A House Divided
In most respects, she is very much the picture of a lively 16-year-old. She loves parties and new dresses. She does well in school, though she doesn’t work terribly hard much of the time. She is not above finding excuses to avoid physical exertion, and she is genuinely kind to her friends. She is no candidate for high tragedy.
Yet Cosima von Bülow is inarguably a tragic figure. She lives in a rambling Fifth Avenue apartment with the man who has been convicted of twice attempting to kill her mother. He is her father, the now infamous Claus von Bülow, and Cosima has become not only his last defender in her rancorously divided family but also his last purchase on the enormous estate of his alleged victim. Cosima’s mother, Sunny von Bülow, lies in a coma in a Manhattan hospital, her brain function irretrievable, while Claus, free on $1 million bail, fights on with an appeal that may or may not save him from spending the next three decades in prison.
The von Bulow trial was the scandale de succés of Newport, R.I. last year. It was at Clarendon Court, the sprawling von Bülow “cottage” in Newport, that Claus tried to kill his wife with lethal injections of insulin in 1979 and 1980; it is in Rhode Island this month that his new lawyer, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, will file pleadings in his appeal. But it is in New York, where the probate case titled the matter of von Bülow is now being heard by a trial judge—and where battle lines have been drawn down the middle of Cosima’s family. On Cosima’s behalf, Claus has retained Roy Cohn, the flamboyant and abrasive former acolyte of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, to represent her. Cohn is charged to prevent Sunny von Bülow’s longtime lawyer and banker from being named to administer her estate. Cohn’s argument: Both the lawyer, C. Sims Farr, and the banker, Morris Gurley, are biased against Cosima, the only child of Claus’ marriage to Sunny. In some quarters Cohn’s action is characterized as an ill-disguised attempt to gain a proxy for Claus. “That Cosima should be turned into a pawn is reprehensible,” Gurley’s lawyers told the court earlier this year, and many in the family circle agree. Says one: “What you see here is a spoiling operation. It gives Claus a chance to have a hand in things or at least to know what decisions are planned.”
If last year’s criminal trial aired most of Claus von Bülow’s dirty linen, the civil litigation is doing the same for the rest of the family. Court documents disclosed in graphic detail the depth of the split within the clan—a split that leaves Cosima with her father on one side and the formidable forces of the rest of the family arrayed against her. “Cosima is completely loyal to Claus von Bülow,” says one family friend. “Because she loves him, she has completely rejected the possibility that he tried to murder her mother, Sunny.” As for the administration of her mother’s fortune, says Cohn’s law partner Louis Biancone, “Cosima has a fear that there will be a prejudicial attitude against her. Here’s a young lady who sees her father convicted of attempted murder and her brother and sister who masterminded the whole prosecution.”
To be sure, it was her older half-siblings—Ala Kneissl and Alexander von Auersperg, both in their 20s, who hired former Manhattan D.A. Richard Kuh to develop the evidence that led to Claus’ conviction last year. And it is they, aided by Sunny’s mother, Annie Laurie Aitken, who confront Cosima now over the estate, insisting that their mother’s old retainers be kept on as trustees of the fortune. In court papers, the animus between Sunny’s elder children and Cosima is palpable: Ala and Cosima live in the same Fifth Avenue building, for example, but never socialize. Last year Cosima didn’t even attend the family’s traditional Thanksgiving at her grandmother’s house. Small things, in which great things are at stake.
“Any estrangement which exists is Cosima’s choice,” Ala and Alexander told the court. “While Cosima’s rejection of our love hurts us all deeply, daily, we cannot understand how Cosima’s current unilateral decision to remain away from us can be used to justify upsetting long-established arrangements made by our mother for the administration of our affairs. Better than anyone else in the world, we can understand Cosima’s pain and the relief which comes from lashing out—even against those who love her. We all lost our mother.” Indeed, Ala and Alex have all but lost their father as well: Sunny’s first husband, Prince Al-fie von Auersperg, also has been in a coma since an automobile accident this spring.
It may have been predictable that the von Bülow legacy—Sunny’s inheritance is an estimated $75 million—would become the stuff of an angry battle. But Claus virtually guaranteed that bitterness would result by hiring Roy Cohn to represent Cosima’s interests. Cohn is better known for his combative style as a trial lawyer than for his finesse as a trusts and estates lawyer, and court papers suggest that he has shown his opponents little mercy and less courtesy. Despite the medical evidence, Cohn has refused even to admit that Sunny’s 32-month coma is irreversible. He has accused Gurley of conflict of interest because of his longstanding connection with Sunny’s mother, Mrs. Aitken. As proof of bias, he has cited Gurley’s refusal to allow Cosima exclusive use of Clarendon Court last August. Both sides agree that Cosima is welcome at the house, but she insists that Ala and Alex leave before she arrives, objecting to their taste in friends: “My mother has clearly stated that she loathes and would disapprove” of Ala and Alex’s guests at Clarendon Court, Cosima says. Cohn also charged Farr with showing disregard of Cosima’s interests by refusing to take Cohn’s phone calls about the girl. “Claus and Cohn deserve each other,” sniffs one family associate. “Claus nominally hired Cohn for Cosima, but really it’s for him. He’s seeking to create problems.”
If so, he has succeeded. While rejecting all of the Cohn-von Bülow charges out of hand, a court-appointed temporary guardian has nonetheless agreed that the court should appoint a third, independent, member to the committee to oversee Sunny’s affairs—simply to assuage Claus’ and Cosima’s doubts about Farr and Gurley. Sunny’s “first” family is livid. Grandmother Aitken has asked the court to overrule the guardian. This month Judge Howard Bell will decide.
Surprisingly, neither side has chosen to make a major issue of the expenses which Claus, who still receives $120,000 from his wife’s estate for his own support, has billed to Sunny’s account on Cosima’s behalf. Cosima has her own expense fund, but Claus has billed it for such items as a two-week-long trip he took with Cosima to a $400-a-day tennis camp in California, and the costs of his many trips to Massachusetts to visit her in school. In addition, he has run up a sizable American Express bill—$5,600 in restaurant charges alone—for social outings with his daughter. Cosima also went to Europe twice, in 1981 and 1982. Says one friend: “The bank has been laying out a lot more for Cosima, and yes, there may have been some excesses—it’s more than they even paid for Alex and certainly for Ala, but they’ve done it rather than have any unpleasant fight.” Cohn’s partner Biancone sees nothing untoward in that. Next to the cost of maintaining Clarendon Court, which Alex and Ala have been using, he says: “Cosima’s expenses pale in comparison.”
Through all the turmoil, Cosima seems to have remained remarkably calm. This month she will return for her second year at the Brooks School in North Andover, Mass. At Brooks, a small school with a reputation for rigor as well as social exclusivity, she has fit in well. “The kids at school try not to make a big deal out of her,” says one classmate. “Everybody at school protects her. For example, there was a magazine that came out with a parody of her father, and the kids hid it from her.”
Meanwhile, the bond between father and daughter grows ever deeper, and Cosima’s estrangement from the rest of the family grows more complete. “Cosima has suffered enough,” says her godmother, Isabelle Glover. “She shouldn’t have to do anything more than just live and survive.” True as that may be, it seems inevitable that before the sad affair of the von Bülow family plays itself out, Cosima will suffer some more.