'Sunny' von Bulow, 76; Center of Legal Drama

Martha "Sunny" von Bulow spent the past 28 years in a coma after what prosecutors alleged were two murder attempts by her husband, Claus. (Providence Journal Via Associated Press)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008

Martha "Sunny" von Bulow, an heiress of misfortune who spent almost 28 years in a coma and whose husband, Claus von Bulow, twice went on trial for attempting to kill her, died Dec. 6 at a nursing home in New York. She was 76.

Mrs. von Bulow had a fortune estimated to be as much as $75 million when she married von Bulow, a Danish-born financier, in 1966. By all accounts, they lived a charmed life in multimillion-dollar homes on New York's Fifth Avenue and in Newport, R.I.

Trouble developed in the marriage, however, and Mrs. von Bulow went into a coma Dec. 27, 1979, but was soon revived. A year later, on Dec. 21, 1980, she was found unconscious on her bathroom floor and never recovered.

Mrs. von Bulow's two children from her previous marriage to an Austrian prince financed a $400,000 private investigation that led to Claus von Bulow's indictment in 1981. They alleged that von Bulow was having an affair and stood to inherit $14 million if his wife were to die.

In one of the most sensational legal scandals of the 1980s, von Bulow was initially convicted of attempting to kill Sunny von Bulow with an overdose of insulin, "knowing that it could be fatal." The von Bulows' maid said she had found a black bag in Claus von Bulow's closet containing syringes with traces of insulin and sedatives.

Harvard University lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz took up von Bulow's defense on appeal and painted Mrs. von Bulow as an alcoholic and drug abuser who was subject to attacks of hypoglycemia. High-profile friends, including writer Truman Capote and Johnny Carson's ex-wife, Joanne Carson, testified that she had used drugs extensively -- a charge her older children strenuously denied.

In the end, Claus von Bulow's conviction was overturned on technical grounds that evidence -- specifically, the black bag with the syringes -- had been mishandled by police.

Rhode Island prosecutors brought attempted murder charges against von Bulow a second time in 1985, but he was acquitted. The trials, the mysteries surrounding the case and the sad fate of Sunny von Bulow became the subject of a best-selling book by Dershowitz, "Reversal of Fortune." Jeremy Irons won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Claus von Bulow in the book's 1990 film adaptation, which also starred Ron Silver as Dershowitz and Glenn Close as Sunny von Bulow.

The movie showed Mrs. von Bulow as a nagging wife with problems with substance abuse. Her children objected to the depiction, saying: "Our mother has been portrayed as pathetic and self-destructive. We reject this injurious and erroneous portrayal."

The celebrated case divided the high society of Newport -- the 1956 film "High Society" was filmed at Clarendon Court, the 23-room mansion Sunny von Bulow later bought -- and tore the family apart.

Mrs. von Bulow's two older children, Annie-Laurie von Auersperg Isham and Alexander von Auersperg, were adamantly convinced of their stepfather's treachery. They were outraged when he posed for the cover of Vanity Fair in 1985 in his wife's New York apartment. He was wearing a black leather jacket -- "thumbing his nose at us," Alexander von Auersperg said.

The von Auersperg children filed a $56 million civil suit against Claus von Bulow in 1985 and settled it two years later with the proviso that von Bulow would file for divorce and never speak in public about the case again. He renounced any claim to his wife's fortune.

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