Sunny von Bulow, heiress who spent almost 28 years in a coma, dies at 76

Sunny von Bulow
Sunny von Bulow was 48 when she lapsed into a coma. Her husband, Claus, was tried twice on charges of attempting to kill her.
(Associated Press)

Martha “Sunny” von Bulow, an heiress of misfortune who spent almost 28 years in a coma and whose husband, Claus von Bulow, twice went on trial on charges of attempting to kill her, died Saturday at a nursing home in New York City. She was 76.

She had a fortune estimated as high as $75 million when she married Von Bulow, a Danish-born financier, in 1966. They lived, by all accounts, a charmed life in multimillion-dollar homes on New York’s Fifth Avenue and in Newport, R.I.

Troubles developed in the marriage, however, and she went into a coma on Dec. 27, 1979, but was soon revived. A year later, on Dec. 21, 1980, she was found unconscious on her bathroom floor and never recovered.

Her two children from her previous marriage to an Austrian prince financed a $400,000 private investigation that led to Claus von Bulow’s indictment in 1981. They alleged that Von Bulow was having an affair and stood to inherit $14 million if his wife were to die.

In one of the most sensational legal scandals of the 1980s, Von Bulow was initially convicted of attempting to kill Sunny von Bulow with an overdose of insulin, “knowing that it could be fatal.”

Harvard University lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz took up Von Bulow’s defense on appeal and painted Sunny von Bulow as an alcoholic and drug abuser who was subject to attacks of hypoglycemia. High-profile friends, including writer Truman Capote and Johnny Carson’s ex-wife, Joanne Carson, testified that she had used drugs extensively -- a charge her older children denied.

In the end, Claus von Bulow’s conviction was overturned on technical grounds that evidence had been mishandled by police. Rhode Island prosecutors brought attempted murder charges against Von Bulow a second time in 1985, but he was acquitted.

An earlier version of the caption on this obituary said the photograph was taken in 1981. Von Bulow went into a coma in 1979.

The trials, the mysteries surrounding the case and the sad fate of Sunny von Bulow became the subject of a best-selling book by Dershowitz, “Reversal of Fortune.” When the book was made into a popular film in 1990, Jeremy Irons starred as Claus von Bulow, Glenn Close had the role of Sunny von Bulow and Ron Silver played Dershowitz.

The movie showed Sunny von Bulow as a nagging wife with problems with substance abuse. Her children objected to the depiction, saying: “Our mother has been portrayed as pathetic and self-destructive. We reject this injurious and erroneous portrayal.”

The celebrated case divided the high society of Newport and tore the once-close family apart. Her two older children, Annie-Laurie von Auersperg Isham and Alexander von Auersperg, were adamantly convinced of their stepfather’s treachery. They were outraged when Claus von Bulow posed for the cover of Vanity Fair in 1985 in his wife’s New York apartment. He was “thumbing his nose at us,” Alexander von Auersperg said.

“Claus von Bulow only succeeded in depriving our mother of meaningful life and getting away with it,” Von Auersperg has said. “We know and he knows that he tried to murder our mother.”

The Von Auersperg children filed a $56-million civil suit against Claus von Bulow in 1985. It was settled two years later with the agreement that Von Bulow, now 82 and living in London, would file for divorce and never speak in public about the case again. He renounced any claim to her fortune.

Martha Sharp Crawford -- Sunny von Bulow’s maiden name -- was born Sept. 1, 1932, in Pittsburgh. Her father, who was chairman of a utilities company, died when she was 4. She grew up in New York and graduated from St. Timothy’s School, an exclusive girls’ school outside Baltimore.

By all accounts, she was a beautiful young woman and earned the nickname “Sunny” because of her warm, upbeat personality. In 1957, she married Prince Alfred von Auersperg, a penniless 20-year-old Austrian who was teaching tennis at a resort in Europe. They lived in Germany and Austria until their divorce in 1965.

On June 6, 1966, she married Von Bulow, who was born Claus Cecil Borberg in Denmark and later adopted the name Von Bulow from one of his mother’s German ancestors. They had one daughter, Cosima, who was born in 1967 and sided with her father during the trials of the 1980s. She is now known as Cosima Pavoncelli and lives in London and New York.

After the legal wrangling of the 1980s, the two older children, who both live in New York, founded the Sunny von Bulow National Victim Advocacy Center and the Sunny von Bulow Coma and Head Trauma Research Foundation.

Schudel is a writer for the Washington Post.