn’t mind being a rock star one day.
If Old Guard Society always prided itself on being well known but invisible, much of the younger generation has seemingly tilted far in the direction of relentless visibility. Ms. Johnson, who says her favorite restaurants are McDonald’s and Harry Cipriani, has been dipping a toe in both worlds, perhaps charting a course of sorts for her moneyed peers. “She’s definitely way ahead of her time,” said Manhattan File publisher and editor Cristina Greeven. “She’s not limited by having grown up in the Johnson and Johnson family, in a sheltered environment. She acts as a bridge between everybody.”
“She’s a very sophisticated little girl,” said Noah Tepperberg, an owner of the Conscience Point nightclub in Southampton. This past summer, Ms. Johnson would finish off a day at the polo matches and an evening at a charity benefit by dancing on the tables at Conscience Point with her childhood friends the Hilton sisters, Paris and Nicky. “There’s something really interesting about her,” said Mr. Tepperberg. “She has that old-guard charm and is also sort of young.”
Ms. Johnson attributes whatever maturity she may have to having been diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes when she was 8 years old during a routine check-up. She gives herself insulin shots every day and often has to lie in bed for hours if her blood sugar is too high or too low. “When you’re diagnosed with a disease at an early age, you’re forced to grow up,” she said. Ms. Johnson was sitting on a white fluffy couch in the Lafayette Street offices of the publicity firm Lizzie Grubman-Peggy Siegel company, where she works three days a week. She was dressed in a magenta tank top, brown slacks and brown Chanel wool flats, looking like a dainty society lady crossed with a teenage diva. One moment, she sounded like a seasoned philanthropist; the next, she might put her small hands to her face and giggle.
“Everyone has their thing they deal with,” she said of her diabetes. “But hopefully, with so many new things coming out … ” She regularly works out with a trainer and does yoga. “Unfortunately, I love Cool Ranch Doritos. That’s my downfall,” she said.
While the Hilton sisters are using their heavy-hitting last name and brimming bank accounts to launch a cosmetics line, Ms. Johnson has committed herself to raising money for health issues. Her big event of the year is the Promise Ball, a Juvenile Diabetes Foundation fund-raiser she’s helped organize for the past several years. This year, she’s on the committee with Mary Tyler Moore and Miramax Films honchos Harvey and Bob Weinstein. It’s on Nov. 11 at the Waldorf Astoria–the same place where she had her debutante ball in 1998. Her father, Robert (Woody) Johnson IV, who bought the New York Jets football team earlier this year for $635 million, is the international chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. He is also the chairman of the Alliance for Lupus Research–Ms. Johnson’s 13-year-old sister was recently diagnosed with that disease.
Her task at the Lizzie Grubman-Peggy Siegel company is basically to get her high-profile friends to attend events being publicized by the firm. That morning, Lizzie Grubman had asked Ms. Johnson to wrangle some of her close pals into attending that evening’s opening party for Light, a lounge on East 54th Street.
Who does she decide to invite from her Louis Vuitton Filofax? “It depends on the event,” Ms. Johnson said. “If it’s for Puff Daddy, I’m not going to call my grandmother and say, ‘Hey granny, come to Puffy.’ If it’s appropriate, I’ll call my mother, I’ll call [socialite] Helen Downey, a wonderful friend of mine.”
On a recent Saturday, Ms. Johnson was with about 25 wonderful friends at 21, where they were celebrating her 21st birthday. She was wearing an animal-print dress, and the table included her parents; her godmother, Diandra Douglas; producer Marty Richards (who was once married to Ms. Johnson’s great aunt, Mary Lee Johnson); Nicky Hilton; and jewelry company heiress Elisabeth Kieselstein-Cord. The next morning, Ms. Johnson would fly to Tampa, Fla., with her father to watch a Jets game.
Dropping Out, Going Out
Ms. Johnson was born in Florida, and her parents moved into the Sherry Netherlands Hotel when she was 3 years old, before buying an apartment at Fifth Avenue and 64th Street. “I went to a couple of high schools,” she said, laughing. She found the Chapin School “really competitive. It wasn’t an incredibly nice, warm atmosphere.” When she was 14, she and her parents co-authored a book, Managing Your Child’s Diabetes. Her godmother, Ms. Douglas, took her fox-hunting in New Jersey. (“She’s the daughter I never had,” said Ms. Douglas.) She graduated from the Dwight School, then attended Brown University for one year before dropping out last May. “School was not my thing,” said Ms. Johnson. “I have a very strong friendship with my dog,” she said, about her black poodle, Zoe. “She wasn’t allowed with me, and that really , really upset me. I bring her to dinner, movies. That was really hard, and I wasn’t into it.” So she moved into a one-bedroom apartment near the Whitney Museum of Art and did some decorating. “It looks like somewhere my parents would live,” said one friend.
And so Ms. Johnson’s relatively old money began to mix with the new.
“I think she was already pals with my mother before I was actually friendly with her,” said Chris Barish, the 27-year-old co-owner of Light and son of movie producer Keith Barish. “Casey has always been extremely social and precocious. I think she has a spirit of a younger generation, yet she was raised extremely well, with a lot of adults, in a sophisticated setting. She’s managed to marry young and old with a lot of style.”
“She has that classic kind of style,” said Eleanor Lembo, a fashion assistant at Lucky magazine. “But she’s totally fun and spunky and loves to have a good time. She was brought up very well. If I have a question like ‘Do I send a thank-you note?’, she always knows.”
A social Upper East Sider who wished to remain anonymous said that Ms. Johnson differs from some of her less blue-blooded friends because “she’s from a major, major family. Of course, she conducts herself in different way.” The socialite blamed nightclub promoters for propelling young social women “into mini-stardom” without knowing if a person is worth “$5 million or $200 million.”
Ms. Johnson says she is currently single. A two-year relationship with Michael Heller, now 24, a law student and club promoter, ended last winter. Mr. Heller said Ms. Johnson struck him as “two different people. One minute she’d be childish, naïve, and all of the sudden she’d change and be worldly, well-poised, well-spoken.”
Mr. Heller said that Ms. Johnson had many endearing qualities. Once she invited him over to dinner, telling him she had cooked his favorite meal. “I’d come over all excited,” he said, “and she’d say, ‘Didn’t I do such a good job?’ Then I’d walk into the kitchen and see the bags and realize she had ordered it from Ferrier,” a bistro on East 65th Street.
“He never confronted me about that,” said Ms. Johnson, laughing. She added that she once told Mr. Heller she had “slaved away all day” over a birthday cake for him, when in reality it had been baked by her parents’ chef. “I don’t think he knows to this day that I didn’t make it,” she said.
These days, a typical week for Ms. Johnson might involve the opening of the Hermès store on Madison Avenue, a party for Bobbi Brown’s teen beauty book and a book party for Liz Smith at Le Cirque.
Ms. Grubman said Ms. Johnson got her job at the publicity firm on her own merits. “She made it proper, she made an appointment for an interview,” said Ms. Grubman, adding, “She’s done a phenomenal job.”
“I think Casey really found her niche,” said Ms. Cord about Ms. Johnson’s job. “She has the most amazing people skills. She’s like a little butterfly; there’s a light inside of her.”
Ms. Johnson said she did find it a bit unsettling that her junior set’s socializing has become such tabloid fodder.
“It’s a little weird, seeing your friends in the tabloids,” she said. “When I started going out and reading the paper when I was 14 or 15, which I never did before, and started seeing people I knew in the paper, I was like ‘ Oh, my God .’”
She has not surfaced herself as a New York Post Page Six character, and perhaps it is worth noting that Ms. Johnson and her friends more closely associate themselves with the more subdued 17-year-old Nicky Hilton than with the more outrageous 19-year-old Paris Hilton.
Seasoned socialite Nan Kempner felt that her generation’s legacy was safe. “They all look so beautiful, and it’s nice to see an eager-beaver set,” said Ms. Kempner about Ms. Johnson and her friends. “I’m sure they’ll be very successful and very charitable. I’m sure we can turn over the reins of the benefits to these bright young things. It’s called evolution.”