How the World Became Obsessed with a Socialite's Mysterious Coma — and Her Suspect Husband Won His Innocence
In the annals of drama among the rich, high-society set, few scandals top the allegation that Claus von Bulow tried to murder his heiress wife, Sunny
In the annals of drama among the rich, high-society set, few scandals top the allegation that Claus von Bulow tried to murder his heiress wife, Sunny, exactly 36 years ago, with a fatal injection of insulin as she slept.
Sunny von Bulow was found unconscious on the floor of her bathroom at their seaside mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, on Dec. 21, 1980. Nearly 28 years later, at age 76, she died in a nursing home on New York City’s Upper East Side on Dec. 6, 2008, having never emerged from an irreversible coma.
In between, Claus, a dashing, philandering, finely-tailored Danish aristocrat, engaged in a high-stakes defense that fueled two sensational trials and a 1990 feature film, Reversal of Fortune, that depicted the couple’s thorny marriage and the attempted murder case that was brought against him.
In 1982 Claus was convicted but, after an appeal and retrial, found not guilty three years later.
“It was a case that had everything: wealth, class, sex, secrecy, mystery and gossip,” says Alan M. Dershowitz, the defense attorney and emeritus Harvard law professor who helped win Claus his appeal and then successfully argued for his innocence.
It’s a story that once again is aiming for a spot in the cultural zeitgeist. A scripted true-crime series, The von Bulow Affair, based on playwright William Wright’s book of the same title, is in development at NBC-owned Universal Cable Productions.
“The story of the von Bulows will go down in history as one of the most sensational scandals in American high society,” Dawn Olmstead, UCP’s executive vice president for development, said in announcing the project in March. “We look forward to delving deeper into this true crime story that still leaves us cold today.”
Two Suspicious Incidents
The von Bulow story straddles the social circles of Newport and New York and turns on the misfortunes of Sunny, so nicknamed because of her cheerful disposition. Sunny was a rich, blonde fixture of those overlapping worlds when she mysteriously fell into a vegetative state.
Born Martha Sharp Crawford on Sept. 1, 1932, Sunny received an estimated $75 million inheritance from her father, George Crawford, a Pittsburgh energy magnate, who died in 1935. At 24 she married an Austrian tennis pro, Prince Alfred von Auersperg, and they had two children, daughter Ala and son Alexander, before divorcing in 1965.
The next year she met and married Claus, a Danish businessman and senior aide to oil billionaire J. Paul Getty. (Claus’ father was a noted critic and playwright who had been accused, and later exonerated, of collaborating with the Nazis in WWII.) Born Claus Borberg, he adopted his mother’s maiden name and added the aristocratic “von” while studying at Cambridge.
The couple’s residences included a Fifth Avenue co-op overlooking Central Park and Clarendon Court, the Newport mansion that had been the setting for the 1956 musical High Society, which starred Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly, a beauty to whom Sunny had been compared, according to The New York Times. And they had their own daughter, Cosima, born in 1967.
But theirs was a rocky union.
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It was at Clarendon Court where a maid said she grew distraught when Claus initially refused to summon a doctor as Sunny, who suffered from the blood-sugar deficiency hypoglycemia, moaned and fell into a coma behind a locked bedroom door in December 1979, according to court testimony.
Sunny recovered at a hospital — but failed to rebound when found unconscious again a year later.
After the first incident, the maid said she discovered a small black bag in Claus’ closet and alerted Ala von Auersperg to its contents, which were revealed to be syringes, Seconal and Valium. The maid said she later found the bag again with insulin in it.
Following the second incident, the two von Auersberg children hired an investigator, whose search of the mansion turned up a black bag reportedly containing three hypodermic needles, which showed traces of insulin along with a sedative.
With $14.5 million at stake that Claus stood to inherit from his wife’s estate, according to testimony in the first trial, the older children took their suspicions to prosecutors.
Prosecutors alleged that Claus wanted to kill his wife, by injecting her, in order to marry another. His infidelities were put on display, and his stepchildren and mistress testified against him.
After the jury’s guilty verdict, Claus was set free on bail but faced up to 40 years in prison at sentencing.
“Von Bulow called me after he was convicted and told me it was a death penalty case,” says Dershowitz, who wrote the inside-the-case book on which Reversal of Fortune was based, and which starred Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons in an icy, Oscar-winning turn as Claus.
“I said, ‘No, you will only be sentenced to prison if we lose the appeal,’ ” Dershowitz recalls. “He said, ‘I am not going to prison. In Europe, a gentlemen is given the opportunity to resolve the matter.’ ”
“I knew that he meant that he would take his own life before he spent the rest of it in a Rhode Island prison,” Dershowitz says. “So for me it was a capital case with a defendant who I believed might well have been innocent.”
‘He Remains an Extremely Charming Man’
Claus’ second trial in 1985, at which his defense team argued that Sunny’s coma was not caused by insulin, ended in his acquittal.
Among the trial’s more salacious elements, “it also had science,” Dershowitz tells PEOPLE, “and we used science to disprove the prosecution’s case and to establish that there simply was no crime.”
Two years later, in 1987, Claus’ stepchildren filed a $56 million civil suit against him that was resolved on the condition that Claus divorce Sunny, renounce his claims to her fortune — including a $120,000 annual trust she’d set up for him — and not discuss the case. The settlement also restored his daughter Cosima as a recipient to one-third of the $100 million estate left by Sunny’s mother. Cosima had been disinherited after supported Claus’ innocence during the trials.
The divorce was granted in 1988. Claus, now 90, settled in London, resumed his life as a society figure and for years wrote published arts reviews.
After Sunny’s death, he told The London Times, “My daughter and I are both very sad.”
“I visit Claus when I travel to London,” Dershowitz says. “He is an old man now but with an extremely active mind. He continues to be interested in opera, theatre and contemporary events.”
He adds: “We rarely talk about the case. Mostly we discuss the joys of being a grandfather and enjoying the culture of London. He remains an extremely charming man with a sharp sense of humor and irony.”