After 27 years in a coma, Sunny von Bülow dies

The supposed attempted murder of a US heiress by her husband fascinated the world and inspired an Oscar-winning film. Stephen Foley reports
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The Independent US

Twenty-seven years, 11 months and 15 days after slipping into a coma that sparked two of the most sensational attempted murder trials of the Eighties, Sunny von Bülow, the Manhattan heiress and socialite, has died in New York.

She wasn't at the trials of her husband, Claus von Bülow, as he was first convicted and then acquitted of administering doses of insulin designed to kill her. Neither was she in the audience when Glenn Close played her opposite Jeremy Irons as Claus in the Oscar-winning film Reversal of Fortune in 1990. And yesterday she passed silently away in an Upper East Side nursing home, at the age of 76. She had never regained consciousness.

Tended round the clock by nurses, visited regularly by her children, and with fresh cut flowers constantly at her bedside, she showed no sign of awareness.

A family spokesman confirmed her death yesterday afternoon, a full stop to a storied life on pause since the day in 1980 when she was found slumped on the bathroom floor of her lavish mansion in Newport, the Rhode Island playground of the super-rich. The mysterious circumstances of her collapse continue to fascinate almost three decades later.

Born Martha Sharp Crawford, the heir to a $75m (£50m) fortune, she had lived at the superficially glamorous intersection of American money and European entitlement, but there was much unhappiness beneath the surface. Her first marriage, to the Austrian prince Alfred von Auersperg, made her a princess and gave the couple two children, but it dissolved as she tired of his playboy ways.

Her second, to the Danish socialite, Claus von Bülow, then an assistant to the billionaire businessman J Paul Getty Jnr, was studded by infidelity on his part and – at least according to his defence lawyers – drug and alcohol abuse on hers. He was accused of trying to murder her by inducing two comas, briefly in 1979 and finally in 1980, so as to pocket a $14m share of her fortune and free himself to marry his mistress.

The trials were a global media sensation, complete with emotional testimony from the heiress's faithful maid and Mr von Bülow's demanding mistress, a murder mystery played out within a feuding family of improbable wealth against the backdrop of elite East Coast society.

It was the children of Mrs von Bülow's first marriage who initially raised suspicions about their stepfather, prompting a private investigation funded by their father and triggering a schism with their half-sister, Cosima von Bülow.

Searching the house, the investigator found a black bag said to contain three hypodermic needles, one with traces of a sedative and insulin.

While massive doses of insulin have been used for murder, considerable scientific doubt was cast on the causes of Mrs von Bülow's coma. In 1982 he was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison; in a 1985 re-trial, he was found not guilty. Now he lives in London, occasionally writing as an art critic.

The children of Mrs von Bülow's first marriage never accepted his acquittal. After the trials, they founded the Sunny von Bülow National Victim Advocacy Centre to fight for the rights of victims of crime.