Even the most inspired soap opera writer would have trouble imagining a story like this. A philandering Newport, R.I., socialite is convicted of twice attempting to murder his heiress wife by injecting her with an overdose of insulin. As she rests in a coma, the case is overturned on appeal thanks to a Harvard Law professor and his students. The ensuing retrial attracts international attention, and the accused, reviled by many, championed by some, becomes a household name.
Though it seemed almost too outrageous to be true, this four-year saga finally ended when Claus von Bulow was exonerated on June 10, 1985. ”It really was the first of the televised trials,” remembers Alan Dershowitz, the Ivy League attorney who represented von Bulow on appeal. Like the O.J. Simpson murder trial a decade later, he says, this was a case ”on which the country took sides.” It was also full of the same kind of salacious minutiae that media outlets — especially a fledgling CNN, which aired some 70 hours of von Bulow’s retrial live — and the public would devour in the years to follow.
Von Bulow, a Danish-born lawyer-cum-oil exec, wed wealthy divorcee Martha ”Sunny” Crawford von Auersperg in 1966. After Sunny slipped into comas in 1979 and 1980 — she has never recovered from the latter — Claus was convicted (in 1982) of attempted murder. The alleged motive? He’d inherit more than $14 million of her Pittsburgh utilities fortune upon her death. Oh, and he was in love with another woman. During the appeal, Dershowitz got the guilty verdict overturned on technical grounds, while strongly suggesting that Sunny’s coma was a self-induced accident.
A $56 million civil suit filed against von Bulow by his stepchildren (he and Sunny also had one daughter together, Cosima, 33) was settled in 1987. And the case was immortalized in Barbet Schroeder’s 1990 film Reversal of Fortune, based on Dershowitz’s 1986 book. Starring Glenn Close as the self-destructive Sunny (a portrayal her kids disputed) and Jeremy Irons as Claus — a role for which he won an Oscar — the movie turned Dershowitz, via Ron Silver’s dead-on performance, into a sort of legal rock star.
To this day, the lawyer speaks regularly with his former client, who is 73 and living in England, where, according to Dershowitz, ”he’s a full-time grandfather and is actively involved in the artistic and social life of London.” The 68-year-old Sunny, on the other hand, remains unconscious, and doctors do not expect her to wake. Nonetheless, Dershowitz marvels, ”She’ll probably outlive us all.” Talk about a reversal of fortune.
Time Capsule: June 10, 1985
At the movies, Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood Part II is the No. 1 movie at the box office, having grossed $70 million in three weeks. In msuic, Tears for Fears’ ”Everybody Wants to Rule the World” dominates the Billboard singles chart. In bookstores, Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca’s capitalist bible Iacocca: An Autobiography tops Publishers Weekly’s nonfiction list. And in the news, Thomas Sutherland, a dean at the American University of Beirut, is the eighth U.S. citizen kidnapped in Lebanon since 1984. He won’t be released for more than six years.