Did He Do It?

Updated: Jun 10

I recently read that Claus von Bulow died this past May 25th in his upscale London home, at the ripe old age of 92. For those of you too young to remember, von Bulow was accused of twice attempting to murder his wife Sunny, a wealthy heiress, using insulin. She recovered from the first supposed attempt which had resulted in a short-lived coma, only to fall into another coma following a second alleged attempt approximately a year later. Sunny remained comatose until her death in 2008. Sunny’s two older children (by her first husband) and her maid were certain von Bulow was responsible. He was tried and convicted of attempted murder in 1982, close to a year and-a-half after Sunny lapsed into the second coma. He was sentenced to thirty years in prison but avoided incarceration by posting a million dollars in bail pending appeal.


For the appeal, he landed the services of famed attorney Alan Dershowitz. After Dershowitz secured a new trial for von Bulow, he remained on his legal team for the second trial, raising issues not included in the first trial, and keeping other matters excluded. Dershowitz and the team were effective, as von Bulow was acquitted the second time around.


The case hinged on the fact that once in the hospital, Sunny’s glucose was noted to be low during both her comas, while her insulin level was found to be quite high. Sunny’s two older children said they discovered insulin, sedatives, and hypodermic needles in von Bulow’s possession after her comas. One of the needles was tested after Sunny’s last coma and reported to be coated with insulin, with lesser amounts of valium and amobarbital present. During both comas, von Bulow only called for medical help after a prolonged amount of time when Sunny appeared to be near death.


Looks pretty straight-forward, right? Not so fast…


Things got complicated once Dershowitz came into the picture. He found an expert to refute the presence of insulin on the syringe, saying it was a false positive. No injection site on Sunny was reported, but it is unclear that it was looked for. Sunny had been diagnosed with reactive hypoglycemia before, and Dershowitz argued that explained her low glucose and comas. He also prevented Sunny’s banker from testifying about the money von Bulow would inherit upon Sunny’s death.


A movie about the circumstances around Sunny’s comas and the legal defense, Reversal of Fortune, was released in 1990. It was adapted from a book by Dershowitz with a similar name. Von Bulow was played by Jeremy Irons, who portrayed the sardonic elitist well enough to earn the Oscar for Best Actor (beating out Kevin Costner and Robert de Niro), as well as the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama (beating out Kevin Costner, Robin Williams, and Al Pacino). Sunny von Bulow was played by Glenn Close.


Alan Dershowitz wrote in his book that he was convinced of von Bulow’s innocence. Really? Oh, yeah. He was later part of O.J. Simpson’s legal defense team.


This case brings up some topics of interest when comparing true life events with fiction.


Topic One: What is too ridiculous to be successful fiction?


Many things happen in real life that are so ridiculous, a novel (a novel being fiction, for those of you who don’t know) with the same story would be sneered at. Examples of things too preposterous to write a novel about include:


1) A lying ignoramus who had declared bankruptcy for his companies multiple times is elected president of the United States.


2) The half-brother of a notorious dictator is assassinated with a neurotoxin in an airport by two women who think they are performing for a comedy prank show.


3) The world series between neighboring teams, the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s, is interrupted when an earthquake occurs shortly before a game, causing the bridge connecting the cities to collapse.


4) The second and third president of the united states both died on the same day, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.


5) The most famous pop star dies while under the care of a doctor he hired to dispense IV Propofol so he could sleep.


I could go on, but you get the point. The above list doesn’t include the numerous local stories involving strange coincidences or stupid people doing things too ridiculous to imagine.


The von Bulow story has its share of peculiar facts, and an interesting cast of wealthy and famous people. The highlights include:


1) Von Bulow’s parents were divorced. His father later married the granddaughter of famed Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen.


2) Von Bulow had worked for J Paul Getty Sr. before marrying Sunny. He was rumored to have arranged parties in his apartment where Getty, in his 60’s, met women.


3) While practicing law in London (before he met Sunny), a member of von Bulow’s firm was involved in the first known case involving murder by insulin.


4) Von Bulow was friends with a man (a Lord, in fact) who later murdered his kids’ nanny in the mistaken belief she was his wife.


5) Before marrying Sunny, von Bulow had an affair with a socialite, Anne Woodward, after she’d killed her wealthy husband (she claimed it was accidental, although he was planning to divorce her over her objection).


6) A young man who lived in von Bulow’s carriage house thought he would be called to testify during the first trial, something he feared. He didn’t testify, but six months later reportedly killed himself by jumping off a bridge while wearing a dinner jacket. It was rumored that he was pushed.


7) J. Paul Getty, Jr. loaned (or gave) von Bulow the million dollars he used for bail between trials due to Getty Jr’s sympathy for von Bulow, himself having been under suspicion when his wife died in 1971 of a drug overdose (this is the same Getty whose ear was severed by kidnappers).


8) Before and during Sunny’s comas, von Bulow had a not very secret affair with a soap opera star, Alexandra Isles, who had given von Bulow an ultimatum. Ditch the wife, or she would leave him. It was thought that, although von Bulow had some money of his own, he didn’t want to divorce Sunny, preferring to get the fourteen million dollars willed him upon Sunny’s death (if they were still married). It appears that Alexandria dumped him before the first trial, probably finding a man who kills his wife unattractive. Her testimony at the first trial was unfavorable towards von Bulow. Of note, before Alexandria Isles met von Bulow, she divorced a man who later went on to marry the former wife of Dr. Raskind, who later became Renee Richards, the trans-woman professional tennis player.


9) By the time the second trial rolled around, von Bulow had a new girlfriend, Andrea Reynolds, a Hungarian divorcee who had been married to TV producer Sheldon Reynolds. While still married, the Reynolds had become friends with von Bulow after his first trial. Plans were being made for Sheldon Reynolds to be the agent for an autobiography and mini-series about von Bulow, but that fell apart when Reynolds was in London on business and read a gossip column revealing that his wife was having an affair with von Bulow.


10) After the first trial, a shady character, David Marriott, came forward to claim he had delivered needles and drugs to one of Sunny’s older children and once to Sunny herself, suggesting that Sunny had overdosed on drugs she had given herself. Although the character was disreputable, he claimed to have told a then well-respected priest (Phillip Magaldi) about the drug deliveries before Sunny’s comas. The priest confirmed his story, lending credibility to it. However, the shady character later recanted the story, claiming he’d really delivered drugs to von Bulow. There were rumors Marriott had been paid by von Bulow to concoct the story. The priest himself is noteworthy for later being charged with perjury related to the trial, subsequently being sentenced to prison for embezzling money from his parish, eventually being known to have had homosexual relationships which required money, and, (surprise, surprise) molesting children. He died of AIDS in 2008.


11) Truman Capote had claimed he knew Sunny, and she’d told him she injected herself with insulin so she could eat whatever she wanted and not gain weight (this makes no sense, although it has been reported that insulin may cause appetite suppression and therefore weight loss). He died before he could testify.


12) In 1983, the father of Sunny’s two older children, Prince von Auersperg, was in an auto accident resulting in an irreversible coma. He died in 1992.


After the trial, Sunny’s two older children sued von Bulow in civil court, he counter-sued, and they came to an agreement that he would divorce Sunny, have no claim to her money, and never speak or write of the events. He moved to England where he associated with the upper crust before dying, I assume peacefully, of natural causes.


Despite the fact von Bulow was found innocent, many consider the case to be unresolved. Had von Bulow tried to murder his wife with insulin and/or sedatives? Had Sunny’s older children planted evidence to implicate him, thinking he tried to murder their mother, but would probably be acquitted without their taking action?


Could this story have been a successful novel? I think it could have, despite the trite rich-guy-hires-expensive-lawyer-to-escape-justice theme. As long as some of the famous people and strange events were left out. Which brings me to


Topic Two: In fiction, we are satisfied in the end by knowing what really happened.


In real life, there is often no such definitive resolution. Unless one of Sunny’s two older children claims to know von Bulow was innocent but they tried to frame him because they didn’t like him, a highly unlikely scenario, we can never be certain. But I have my opinion.

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