Millionairess Martha “Sunny” von Bülow, 53, lies in an irreversible coma in a New York hospital, while a Providence, R.I. jury decides the fate of her second husband, Claus, 58. For the second time in four years he has been charged with her attempted murder. (The first trial ended in his conviction, but it was overturned on technical grounds.) Von Bülow’s alleged weapon: a hypodermic needle filled with an overdose of insulin.
The charges against Claus have been pressed largely by Ala von Auersperg Kneissl, 27, and Alexander von Auersperg, 26, Sunny’s children by her first husband, an Austrian nobleman.
Ala and Alexander believe their stepfather had ample motive for trying to kill their mother; her will leaves Claus $14 million outright, plus control of income from other assets. Von Bülow, they say, wanted the money to start a new life with former soap opera actress Alexandra Isles, at the time his lover.
Whatever the verdict, it will not put an end to the turmoil that has divided Sunny’s three children. Her 18-year-old daughter by Claus, Cosima, has sided with her father. As a result, when her maternal grandmother, Annie Laurie Crawford Aitken, died in 1984 at 83, the teenager reportedly was disinherited. Her loss: one-third of a $90 million fortune. (Cosima is expected to contest the will.) However, she and her rival siblings each stand to receive $15 million from their mother’s $75 million estate.
Meanwhile, the von Auerspergs have the use of the family seat, Clarendon Court, whose elegant greensward rolls down to the sea in Newport. The staff is so large that the kitchen boasts the kind of workmen’s compensation law poster usually found in factories. But Alexander, who works as a pension plan specialist at E.F. Hutton Group Inc., and Ala, the wife of a sports-equipment executive, have not enjoyed their privileged lives much in recent months.
Since the second trial began in April, Claus’ lawyers have sought to portray their mother as a drug-abusing alcoholic who destroyed herself. It was mainly to vigorously defend their mother’s reputation that Ala and Alexander chose to speak to Writer-at-Large Michael Ryan. Poised, self-assured, but occasionally strained by emotion, the von Auerspergs gave the following account of their family.
Alexander: I was 6 when my mother married Claus. [Before that] I remember our house in Austria. I remember when my mom and dad were fixing it up and repainting the walls. She really got a kick out of that. She built it practically from scratch. It was very pretty, right on a golf course. I remember being happy there. It was in a small Austrian town called Kitzbühel. [After my parents divorced in 1965] my mother moved to New York, and we lived at the Stanhope Hotel for a year; then my mother bought an apartment in the city and really fixed it up. Claus started coming over. He was nice to us at the time. He would bring over games and all that. I remember my mother asking my sister and me whether we thought she should marry him. We liked him. We thought, “Oh, yes.”
Ala: Claus was never supposed to be a replacement for our father, but he was a father figure in our house. He took a part in raising us. Our father was our father. Claus and my mother were very much a pair. He loved my mother. That’s something we felt strongly—he loves our mother and he loves us—and when Cosima was born we never could think of her as anything but a sister. It was a real family unit.
Alexander: My mother’s really a family person. She was there for us, and she wanted to provide my sisters and myself with the best opportunities in life we could possibly have. She was always somebody you could talk to and rely on. She was unlike what the defense is trying to portray as a woman who was dependent on alcohol and barbiturates. My mother was nothing like that at all. She sure wasn’t.
Ala: She taught us moral values, but within that strictness she was fun. I remember Mummy teaching us rock ‘n’ roll when we were 3 or 4, just as the Beatles hit. I remember Alexander and I trying to do the Twist; we weren’t really in sync. She made a habit of being home when we came home from school because we didn’t see her before we left for school. Then we would sit on her bed and try to stretch out not doing our homework. If we had compositions, we’d go over them with her. I remember going to movies and to P.J. Clarke’s with her because we had an adoration for hamburgers with cheese and bacon.
Alexander: She was interested in my grades and wanted to make sure I wasn’t slacking off. She’d say, “You want to get into a good school. You want to have a good career.”
Ala: She was better read than we would ever be.
Alexander: My mom was happiest with a book. She’d knock off a book a day almost. She woke up maybe at 9:30 a.m. On a regular basis in New York she’d go to an exercise class around 11 a.m., after she had breakfast. Then she’d go shopping for a while, buy books, buy something for my sisters or me, then come back around 3. In Newport during the summer she really spent most of her time outside in her pool, doing laps. She was health conscious. She had a slant board in her bedroom for exercise. Before she broke her hip in 1978, she was an enthusiastic golfer and would go out almost every day to play with me and my stepfather.
Claus doted on her. I don’t know if obsequious is the right word, but he was overly caring: “Sunny, can I get you this; Sunny, can I get you that; be careful you don’t catch cold.” I think to some degree she felt this was a little ridiculous, but the way I took it (and I’m sure the way she took it) was, “Gosh, he really loves her.”
She certainly loved having him around. She knew that Claus wanted to work, and she was supportive. She even helped him buy a partnership in a brokerage firm. That doesn’t sound like she wanted him to be an ornament. At one point Claus was concerned about a job, and he felt he was financially dependent on my mother. My mother didn’t want him to feel that he had to remain married to her for the money, so she set up a $2 million trust fund. He gets the income—$120,000 a year, certainly enough to make him feel he could go off on his own without being financially ruined.
There was obviously friction; he was away an awful lot of the time. Was he away on business or was he going to see Alexandra Isles? No one knows. My mom tried to do everything she could to help him. She’d talk about his business. But she didn’t want a husband who was only home on weekends or Sundays.
The first indication I got [of their un-happiness] was before my mother’s first coma, when she woke me up one night and told me she wanted to get a divorce from Claus because she felt that she was restraining him. He was nervous, complaining that he wanted to spend more time at his job. I answered that that was silly, that here she had a beautiful daughter, Cosima, and how could she feel she was restraining her husband? I said, “Don’t even think about it.”
Then the whole family was alerted by my mother’s first coma [on Dec. 27, 1979], and by hearing [our maid] Maria [Schrallhammer] say Claus just didn’t call a doctor though Mother was ill [all day]. Doors were shut that didn’t used to be shut. [Claus said] my mother had a sore throat and was sleeping. When I came home at 4:30, she sounded like she was practically dead. When the doctor arrived a half hour later, she had a coronary arrest and almost died. This wasn’t somebody who just nodded off and all of a sudden had a heart attack. All of us were concerned. Why didn’t Claus call a doctor earlier? What was he doing just lying in bed next to her?
Ala: We never wanted to believe it. That was a great part of the problem after the first coma. You live with someone for 14 years, you’ve grown up around somebody, it’s devastating. Even though there are circumstances that make you terribly worried and suspicious, you desperately want it not to be true.
Alexander: We thought, “Jesus, this is just a horrible mistake.” But I told my grandmother about it, and we were concerned enough that my grandmother told Claus, “Look, if Sunny has so much as a hangnail, call the doctor. I don’t care if he comes and says this is ridiculous. It’s just better to be safe than sorry.”
After my mother recovered, the relationship was pretty good. We spent the summer at Newport. My mother was in good shape. Everything seemed back to the way things were—almost. She seemed happy. He seemed a little different, a little more nervous. My sister’s wedding was right about that time [in Salzburg]. Claus was over there, and he seemed extremely nervous. Here was my mother throwing this wedding, she was cool and making all the arrangements. Claus had nothing to do with it, and he was bouncing off walls. He was concerned that my grandmother and grandfather had become a little colder to him. He asked me about it, and I told him it was because they felt he didn’t call a doctor in time. He sat me down and was talking about how tough his life was. My mother was a beautiful woman, he said, but he felt like a gigolo, and he didn’t have any resources of his own. He did stress, by the way, that “Oh, Sunny used to abuse alcohol and drugs, but now she’s normal, thanks to me and my efforts.” He’s been wavering on that since Day One.
Medical experts who testify can see what they want to see, but I confront it with facts. My mother did not drink between 1979 and 1980, and before that, when she did drink, it was at social events. At home she’d have a glass of milk or ginger ale. In the bedroom she had a little stand where she had a bucket of ice and water or soda. No alcohol at all. At a party she’d have a Scotch and soda. One or two drinks would affect her. When you drink a lot you build up a tolerance for alcohol, but she’d nurse one drink for a whole party. She was a big one for nursing a drink.
It wasn’t until my mother’s second coma [Dec. 21, 1980] and finding the black bag [it included a used hypodermic that allegedly had contained insulin and barbiturates] that all the suspicions jelled. My worst fears came to the front of my mind. I loved him and respected him and thought that he loved me and my mother. Now there’s an awesome sense of betrayal.
Ala: We spent a great deal of time with Claus after my mother’s second coma, before the police came to see him. In New York he’d walk into my apartment with a bottle of whiskey and we’d have long discussions. Most of them were about family finances, which Alexander and I had not the minutest idea about. It was intensely frightening because his point would be: Your mother is in terrible financial shape, and there is the whole question of pulling the plug and are you being cruel to your mother.
Alexander: Three days after the coma, Claus was pressuring us to remove her from life support. He tried to destroy her life so he could inherit $14 million of hers and be free to marry another woman.
Ala: In those early discussions Alexander and I waited for him to come up with just one explanation of what was going on. If at a time of tragedy he had turned around and said to me, “Ala, you didn’t know this, but there were masses of sleeping pills under the bed,” or “You’re mother was a closet drinker,” that would have been the time. It would have been a painful confrontation, but that would have been the time for it. He never did that. All of a sudden to come out at a trial…it’s easy to wave affidavits [on the courthouse steps] and paint a picture of someone as an alcoholic when they’re not there to defend themselves. It’s harder to prove that someone isn’t drinking in the closet, under the bed, behind the bushes…she wasn’t like that. The butler, the maid, all the people who worked in the house are saying they only served her a few drinks a year. This is the making of an abuser of alcohol?
Alexander: My grandmother was a very intelligent woman, and she came to the same, independent conclusion we did. I never knew about my grandmother’s will until she passed away. My grandmother felt that as long as Claus is part of Cosima’s life, she didn’t want to leave anything to Cosima that Claus could use. After the consistent attacks on my mother by tons of [Claus’] high-paid lawyers, my grandmother didn’t want to bolster their finances. I don’t know if my grandmother’s will is irrevocable, but the person who is between Cosima and her inheritance is Claus von Bülow. Cosima is as well off as my sister and I from my mother’s will. We wish her all the best. We love Cosima very much.
Ala: It’s been really difficult because until the sentencing in the first trial, we had been in almost daily contact with Cosima. After that, she felt that she was the only person her father had left, and she had to support him. That’s an attitude I can understand. When you’ve lost your mother, and your father is up on this terrible charge…I don’t know how I would have dealt with it, actually. It was always understood that one day we would be able to get back together, to be the family that we were. I think she still knows that we’re there if she wants us.
I never discussed with Cosima how it felt that her father was guilty, because I believed that someday she would have to come to terms with it herself. I wasn’t going to be the vehicle that pushed her into making that decision.
Just before the indictment, my husband and I went to a New York child psychiatrist because my sister was 13 then, and we were really worried. I mean, how does an adolescent deal with this terrible thing? The one piece of advice he gave us was never to portray people as entirely good or entirely bad. I had a very hard time with that approach. I tried to keep away from it, but I told her that Alexander and I had something we had to do. I told her I didn’t want it to be painful for her and that if she ever wanted to unload on me or be upset with me to go ahead. That whole summer we were saying, “Scream.” Do something, it’s all right. I think she really didn’t deal with it, which I can understand at that age. She’s never set my brother and me down and said, “How could you do this?” We’ve never had that kind of confrontation. She came over to see me the day before my birthday three years ago, about the time of the sentencing. Since then we’ve seen her on the street, but she just disappears. Despite that pain, my brother and I feel very strongly that we have to face this, we have to go through it, we owe it to our mother to go through it.
Alexander: I would like to say that I think Alexandra Isles is an incredible woman. It was painful for her to come forward the first time. I’d like to think she heard our [public] appeal to come back to the second trial because her first testimony couldn’t be used, but it may have been because of a moral decision she made. I don’t think ill of her. I think she meant my mother no harm. I think she was betrayed by Claus like my mother was.
Ala: I felt awful having to call Mrs. [Mabel] Moltke [Alexandra Isles’ mother, who lives in Dublin], but I felt I had to at least try to establish some kind of contact with Alexandra. I found Mrs. Moltke to be incredibly sympathetic on the phone. I honestly think Alexandra realized what would probably happen if she didn’t come back. My brother and I had made a personal decision to try every single avenue so that if Alexandra didn’t come back, we could say to ourselves that we had done everything we could. But I think she decided on her own, without any of that. I talked to her briefly, for the first time, after she got off the stand at the current trial. She sounded like an awfully nice woman. I told her I’d seen her testimony on TV, she’d been wonderful, and I really thanked her for finding the courage to come back. I think she was betrayed by Claus like my mother was betrayed by him. The only thing one could accuse either my mother or Alexandra of is being naive. You might as well throw me in the same group.
If Claus von Bülow is acquitted, I’ll remember that he was convicted originally by 12 jurors, by 12 peers. I don’t think that their judgment and the amount of time and thought and the agony of their decision will go completely unnoticed. How would I feel if Mr. von Bülow gets off? I feel he did this to my mother. But I also feel that everybody did their best, and life has to go on.
Alexander: No one would have ever wanted to adjust to something like this. Life with my mother was so good, we had such a close family, such a happy life, that suddenly to be put in this situation without even suspecting it…my sister and I have both adjusted to it, and we think we’re stronger people because of it. We’re not going to buckle under. Why should we? If we had any doubts, maybe we’d worry about it. But we’re going to be here five years from now, 10 years, 15 years, and if we have to testify 10 times, we’ll do it. Not a shred of doubt.