It snowed last night, but here in New England, things are otherwise heating up nicely as the von Bulow attempted-murder trial gets under way. He, Claus, is the fellow who married well, then -- according to the state -- wanted out, though not of the fortune. She, Sunny, the wife he is accused of trying to murder, who lies now in a coma, is wealthy, so wealthy that estimates putting her fortune at $35 million are often termed low.

He is tall, Darkly Handsome, already branded by the press for his ramrod carriage and sartorial splendor; she, all agree, was Once Terribly Beautiful. There is a cast, in a trial which is expected to last two months, that includes two Angry Stepchildren, estranged In-Laws who are Beloved by the Newport summer colony, Another Woman, and the requisite Suspicious and Devoted Maid, this one named Maria. ("I took her hand and . . . I said, 'Madame, wake up,' and there was no response.")

There are court papers that speak of alcoholism and drug abuse and syringes tainted with Valium. In one statement, the maid alleges that syringes were so common that when the family vacationed in Majorca 12 years ago, the two eldest children used them as water pistols.

There is even, thanks to Rhode Island law, a television camera in the Newport County Superior Courtroom, with the ability to bring it all home on the tube.

The case seems made for daytime television: the defendant who told police that his wife was a person who "was known for 15 years before she married me as somebody who got drunk in public"; Maria, who wrote in a letter to friend: "The whole thing is very mysterious and criminal." Forget "General Hospital." A new long-running mystery is about to hit the screen. Expect a warming trend in Newport.

The Little Black Bag

The Claus von Bulow trial has, of course, been heating up for some time now. It first became public this past July when 55-year-old von Bu low, a Dane who had been a barrister in England, was charged with two counts of assault with intent to commit murder -- charges that carry a combined sentence of 40 years.

Specifically, the state charged that von Bu low, "knowing that his wife was hypoglycemic, injected her with insulin, knowing that could be fatal." The injections were allegedly made in late December of 1979 and of 1980, when the couple was spending the Christmas holidays at Clarendon Court, their summer home on Newport's Millionaires' Row. Both times she went into a coma, the last time with reported brain damage and no prognosis for recovery. One month after her second attack, her 22-year-old son, Alexander, accompanied by a private detective, surreptitiously returned to Clarendon Court. He found, in his stepfather's locked closet, a little black bag. It contained, among other things, a used hypodermic needle that, when analyzed, was found to bear traces of insulin. That little black bag, which the defense is now trying to suppress as evidence, is essential to the case; without it, says the prosecutor, assistant district attorney Stephen R. Famiglietti, "We're out of the ballpark."

Famiglietti is a young man, 34, informal, given to nondescript sports jackets and slacks, out of Suffolk University law school in Boston, and when he discusses the case, on the question, say, of motive, he is as direct as one can expect a lawyer to be.

"He was in love with another woman and he stood to gain financially from the death of his wife," he says. "There had been a discussion of divorce between he and his wife . . . but he felt with a divorce he would not have stood to gain . . . under the terms of her will he would have gotten half of her estate . . . $15 million."

But isn't von Bu low, as his attorneys say, a man with money himself?

A sniff and something akin to a sneer.

"He considers himself a wealthy man," says the prosecutor.

The attorney for the defense, Herald Price Fahringer, a gray-haired gentleman with 20 years on the prosecutor, a well-known clientele and an infinitely more elegant wardrobe, is less forthcoming.

He does say not merely that von Bu low is innocent, but that he saved his wife's life on at least two occasions by quickly calling for emergency medical aid. He is expected to argue throughout the trial that Sunny, a woman given to "excesses" of many sorts, was a self-destructive person with a propensity for drugs, drink and sweets, who -- mindful of her medical condition -- still overindulged, ultimately bringing her comatose condition upon herself.

"For 14 years the couple had been successfully married with the exception of Mrs. von Bu low's unhappiness over her husband's work commitments which took him away for periods of time," the defense says, in legal papers. "During the marriage and prior, Mrs. von Bu low consumed barbiturates, aspirins and laxatives in large amounts. On occasion, she overindulged in alcohol." Mrs. von Bu low's first coma, the defense says, was preceded by an overindulgence in spiked eggnog -- 12 brandy snifters worth, according to her husband; the second by a caramel sundae. The fatal insulin, thus, did not come from outside the body, but was manufactured from within.

The lawyers will not, however, comment on von Bu low's worth, though in court papers they say he was "earning a substantial salary" when he met Sunny. Nor will they acknowledge, to the press, the existence of Another Woman.

In the courtroom, however, it is another matter. There Fahringer, questioning prospective jurors, frankly addresses the matter.

"Well, to put it directly, during his marriage, he had an affair with another woman," he says, in a voice and manner like that of Robert Young discussing the soothing effects of Sanka brand coffee. "How do you feel about that?"

Not one prospective juror, on one recent day in court, appeared upset by this, though at least half, asked if they minded the television camera focused upon them, said they'd rather it didn't.

The man at the center of all this, Claus von Bu low, sits in the courtroom and says little. He is, as reported, a conspicuously elegant man in the European style; the severely nipped-in waist, slim trousers. He is composed, he is -- though he is beginning now to smile sometimes -- somewhat aloof in appearance. He is tall, his features sharp; he is balding. It is not a face that inspires warmth. One prospective juror, commenting on what she had heard about the trial, said that her neighbor had said she knew von Bu low was guilty -- she could tell by his picture. Should von Bu low take the stand, some people fear this prideful, elegant exterior could hurt him, just as it may have hurt Jean Harris.

Whether he will take the stand is not yet known. The inside word is that he will.

At this time, there is only what other people say, and what he told the police, to help unravel the secret of Sunny von Bu low and the story of her illness.

The von Bulow Lineage?

This past year, before the story became public, when the lines were being drawn among the Newport summer colony, there was a great deal of questioning -- particularly by those who had never cared for Claus -- as to whether he was a real von Bu low; that is, part of the family of noblemen well known in Germany.

There was no need to wonder about Sunny's background. You could look it up in the Social Register, though, of course, if you were part of the summer colony, you didn't have to. Sunny was the fomer Martha Sharp Crawford, only child of George Crawford, former chairman of the board of the Columbia Gas and Electric Corp. of Pittsburgh. Her mother was Annie-Laurie, adored by Newport society as an outgoing and energetic hostess (if you asked Annie-Laurie for roses for a dinner dance, she'd send over the gardener and insist he stay, that sort of thing); her stepfather -- for Sunny's father had died when she was 3 -- was Russell Aitken, an outdoor photographer and esteemed "shoot" (pigeons, mostly).

Sunny had graduated from St. Timothy's School in Maryland and had a splendid debut; she had married, at 25, Prince Alfred Auersperg, the genuine article, though when Sunny met him he was working as a tennis pro. She had two children -- Princess Annie-Laurie Auersperg and Prince Alexander, now 23 and 22 -- and, after her daughter's birth, acquired a German maid, Maria Schrallhammer.

The marriage lasted 10 years. Sunny, say friends, never quite adjusted to Europe and the prince was an indiscreet playboy. There are also reports that Sunny was lonely and drank a bit. She had been, friends in Newport said last summer, always a rather shy and somewhat insecure woman, despite her beauty. In '64 or '65, she met von Bu low, a Dane.

He was reportedly a von Bu low then, though how long he had been one is not known. For Bu low was not Claus' father's name. His father, Svend, from whom his mother was divorced, was named Borberg. Convicted as a Nazi collaborator, he was later cleared by a higher court after serving 18 months of a four-year prison sentence. Claus grew up with his mother and his grandfather, Frits Bu low, who, he has said, was "very prominent in Denmark." Why and when he adopted the von remains obscure. He was not impoverished when he met Sunny, though; after a stint as a British barrister, he was working as top aide to J. Paul Getty and reportedly doing well. The job, however, required extensive traveling; after he married, he gave it up.

They were married in 1966, had a daughter, Cosima, now 14, and in the beginning, it seemed, they led a charmed life. They wintered in New York and summered in Rhode Island. In a photo taken two years after the marriage, accompanying a society column by Eugenia Sheppard, Sunny looks radiant, though there is a hint of a quiet, decidedly unsocial side.

"I really like to go to just one party a week . . . Seeing the same people every night, I run out of conversation . . . New York bridge is much too high-powered."

By a few years ago, it was generally accepted that Sunny was "a private person." She was rarely seen at parties, or, in the summer, at Bailey's Beach. There were some who said she drank, though Eileen Scannel, who worked as a waitress for the von Bu lows from '78 to '81, flatly denies it. Claus, however, insists in court papers that his wife had a drinking problem; that he had discussed it with both her doctor and her mother. He told police his wife had been "known for 15 years before she married me as somebody who got drunk in public"; that he had confided her problem to the family doctor before her daughter's debut in '76; that sometime in '77, "in a state of intoxication," his wife fell and broke her hip on the marble bathroom floor. He also said that the drinking had resulted in "a total rift between my mother-in-law and myself."

"There has arisen this situation whereby I have been accused of saying to third parties that the reason we were not going out was because my wife had an alcoholic problem," he said. "That is not true. What is true is that a) we didn't go out; b) it was always I who had to call up and cancel because my wife would answer the telephone and someone would say will you come and dine on Labor Day . . . call four weeks before . . . and then she'd get more and more nervous as the date approached and then she'd say, 'Oh, can't you think of some excuse, you can say you've got a business thing' . . . and I'd be the one who called up . . . I mean, it would be totally hypocritical to not admit that people did talk, people are bitchy and people did talk about my wife having too much to drink and they did talk about the fact that it wasn't worth inviting the Bu lows anymore because they never turned up . . ."

Both Sunny's two eldest children and the maid say that in '79 and '80 Sunny had told them that she and Claus had discussed divorce. Claus, according to the prosecution, had paid regular visits to a New York City prostitute. The prosecution also says he had a longtime liaison with another woman, 35-year-old Alexandra Isles. Isles has told police the relationship was not romantic; that she accepted flowers and candy from Claus, but no jewelry (a distinction Nice Girls should understand). She also insisted that when the couple traveled together, they took separate rooms.)

Nonetheless, according to a recent article by Lally Weymouth in New York magazine, von Bu low was in love with Isles. He had also reportedly told a longtime friend, Annabel Goldsmith, three years ago that he had not slept with his wife since shortly after their daughter was born.

Post-Eggnog Coma

Sunny von Bulow's first coma occurred shortly after Christmas, in Newport, in '79. The family was having dinner, eggnog was served and, according to both Claus and the butler, Robert L. Biastre, Sunny, who was very proud of her eggnog, drank a great deal -- Claus says she "sort of finished it off."

The next morning she did not get up and the maid has claimed that when she (the maid) became worried, Claus refused to seek aid. "He told me specifically I don't have to come in," wrote Maria in a letter to a friend that is included among court papers. "As I stood in front of the locked door I heard her moaning . . . I went all day. He refused to call a doctor and she sank deeper into her coma. At 6 p.m. I held her groaning in my arms as the doctor finally came through the door . . . they found out her blood sugar was very low. At least a plus for him . . ."

Claus, for his part, told investigators he thought his wife was just sleeping, that she had not slept for the two previous days. She was admitted to Newport Hospital with a high level of insulin and a low level of blood sugar, in a coma. Barbiturate and alcohol tests showed neither -- though a psychiatrist who examined Sunny before she left the hospital theorized that she might be a "secret" user.

Sunny's two children -- and the maid -- say that by then their suspicions were aroused. A few months after Sunny's illness, the maid went through Claus' closet and discovered a small black bag that contained syringes as well as yellow paste and white powder. She passed these to Sunny's daughter who, with her brother, had been concerned about her mother's "slurred speech" and "lethargy." The daughter asked the family doctor in New York to analyze the drugs. They were determined to be Seconal and a paste form of Valium -- a bottle of which Alex had seen at the time of his mother's first coma, beside her bed.

Maria says her suspicions grew. Writing a friend, mid-year, she said that Sunny had spent two weeks at a medical center, where "they diagnosed that her blood-sugar was unstable. But at the hospital she was feeling rather well."

Maria, however, was worried.

"Sometimes I am not feeling well thinking what is going to happen next," she wrote. "Mrs. trusts her husband blindly and is totally dependent. He of course has a girlfriend. The whole life has changed. No more parties and they don't go out either. She gained a lot of weight and is very unhappy about it."

Post-Sundae Coma

Maria -- who, Newporters say, was never beloved of Claus -- says she kept her eye on the bag; in November she examined it with Alexander and told police later it contained insulin; in late December 1980, as the family was leaving New York, she again peeked inside. She did not accompany the family to Newport for the holidays, however; she says she was forbidden by Claus.

The night of Dec. 20, Claus, Sunny, Alexander (home from Brown University) and Cosima ate dinner together -- Sunny finishing hers with an ice cream sundae with caramel sauce. Then they all went to the movies. After the film, Alexander visited with his mother in the library; her speech, he says, was slurred and she became weak. Claus brought her some chicken soup, Alex had to carry her upstairs to bed. The next morning, she was found, by von Bu low, unconscious on the bathroom floor. She was again taken to Newport Hospital, in a coma.

Shortly thereafter, the children went to former Manhattan district attorney Richard Kuh. He hired a private detective. At the end of January the detective and Alexander drove to Clarendon Court and found the little black bag. It contained three hypodermic needles, two unused, one with traces of Amobarbital, a sedative; Diazepam, a form of Valium; and insulin. Von Bu low has told police that the syringes were his wife's, that he had found them in her bag and "snitched" them.

Prosecutor Famiglietti, however, says that "to the best of my knowledge," Sunny von Bu low "had no familiarity" with syringes -- and certainly no medical need.

The story for now, then, remains a secret. Was Sunny, an acknowledged "private" person, a secret abuser of alcohol and drugs? Was Claus a devoted husband who, sick of being a social recluse with a neurotic wife, finally wanted out? Was he the victim? Was she? Were they both?

The mystery, in New England, to be continued.