August 03, 1981 12:00 PM

In the spectacular mansions that line the rocky shore of Newport, R.I., the cocktail hour starts early, and even on a Monday the city’s wealthy summer denizens gather on their verandas by 4 p.m. to sip drinks and talk about yachts and backhands. Lately, however, the idle afternoon chatter has focused on an alleged murder plot involving two of Newport society’s most prominent members. Two weeks ago Claus von Bülow, 54, a former aide to the late J. Paul Getty, was indicted for trying to kill his wife, Martha, 49, by twice injecting her with insulin during successive Christmas gatherings at Clarendon Court, their Georgian-style estate on “Millionaire’s Row.” “Sunny,” as the superrich Mrs. von Bülow is known, has been in a coma since last Dec. 21. The year before she had become unconscious, but required only a few days’ hospitalization. This time she is not expected to recover.

As authorities tell it, the story of Sunny and Claus von Bülow might have come from an Agatha Christie novel, with vengeful aristocrats plotting murder most foul against a backdrop of alcoholism, infidelity, disputed wills and spiteful stepchildren. The prosecution charges that von Bülow, a Danish-born naturalized Briton, tried to kill his wife, who had reportedly talked of divorcing him and thereby cutting him out of her will. An heiress to a fortune from the Columbia Gas and Electric Corp., Mrs. von Bülow is worth about $35 million, and her husband stands to inherit at least $5 million immediately after her death. Defense lawyers, however, claim that Sunny, who suffers from hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), brought the coma on herself by overindulging in alcohol, tranquilizers and sweets. In this account, the prosecution was initiated by the children of her first marriage, to Austrian Prince Alfred von Auersperg—Alexander, 22, and Annie-Laurie “Ala” Kneissl, 23—so that they would not have to share their mother’s inheritance and because they refuse to believe their mother is self-destructive.

To be sure, Claus von Bülow has been a controversial figure in both Newport and New York, where he, Sunny and their 14-year-old daughter, Cosima, have spent the winters. “He is erudite and charming, the male equivalent of the belle of the ball,” says one woman who met him at a Century Club dinner for John Cheever earlier this year. Others, however, have found him autocratic and rude. “I didn’t like him at all,” said one European nobleman. “He had no sense of humor.” A flamboyant, even foppish, dresser, von Bülow favors colorful shirts and ties, stands straight as a Prussian general, and speaks in a clipped Oxbridge accent. Although he belongs to all the right clubs in Newport and is vice-president of the resort’s preservation society, he does not mix well with Newport’s moneyed males. “Everything around here revolves around sports. Claus doesn’t play golf or tennis,” says one. “He just plays around.”

While rumors of Claus’ indiscretions swirled around the resort in recent years, Sunny became more reclusive. Friends said she seemed subdued, rarely venturing out for parties or outings to exclusive Bailey’s Beach. “I don’t think Sunny did much of anything, except read and swim in her pool. It was a quiet, sedentary life, and I thought that’s what she wanted,” says one Newport matron. Others say Sunny kept away from the social scene to hide her deepening personal problems. “She was a woman of excess in drink, drugs and food. She was getting worse and worse,” says Herold Price Fahringer, one of von Bülow’s attorneys. Sunny, in fact, had taken an overdose of 20 aspirin tablets three weeks before she lapsed into the current coma, and Fahringer says, “She indicated to friends that she no longer wanted to live.”

Sunny’s unhappiness may have stemmed from her deteriorating marriage. The couple had apparently quarreled over Claus’ frequent business trips abroad; he is a financial consultant to oil investors. To outsiders, however, they seemed the apotheosis of high society. At a fete they gave last summer for Alexander’s 21st birthday, all the women wore white dresses and all the men donned straw skimmers to play croquet on the lawn. “There was a band, and wonderful food, and the fog was rolling in off the ocean, just like in a David Hamilton photograph,” recalled one guest.

On a typical day in their languid lives, Sunny and Claus would stroll on their lawn and then, after lunch, retire to their bedroom for a nap, with their four yellow Labradors draped over the bed like a quilt. In recent summers, though, friends were invited over less and less frequently, and when Claus went to parties he was invariably alone. “I got the feeling no one saw much of Sunny except the servants,” says a friend. “It seemed that Claus was trying to keep her away from people. Anytime I’d call up, I’d ask the butler if I could speak to Mrs. von Bülow and Claus would get on the phone. He’d usually say she couldn’t talk.”

The gossip surrounding Sunny’s isolation heightened on Dec. 27, 1979, when she was rushed unconscious to Newport Hospital. Her personal maid of 23 years, Maria Schrallhammer, was suspicious, and she told Alex and Ala that Claus had kept her out of their mother’s room that night. The next year, on Dec. 21, Sunny failed to appear at breakfast. “Where’s Mother?” Alex asked Claus. “I don’t know,” he answered, explaining that he had awakened at 5:30 a.m. to let the dogs out and afterward had gone straight to his study without noticing if his wife was still in bed. When they checked, Sunny was lying, in her nightgown, face down on the bathroom floor.

Nicknamed Sunny because of her sweet disposition, Martha Sharp Crawford von Bülow is the only child of a Pittsburgh socialite and her elderly utility baron husband. After he died, Sunny’s mother, Annie-Laurie, married Russell Aitken, a former clerk at Abercrombie & Fitch. While traveling in Europe with her mother, Sunny met Prince Alfred von Auersperg, the son of an impoverished Austrian noble family, who was working as the tennis pro at Schloss Mitterzill in the Tyrolean Alps. They were married in 1957, but “Alfie” reportedly never gave up his many girlfriends. The marriage ended eight years later, when the Prince took a job as a safari guide in Kenya.

Like Alfie, Claus was a well-known figure in European social circles. A descendant of famed conductor Hans von Bülow, he graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge and in 1950 was admitted to the bar in London. But he was better known as a backgammon player than a lawyer, and once came close to winning a $60,000 competition at the Clermont Club.

The couple were married in 1966. At first Alex and Ala liked their stepfather, and they even adopted the von Bülow name for a time. Then things changed. “The children began feeling that he wasn’t paying enough attention to their mother,” says one friend. “They felt he was using her.”

Rhode Island authorities got interested in the case after Ala and Alex presented police with results from their own lawyer’s investigation. Prosecutor Stephen Famiglietti admits that the evidence against von Bülow is circumstantial, but says that by the end of the trial, which will be held in November, “the jury will be convinced he’s guilty.” Defense lawyers say they’ll prove that Sunny’s first hospitalization was caused by heavily spiked eggnog and barbiturates, and that her second resulted from hypoglycemic shock caused in part by having eaten a large ice-cream sundae covered with marsh-mallow topping.

These days all three children are living at Clarendon Court, where they pass the time sailing, swimming and playing golf. Von Bülow, who was freed on $100,000 bail after pleading not guilty, is staying in the family’s Fifth Avenue co-op. He is no longer part of New York’s nightlife, explaining to a friend, “I’m not going out anymore at all.”

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