Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow Case
If, like me, you spend much of the year in Newport, Rhode Island, you will have suffered, since 1981, moments of acute mental distress, matched, after the first months, by unbearable boredom. They arose from a local scandal which quickly had international reverberations. A member of the Newport summer colony, Claus von Bülow, was put on trial for attempting to murder his wife. Moreover, he was tried twice: found guilty at the first trial and acquitted at the second. Reversal of Fortune is the work of Von Bülow’s successful defense lawyer at the second trial, and it tells a remarkable story with remarkable brio. I picked it up one evening and read it straight through until the early hours: boredom was dissipated in a flash. “This case has everything,” declared the prosecutor. “It has money, sex, drugs; it has Newport, New York and Europe; it has nobility; it has maids, butlers, a gardener…. This case is where the little man has a chance to glimpse inside and see how the rich live.” These are the opening words of the book. We all have enough of the little man in us to respond with due avidity to such allurements.
A lawyer’s account of two sensational trials naturally centers on what took place in court. But the Von Bülow story is hard to comprehend without a certain amount of background.
Von Bülow was born Claus Borberg in Denmark sixty years ago. His mother was a Bülow, his father, Svend Borberg, a theater man—who married as his second wife Ibsen’s granddaughter, we are told, alas too late for Ibsen to confect a second Doll’s House out of what ensued. During the war Borberg was one of the few Danish collaborators, and later he was briefly imprisoned. Claus and his mother escaped to England, where he took his mother’s name, graduated from Cambridge, and entered the law firm of Lord Hailsham, then Quintin Hogg, from which he moved into the orbit of Paul Getty, which is where I first met him more than twenty years ago. I remember Getty discussing him at a very small luncheon and saying what Wall Street experts like Mark Millard of the firm of Loeb Rhoades later confirmed: that he had an exceptional financial brain which had been invaluable to Getty. Getty added that he was also a gambler, and that his successful future was therefore hard to ensure. One could leave him money certainly, but would he not gamble it away?
At this time he lived very well in a handsome flat in Belgrave Square, as good an address as any in London. I remember a large dance he gave there, preceded by a dinner for eighty or so at Wilton’s, perhaps the most expensive restaurant in London. The company at the dance was dazzling: It might have come straight from the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. Claus was visibly on the way. In 1966 he married the ex-wife of Prince Alfred …
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