Claus von Bulow, socialite accused in sensational trials of trying to kill his wife, dies at 92

Claus von Bulow leaves court trailed by reporters after deliberations ended for the day in his trial on attempted murder charges in Providence, R.I., on June 7, 1985.
(Dave Tenenbaum / Associated Press)

Claus von Bulow, the Danish-born socialite who was convicted in 1982 and then acquitted three years later on two counts of attempting to murder his American heiress wife, Sunny, with injections of insulin, has died at his home in London. He was 92.

Von Bulow, whose by-then ex-wife died in 2008 in a nursing home on the Upper East Side of New York City after nearly 28 years in a coma, died Saturday, Bloomberg reported, citing the New York Times. No cause of death was given.

The high-profile Von Bulow case — dubbed the “case of the sleeping heiress” — has been called one of the most sensational courtroom dramas in modern U.S. history, attracting worldwide attention and spawning several books and a movie.


The Von Bulows were pillars of high society in both New York City and Newport, R.I., where Claus, a Cambridge-educated lawyer and a former administrative assistant to legendary oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, was vice president of the Preservation Society of Newport County.

On Dec. 21, 1980, 48-year-old Martha “Sunny” von Bulow — an ash-blond, Pittsburgh-born utilities heiress whose beauty as a young woman, a society columnist once noted, “rivals her wealth” — was discovered unconscious on the marble floor of her bathroom at Clarendon Court, the couple’s lavish seaside estate in Newport.

It wasn’t the first time she had been found unconscious.

During another Christmastime visit to Newport the year before, she had lapsed into a coma but recovered the next day.

This time, however, the coma was irreversible.

About two weeks later, her family hired a lawyer to quietly conduct a private investigation to find out whether her mysterious ailments were the result of criminal conduct.

Members of her family, including her children from a previous marriage to an Austrian prince — Alexander von Auersperg and Annie Laurie Kneissl — suspected Von Bulow.

At Clarendon Court, Von Auersperg and a private investigator removed a small black traveling bag from Claus Von Bulow’s locked closet.

Sunny von Bulow’s personal maid had first discovered the vinyl bag after Sunny lapsed into her first coma in late 1979. The maid later testified that the case had contained Valium and various other pills, and she continued to monitor it over the ensuing months.

After she slipped into her irreversible coma, unusually high levels of insulin were found in her blood.

Among the items allegedly found in the bag by Von Auersperg and the private investigator: a used hypodermic needle that a lab test showed had a residue containing a high concentration of insulin, as well as traces of Valium and amobarbital.

In July 1981, after an investigation by Rhode Island authorities, 54-year-old Claus von Bulow was indicted on charges that he twice tried to kill his wife with injections of insulin.

Prosecutors at his first trial in 1982 argued that Von Bulow wanted to kill his wife in order to inherit a $14-million share of her fortune and be free to marry his mistress, socialite and former soap opera actress Alexander Isles, who testified that she told Von Bulow that he would lose her if he didn’t leave his wife.

The defense argued that Sunny von Bulow brought on the comas herself, either through drug and alcohol abuse or by injecting herself with insulin to lose weight.

Claus von Bulow was described in the press as tall, aristocratic and aloof. The jury found him guilty on both counts of assault with intent to commit murder.

Sentenced to 30 years in prison but free on $1-million bail pending appeal, Von Bulow continued living in his wife’s grand Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan.

In 1984, with Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz representing Von Bulow in the appeal, the Rhode Island Supreme Court reversed Von Bulow’s convictions and a new trial was ordered.

The conviction was reversed for two reasons: The state police had failed to obtain a search warrant before sending some of the pills from the black bag for testing. And the detailed notes made of interviews with key witnesses by the lawyer hired to conduct the initial investigation had not been made available to either the prosecution or the defense.

At Von Bulow’s retrial in 1985, the defense presented what Dershowitz later described as an “entirely medical and forensic” case.

Among other things, the defense offered expert testimony that Sunny von Bulow’s high insulin level reading after her second coma was scientifically invalid, that neither coma was caused by insulin, and that if the insulin-encrusted needle had been injected, any residue would have been “wiped clean” from the needle when it was withdrawn from the skin.

But the previously unavailable interview notes kept by the family’s initial lawyer proved crucial for the defense.

Sunny von Bulow’s maid had testified that when she looked into the black bag a month before Sunny’s second coma, she was surprised to see that it contained a small bottle of insulin, needles and a syringe, among various vials and bottles.

But, as the lawyer’s interview notes showed, the maid made no mention of seeing insulin, needles and a syringe in November 1980 during her initial interview with him in January 1981.

It wasn’t until an interview with the lawyer 12 days later — after a high level of insulin had been found in Sunny’s blood and the used needle had been sent out to be tested for insulin — that the maid mentioned for the first time that she had found insulin and a needle in Von Bulow’s black bag.

In the end, the jury pronounced Von Bulow not guilty on both counts.

But his legal troubles weren’t over: His two stepchildren filed a $56-million civil suit against him.

The suit was settled in 1987 when Von Bulow agreed to divorce his wife, renounce all claims to her fortune, renounce all rights to write books or earn money publicizing the case and to leave the country.

In exchange, Cosima, Von Bulow’s daughter with Sunny, would be restored to her maternal grandmother’s will. She had been disinherited by her grandmother of about $30 million after taking her father’s side in the case.

Von Bulow told the New York Times that he was “happy to settle because the settlement contains the terms I have offered for years. Parity for my daughter has been my one and only demand.”

Von Bulow moved to England, where he had once lived, and started a new life.

In 2007 when Von Bulow was 80, the New York Daily News reported that he had settled in affluent South Kensington, London, where he played with his three grandchildren, regularly strolled to his private gentleme’'s club and lived “the good life” with his high-society friends.

Dershowitz, whose bestselling 1986 book on the case, “Reversal of Fortune,” was turned into a 1990 movie of the same name starring Glenn Close as Sunny and Jeremy Irons as her husband, kept in touch with his former client.

“Sure, he thinks about this tragedy all the time, but he’s lived 20 years of normal life now,” Dershowitz told the Daily News. “Moving to England was a very, very smart thing for him to do.

“In Great Britain, Claus is regarded as a victim of a false accusation. In the U.S., opinion was certainly more divided.”

Born Claus Borberg in Copenhagen on Aug. 11, 1926, he was the son of Svend Borberg, a playwright and drama critic. His mother was the daughter of a businessman who had once been Denmark’s minister of justice.

After his parents divorced when he was 4, Claus took his mother’s maiden name, Bulow. (He later told Dershowitz that Sunny insisted he add the “von” to his name.)

When he was 7, he was sent to a boarding school in St. Moritz, Switzerland, but moved back to Denmark to continue his schooling in 1938.

A year after the 1940 Nazi occupation of Denmark, Von Bulow’s father arranged for him to meet his mother in Sweden. From there, the teenager was smuggled out in a British Mosquito bomber bound for London, where his socially well-connected mother was then living.

Von Bulow graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, with a law degree in 1946 and worked for a time as a lawyer in England. By the early 1960s, Von Bulow was an administrative assistant to Getty, who had moved the headquarters of his Los Angeles-based company to London.

“I had a beautiful life as a bachelor and a wonderful job with Getty Oil,” Von Bulow told People magazine in 1982. “In London, I met and fell in love with Sunny.”

They were married in 1966, a year after Sunny and her first husband, Prince Alfred von Auersperg, were divorced.

McLellan is a former Times staff writer