Sunny von Bülow

Sunny von Bülow
Sunny von Bülow
Born Martha Sharp Crawford
September 1, 1931(1931-09-01)
Manassas, Virginia
Died December 6, 2008(2008-12-06) (aged 77)
Manhattan, New York
Nationality American

Martha Sharp Crawford von Bülow (September 1, 1931 – December 6, 2008), known as Sunny von Bülow, was an American heiress and socialite. Her husband, Claus von Bülow, was convicted of attempting her murder by insulin overdose, but the conviction was overturned on appeal. A second trial found him not guilty, after experts opined that there was no insulin injection and that her symptoms were attributable to over-use of prescription drugs. The story was dramatized in the book and movie, Reversal of Fortune. Sunny von Bülow lived almost 28 years in a persistent vegetative state until her death in a New York nursing home on December 6, 2008.


Early life and marriages

Sunny was the only child of utilities magnate George Crawford (a former chairman of Columbia Gas & Electric Company[1]) and his wife Annie-Laurie Warmack. She was born on her father's personal railway carriage, en route from Hot Springs, Virginia, to New York,[2] for which she was known as "Choo-Choo" as a child before being nicknamed "Sunny" because of her nature.[3] Upon her father's death, when she was four years old, she inherited a reported US$100 million.[2] Her mother, the daughter of the founder of the International Shoe Company, later married Russell Aitken, a sculptor and writer.

Martha "Sunny" Crawford married His Serene Highness, Prince Alfred of Auersperg, the son of Prince Alois von Auersperg and the Countess Henrietta Larisch von Möennich, on July 20, 1957. They had two children, princess Annie-Laurie ("Ala", born 1958) and prince Alexander Georg (born 1959, who uses the surname Auersperg, without the von). The Auerspergs were divorced in 1965. At this time, Sunny's net worth was over $75 million. Alfred died in 1992 after lingering in an irreversible coma for nine years following a 1983 car accident in Austria.[3]

On June 6, 1966, Sunny married Claus von Bülow, a former aide to oilman J.P. Getty, and they had a daughter, Cosima von Bülow, in 1967. By 1979, significant stresses and tensions had developed in their marriage, and both Sunny and Claus spoke openly about the possibility of a divorce.[4] On December 26, 1979, after the family had come together for Christmas at their Newport, Rhode Island mansion, Sunny was found unresponsive and was rushed to the hospital where she slipped into coma but was revived. After days of testing, doctors determined the coma was the result of low blood sugar and diagnosed Sunny as hypoglycemic, warning her against overindulging on sweets or going too long without eating.[5] While no foul play was suspected at the time, Claus was later accused of causing this incident by injecting Sunny with insulin.[6] In April 1980, Sunny was again hospitalized after appearing incoherent and disoriented; their doctors reconfirmed Sunny suffered from "reactive hypoglycemia". She was advised to maintain control of the hypoglycemia by following a strict diet, limiting her sugar intake, and avoiding alcohol.[7]

1980 incident and indictment

On the evening of December 21, 1980, while celebrating Christmas with her family at their mansion, Clarendon Court, in Newport, Rhode Island, Sunny again displayed confusion and uncoordination. She was put to bed by her family, but in the morning she was discovered lying on the bathroom floor, unconscious and unresponsive. She was taken to the hospital where it became clear that this time she had suffered severe enough brain injury to produce a persistent vegetative state. Although clinical features resembled a drug overdose, some of the laboratory evidence suggested hypoglycemia. The Court of Appeal ordered disclosure of the notes taken by the Auersperg children's attorney. These showed that Claus did not want to terminate life support, as had been alleged.

Because of the increased marital tensions between Claus and Sunny in the fall of 1980, her children were suspicious that her brain injury was the result of foul play by Claus. Sunny's two eldest children persuaded Richard H. Kuh, the former New York County District Attorney, to investigate the possibility Claus had attempted the murder of their mother. After the gathering of evidence, Rhode Island prosecutors presented the case to a grand jury who returned an indictment, and in July 1981, Claus was charged with two counts of attempted murder.

First trial

The case attracted nationwide publicity in the United States. The trial began in February 1982. Evidence presented by the prosecution consisted of circumstantial evidence, imputation of financial motive, extensive testimony by various maids, including Maria Schrallhammer who was a prominent witness at both trials,[8] chauffeurs, doctors, and personal exercise trainers, a black bag with drugs, and a used syringe, reported to contain traces of insulin, found in Claus von Bülow's mansion. There was much evidence of excessive use of sedatives, vitamins, and other drugs by Sunny, including testimony of alcohol and substance abuse problems. Harvard endocrinologist George Cahill testified that he was convinced that her brain damage was the result of injected insulin. The jury was convinced and Claus was convicted.


Bülow hired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz for his appeal. Dershowitz's campaign to acquit Bülow was assisted by the then Harvard Law School student and later television personality Jim Cramer; Cramer admitted to himself then and later wrote publicly that Bülow was "supremely guilty" of the crime.[9] Dershowitz and his other attorneys produced evidence of Sunny's excessive drug use, including testimony by both Truman Capote and Joanne Carson (second wife of Johnny Carson) and more than ten of Sunny's friends. Some of the expert witness testimony was excluded as hypothetical or hearsay. Additional expert witness testimony cast doubt on the validity of evidence that a syringe contained traces of insulin. The appeals court quashed the conviction on several grounds, including the appellate court's ruling that justice for the accused should override attorney-client privilege; and that therefore the notes taken by Kuh, the Auersperg children's attorney, should be disclosed. These notes called into question the credibility of Sunny's maid, Ms. Schrallhammer, who had been a key witness for the prosecution.

At the second trial the defense called eight medical experts, all world-renowned university professors, who testified that Sunny's two comas were not caused by insulin, but by a combination of ingested (not injected) drugs, alcohol, and her chronic health conditions. The experts were John Caronna (chairman of neurology, Cornell); Leo Dal Cortivo (former president, U.S. Toxicology Association); Ralph DeFronzo (medicine, Yale); Kurt Dubowski (forensic pathology, University of Oklahoma); Daniel Foster (medicine, University of Texas); Daniel Furst, (medicine, University of Iowa); Harold Lebovitz (director of clinical research, State University of New York); Vincent Marks (clinical biochemistry, Surrey, vice-president Royal College of Pathologists and president, Association of Clinical Biochemistry); and Arthur Rubinstein (medicine, University of Chicago).

Other experts testified that the hypodermic needle tainted with insulin on the outside (but not inside) would have been dipped in insulin but not injected. (Injecting it in flesh would have wiped it clean.) Evidence also showed that Sunny's hospital admission three weeks before the final coma showed she had ingested at least 73 aspirin tablets, a quantity that could only have been self-administered, and which indicated her state of mind.[citation needed]

Dr. Cahill recanted his testimony from the first trial and opined that insulin was the most reasonable explanation for Sunny's comas, but that "neither he nor anyone else could ever be 100 percent certain of the cause of the comas."[10]


Sunny's family remained convinced that Claus had tried to murder her and was upset that Cosima had chosen to take her father's side. As a result of this, in 1981, Sunny's mother, Annie Laurie Aitken, disinherited Cosima,[11] denying her share of the estate upon Aitken's death on May 4, 1984.[12] In July 1985, ten days after Claus was acquitted at his second trial, Ala and Alexander filed a $56 million civil lawsuit against Claus, on their mother's behalf.[13] On December 24, 1987 this case was settled out of court when Claus agreed to divorce Sunny, give up all claims to her fortune, then estimated between $25 million and $40 million, and leave the country. In exchange Cosima was reinstated in Aitken's will and received $30 million as her one-third share of the estate.[11][13]

After the trials, Ala and Alexander founded the Sunny von Bulow National Victim Advocacy Center in Fort Worth, Texas, now the National Center for Victims of Crime[1] in Washington, DC, and the Sunny von Bulow Coma and Head Trauma Research Foundation in New York.[3] Sunny remained in a coma until her death from cardiopulmonary arrest on December 6, 2008, at Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home in New York City.[3] Her memorial service, given by her three children, took place on January 14, 2009, at the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York which was the same church where the von Bülows married.[14]


Alan M Dershowitz, Claus' attorney, wrote a book about the case, Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow Case (New York, Random House 1986 and London, Penguin Books 1991).

Professor Vincent Marks, an insulin expert of the University of Surrey, England, and Caroline Richmond have a chapter on the science underpinning Sunny's medical condition in their book, Insulin Murders (London, Royal Society of Medicine Press 2007).

Televised accounts

The 1990 film Reversal of Fortune was based on Dershowitz' books about the case, with Glenn Close playing Sunny and Jeremy Irons playing Claus von Bülow, a performance for which he was awarded an Academy Award for best actor.

Bill Kurtis narrated an episode of the series American Justice titled "Von Bulow: A Wealth of Evidence".

The American television series Biography produced and aired a documentary episode titled "Claus von Bülow: A Reasonable Doubt", with interviews of Claus Von Bülow and Alan Dershowitz.

This story was also featured on Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege, and Justice in the episode titled "The Von Bülow Affair" on truTV.

The events of this story appear to have inspired the fourth season episode "Black Tie" of NBC's Law and Order.

On a Season 3 episode of NBC's Will and Grace entitled 'The Young and the Tactless', Jack (Sean Hayes) informs Will (Eric McCormack) that Karen's (Megan Mulally) alternate and uber-private 'garter phone' is "...only for real emergencies, like if Sunny Von Bulow comes to and starts pointing fingers!" In "Someone Old, Someplace New" (season 4, episode 16), Jack asks Karen, "…who is that one person that could make your life complete again?" Karen replies, "Sunny's out of bed? Finally! Von Bulow, get your ass in here!"[15]

In "The Suicide" season 3 episode 15 of Seinfeld, Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) makes a reference to Sunny von Bülow when he says "That’s not too bad. It’s not like a Sunny von Bülow coma. The doctor said he should snap out of it anytime."


  1. ^ "Martha 'Sunny' von Bulow, at 76; heiress fell into coma 28 years ago." Boston Globe. December 7, 2008.
  2. ^ a b "Obituary." The Scotsman. December 7, 2008.
  3. ^ a b c d Nemy, Enid (December 6, 2008). "Sunny von Bülow, 76, Focus of Society Drama, Dies". The New York Times. 
  4. ^ Gribben, Mark. "The Claus von Bulow Case". p. 4. Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  5. ^ Gribben, Mark. "The Claus von Bulow Case". p. 5. Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  6. ^ Dobnk, Verena (2008-12-06). "Sunny von Bulow dead after 28 years in coma". The Star. Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  7. ^ Gribben, Mark. "The Claus von Bulow Case". p. 6. Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  8. ^ Gribben, Mark. "The Claus von Bulow Case". p. 26. Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  9. ^ Cramer, Jim (2005). Jim Cramer's real money: sane investing in an insane world. Simon and Schuster. pp. 27. ISBN 9780743224895. 
  10. ^ Friendly, Jonathan (1985-05-17). "Insulin Probably Caused Comas, Doctor Asserts In Von Bulow Trial". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  11. ^ a b Gribben, Mark. "The Claus von Bulow Case". Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  12. ^ "Annie Laurie Aitken". New York Times. 1984-05-05. Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  13. ^ a b Hevesi, Dennis (1987-12-24). "Von Bulow Says He Will Drop Claim to Money". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  14. ^ Dunne, Dominick. "Sunny Memories." Vanity Fair. January 30, 2009.
  15. ^

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Sunny von Bülow — (* 1. September 1932 in Manassas, Virginia; † 6. Dezember 2008 in New York City; eigentlich Martha Sharp Crawford von Bülow) war eine US amerikanische Erbin, die Anfang der 1980er Jahre weltweite Berühmtheit erlangte, nachdem ihr damaliger… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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  • von Bulow, Sunny — ▪ 2009 Martha Sharp Crawford        American heiress born Sept. 1, 1931, Manassas, Va. died Dec. 6, 2008, New York, N.Y. spent nearly 28 years in a coma after being found unconscious in a bathroom of her Newport, R.I., mansion on Dec. 21, 1980;… …   Universalium

  • Von Bulow — Von Bülow Cette page d’homonymie répertorie les différents sujets et articles partageant un même nom. Les Bülows sont une famille noble allemande, portant les titres de baron (Freiherr), de comte (Graf) ou de prince (Fürst). Sommaire 1 Liste de… …   Wikipédia en Français

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  • Claus von Bülow — (born 11 August 1926 in Copenhagen, Denmark) is a British socialite of German and Danish ancestry.[1] He was accused of the attempted murder of his wife Sunny von Bülow (née Martha Sharp Crawford) by administering an insulin overdose in 1980 but… …   Wikipedia

  • Claus von Bülow — (* 11. August 1926 als Claus Cecil Borberg in Kopenhagen, Dänemark) ist ein Brite deutsch dänischer Herkunft. Er gelangte Anfang der 1980er Jahre zu weltweiter Bekanntheit, weil er wegen zweifachen Mordversuchs an seiner Ehefrau Sunny von Bülow… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Cosima von Bülow — Cosima Iona von Bülow is the daughter of Martha Sunny von Bülow and Claus von Bülow. She was born in April 1967. She attended the Brooks School in Massachusetts and then went on to Brown University. In 1996 she married Count Riccardo Pavoncelli,… …   Wikipedia

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