Monday 19 August 2019

Obituary: Claus von Bulow

Man-about-town who was convicted, then acquitted, of the attempted murder of his wife in two sensational trials

MYSTERY: Claus von Bulow giving a talk at Harvard Law School.
MYSTERY: Claus von Bulow giving a talk at Harvard Law School.

Claus von Bulow, who has died aged 92, figured in one of the most sensational trials of the 20th Century. The case, among the first to be televised in the United States, had all the ingredients of a soap opera - adultery, drugs, murder and fabulous sums of money.

Its principal characters included the heiress to a $75m fortune, a wicked stepfather, two mistresses, minor European nobility and a daughter who stood by the father accused of attempting to kill her mother.

Sunny, who spent the last 28 years of her life in a coma
Sunny, who spent the last 28 years of her life in a coma

After two trials, Von Bulow was acquitted, though public opinion was sharply divided as to his guilt. Meanwhile, the wife he was said to have tried to murder lay in a coma, never to awaken, in a guarded room in a Manhattan hospital. Twice a week, her hairdresser came in to dye her hair and re-apply her make-up.

The drama began on December 21, 1980 when Von Bulow's wife Martha, known as Sunny, was found unconscious on the marble floor of the bathroom of their Rhode Island mansion.

She was the only child of George Crawford, a Pittsburgh businessman who had made a vast fortune in the 1920s in gas and electricity.

Her first husband had been an Austrian princeling, Alfie von Auersperg, whom she married in 1957. Although they had a son and daughter, they soon grew apart and by the early 1960s she had taken up with Danish-born Von Bulow, a 40-year-old bachelor four years her senior, who worked in London for John Paul Getty I. Following her divorce, the pair were married in 1966. They had a daughter, Cosima, the next year.

The von Bulows lived in fabulous style. They settled in Sunny's 14-room apartment on Fifth Avenue, New York, and spent the holidays at Clarendon Court, a replica of an enormous 18th-Century mansion, on Rhode Island Sound, where von Bulow assembled one of the best collections of European furniture in the United States. The house and its 10-acre grounds provided the setting in 1956 for the film High Society.

Although their life appeared, in the words of that film, a swell party, all was not well. As her friend Truman Capote later revealed, Sunny was "very pretty but a psychological wallflower".

She increasingly took refuge from her shyness in drink and drugs, remedies that also provided a refuge from knowledge of her husband's infidelities. For his part, Von Bulow found the conversation of his wife's circle stultifying compared with what he had known in Europe - he had a connoisseur's knowledge of opera - and claimed Sunny licensed his extensive marital diversions after she lost interest in sex following the birth of their daughter.

In December 1980, Sunny was discovered in a comatose state. She lapsed into a permanent vegetative state from which she was never to recover but in which her life was sustained at a cost of $500,000 a year until her death 28 years later.

After an investigation by police and a separate one by Sunny's children from her first marriage, Von Bulow was arrested for attempted murder and sent for trial in February 1982.

The prosecution contended Von Bulow, aware that his wife suffered from low blood sugar, injected her with insulin, knowing this could be fatal. His motive was some $14m which he stood to gain from her will, as well as the freedom to marry his mistress, Alexandra Isles, a television actress.

The defence claimed Sunny brought events on herself with a secret binge of drugs and sweets, topped off by a "sugar bomb" of egg-nog made from 12 fresh eggs and a bottle of bourbon.

The most damning witness against Von Bulow was his wife's long-serving German maid, Maria Schrallhammer. She testified Sunny had also become ill at Clarendon Court exactly a year before lapsing into her coma. For more than four hours on that occasion, Von Bulow had refused to send for a doctor and by the time one was summoned, Sunny had stopped breathing. Although she was revived, tests showed a high level of insulin in her blood.

Her suspicions aroused, Maria Schrallhammer began to check a small bag Von Bulow carried. In it, she said, she found hypodermic needles and a bottle marked Insulin. After his mother became comatose for the second time in 1980, her son, Prince Alexander von Auersperg, broke into Von Bulow's bedroom cupboard and discovered the bag.

Inside was a needle encrusted with insulin. The evidence seemed overwhelming and the jury convicted Von Bulow of attempted murder. He was sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment. He appealed, however, and enlisted the help of a new team of lawyers, including a Harvard academic, Alan Dershowitz.

He helped to persuade the Rhode Island Supreme Court that the judge had been wrong to admit several key pieces of evidence, including the bag, which, having been illegally seized by Von Auersperg, should not have been examined by the police until they had a search warrant. The court ordered a retrial, which began in May 1985.

This time the defence wiped the floor with the prosecution. Many who had known Sunny gave evidence of her frail mental state. Less than three weeks before she fell into her coma, she had taken a deliberate aspirin overdose.

Despite the testimony of Alexandra Isles, who related how Von Bulow had telephoned her during the first coma in 1979 to tell her he was watching his wife die, the defence discredited many prosecution witnesses, including Maria Schrallhammer.

Most tellingly, they showed a needle is always wiped clean of insulin when pulled from the skin. The implication was that someone tried to frame Von Bulow.

Television audiences were riveted by the trial, while outside court, crowds gathered to hiss or cheer Von Bulow and his adherents, including Cosima von Bulow and his new mistress, Andrea Reynolds, a thrice-married Hungarian adventuress with whom he posed - both clad in leather - for Vanity Fair.

Cosima stood by her father and was disinherited by her grandmother, Sunny's mother, whose estate was worth $110m. (She was later reinstated as a beneficiary.)

This time the jury acquitted Von Bulow but popular opinion was divided, in the main because he appeared such an unsympathetic figure.

In truth, when he chose to exercise it, he possessed considerable charm and wit and could do a fine imitation of Queen Victoria.

"It's not that I'm stiff upper lip," he said. "I'm frozen-rigid upper lip."

He was born Claus Cecil Borberg in Copenhagen on August 11, 1926. His mother, the daughter of a Danish cabinet minister, had a weakness for men in power. His father, a theatre critic, was just as admiring of the German nation, a view he retained after the Nazis' occupation of Denmark. In consequence, he was imprisoned in 1945 as a collaborator. Claus never quite managed to shake a rumour that he had been a page at Hermann Goering's wedding.

Claus's parents divorced when he was four and in 1940, when the Germans invaded, his mother was living in England. She used her connections to have Claus, dressed in his Boy Scout uniform, smuggled from Denmark to Sweden and then to London by RAF courier flight.

Having taken the surname of his maternal grandfather, to which he later added a more aristocratic-sounding "von", Claus was admitted to Trinity College Cambridge at 16, undergraduate numbers being low because of the war.

There he read Law but when he left in 1946, he was too young to study for the Bar and spent a year at university in Paris and another working for Hambros bank before being called as a barrister. He then joined the chambers of Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham.

The demands of his practice never impinged on his social life. He and his mother shared a large apartment in Belgrave Square, London, which became a regular haunt of the Clermont Set, centred on John Aspinall, whom Von Bulow allowed to use the flat for illegal gambling parties.

Von Bulow regularly incurred large debts at cards but he was also acquiring useful contacts and in the late 1950s, he was invited to become an administrative assistant to John Paul Getty.

Unkind friends later suggested that his tasks were simply those of an errand boy whose presence was necessitated by the oil magnate's fear of flying.

The work continued to ensure Von Bulow's entree into the beau monde, although his income did not yet allow him to fulfil his undoubted wish to be one of its brightest stars. Then, in 1963, he was introduced to Princess Sunny von Auersperg.

Following the second trial, Von Bulow was sued by his two stepchildren, both of whose parents - in a bizarre twist - were now in irretrievable comas, Prince Alfie's being the result of a motoring accident in 1983.

Von Bulow settled the action by agreeing never to discuss the trial, and by divorcing Sunny.

In the late 1980s, he moved back to London, where he once more became a familiar figure at parties, his friends insisting that he was loyal, generous, intelligent, cultivated and kind.

He lived in a flat in Knightsbridge and would host large dinner parties at his daughter's house.

Von Bulow had a fanatical love of the theatre - no production above a pub in Hammersmith was too obscure for him - and he was for many years the Catholic Herald drama critic.

He poured scorn on the film version of the case, Reversal of Fortune (1991), in which he was played by Jeremy Irons, yet he seemed not wholly displeased with the notoriety that dogged him.

Once, while dining in New York, someone at another table suffered a heart attack. As the victim was carried out, Von Bulow cried: "It wasn't me!" Another time, when discussing with the historian Anne Somerset her book The Affair of the Poisons, he observed: "I must read that. People always think it's my special subject."

Rather less well known was his devotion to the Catholic faith in later years and the charitable work he carried out tending pilgrims at Lourdes.

Von Bulow, who died on May 25, is survived by his daughter.

Sunday Independent

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