Claus von Bulow, the Danish-born socialite who avoided a 30-year prison sentence in the 1980s after he was retried and acquitted of attempting to murder his wealthy wife with insulin injections, has died. He was 92.
He died on Saturday at his home in London, The New York Times reported, citing Riccardo Pavoncelli, his son-in-law.
Von Bulow was embroiled in one of America’s most notorious criminal cases, accused of trying to kill his wife, Martha “Sunny” von Bulow, on successive Christmas vacations in 1979 and 1980 at their seaside mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. The heiress, who slipped into comas on both occasions, spent almost 28 years in a vegetative state after the second incident, which two of her children claimed had been deliberately caused by Claus von Bulow. She died in a nursing home in 2008 at age 76.
He was found guilty in a televised 1982 trial and was handed a 30-year sentence before winning an appeal led by Alan Dershowitz, who was then a professor at Harvard Law School. Von Bulow won a 1985 retrial that captivated the nation with a classic whodunit tale involving money, sex and betrayal.
“This is the story of how Claus von Bulow was convicted of a crime that probably never happened and then succeeded in vindicating himself — both in the eyes of the law and in the minds of many, though certainly not all, observers,” Dershowitz wrote in his 1986 book “Reversal of Fortune.” A 1990 film adaptation earned Jeremy Irons an Academy Award for his portrayal of von Bulow; actress Glenn Close played his doomed wife.
The prosecution asserted that von Bulow had injected his wife with insulin to cause her death and claim a $14 million inheritance from her will. Her net worth at the time was about $75 million. He also had a mistress, television soap-opera actress Alexandra Isles, whom he had wanted to marry. The defense, led by Thomas Puccio in the retrial, painted Sunny von Bulow as a drug addict and alcoholic who had overdosed. Puccio died in 2012.
“There was no animosity between Sunny and me,” von Bulow said in a 1985 interview with television personality Barbara Walters. “There was an irreconcilable difference about her wish to lead a retired life and my wish to still work.”
Debonair and articulate, von Bulow continued with his high-society lifestyle and took up with Hungarian-born aristocrat Andrea Reynolds after Isles testified against him in the first trial. His two stepchildren, Annie-Laurie and Alexander von Auersperg, as well as Sunny von Bulow’s longtime maid, Maria Schrallhammer, also attempted to incriminate him at the trials. His daughter, Cosima — born to Sunny von Bulow — took her father’s side, prompting her maternal grandmother to disinherit Cosima.
“Whatever one felt personally about the guilt or innocence of the man, one could not deny his charm, which was enormous, in a European, upper-class, courtly sort of way,” Dominick Dunne wrote in a 1985 Vanity Fair article.
Claus von Bulow was born as Claus Cecil Borberg on Aug. 11, 1926, in Copenhagen. His father was a playwright and theater critic who was accused of collaborating with the Nazis and his mother was the daughter of a former Danish justice minister.
Von Bulow’s parents divorced when he was 4 and he was raised by his mother in London after being smuggled out of Nazi-occupied Denmark during World War II. He attended Cambridge University and earned a law degree after the war. Von Bulow apprenticed as a barrister and then worked for oil baron J. Paul Getty as a chief assistant.
In 1966, von Bulow married the former “Sunny” Crawford, who was the only child of George Crawford, the founder of Columbia Gas & Electric. They had met at a London dinner party a few years earlier while she was married to Prince Alfred von Auersperg, an heir to Austria’s Habsburg dynasty. Von Bulow added the aristocratic “von” to his name around the time of his marriage, Dershowitz wrote.
The von Bulows lived in a Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan and their Newport summer mansion, Clarendon Court. In a 1987 out-of-court settlement with his stepchildren, who had filed a $56 million civil lawsuit against him after his acquittal, von Bulow agreed to divorce his comatose wife, give up claims to her estate and relinquish the right to make money by writing books or giving speeches about the case. In return, Cosima von Bulow was to receive a one-third share of her maternal grandmother’s estate.
“This was a tragedy and it satisfied all of Aristotle’s definitions of tragedy,” von Bulow said in a forum at Harvard Law School several weeks after his acquittal. “Everyone is wounded, some fatally.”