The Von Bülow Affair: The Objective Behind-the-Scenes Account of the Shocking Attempted Murder Case

The Von Bülow Affair: The Objective Behind-the-Scenes Account of the Shocking Attempted Murder Case

by William Wright

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The true story of heiress Sunny von Bülow’s coma and the attempted-murder trial of her husband, Claus—the case that inspired the film Reversal of Fortune.

On December 21, 1980, millionaire socialite Sunny Von Bülow was found unconscious on her bathroom floor. She would remain in a coma for twenty-seven years. Although her condition appeared to be the result of hypoglycemia, Sunny’s children suspected their stepfather, the debonair Claus Von Bülow, of attempting to murder his wife and abscond with her fortune. Claus went on trial for attempted murder in 1982, initiating a legal circus that would last for years.

In the greatest society trial of the twentieth century, the opulence of Newport and New York provides a backdrop for one of the most intriguing family feuds of all time. In this comprehensive account of the trial and its aftermath, Wright draws on court transcripts and interviews with those involved to present an unparalleled behind-the-scenes look into the legal proceedings as well as the Von Bülows’ private lives.

This ebook contains photos.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781480484986
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 05/13/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 375
Sales rank: 610,028
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

William Wright, the author of ten nonfiction books on diverse subjects, was born in Philadelphia in 1930. After earning a BA at Yale University, he served in the US Army as a translator and interpreter of Mandarin Chinese. Later he became an editor at Holiday and the editor of Chicago magazine. In addition to The Von Bülow Affair, Wright is the author of many books, among them Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman; Pavarotti: My World; and Born That Way: Genes, Behavior, Personality.  
William Wright, the author of ten nonfiction books on diverse subjects, was born in Philadelphia in 1930. After earning a BA at Yale University, he served in the US Army as a translator and interpreter of Mandarin Chinese. Later he became an editor at Holiday and the editor of Chicago magazine. In addition to The Von BülowAffair, Wright is the author of many books, among them Lillian Hellman: The Image, the WomanPavarotti: My World; and Born That Way: Genes, Behavior, Personality.  

Read an Excerpt

The Von Bülow Affair

The Objective Behind-the-Scenes Account of the Shocking Attempted Murder Case

By William Wright


Copyright © 1983 William Wright
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-8498-6


On a Saturday in March, 1982, in a small room behind the courtroom of the Newport, Rhode Island, courthouse, Claus Von Bülow called "gin" to John Sheehan, one of his lawyers, laid down his cards, rose, and walked to the window. He glanced down to the street below at the crowd that had grown each of the three days since the jury had been out deciding if he had twice tried to murder his wife, Sunny.

As the Newporters spotted Von Bülow at the window, they sent up a cheer that evolved into a rhythmic "Free Claus, Free Claus!" He smiled and waved, then returned to the table. His other lawyer, Herald Fahringer, sat reading over the juror profiles they had assembled at the start of the trial. The jury had been deliberating for three days and the tension was beginning to show on the defendant and his counsel. Prolonged deliberations were not a good sign; uncertain jurors were being made certain, lessening the chances of a hung jury.

In the nearby room that served as a similar retreat for the prosecution team, Lieutenant John Reise, the Rhode Island state trooper who conducted the investigation of Von Bülow, sat chatting with Susan McGuirl, the Deputy Attorney General of Rhode Island. Both had been at the prosecution table throughout the trial, backing up the prosecutor of the case, Stephen Famiglietti. Reise was rehashing, perhaps for the fifth time, the significance of the only development since the jury was sent out: their request for a reading of portions of the testimony of Sunny's maid, Maria Schrallhammer.

"She was one of our best witnesses," Reise said. "If you believe her story, how could you think that guy was innocent? If you don't believe it, why would you want to hear it a second time?"

Famiglietti, who had just come in, threw his briefcase on the table and said, "They wanted her recipe for eggnog."

In his chambers behind the bench, Judge Thomas H. Needham sat mulling over a note he was planning to send into the jury, a water-testing ploy to learn if they were making progress, needed help, or were deadlocked. His wife, Ursula, who had come to the courthouse every day since the jury went out, sat reading near his desk. A sheriff entered to discuss arrangements for convoying the jury from the courthouse after the verdict.

In a far corner of the courthouse the jurors sat around a large table, two at each end and four down each side, thrashing over the six weeks of testimony. While they had not yet taken a formal vote, they knew how each felt. At the moment, four of them were not convinced that the prosecution's case removed all reasonable doubt of Von Bülow's guilt.

No one pressured the hold-outs. An unspoken strategy had sprung up among the eight who were convinced of his guilt; they feared that any attempt to lean on the others might drive them into a vote for acquittal. One of the four undecided jurors, a woman, spoke of her sleepless struggle with the evidence the previous night. With mounting emotion she said that she could no longer doubt his guilt. The other eleven jurors knew what the woman was suffering. Her announcement made, she suddenly blurted out, "How could he do that to his own daughter's mother?" and she burst into tears. Two of the other jurors cried as well.

Outside on the steps of the Colony House, the eighteenth-century statehouse that had been converted into a press headquarters, a reporter asked a woman who was wearing a T-shirt on which Von Bülow's photo was captioned with the one word Innocent, what made her so sure. She replied cheerfully, "He has the most beautiful eyes!" A man carrying a Free Claus placard said, "It's him against all of them; he's the underdog."

Inside the press headquarters, 140 media people—print and television journalists and cameramen—stepped around the snarl of cables, phone wires, and work tables, watched basketball on the TV monitors, typed filler stories on the Free Claus groundswell, and even interviewed each other to fill home office demands for something, anything, on the Von Bülow trial. From her table at the far end of the vast room, New York Daily News reporter Theo Wilson, who had covered every major American trial of the past quarter century, from Dr. Sam Shepherd to Jack Ruby to Patty Hearst to Mrs. Harris, looked around the room and told a kibitzer that she had never seen a trial receive so much press coverage.

Copies of the day's New York Post and Daily News strewn around the press tables carried stories of a Missouri woman who was indicted for murdering her seventh husband with insulin injection. This jolted the many who had been drawn to the Newport case by the all but unheard of method of murder Von Bülow was alleged to have attempted.

At the Providence Journal table, the four reporters who had worked on the trial since its beginning sat playing a variation of Scrabble they had invented and named Von Scrabble: every word formed had to relate to the case. Someone had laid down the word "Valium"; the next player was persuading the others that the word "money" he was hanging from the "m" of "Valium" was not too general and was certainly central to this case.

At one of the network tables circled around the courtroom monitor, CBS's Liz Trotta chatted with Richard Kuh, the lawyer hired by the victim's family to start the investigation of Von Bülow. When the CBS phone rang, Kuh slipped away and headed up Touro Street to visit the 1759 Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in America.

Like many of those in town for the trial, he had been meaning to visit the lovely old building for two months but had been unable to move the short distance, not a hundred yards from the courthouse, into an area unrelated to Claus Von Bülow.

In bars along Thames Street and out on the recently fashioned tourist wharves, the mood was pro-Claus. The opinions were based on the he's-too-smart-to-have-bungled-so-badly defense, with overtones of the lone-individual-persecuted-by-powerful-interests theme. Occasionally someone would essay a more specific rationale, like a bartender at the White Horse Tavern who said, "It all boils down to greed; the kids want the money and he wants the money," oblivious to the trust officer's testimony two weeks earlier, which removed any financial motive on the part of the stepchildren.

Up on Bellevue Avenue one of the summer colony's reigning hostesses entertained eight for lunch in her epic mansion; from the first sip of sherry to the last demitasse, nothing was discussed but the Von Bülow affair. And the mood here was anti-Von Bülow to a near lynch-party degree. When someone said that all of Newport was convinced he was guilty, a young woman only recently returned from an unsuccessful European marriage said, "What about the Pells and the Winslows? I understand they think Claus is innocent."

"That's right," snapped the hostess, "they think so, as do about three others, but the other two hundred of us know he's guilty!"

Still farther down Bellevue Avenue sat Clarendon Court, the mansion whose rare majesty had made it very much a character in the Von Bülow drama. Little about the shuttered and gloomy house suggested its having been the setting, eighteen months earlier, of one of the most stunning parties in Newport's party-rich history; a lawn fête in which a hundred of Newport's most entrenched summer colonists, dressed by request all in white, strolled the magnificent lawn, sipping champagne, listening to an orchestra play Dixieland and musical comedy, and watching three croquet matches that had been set up more as tableaux than sport, while a fog rolled off the sea and gently brushed the refined panorama.

The house is all but concealed from the avenue by a high stone wall; it is one of the few mansions on the sea cliff completely invisible from the public Cliff Walk (which has at its entrance a bronze plaque expressing appreciation for the restoration efforts of Claus Von Bülow). The neighboring Astors and Vanderbilts felt no need for such obsessive and expensive privacy, which seems to have been created in anticipation of the kind of public scrutiny now focused on this house.

Down Bellevue Avenue a few hundred yards, Prince Alexander von Auersperg headed his blue Fiat Spider convertible though the gates of the exquisitely manicured estate of his grandmother, Annie Laurie Aitken, and drove the fifty minutes it takes to reach his apartment over a clothing store on the edge of the Brown University campus in Providence where he was an undergraduate.

He was only in the apartment a few minutes when the phone rang. It was his sister Ala calling from Bermuda, where she had flown with her husband to shed a bad cold. No word yet, Alexander told her; he would phone as soon as he heard. Ala asked if anyone knew where she was; she was concerned that reporters could make her flying off to Bermuda sound extravagant and callous.

In Manhattan, the victim's personal maid, Maria Schrallhammer, whose suspicions initiated the effort against Von Bülow, sat writing a letter in Ala's East 77th Street apartment, where she was now employed—a letter to a friend in Germany whom she hoped to visit when the trial was over. Maria wrote of her role in bringing the authorities down on the man she was convinced had twice tried to murder her mistress.

A few blocks north on Fifth Avenue, across from the Metropolitan Museum, Annie Laurie Aitken, a handsome woman in her eighties, sat chatting with a friend in her vast apartment, which a prominent decorator had called "the most beautiful in the city." Housebound because of bad health, she had not testified at the trial or attended it— indeed, her friends wondered if she would live through it. Instead she followed the courtroom action on videotapes Richard Kuh obtained for her.

She had been talking to her visitor about her only child. "You know," she said, "I think Claus has tried putting all his failings on Sunny. He claims she was bored and depressed. The truth is she had many enthusiasms—her children, her homes, reading, travel, flowers, exercise. Claus wasn't interested in anything, except maybe parties. He never ..." She stopped herself. "But I don't have to waste your time telling you what I think of him. You can imagine." She looked out the window at the gray sky, then said, "This never should have happened to Sunny."

Across Manhattan in the garbage-strewn streets of upper Broadway, Sunny Crawford Von Bülow, the subject of the Newport spectacular that had all but upstaged her, lay comatose in her private room on the tenth floor of the soot-darkened Harkness Pavilion, part of the Columbia Presbyterian medical complex. Curled in the fetal position, her skin was waxy and livid, the once blond hair now completely gray.

The heiress of a $75 million fortune made small, sucking noises and restlessly shifted her body while one leg twitched constantly. Despite the movement, a nurse sitting in the room rose to turn the patient as she did every two hours to prevent the formation of pressure sores. Later that day the nurse would give her a sponge bath, paying particular attention to the areas around the tube implanted in the throat, as well as the waste-removing catheter and the feeding tube in the mouth; all are prone to infection.

As the nurse rearranged the bedding and smoothed back Mrs. Von Bülow's hair, the patient's eyes opened suddenly and rotated wildly in their sockets, creating the impression she was reacting to a visual simulus. This was unlikely; doctors believed her to be blind. On a table next to her bed sat a vase of roses—Morris Gurley, Mrs. Von Bülow's bank officer, who arranged for daily flowers, had left instructions that they be highly scented, in case she had retained the sense of smell.

Next to the flowers three framed photographs faced the bed. One was of Sunny Von Bülow's son and daughter by her first marriage, Alexander and Ala von Auersperg; the second was of Claus Von Bülow and their daughter Cosima. The third picture was of Mrs. Von Bülow's favorite yellow labrador, Pan.

Outside the door to the room a guard sat reading a newspaper. Since a reporter slipped into the room and wrote about it two months earlier, the family had paid for round-the-clock guards in addition to full-time private nurses and daily visits from the family doctor. The cost for the room and all this attention was over a half million dollars a year.

Doctors believe Mrs. Von Bülow will never emerge from her condition. There is no reason to think she can smell the flowers or see the photograph of her husband or know that he is being prosecuted for attempting to murder her. Neither will she know that in three more days the twelve jurors will find him guilty of putting her into this irreversible state—the passage from life to death which for most people is a few moments, but for Sunny had already lasted two years and could last many more.


For a time the Von Bülow affair appeared to be a death struggle between two European factions—one Danish, the other Austrian—for an American fortune. Little was known about the fortune except that it was worth struggling over. Newspapers reported that Sunny was the only child of a utilities magnate named George Crawford, who spent most of his adult life around Pittsburgh. Crawford, it turns out, was very good at finding natural gas and getting it into people's homes.

He was born in 1861 in Emlenton, Pennsylvania, where he went to public school, then took a business course at the Eastman Business College in Poughkeepsie, New York. At the age of nineteen he went to work in the western Pennsylvania gas fields. For a time he joined his father and brother in an oil-hardware business, and subsequently, with his sister's husband, formed a company, Crawford and Treat, which was to thrive for years as a highly successful oil and gas operation.

Basically, the vast wealth that Crawford accumulated over his lifetime came from the ground. He was adept at every phase of the burgeoning gas business—from exploration and the most elementary operations to the future corporate complexities of the amalgamating independents.

Each time Crawford's firm merged with a rival firm he would emerge as the new company's board chairman and principal officer. He became head of the final result of the corporate mating, the Columbia Gas and Electric Company, which covered much of the Midwest and, at the time of Crawford's death in 1935, was valued at $700,000,000.

In addition to the corporation-building that was central to his life, Crawford also speculated with success in oil and gas exploration—first in Illinois, moving west to the Oklahoma Territory, then on to Texas, where in 1909 he joined a group to form the Lone Star Gas Company, for which he served as board chairman until his death. He was also involved in pioneer oil operations in Mexico and Colombia.

Crawford did not marry until he was sixty-six years old. His choice was an extremely pretty, vivacious twenty-eight-year-old, Annie Laurie Warmack, whose father, Robert Warmack, had been a wealthy St. Louis shoe manufacturer. Annie Laurie's mother, a widow of great style and personality, had no intention of hiding her beautiful daughter in suburban St. Louis and took her, Henry James style, to Europe and places of fashion in America.

On these travels, Annie Laurie noticed that the pleasant bachelor from Pittsburgh was turning up with remarkable frequency at places she and her mother were visiting. When the Warmack women, in order to visit Cairo, left a Mediterranean cruise Crawford happened to be on, he appeared there too. Annie Laurie found him attentive and considerate in a way her contemporary suitors were not, but was nonetheless stunned when he asked her to marry him.

She had not thought of him that way. He asked her to try thinking of him that way. She agreed to that effort. He followed her to Paris and inquired if she had reached a decision. She replied that her test of marriage was not if you thought you could get along with someone, but if you felt you couldn't get along without them. As he had never been away from her for an instant since making his suggestion, she had had no opportunity to make this test.

He returned to the States alone, but was waiting on the dock for her when she arrived. The experiment worked and they were married at White Sulphur Springs in 1927. They settled in Pittsburgh but kept a cottage at White Sulphur Springs and were visiting there four years later when Annie Laurie was 71/2 months pregnant with Sunny. Signals indicated that the baby might not wait the full nine months, so Crawford, then seventy-one, rushed his wife onto a train to have delivery under the care of New York doctors.

They didn't make it. Their only daughter, whom they named Martha and who would later be nicknamed Sunny, was born in a Pullman car in Manassas, Virginia, with a porter acting as midwife. For years a family friend called the little girl "Choochoo," which she didn't like at all.

Annie Laurie and her mother remained close, but with the death of Mr. Warmack in the early thirties, Mrs. Warmack moved to New York City, where she had friends and where her daughter and son-in-law came almost monthly on business trips.


Excerpted from The Von Bülow Affair by William Wright. Copyright © 1983 William Wright. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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