December 11, 2000 12:00 PM

Before there was O.J., before there were the Menendez brothers, there was Claus von Bulow. When he was charged with attempting to murder his heiress wife, Sunny—who slipped into an irreversible coma in her Newport, R.I., mansion in December 1980—the case became the sensational, 1980s version of the trial of the century. At center stage, of course, was Claus, the philandering Danish-born socialite charged with injecting his spouse with insulin so that he could inherit millions before she divorced him. At his side was his mistress, sometime soap-opera actress Alexandra Isles. She was followed by his next amour, exotic Andrea Reynolds.

Then there was the beautiful but doomed Sunny, whom Claus’s attorney Alan Dershowitz would argue had brought on her comas herself. In the wings were three children: Ala and Alexander von Auersperg, from her first marriage to a playboy Austrian prince, and their vulnerable half-sister Cosima, Claus’s daughter.

The case took a roller-coaster ride through the courts—Claus was convicted in 1982, won a reversal on appeal, then was acquitted in a riveting 1985 second trial. “What better drama is there,” asks Roger Cossack, a CNN legal analyst, “than a glimpse into the life of decadent, rich people?”

Twenty years after Sunny slipped into her coma, PEOPLE revisits the principals.

Claus von Bulow

“Living well is the best revenge” could easily be Claus von Bulow’s motto. Sure his 1988 out-of-court settlement with his stepchildren—they had filed a $56 million civil suit against him for attempted murder—put a severe crimp in his cash flow. (Von Bulow, now 74, agreed to divorce Sunny and to renounce all claims to her fortune—including the $120,000-a-year trust she had set up for him—in exchange for his daughter Cosima’s being restored as an heiress to one-third of the $100 million estate from which her maternal grandmother had disinherited her.) Nonetheless, von Bulow has managed to create a comfortable, suitably upper-crust and satisfying second act for himself in London, centered around a new role. “When you ask him what he does,” relates Dershowitz, “he says he’s a full-time nanny to his grandchildren.”

Well, maybe not quite full-time. But there’s no question that Cosima’s toddler son and infant daughter have turned the man whose image was just slightly less cuddly than Count Dracula’s into what friends call a “besotted grandfather.” Says retired professor Vincent Marks, 70, a hypoglycemia expert who got to know von Bulow after testifying in his defense: “When the second child was born he told my wife he’d now have two topics of conversation.”

Conveniently, von Bulow lives a short stroll from Cosima, in posh South Kensington. His two-bedroom flat overlooking leafy Onslow Square is crammed with books, antiques and paintings, though in recent years he has sold some objets d’art to supplement his other sources of income (among them a premarriage nest egg and payment for the reviews of theater—his primary passion after his grandchildren—and books he regularly writes for publications including The Sunday Times). A practicing Catholic, he attends mass weekly.

In England, von Bulow has been embraced “as the victim of a miscarriage of justice,” says Dershowitz. “He dines with the most elite people.” He also dates, if not particularly seriously. “Sometimes they make me laugh, they’re so much younger than him; sometimes they’re a reasonable age,” says longtime platonic friend Lady Dee Ayer, 75. “Girls want to be seen with him.” Even so, von Bulow finds time to get together with Ayer about three times a week. They make each other dinner, go to the movies and have what Ayer calls a “very relaxed time.” Although she says that Claus doesn’t talk about his ex at length, Ayer believes that “he really fell so hard for Sunny he’s never got over it.”

But Ayer and other friends agree that von Bulow isn’t one to brood over the past. “He doesn’t bear any remorse, I think, for anything,” says royals author Hugo Vickers. “He’s a man who gives the impression that he’s completely happy in his skin.”

Sunny von Bulow

Defended by her children as a devoted mother, depicted in court testimony as a self-destructive drunk—Dershowitz argued that Sunny, who suffered from low blood sugar, caused the coma herself by overindulging in tranquilizers, alcohol and sweets against doctors’ orders—the heiress has remained, during her two decades in a twilight zone, an enigmatic but compelling figure. And no wonder, says Eugene Thaw, a friend of both Sunny and Claus’s. “She was a very attractive and wonderful person,” explains the retired art dealer, 73, who stood by Claus during his first trial, at which he testified, “but a basket case of neuroses.”

Today the former mistress of Clarendon Court is cared for in a private nursing home in New York City, to which her family moved her in 1998 because they felt that, given her condition, it was a more appropriate setting than a hospital. Sunny, 68, remains in a persistent vegetative state, fed intravenously three times a day. Shielded from 20 years of sun, her skin remains remarkably smooth, but her body, clenched in a fetal position, has atrophied significantly. “Of course I talk to her—you can’t walk into a room and not talk to someone,” said older daughter Ala, who visits occasionally (as does her brother Alexander), in a recent interview with her sister-in-law Nima Isham for O, The Oprah Magazine. “But there’s no question in my mind that there’s no consciousness there.”

Andrea Reynolds

Many might find a lover’s conviction for attempting to kill his wife a major turnoff—but not Andrea Reynolds. The thrice-divorced Hungarian-born socialite, now the 63-year-old grandmother of two, explains that she steadfastly stood by then-paramour Claus von Bulow through his appeal and second trial largely because “deep down, there is a lot of Zorro in me. When I have a feeling that an injustice has been committed, it really riles me up.”

The trials, which drew the pair together, are also, in Reynolds’s view, part of the reason their five-year affair fizzled in 1987. “He used to call me his Hungarian Hussar,” says Reynolds. “But in reality I think I was just a very annoying armored truck, which is not conducive to romance.”

Nowadays Reynolds and her fourth husband, Hon. Shaun Plunket, a 70-year-old British aristocrat she married in 1989, spend most of their time on their rustic 40-acre property in the Catskills area of New York, where they run an upscale bed-and-breakfast. She says she remains “friendly” with von Bulow and his daughter. “He’s not at all what people think if they only see his photograph,” says Reynolds, who was once famously snapped with him in his-and-hers black leather. “He’s not at all arrogant. He’s very witty.” Though she concedes von Bulow wasn’t a model husband to Sunny, she adds that his trials “were not supposed to be about whether Claus was a good husband, which he was not, although he was a better husband than most people know.”

Ala and Alexander

For Ala and Alexander von Auersperg, their mother’s plight—followed, incredibly, by their father’s being put into a coma by a 1983 auto accident—proved a call to action. “Turning their personal tragedy into something that benefits thousands of other victims and their families is quite an extraordinary triumph for them,” says Linda Fairstein, chief of the Manhattan district attorney’s Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit and a board member of the National Center for Victims of Crime, one of two philanthropic organizations the pair established. (The other is the Brain Trauma Foundation.) Adds fellow NCVC board member Star Jones, co-host of ABC’s The View: “Their mother obviously raised two wonderful people.”

In addition to hands-on involvement with their foundations, both Ala, now 42, and Alexander, 41, whose father died in 1992, have found solace in family and work. Ala—described by longtime friend Dominick Dunne as “witty, lovely looking and fun to be around”—is about to launch an Internet home-design business after years dedicated to raising her three children. (She has daughters Sunny and Alexandra, 17 and 15, from her first marriage, to Austrian sports promoter Franz Kneissl, and an 8-year-old son, George, with her current husband, venture capitalist Ralph Isham, 44.) Ala also relishes her role as aunt to her brother’s young son and daughter, who live not far from her own Fifth Avenue apartment. (Alexander, a financial software designer, has been married since 1995 to Nancy Weinberg, now 41, who previously worked as an investment banker.)

“I’m really interested in people, not moaning about the state of things,” Ala explained in the Oprah interview. “Are you just going to run from a hard situation or do you want to change it?”

Alan Dershowitz

“My initial impression was that he was a Martian, that he was from a different world,” recalls this scrappy civil-liberties advocate of his April 1982 introduction to Claus. “One of the first things he told me about was his ‘one other Jewish friend.’ ” Despite their glaring differences, however, the Harvard Law professor soon agreed to spearhead von Bulow’s appeal. It wasn’t because the man his wife dubbed “soundbite Dersh” believed von Bulow to be innocent—”In the beginning, I always presume my clients to be guilty,” he says—but because he felt there was a significant constitutional issue at stake. Sunny’s two older children “decided they were going to take the law into their own hands,” he explains, “and play by their own rules.”

Dershowitz’s key role in winning von Bulow’s freedom went a long way toward cementing his reputation as the first-choice lawyer of last resort. Among his subsequent high-profile clients: O.J. Simpson, Leona Helmsley and, most recently, former Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards.

Dershowitz, 62, says that, unlike most ex-clients, von Bulow remains in touch. “I get a card or letter about every other week,” he says. “He’s been very appreciative. A lot of former clients don’t want to have anything to do with their lawyers, because if they won they want to forget.”

Cosima von Bulow

Only 13 when she effectively lost her mother, Cosima von Bulow was forced to choose between her father and the half-siblings who accused him of murder. She sided with Claus, a decision that led to ostracism by her remaining family for years—and a happy and amazingly normal future. “It must have been monstrous, especially when that film came out depicting her as that pathetic little creature,” says friend Hugo Vickers. But “today she’s an extraordinarily well-balanced girl.” Says fashion designer Tomasz Starzewski: “She’s straightforward and a super friend. She has an optimism and joy in life.”

By all accounts Cosima’s move to London, where she joined Claus in 1989 after her graduation from Brown University, proved a salvation. Leaving much of the case’s notoriety on the other side of the Atlantic, the intensely private young woman was able to launch a career as a freelance writer and cultivate a tight circle of loyal friends. In 1990 her guide to the world’s most eligible bachelors was published, and in 1996 she took another one out of circulation—divorced Neapolitan nobleman and investment banker Riccardo Pavoncelli, now 43.

Today the couple and their son Nicola, 2, and daughter Marina, 3 months, divide their time between a gracious, five-story townhouse on London’s Thurlow Square and a country home. “Cosima lives a much less glamorous and cosmopolitan life than her parents,” says London Sunday Times columnist Taki Theodoracopulos. “I wouldn’t say their life is dull, but it’s conventional.”

Cosima donates money to education programs, cultural institutions and cancer charities in Britain and administers a fund at New York City’s Pierpont Morgan Library that buys drawings in her mother’s name. In addition to maintaining her close bond with Claus, she has also, against all odds, rebuilt surprisingly friendly relationships with her half-sister and brother. Cosima “has turned out wonderfully,” says Andrea Reynolds. “She really has the positive qualities of her mother and father—and none of the defects.”

Pam Lambert

Nina Biddle in London and Fannie Weinstein in New York City

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