Even by Newport standards, Sunny and Claus von Bulow were very, very rich -- at least she was.
She was the heiress of a fortune estimated at $35 million; he was said to be of a family of German noblemen. They had a co-op on Fifth Avenue, a mansion along Millionaire's Row in Newport. Neither of them drove a car -- they were always chauffeured. And when Sunny and Claus von Bulow bought their mansion here, some 11 years ago, and the rolling lawn impaired their view of the sea, they had a simple solution -- they lowered the lawn.
Now Sunny von Bulow lies in a coma, with no hope of recovery; her husband, Claus, has been charged with attempted murder.
A grand jury has alleged that von Bulow twice gave his wife injections of insulin knowing she had hypoglycemia and insulin could prove fatal.
Von Bulow maintains he is innocent.
His lawyers say Sunny von Bulow was a "disturbed" woman who through varied "excesses" might inadvertently have brought her illness upon herself; her family lawyer angrily attacks those statements as "hokum."
In Newport society circles, the rumors and the counterrumors and accusations swirl. The von Bulow friends line up on either side; those insisting that the von Bulow marriage was troubled; those whispering that she had had problems for years; those attacking him for being a climber, for -- the cruelest cut in Newport -- not being one of the von Bulows after all.
Ah, scandal in Newport.
The case became public this past month, when a Newport grand jury indicted Claus von Bulow on two counts of attempted murder. The indictment alleges that he had injected his wife with insulin "knowing that insulin could result in a fatal reaction"; and that he had injected her twice, in December 1979 and in December 1980. Those allegations provided a mysterious element in the proceedings -- why would someone make murder attempts a year apart?
The investigation has been going on for six months, since the second time Sunny von Bulow became seriously ill -- last December, when she lapsed into a coma.
According to friends and sources close to the case, Sunny von Bulow's personal maid was suspicious and had contacted von Bulow's children by her first marriage -- Princess Annie-Laurie Auersperg, 23, and Prince Alexander Auersperg, 19. (The maid, Maria Schrallhammer, had been with Sunny von Bulow since the birth of her daughter.) The children -- reportedly backed by Sunny's mother and stepfather -- hired former Manhattan district attorney Richard Kuh to conduct a private investigation; he subsequently turned his files over to the Rhode Island state police.
Last week, Claus von Bulow was arraigned in Providence Superior Court (Newport courts close for the summer). A tall, balding man, with the expensive tailoring and rigid carriage of a Prussian aristocrat, he was flanked by his own high-powered defense team, Province attorney John F. Sheehan and Manhattan attorney Harold Price Fahringer, who is handling Jean Harris' appeal of her second-degree murder conviction in the death of Dr. Herman Tarnower. Von Bulow was tanned, aloof, elegant. He wore a black silk handkerchief in his pocket. And like the other members of his family, he had not a word to say to the reporters who packed the courtroom.
"Mr. von Bulow is so devastated by this that he can't comprehend it," Sheehan had earlier told a reporter.
In a later conversation, Sheehan insisted that at the time of the alleged injections, barbiturates had been in Sunny von Bulow blood; that there were also, at the time of her first hospitalization, alcohol and barbiturates in her system; and that there had been "no mention of injection of insulin" in the medical records he had seen.
His co-counsel, Fahringer, also suggested that the heiress might have brought her condition upon herself.
"I would not call her an alcoholic," he said in an interview in a New York restaurant, where, as it happened, he was following the Scarsdale Diet. "I would call her a woman who was inclined to do everything in excess: alcohol, drugs, sweets . . . she drank in excess, and she wasn't supposed to; she had a sweet tooth and yet she insisted on having foods she wasn't supposed to eat . . . she'd sometimes go into the kitchen herself to make a milkshake, to get an extra scoop of ice cream or something . . . the help couldn't make it rich enough to suit her."
Those charges are vehemently denied by Richard Kuh, who insists that "in the last few years," Sunny von Bulow "had no drinking problem . . .Assuming that they've said these things, the defense is . . . trying to kill Sunny's reputation."
Sunny and Claus von Bulow were relative newcomers to Newport. They arrived 11 years ago, settling into Clarendon Court, a mansion off Bellevue Avenue that had been used in the film "High Society." It was across the street from Sunny's mother, Annie-Laurie Aitken, who had preceded the couple to Newport by a year. Sunny, an only child, was by all accounts close to her mother.Her mother was popular, and remains so now.
"Extremely thoughtful," says a friend of Annie-Laurie Aitken. "I was giving a dance just last week, and ran out of flowers, and called to borrow some roses. She not only sent over the roses, she sent over her gardener with the message that he was to stat as long as I needed him. In the middle of all this. Lovely, lovely woman."
Even as newcomers to Newport, the von Bulows were known to society. Sunny was the former Martha Sharp Crawford, an heiress, a tall, blond beauty, a one-time star of the New York debutante season. ("She was a Sunny," says a St. Timothy's School girlhood friend. "Never mean or vicious; a lovely, lovely person.") Her father was George Crawford, former chairman of the board of the Columbia Gas and Electric Corp. of Pittsburgh; she had been married, at age 24, to a prince, Alfred Auersperg, and had two children.That marriage ended in divorce -- Sunny had not been happy in Europe, several old friends said. In 1966, she married von Bulow and had their daughter, now 14.
Less, in Newport, was known about von Bulow. He was said to be a "financial consultant," and several friends interviewed said he had once been employed by J. Paul Getty. A Dane, raised in England, he had been a barrister in London. He was also said to be of the titled von Bulow family, one of whom had been a prime minister in Germany before World War I. It was an association he reportedly did not attempt to downplay; one von Bulow ancestor had married a daughter of composer Franz Liszt; that woman (who subsequently married Richard Wagner in one of the great 19th-century scandals) -- and von Bulow's own daughter by Sunny -- had been named Cosima. (Questioned about the family, von Bulow's attorney Fahringer said that von Bulow was a von Bulow but that he was of a branch of the family "that settled some generations ago" in Denmark.)
In Newport, where Sunny's mother was one of the wealthiest women, Sunny and Claus wre a quiet part of the wealthy "summer colony" circle. She was described by friends as "shy" or "private" or "quiet," even as an adult still somewhat the retiring child of a gregarious and charming mother. Her husband was "witty" or "brilliant," "a man trained in the art of coversation -- few American men are." She rarely went to Bailey's Beach, Newport's exclusive beach club, though once in a while, he might; it semed she preferred to remain at home, particularly in recnet years.
"If you were asking them to dinner; he's the one you'd ask; one didn't deal with her, because she would be likely to refuse," says one woman who also summers in Newport.
Many of her friends who agreed to be interviewed said that she did have a drinking problem.
She was, however, apparently more popular in Newport than her husband, who seems tohave been, in some quarters, a controversial figure.
"He dressed rather peculiarly, frilly shirts, weird colors", said one titled gentleman. "He claimed to be a von Bulow, which is quite a famous name inGermany, but he had absolutely no knowledge of people in Europe he should have known and they had no knowledge of him . . . nobody knew anything about him . . . I know he belonged to Bailey's Beach, but that was mostly because of her mother, and her money."
Whether or not their marriage was happy is a matter of conjecture. Some friends insist he was a "devoted" husband who was "protective" of his wife and admired her beatury; others insist the marriage was troubled and that the von Bulows were contemplating divorce. (None of the lawyers in the case will comment on whether divorce was under consideration.)
Some say he was an excellent family man, concerned about his stepchildren as well as his own daughter; others had questions.
"One day while we were having lunch at their house, he asekd a girl -- in French -- if she would have lunch with him the next day," says a woman who knew the couple. "I suppose he thought that we wre such ninnies none of us would speak French. I thought he should have more decency than that; sitting in her house, eating her food, with her money . . . the girl said yes."
Whether or not they had marital problems, the couple remained together. They worked on their house, building a classical elliptical pool with statues at either end; they gave an annual summer party with white-gloved footmen; they came to Newport for the Christmas holiday season. Last year, for their son Alex, they gave a Labor Day party that is still nostalgically recalled; a Victorian croquest party, in which all the guests were instructed to wear white. Over and over Newporters refer to that party. "Like something out of 'Great Gatsby,'" one young Newport man said; the men in straw boaters; the woman in diaphanous white; and Sunny, looking fine, really looking fine, walking among her guests on themisty lawn, with the fog rolling in from the sea.
That was between her two illnesses. According to her attorney, during her first illness, in 1979, she entered a Newport hospital, and was briefly in a coma. The following December, according to Claus von Bulow's attorney Sheehan, Sunny became ill twice; she was admitted to a New york hospital for an overdose of aspirin (the hopsital declined to comment); then, in Newport, she became ill again and went into a coma. That time, she was transferred to a hospital in Boston, then to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York, where she remains with no medical prognosis for recovery.
So, until the trial, which has not yet been shceduled, there are only the stories.
In his camp, people ridicule the very thought of murder; the man has money of his own, they say; if nothing else, he is too intelligent to try ti this way. What murderer, anyway, makes two attempts a year apart?
"He was too sophisticated to do it like that," says the writer Jerzy Kosinski, who met the couple years ago."Anyhow, nobody is a greater enemy to the alcoholic than the alcoholic is against himself. You donHt have to give an injection to an alcoholic wife; all you have to do is say, 'Have a swim, darling.'"
Another man, now living in London, speaks wistfully, as a failed suitor might, about the Sunny he knew 30 years ago.
"She was very lovely," he saiys, "one of the most successful debutantes of the season. Her party -- was it at the St. Regis? This goes back so far -- was very glamorous, not one band, but two; and a lovely dinner and then breakfast served. It was the sort of party that people wanted to be asked to -- I remember two or three fellows asking me if I could get them in, and I did."
"And Sunny was just . . . beautiful . . . I remember one of the fellows I had brought looking at her and saying, 'To have those looks . . . and money, too.'"