Claus von Bülow
Claus von Bülow; drawing by David Levine

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 von Auersperg, Martha (or Sunny) Crawford, an American girl of great beauty, great natural dignity, and immense fortune. She brought with her two Auersperg children, and, a year later, gave birth to a daughter by Claus.

At the time of his marriage to Sunny, he already enjoyed a strange reputation. “Enjoyed” is the word, because he took a perverse pleasure, which time and adversity did not diminish, in trimming reality into satanic patterns. He made deplorable jokes against himself—some of them are quoted by Dershowitz—and was greatly amused when they were accepted as fact. So he was guilty of Sade-like perversities, of necrophilia, of you name it? Why, of course. To be accounted sinister was for him a gothic amusement: he would have been perfectly at home in the Castle of Otranto.

I remember very clearly his saying before his marriage that it embarrassed him to be called Bülow because it suggested an acknowledged link with a German princely family, whereas in fact he came mainly of Danish middle-class stock. His own immediate family included Danish cabinet ministers, an ambassador, a supreme court justice, and a general, we learn. Sunny had been an Austrian princess through her first marriage and her mother, who controlled the family purse strings, had always nourished high social aspirations for her only child. Dershowitz quotes the German Adelskalender, which confirms at any rate Bülow’s mother’s entitlement to the prefix “von,” though he did not habitually use it on letters or checks—a matter of no real consequence, but one which confirms a lack of interest in the matter apart from wishing to please his wife.

By 1979, Claus and Sunny owned, as well as a spacious Fifth Avenue apartment, a spectacular house in Newport, Clarendon Court, which they had most skillfully transformed. Each of them had a rare sense of style. They had not only created a house of beauty, filled with treasurable possessions, but they had cut through the landscape to open a view of the sea and made a spacious terraced garden. Sunny was thought reclusive; she did not much care for the busy social life of Newport; but in her own setting she was unforgettable: tall, strikingly beautiful, with very good clothes. Standing beside Claus, whose willfully Mephistophelean good looks were equally striking, she appeared enviable: rich, unimpressed by trivial values, a kind of ice princess.


Both of them engendered legends: he as a mystery man, a lycanthrope perhaps; she always remote, often alone when Claus went about his business without her. Rumors pursued them: of drink, drugs, kinky behavior. An old friend of Sunny’s, the duchesse d’Uzès, now dead, once asked me if I often saw Sunny sober, because, in debutante days, she had drunk far too much. I was able to say that I had never seen her affected by drink. Claus used to inject himself with vitamins, and he also used his syringe on Sunny. Dershowitz speaks of “unfounded rumors surrounding Claus’s bachelor days in England, including suggestions of necrophilia, homosexuality, incest, and practically every other imaginable—and some quite unimaginable—human vice.” Such rumors appealed to Claus’s bizarre sense of humor. But they were only rumors, at times fed by Claus’s off-putting jokes. On the surface there was a glow of serene grace; charming, handsome children, great public generosity, social occasions, rare though they were, exquisitely carried out. Lucky Bülows, you might have thought.

You would have been wrong. Husband and wife had drifted apart. Following the birth of Cosima, Sunny apparently lost interest in sex, Dershowitz tells us. By 1978 Claus had met the daughter of a Danish family friend and benefactor, who, when he was a schoolboy, had acted as a kind of substitute father to him, Count von Moltke. By the following year, the daughter, Alexandra Isles, was his mistress and insisting that they marry, while the private world of Sunny engulfed her ever more deeply. According to the defense, it was “a netherworld of pills, drink and depression.” Until, at a year’s interval, during the Christmas holiday seasons of 1979 and 1980, she lapsed into comas, from the second of which she had not emerged six years later.

Three people suspected that Claus “wanted both Sunny’s money and Alexandra’s hand.” The first was Sunny’s personal maid, Maria Schrallhammer, who had voiced her suspicions to the two others, Alexander and Ala von Auersperg. A private detective was brought in and sent with a locksmith and with young Prince von Auersperg to Newport. There, in Claus’s closet, they discovered a black vinyl zippered bag, which the maid had already detected in the New York apartment. There it had contained valium, pills, powder, and a liquid. Maria Schrallhammer’s fears were alerted. By the time the bag reappeared in Newport, it also, according to Miss Schrallhammer, contained needles, a syringe, and a small bottle marked “insulin.” But Sunny was not a diabetic, Schrallhammer exclaimed. She did, though, suffer from reactive hypoglycemia, the reverse of diabetes, and high levels of insulin had been found in her body after she had fallen into the second coma. It looked sinister, to say the least.

In July 1981 Claus was indicted of intent to murder. The case came to court in Newport the following February, and he was found guilty. In April 1984 the Supreme Court of Rhode Island reversed this conviction; in January 1985 the state announced plans to retry him; and in June, after a second trial in Providence, he was acquitted. Thus, for four years and more, Newport became an echo chamber. And that is where the boredom set in. During the first trial I happened to be visiting Australia, and there, in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, I had a foretaste of what was to come. “You live in Newport? Tell us what really happened.” That was the universal question. If we accept the accuracy of Dershowitz’s sparkling account of those years, it is clear that the second trial reached a proper verdict. But Dershowitz himself points out that only Claus knows what really happened on the two menacing nights when Sunny fell into a coma. He observes, “The blunt instrument of the law is rarely refined enough to discern subtle shades of intent, motivation or character.”

But the law is only half as blunt an instrument as idle chatter. Month after month the chatter went on. Those who had any contact with the Bülows were divided into three groups: some who had known as soon as they saw him that Claus was a potential murderer; some who knew that he had been framed; and a small majority who admitted that it had no evidence whatever, apart from testimony at the trials, to justify an opinion.


The waters were clouded by the fact that very large sums of money were at stake. A dozen plausible scenarios could be confected. And deep human issues were brought out. If the Auersperg children, and Sunny’s mother and stepfather, honestly believed in Claus’s guilt, what more natural than that they should spare no effort and no money in order to prove their point? Their dilemma far transcended any consideration of personal gain through destroying Claus and eliminating a half sister as cobeneficiary in the grandmother’s state. They were convinced of the defendant’s guilt, and their actions proceed from this conviction.

Then there were Claus’s painful jokes. Dershowitz quotes one or two. “What do you give a wife who has everything for Christmas? An injection of insulin.” Claus seemed to go out of his way to make himself unlikeable. And yet, when he chose, he could be a charming and witty companion. It is as though a destructive daimon drove him into a series of theatrical attitudes, calculated to display a disdain for convention at all costs, to build an imaginary gallery in order to play to it, simply because he knew himself to be both cleverer and better-informed than the groundlings in the pit.

But this did not excuse the tittle-tattle passed around dinner tables as known truth. Claus, it was said, had no proper job with Getty; he just provided call girls. He had murdered his mother in London; everyone knew that; you only had to look at him. From the other side came acid criticism of the law as envisaged by Rhode Island courts, tales of pressure, of checks passed surreptitiously, of children mad for money and vindictive elders. Month after month it became hazardous to venture into any company without the prospect of a verbal bombardment. Claus is guilty as hell, one faction said. Claus is an innocent victim, said the other. And neither possessed any evidence to sustain their view beyond an inner conviction based on hearsay.

Mr. Dershowitz’s aim is to straighten all this out. He does so with great skill, and a novelist’s flair. The opening section of his story ends with the guilty verdict reached at Claus’s first trial. The reader is likely to approach this point with the conviction of guilt gaining on him. The evidence appears damning, the defense feeble. The black bag and its contents are horribly suggestive. Worse, at the time of Sunny’s first coma, while Claus was alone with an unconscious wife, apart from agitated incursions by her maid, he delayed calling the doctor until her condition was such that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was needed. Moreover, Sunny’s death would have offered financially an easy solution to Claus’s problems. And Claus was never put on the stand, so that the apparently damning testimony of Maria Schrallhammer, added to his unexplained, and “unhusbandly,” conduct, underpinned the prosecution’s contention that he had given his wife an insulin shot which, suffering as she did from hypoglycemia, had almost proved fatal.

From page forty-three on, Mr. Dershowitz enters the story. He is a Harvard professor who graduated from Yale Law School, and he has been defined by Time magazine as “a sort of judicial St. Jude.” He assembled a team, not without difficulty, and he masterminded the appeal that led to the second trial and that trial itself, point by point demolishing the earlier verdict. He planned a masterly strategy of defense; his reversal of Claus’s fortune is convincing and thorough. Expert toxicologists were able to unseat the main contention of the prosecution: that Claus had injected Sunny with insulin. One forensic toxicologist explained to the jury that had the needle been injected, “any residue would have been ‘wiped clean’ when the needle was extracted from the skin.” A second expert concluded that the very high insulin level found in Sunny’s blood was “scientifically invalid.” The defense witnesses averred that neither coma had been induced by insulin, “but rather by combinations of drugs, alcohol, hypothermia and apoxia.” In sum, “some of the world’s most renowned experts” disputed the findings of the state’s experts by using a technique for distinguishing true findings of insulin from false positive readings. When Dershowitz obtained the notes of the detective who had questioned Maria Schrallhammer about the contents of the black bag, moreover, he found she had not at first mentioned a vial of insulin.

I should be very glad to have Mr. Dershowitz on my side were I in the dock, but I should not expect much pleasure from a trip around the world with him. For his book is self-serving to a degree. He is vain and facetious. He shows off his bright young sons as though they were performing seals. I deduce that he did not take to Claus’s personality, and that the reaction was reciprocal. After listening to Claus on tape he comments, “You’re an insufferable bore on the tapes, droning on and on about castles, barons and Bordeaux wines. You helped put me to sleep on at least three occasions.” This asperity fortifies confidence in Mr. Dershowitz’s accuracy. Had he been swayed by strong sympathy for Claus we might not accept his conclusions so readily. But it is evident that his conduct of the case was objectively professional. He took on the case, just as he has written the book, as an exercise, and a profitable one, in professional skill.

One of the reasons why he discouraged Claus from taking the stand as a witness was that he feared the jury would dislike his haughty manner. But in spite of such reservations about his client he tackled the heart of the matter convincingly. His verdict is that Claus is no saint but that he did not try to murder his wife by injecting her with insulin.

Before sharing this conclusion the objective reader will have been led through thickets of unique complexity, lit by no steady illumination but by deceptive marsh lights which often obscure the central issue. It is as though some malevolent force were manipulating the destiny of the Auerspergs, the Bülows, and the Aitkens (through a second marriage Sunny’s mother was now Mrs. Russell Aitken) into channels both tragic and grotesque. The validity or otherwise of the state’s case against Claus became half-buried under extravagances of circumstance. Suddenly Prince Alfred, the father of Claus’s stepchildren, is himself in an irreversible coma as the consequence of an automobile accident. Suddenly, too, two figures who might have emerged from the clown scenes of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos come posturing on to the stage—one a priest and one succinctly described as “a tall, sandy-haired, attractive young man.” They bring with them a tale of drugs, perjury, and financial obliquity worthier of Truffaldin and Scaramuccio than of a parish priest and “a friendly kid who mowed the lawn and always had a pleasant word.” The friendly kid first offered himself as a defense witness to Claus, saying that he had provided Alexander von Auersperg with drugs and injection paraphernalia. The priest was called in for respectable corroboration. The kid proved an extortionist, and the priest is under indictment for perjury. Finally a young tenant of Claus’s, who for a year or two was a popular figure in Newport, suddenly committed suicide by jumping off the Newport bridge. An independent commentator, Dominick Dunne, reports a persistent rumor that he was pushed.

And all the time, to add a note of genuine tragedy to what might be degenerating into cruel farce, two central figures in a family drama were half-forgotten: Sunny, silent in her hospital, and her daughter Cosima, penalized by one half of her family for loyalty to the other.

Mr. Dershowitz is not merciful to the legal procedures of Rhode Island—a state which has lately been lambasted also in Geoffrey Wolff’s entertaining novel, Providence. Rhode Island, once ironically nicknamed Rogues’ Island, is very small. Newport itself suffers from a common fault of miniature communities. Everyone knows everyone else. To get anywhere in a legal battle, Mr. Dershowitz suggests, you have to be on the inside track with the right people. He has a good deal of fun with Rhode Island, with its attorney general, an ex-nun named Miss Violet, and the legal luminaries who stretched their sometimes dubious talents over two trials. “The overall quality of justice in Rhode Island is still questioned by many,” he writes. “Despite the favorable outcome of the von Bülow case, this writer is among those who entertain serious questions.”

He concludes, “The case of Rhode Island versus Claus von Bülow will continue to fascinate, confound, anger and even entertain the millions of people who read, watched and listened as it pursued its circuitous and intriguing legal path from guilty to not guilty.” It is this path alone with which Mr. Dershowitz is concerned. He carefully eschews speculation. He adds to the “two obvious possibilities: total innocence or total guilt” several theories of what might have happened without endorsing any of them. For instance, Claus may have been guilty yet his stepchildren, believing him sincerely to be guilty, may have innocently framed him lest he get away with his crime. Or he may have led Sunny into a drug-and-sex adventure that went wrong. Or he was innocent of the first coma, but a year later, having learned of her hypoglycemia, decided to inject her with insulin. Or Sunny was a secret drug user who obtained drugs from an outside source known to the “friendly kid,” David Marriott.

“There can be little doubt,” notes Mr. Dershowitz, “that no family in recent history has ever used more private money and influence to assist a state in bringing public charges against a defendant. Claus von Bülow had to do battle not only against a state prosecutor’s office—a formidable enough opponent—but against the combined forces of a state and a family wealthy enough to be a small state.”

But he leaves his readers to reach their own verdict. Or simply to relish the verve and clarity with which he confounds the chatterboxes and fortifies the minority of those who have thought, through two trials, that it was wiser to assess what did not happen than what did.

This Issue

November 6, 1986