She was born to beauty and a fabulous fortune; what he lacked in wealth, he replaced with idiosyncratic style. Together, Sunny and Claus von Bülow paraded through Newport, R.I., and New York City society, seeming as charmed as they were charming. Then on Dec. 21, 1980, Sunny, now 59, was found comatose on the floor of her bathroom in her Newport mansion.
The ripples of horror that spread through the Von Bülows ‘glittering circle would soon boil into a scandal: Seven months later Claus, now 64, was charged by a Newport County grand jury for attempting to murder his wife with injections of insulin. While the heiress reposed unknowing in a New York City hospital, the private life she had so carefully guarded—her alleged alcohol and drug abuse, Claus’s womanizing—became public spectacle as Claus was convicted, then acquitted on appeal.
In the minds of many, though, Von Bülow was never exonerated. The two criminal trials and a civil suit filed by Sunny’s children from her first marriage, Ala Isham and Alex von Auersperg, also split the family down the middle, with the Von Bülows’ daughter, Cosima, lining up with Claus against his stepchildren.
All of these troubled lives unfold again in Reversal of Fortune, the critically acclaimed new movie based on the 1986 book by Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer who won Claus’s appeal. Here’s what the principals have been doing since their names left the headlines.
CLAUS VON BÜLOW
As part of the 1988 settlement of a $100 million civil suit filed by his stepchildren, Claus agreed not to discuss the case publicly. He has been living up to the bargain in a London town house overlooking a South Kensington square. ” ‘My stepchildren only agreed to share [their grandmother’s] inheritance with my daughter on a number of conditions,” he explained recently. “One of them being that I abandon freedom of speech.”
Claus, in the process of divorcing Sunny, doesn’t work and lives off a small inheritance. He tries his gentlemanly best to stay out of the limelight. Gone from his life is Andrea Reynolds, the publicity-savvy social barracuda who championed his case during the second trial and who last year wed (her fourth marriage) an English financier.
Claus (played to a starched T by Jeremy Irons onscreen) says that both he and Cosima find “the idea of the film deeply distasteful” and do not intend to see it. “I find it a little painful,” he adds, “that people should wish to write fiction about either those whom I love or myself.”
SUNNY VON BÜLOW
In a haunting reminder of the woman at the emotional core of the scandal, the voice of Martha “Sunny” von Bülow (played by Glenn Close) floats over the opening scenes of Reversal of Fortune. “That was my body,” says Close, as the camera zooms in on her hospital bed.
The real Sunny, according to a spokesman, is suspended in a “persistent vegetative state” in her private hospital room. According to doctors, she’s no longer in a coma and does have sleeping and waking periods, although all of her senses are severely impaired. Contrary to media reports, her hair hasn’t been professionally styled or her nails manicured since before her “accident.” The two remnants of her previous life are the classical music she listens to each day (her doctors believe she has partial hearing) and the pictures of her three children and the two granddaughters she has never seen (although they’ve been at her bedside with their mother, Ala, and uncle Alex). Her medical care costs the family an estimated $550 a day.
Though the film depicts her as a harridan, she is remembered fondly. ” ‘You kind of appreciate sweet souls like her,” says a friend. “Because there are more than enough of those society shrews and trust-fund bimbettes around.”
COSIMA VON BÜLOW
To most observers, Cosima von Bülow was the true victim of the tawdry tangle. Only 13 when her mother lost consciousness, Cosima stood by her father and was shunned by her step-siblings and “polite” society for doing so. She was also disinherited by her maternal grandmother, Annie Laurie Aitken, and had to go to court to win her fair share of the $90 million utility-company fortune Aitken left when she died in 1984.
Cosima escaped the glare by blending into the student body of Brown University, from which she graduated in 1989, and then moving to London to become a free-lance writer. Last summer her guide to the world’s most eligible bachelors was published in Britain’s upmarket Tatler magazine.
Still close to her father, Cosima receives an annual income of $500,000 from her various trusts and holdings. She recently bought a one-bedroom apartment in London and keeps a $2 million, two-bedroom apartment in New York City, around the corner from the family’s former Fifth Avenue digs. Her friends find her to be pleasant and down-to-earth, or as one college buddy puts it, “I like her because she isn’t full of s-t, like so many of the WASPy girls in New York.”
THE VON AUERSPERG CHILDREN
Often portrayed as the wicked stepchildren because of their unbridled dislike for Claus, Ala, 32, and Alex, 31, have steadfastly defended Sunny. “Our mother has been portrayed as pathetic and self-destructive,” they said in a written statement. “We reject this injurious and erroneous portrayal.”
Ala and sports promoter Franz Kneissl, the father of Sunny, 7, and Alexandra, 4, divorced in 1988; the following year she married Ralph Isham, an investment banker. Both Ala and Alex live in New York City, where he is vice president of a mutual fund management company. The siblings memorialized their mother by founding the Sunny von Bülow National Victim Advocacy Center and the Sunny von Bülow Head Trauma and Research Foundation. (Sadly, their father, Alfie von Auersperg is in a coma following a 1983 auto accident.)
Ala and Alex’s only regret seems to be their poor relationship with Cosima. Reportedly the three exchange letters and gifts on birthdays and other special occasions but have little personal contact.
The Harvard Law professor portrayed by Ron Silver has taken on another high-profile case—he is trying to get Leona Helmsley’s recent conviction on tax fraud overturned. But Dershowitz still revels in the Von Bülow spotlight and was seen standing under the marquee of a New York City theater when the film opened there last month. When a senior citizen approached him and asked if he was the lawyer in the movie, the attorney replied, “Yes, yes, I’m Alan Dershowitz. This is my movie.”
—Mary H. J. Farrell, Khoi Nguyen in New York City, Laura Sanderson Healy in London