Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Prince Charming (1931)

Dec 20, 2022 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


      In the German Grimm Brothers’ Sleeping Beauty, Aurora pricks her finger on a spindle and falls into an enchanted slumber until aroused by the kiss of the handsome prince. In the twentieth-century American version, Sleeping Beauty did not awaken and may have been sent into an eternal sleep by the hand of her own dark prince.

       If ever there were a female counterpart of the poetic figure Richard Cory, it was the woman who began what promised to be an enchanted life as Martha Sharp Crawford.  She was born in a railway carriage between White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and New York that led to her nickname Choo-Choo. The family fortune derived from her father, George Crawford, founder of Columbia Gas & Electric, who was seventy-five at the time of his daughter’s birth, decades older than his twenty-eight-year-old wife, Annie-Laurie. The Missus was no slouch either in the well-heeled department: her father was Robert Warmack, founder of the International Shoe Co. Martha was George’s only child, and he left his four-year-old a 1935 fortune of seventy-five million dollars.

     Sunny-as Martha was called because of her disposition- grew up in Manhattan where a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce transported her from her Fifth Avenue zip code to the exclusive Chapin School. Summers were spent with her mother and grandmother on the family estate, Tamarlane, in Greenwich, Connecticut. At her debutante ball, the public was entranced by the teen with the Grace Kelly beauty and the dazzling wealth, a flesh-and-blood fairy princess. In the 1950s, she became the precursor to Paris Hilton: rich, blonde, a fixture of upper-crust Manhattan and Newport, Rhode Island. 

      Sunny passed university entrance exams, but as academia held no appeal, Annie

-Laurie took her on countless tours of Parisian couture houses, and the society girl made it onto Vogue’s list of the ten best-dressed women. Mother and daughter frequented European country-house sporting parties where American heiresses and penniless Continental aristocrats made mutual matches of convenience. In 1957, while visiting the Tyrolean country club Schloss Mitersill, Sunny met its tennis pro, Prince Alfred von Auersperg. Despite insignia on his family’s coat of arms, he was short of schillings. After their marriage, the couple settled in Austria, where their home bordered a golf course. However, despite the blending of green New World money and blue Old World blood, as well as children, Alexander and Annie-Laurie, (nicknamed Ala), cracks appeared in their relationship. The handsome husband often absented himself for big game safaris in Africa and in pursuit of other trophies-such as the Italian film star Gina Lollobrigida with whom he had a widely publicized affair. After seven years, when Alfred failed to lose his itch for other women, Choo Choo decided her marriage had gone off the track and filed for divorce. Auersperg settled in Africa to pursue big-game hunting and managed to lose his million-dollar divorce settlement when Emperor Bokassa confiscated it for his country’s coffer. The prince was later involved in a car accident that left him in a vegetative state until his death.   

       At a London dinner party, Sunny succumbed to the charms of fellow guest Claus

von Bülow, a debonair aristocrat. Claus had been christened Claus Cecil Borberg but  changed his last name to von Bülow when his Danish father, a drama critic and Nazi supporter, had been convicted as a collaborator, and Claus had distanced himself from the shame by adopting his maternal grandfather’s surname. A Cambridge educated lawyer, he greatly impressed J. Paul Getty and became the billionaire’s personal assistant. 

          In 1966, Sunny traded her Austrian playboy prince for the Danish-born man-about-society. It seemed a likely match: Claus had the manners; Sunny had the manors. They celebrated with a ball with two hundred thirty guests at Claus’s flat in London’s Belgrave Square, decorated like an eighteenth-century Indian palace. Sunny still preferred the United States as her chief zip code, and the couple lived in her multi-million-dollar fourteen-room Fifth Avenue Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park. Summer vacations were spent in a Georgian Rhode Island mansion on Millionaires’ Row, nestled on ten acres overlooking the Atlantic. The couple had one child together, Cosima, and John Paul Getty served as her godfather. Their 1904 estate, Clarendon Court, was originally named Claradon Court by railroad executive Edward C. Knight after his wife Clara and had served as the setting for the 1956 musical High Society starring Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Grace Kelly.

            Sunny von Bülow had an enchanted life as a beautiful titled heiress, blessed with a charming husband and three children. The family’s chief residence was Newport, Rhode Island, where the great mansions stand like sentinels at the edge of the sea, flaunting their wealth at the waves. Sunny’s daily regimen: she awoke at eleven, shared an hour phone call with her mother, the chauffeur ferried her to exercise class, shopped, had lunch, changed into her lounging clothes, and watched television with Claus. Occasionally, she would appear at parties, sheathed in a designer gown. She retired early, sharing a bed with Claus and their four Labradors.

         There is a saying it is not wise to let too much light into the castle, and this  aphorism was the case with the von Bülows’ pleasure domes. By 1980, Claus, who appeared uxorious, had followed in his predecessor’s shoes by bedding a bevy of beauties; even worse, one of these liaisons had also slipped into the realm of romantic adultery. The mistress who wanted to become the Mrs. was Alexandra Isles, a socialite and sometime soap opera actress who was putting the screws to her lover to terminate his marriage. In this instance, the wife was not the last to know, and the distraught Sunny turned to self-medicating her pain with pills and alcohol. She resented her philandering spouse as it was the Crawford money that had put his elegant clothes on his back and his money-hungry lover in his arms. The mansion doubled as a mausoleum with the von Bülow marriage merely going through the motions.

     In 1980, Sunny lay comatose on her marble bathroom floor, a syringe by her hand. The doctors said she would never regain consciousness, a condition induced by an over injection of insulin she had taken to control her hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). People assumed her coma had been the result of a terrible accident until Sunny’s mother and two oldest children pointed an accusatory finger at Claus. Acting on their suspicions, Alexander hired a private investigator who discovered a black bag in Claus’s locked closet that included an insulin-tainted needle. Based on this evidence, authorities charged von Bülow with attempted murder. The prosecution claimed his motive was financial; Sunny had shared with her son her desire to file for divorce. According to a prenuptial agreement, Claus would receive nothing in that contingency; if she died during their marriage, he would inherit fourteen million dollars of his wife’s seventy-five-million-dollar fortune, as well as her palatial properties and a $120,000 annual stipend. Another incentive: with his wife out of the way, he would be free to marry his mistress. The sign above the entrance of Clarendon Court could have read: Home Sweet Homicide.

       The trial was among the most sensational of the 1980s. News media from around the world were mesmerized by the drama of the American sleeping beauty heiress who lay in a perpetual twilight zone and the European husband accused of delivering the kiss of death. A further thread of the web was the two older royal children and their grandmother were infuriated with Cosima who sided with her father, even when Laurie-Annie cut her out of her ninety-million-dollar will. The drama had every prerequisite for an orgy of headlines: enormous wealth, adultery, and an allegation of attempted murder. The tragic tale became the first major criminal trial televised in the United States. Network executives discovered that real-life courtroom drama, in which the sets and the actors came gratis-generated higher ratings than soap operas. In steamy testimony that mesmerized the country, there were allegations from Truman Capote that Sunny was “a psychological wallflower,” a drug addict and a drunk. Claus’s attorney claimed the coma had been self-induced by a binge of drugs and sweets, including a “sugar bomb” of eggnog, twelve fresh eggs and a bottle of bourbon. Countering these allegations, the prosecution put Sunny’s maid on the stand who claimed that von Bülow ignored her pleas to summon medical help. Claus’s step-children implicated him in the attempted murder as did his former mistress, although Alexandra did retrieve his wedding band so that he could wear it during the trial. Claus’s closest friend said, “The problem with Claus is that he does not dwell in the Palace of Truth. You see, he’s a fake. Claus is trompe l’oeil.” Of the media circus which lapped up every lurid detail, von Bülow simply stated, “The case has shown that wealthy people are also ordinary people.” After five and a half tempestuous days of deliberation, the seven men and five women delivered their verdict-that the superbly tailored defendant was guilty; the murder weapon: a hypodermic needle filled with a lethal dose of insulin. The judge sentenced him to thirty years in prison.  When asked, post-conviction, how he felt about Newport, Claus responded, “The same way, I suppose, Mrs. Lincoln felt about the Ford Theater.” The verdict was a stunning end to the sensational case that set a Raymond Chandler plot against a Scott Fitzgerald backdrop. Released on one million dollars bail, without skipping a heartbeat, Claus once more slipped into the role of a man-about-town. Rather than maintain a low profile, one evening, at a restaurant when someone at the next table had a heart attack, Claus leapt to his feet shouting, “It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!”

     For his appeal, von Bülow hired celebrity lawyer Alan J. Dershowitz-later part of O. J. Simpson’s Dream Team- who obtained an acquittal. His legal stratagem was to show the evidence gathered by the private detectives hired by Alexander, and then turned over to the authorities, should have been inadmissible in court. He argued that the rich cannot be permitted to hire their own police and decide among themselves which evidence should be made available. The jury agreed and acquitted Claus. Dershowitz wrote of the case in Reversal of Fortune, whose title encapsulated the life of the heiress born with a silver spoon that so drastically tarnished. In the televised version, Jeremy Irons, as the debonair Dane, offered the line, “What is another name for fear of insulin?” followed by his own response, “Claustrophobia.” Two years later, Claus’s step-children filed a fifty-six-million-dollar civil suit against him that was resolved on the condition that he divorce the comatose Sunny and renounce any claim to her fortune. The settlement would also restore Cosima as a recipient to one-third of the one-hundred-million-dollar estate of her grandmother. Claus von Bülow agreed and moved to London.

        Sunny von Bülow spent the rest of her life curled in a fetal position in a Manhattan nursing home. The Auersperg children-who had the singular misfortune of having both their parents in irreversible comas- continued to visit, played classical music in case she could hear on some level, and arranged for her hair and nails to be done on a daily basis. Her hospital sported designer Porthault sheets, and several paintings from her New York apartment hung on the walls. Fresh flowers arrived every day, and they placed photographs of her children, and the grandchildren she never met, around the room. Their dearest hope was Sunny, in Lazarus fashion, would awaken. After twenty-eight years, Sunny passed away in 2008, and the secret behind her coma died with her. Her final resting place is in a cemetery near Newport, next to her mother, in her former sanctuary by the sea. The heiress’ life that had started as a fairy tale ended as a Greek tragedy. Unlike the Grimm Brother’s Aurora, for this sleeping beauty, there was no awakening from the kiss of her Prince Charming.