Danish aristocrat Claus von Bülow was born in 1926 in Copenhagen. He married his American multimillionaire wife, Martha “Sunny” (née Crawford Auersperg) in 1966. In 1980, Sunny was found near death and lay in a vegetative state for nearly 28 years, until she died in 2008. In the 1980s, von Bülow made headlines when he was convicted of poisoning his wife with an overdose of insulin and received a 30-year prison sentence, but the verdict was later overturned after an appeal designed by prominent Harvard professor and attorney Alan Dershowitz.
Early Life & Career
Claus von Bülow was born Claus Cecil Borberg on August 11, 1926, in Copenhagen. He was the only child of Danish drama critic and playwright Svend Borberg (1888–1947), who became affiliated with the Nazi regime during World War II, and Jonna Borberg (née Bülow; 1900–1959), who was of noble descent (her father was Frits Bülow af Plüskow, who served as the Danish minister of justice from 1910 to 1913 and president of the upper chamber of the Danish parliament from 1920 to 1922). His mother divorced Svend when Claus was only four years old, and because of this (and his father’s Nazi-affiliated and disgraced name) Claus was known by his mother’s maiden name instead (the “von” was attached later in life). In 1942, when Denmark was invaded, mother and son fled to London.
At the young age of 16, von Bülow went to Trinity College, Cambridge and graduated in 1946 with a law degree at the age of 20. His audacious personality, combined with his handsome and elegant demeanor, placed him in high status among the British elite, and he quickly became a well-known socialite in the grand historic area of Belgrave Square in London, where he lived with his mother until her death in 1959. Von Bülow practiced law throughout the 1950s as a London barrister in Quintin Hogg's chambers and, in 1959, he began working as an executive assistant to American oil tycoon and billionaire businessman J. Paul Getty.
Marriage to Sunny and Move to America
In the 1960s, von Bülow met Martha “Sunny” (née Crawford Auersperg), a multimillionaire American heiress who was previously married to Austrian Prince Alfred von Auersperg. They wed on June 6, 1966, and the couple soon added a daughter to their family (Sunny had a son, Alexander, and a daughter, Ala, from her first marriage). Their daughter, Cosima, was born on April 15, 1967. In 1968, von Bülow reluctantly gave up his job with Getty and the family moved to the States.
In America, the family continued to mingle among the social elite in their two-story New York City penthouse and at Clarendon Court, Sunny's seaside mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. Although their frequent parties were lavish and their lifestyle could only be described as among those of the “rich and famous,” Sunny, whose beauty once invoked comparisons with Grace Kelly, was no longer of interest to von Bülow and he began having an affair. Eventually, his mistress, soap opera star Alexandra Isles, laid down an ultimatum: She wanted von Bülow to leave his wife. But without Sunny, he would be penniless. It was her $75 million estate that funded his luxurious lifestyle.
Sunny Is Found Near Death, Twice
On December 26, 1979, Sunny von Bülow was found near death at her mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. She was rushed to the hospital and lay in a coma for a few days but was revived. The doctors determined that the coma was the result of low blood sugar and diagnosed her as hypoglycemic.
A year later, on December 21, 1980, she was again discovered unconscious and unresponsive, only this time she would not recover from her injuries. Sunny von Bülow lay in a persistent vegetative state (known today as unresponsive wakefulness syndrome) for nearly 28 years, during which time her children kept her room stocked with fresh flowers and updated photos of her grandchildren. Sunny von Bülow died on December 6, 2008, in Mary Manning Walsh nursing home in New York City. The circumstances surrounding her coma and ultimate death coupled with her elevated blood insulin levels that were found at the time she was discovered unconscious soon led to speculations of foul play. In particular, there was suspicion that Claus had overdosed Sunny with injections of insulin in 1979 and 1980. Spearheaded by her two children from her first marriage, Alexander and Ala (Claus’ stepchildren), and the support of the New York City District Attorney, in July 1981 Claus von Bülow was charged with two counts of attempted murder.
Trial, Conviction, Acquittal, and Divorce
The prosecution of Claus von Bülow was the first Rhode Island court case to be televised, and it grabbed millions of viewers. Millionaires, mistresses and murder—the trial became one of the most sensationalized court cases of the 1980s. The first trial went quickly; in the course of less than a year, von Bülow was arrested, charged, found guilty on both counts of attempted murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison on April 2, 1982.
Von Bülow professed his innocence, put up the $1 million bond (reportedly with help from his former employer Getty) and hired prominent Harvard law school professor and attorney Alan Dershowitz, to spearhead his appeal. A year later, his conviction was reversed. The court ordered a new trial in 1984, and this time von Bülow was found not guilty. Based on expert testimonies, it was determined that Sunny von Bülow's comas were not consistent with an insulin overdose. Von Bülow's stepchildren still believed their stepfather to be guilty of murdering their mother and filed a civil suit against him immediately following his acquittal in 1985. The case was settled out of court in 1988, and Claus von Bülow agreed to drop his claims to his wife's estate and divorce her (she was still in a coma at the time). In exchange, Cosima, Claus’s biological daughter, received $30 million as her one-third share of Sunny’s estate.
Reversal of Fortune and Life After the Trial
A year after the 1990 release of Reversal of Fortune, the Award-winning film about the von Bülow trials—based on Dershowitz's book of the same name, and starring Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close—von Bülow made his way back to England, where he worked as an art and theater critic for a number of years. A devoted father and grandfather, he made a home in London near Cosima and her family.
Von Bülow continues to live a life among the social elite. To this day, he is often described as attractive, polite and intelligent, with debonair good looks and a polished and distinguished appearance. He has even been featured on Tatler magazine's "100 Most Invited" list.
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