Long before Paris Hilton, there was Sunny von Bülow: rich, blond, a fixture of upper-crust New York and Newport, the very definition of a glamorous 1950s socialite.
And with her death Dec. 6 after nearly 28 years in a persistent vegetative state – a coma-like condition her husband was accused of causing with a shot of insulin intended to kill her – von Bülow, 76, will remain forever an enigma.
Born Martha Sharp Crawford – and nicknamed Sunny for her cheerful disposition – Bülow inherited an estimated $75 million fortune from her father, energy magnate George Crawford.
With a beauty that earned comparisons to Grace Kelly and a party budget seemingly without limit, she become one of the most sought-after women in New York City. An Austrian prince, Alfred von Auersperg, caught her eye while von Bülow was traveling with her mother in Europe at age 24. They married and had a daughter, Ala, and a son, Alexander, before divorcing in 1965.
A year later, Sunny wed Claus von Bülow, a Danish businessman who ran in the same circles as oil billionaire J. Paul Getty. They had their own daughter, Cosima, but it wasn t long before their rocky union led to scandal.
In 1980, Sunny – who suffered from hypoglycemia – was found unconscious on the floor of the couple s Newport, R.I. mansion, Clarendon Court. The mother of three would never wake up.
Two years later, following a sensational trial that featured testimony from his mistress, the darkly handsome Claus was convicted of twice trying to kill his wife by injecting her with insulin to lower her blood sugar.
In a stunning turn-around, he was granted a second trial on appeal and was acquitted in 1985.
The scandal received international media attention and was portrayed on screen in the 1990 film Reversal of Fortune, starring Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons. (Irons won an Oscar for his chilly portrayal of Claus.)
After 28 years in a coma – during which she was fed through a tube in a private hospital room surrounded by fresh flowers and photos of her children, according to The New York Times – Sunny died Saturday in a Manhattan nursing home at age 76.
I m sure Claus is very sad, his lawyer Alan Dershowitz told the Associated Press. [It s] a sad ending to a sad tragedy that some people tried to turn into a crime. It was never a crime.