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Socialite Claus von Bülow, accused of trying to kill wife in R.I., dies at 92

Mr. von Bülow won a retrial after Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz interceded on his behalf.
Mr. von Bülow won a retrial after Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz interceded on his behalf.(George Rizer/Globe Staff/File)

NEW YORK — Claus von Bülow, the Danish-born man-about-society who in two trials was convicted and later acquitted of twice trying to murder his heiress wife in Newport, R.I., placing him at the center of one of the most sensational social dramas of the 1980s, died Saturday at his home in London. He was 92.

Mr. von Bülow was charged with the attempted murder of his wife, Martha von Bülow, known as Sunny, by injecting her with insulin to aggravate her hypoglycemia, a low-blood-sugar condition. Martha von Bülow, the heiress to a $75 million utilities fortune, went into a coma in December 1979, from which she recovered, and a second, irreversible coma in December 1980. She remained in a vegetative state until her death in 2008.

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A jury in Newport found Mr. von Bülow guilty of attempting to induce his wife’s death, and he was sentenced in 1982 to a 30-year prison term. He continued to maintain his innocence and was freed on $1 million bail. An appeal, developed by Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz, was successful and paved the way for a new trial. Mr. von Bülow was represented at his second trial, in Providence, by Thomas Puccio, a former US attorney, and acquitted of all charges in 1985.

In his book “Reversal of Fortune” (1986), Dershowitz recounted his role in aiding Mr. von Bülow. He began the book with a quote from a prosecutor involved: “This case has everything. It has money, sex, drugs; it has Newport, New York, and Europe; it has nobility; it has maids, butlers, a gardener.”

The von Bülow case became one of the most publicized legal contests in the second half of the 20th century. Television offered gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trials. And Dershowitz’s book became the basis for a popular 1990 film of the same name, directed by Barbet Schroeder, which starred Jeremy Irons, in an Oscar-winning performance, as Mr. von Bülow, Glenn Close as his wife, and Ron Silver as Dershowitz.

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Dershowitz, in an interview with The Boston Globe Thursday, said Mr. von Bülow had told him he would kill himself if sentenced to many years in prison. The two remained in contact after his acquittal and move to London, where he “lived a quiet and very happy life,’’ Dershowitz said.

Still, for a generation, his name was synonymous with privilege and death.

“He made me think about how a man can be defined by false accusations, and that everybody will remember him as somebody who tried to kill his wife,” Dershowitz said.

Mr. von Bülow was born Claus Cecil Borberg in Copenhagen on Aug. 11, 1926, the son of Jonna and Svend Borberg. His parents divorced when he was 4. His father, a theater critic, was an admirer of the Third Reich, and when World War II ended, he was arrested in Denmark as a Nazi collaborator. Sentenced to four years in prison, he was released on appeal after he had served 18 months and died a year later.

During the early years of the war, young Claus was spirited out of Denmark and sent to Britain to live with his mother, who had taken up residence there. He adopted the name of his maternal grandfather, Frits Bülow, a former Danish minister of justice. The “von,” usually used only by members of noble families, was added later. Mr. von Bülow told Dershowitz that his wife was the one who had insisted he add it.

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Mr. von Bülow entered Cambridge University when he was 16 and graduated in 1946 with a law degree. He then spent a year in Paris attending classes at the École des Sciences Politiques. On his return to London, he worked in banking before joining the law offices of Quintin Hogg, a noted British barrister who later became Lord Hailsham.

During this time, Mr. von Bülow, a charming and handsome man with a military bearing, became a highly visible social figure in London. In the early 1960s, he was hired as an administrative assistant by the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty.

Mr. von Bülow remained with Getty until his marriage.

Mr. von Bülow married Martha Crawford von Auersperg in 1966. Her father, George Crawford, founded Columbia Gas and Electric Co. Her annual income at the time was said to be in the neighborhood of $3.5 million. Little more than a year earlier, she had divorced Prince Alfred von Auersperg of Austria, her first husband.

The couple settled in a palatial Manhattan apartment. Mr. von Bülow stopped working, and Martha von Bülow began looking for oceanfront property in Newport, where her mother, Annie Laurie Crawford Aitken, and stepfather, Russell Aitken, had an estate. She bought Clarendon Court, a Georgian mansion set on 10 acres overlooking the sea, which had been used as the house of the character played by Grace Kelly in the 1956 film “High Society.” It was there that Martha von Bülow was found in a coma on both occasions.

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Mr. von Bülow was prosecuted as a result of an investigation initiated by the children of Martha von Bülow’s first marriage, Prince Alexander von Auersperg and Princess Annie Laurie von Auersperg Kneissl, known as Ala. The accusations pitted the siblings against their stepfather and their half sister, Cosima von Bülow Pavoncelli, the daughter of Claus and Martha von Bülow, who was born in 1967.

In 1978, Mr. von Bülow began an affair with Alexandra Isles, a socialite and actress. During the first trial, Isles, who took the stand for the prosecution, admitted that she had given Mr. von Bülow an ultimatum about dissolving his marriage. Also brought into testimony was the fact that a divorce would have voided the $14 million Mr. von Bülow would have inherited under his wife’s will and left him with an annual income of $120,000 from a trust that she had established before their marriage.

Mr. von Bülow admitted that divorce had been discussed, but he said the issue was not another woman; his wife, he said, did not mind his having an affair as long as he was discreet. He maintained that their main difference was over Martha von Bülow’s objections to his desire to resume working.

A principal prosecution witness against Mr. von Bülow was Maria Schrallhammer, Martha von Bülow’s maid. She testified that shortly before Christmas 1979 she had heard Martha von Bülow moaning behind a locked door, and that Mr. von Bülow refused to call a doctor as his wife sank into a coma. Mr. von Bülow said he had thought his wife was sleeping.

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When Martha von Bülow was later admitted to Newport Hospital, tests indicated a high level of insulin in her system.

Almost a year later, on Dec. 21, 1980, Martha von Bülow was again found unconscious and taken to the hospital in a coma. The two von Auersperg children consulted Richard Kuh, a former Manhattan district attorney, and hired him to investigate.

A maid later testified that she had found a small black bag containing syringes, yellow paste, and white powder in a closet in Mr. von Bülow’s study. She said she passed these on to Kneissl, who had the contents analyzed. It was determined that the paste was a form of Valium and the powder was Seconal. Schrallhammer also said that she later found insulin in the bag.

Mr. von Bülow maintained that even before he met his wife she had entered a world of pills and alcohol. It was the defense’s contention that she had caused her own comas, either deliberately or inadvertently, by injecting herself or by swallowing insulin or barbiturates, and that the closet in which the bag was found was shared by the couple. Dershowitz said that Truman Capote, a friend of Martha von Bülow’s, had told him that “Sunny was an expert at injections.”

After his acquittal, Mr. von Bülow’s stepdaughter said that despite the verdict, “we know and he knows that he tried to murder our mother.” Mr. von Bülow said his stepchildren were “misguided” but added, “I have no feeling of vindictiveness.”

The von Bülows were divorced in 1988. The Manhattan apartment and the Newport mansion were turned over to the von Auersperg children.

But after his acquittal, Mr. von Bülow remained a welcome figure at many Manhattan social events and Broadway opening nights. A-list hosts like Caroline and Reinaldo Herrera relied on him to create dinner party chemistry. “Claus is a great catalyst,” Reinaldo Herrera said. “People instantly loathe him or like him.”

Mr. von Bülow was not unaware of his notoriety. But he could also remark on the vicissitudes of fortune. “Now, after all this unpleasantness,” he once confided to Dershowitz, “I always get the best table.”


Globe staff reporter Brian MacQuarrie contributed to this obituary.