Shadowy Facts About Sunny Von Bulow, The Trapped Beauty

April 29, 2024 | Dancy Mason

Shadowy Facts About Sunny Von Bulow, The Trapped Beauty

Socialites are supposed to have it all. But all that Sunny von Bulow got was unrelenting tragedy.

1. She Was The Perfect Woman

Sunny von Bulow existed in a world of good breeding, long blood lines, and advantageous marriages—a world of New York powerhouses and dance-until-dawn debutante balls. But this charmed, privileged life transformed into something far more sinister when it came to her own marriages. The first was a domestic tragedy. The second was the end of her.


2. She Had A Strange Birth

Sunny’s entrance into the world is worthy of a New York fairy tale. The only child of George Crawford, a utilities tycoon, and his wife Annie-Laurie, the little girl was born while her mother was riding the family’s personal railway coach, en route to New York from Virginia, somewhere around Manassas. And from almost this first moment, she made her mark on the world.

Countess Sunny Von Bulow at homeFairchild Archive, Getty Images

3. She Was Beautiful Inside And Out

First nicknamed “Choo-Choo” because of the unusual—if opulent—circumstances of her birth, her mother and father soon changed their minds once they got to know their daughter. Although her birth name was Martha, they quickly began calling her almost exclusively “Sunny” in homage to her welcoming, caring nature.

As it happened, that nature would be too welcoming, and helped lead to her doom. But even her childhood wasn’t without pain.

Martha Bettmann, Getty Images

4. She Became A Toddler Heiress

When Sunny was three years old, she got her first bitter taste of fate. Her father passed that year, leaving the girl without a father figure to look toward—though he also left her with a hefty 100-million-dollar inheritance. While her mother re-married, Sunny was left to face her glittering world relatively alone…until it (briefly) turned into a Cinderella story.

Clarendon CourtMatt Hoke, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

5. She Had A Luxe Life

As a young, well-heeled woman, Sunny did as most of the her set did and went to Switzerland for some of the year to relax and engage in upper-class activities like tennis. In fact, the teachers at these exclusive places were often high class themselves. So when Sunny met her new instructor Alfred one day, she might have suspected he had a claim to fame. And it was a big one.

SwitzerlandEdgar Jiménez, Flickr

6. She Met A Prince Charming

As it turned out, Sunny’s new tennis instructor wasn’t “just” Alfred. He was Prince Alfred von Auersperg—a real-live European royal right before young Sunny’s eyes. It went deeper than that, too. Alfred’s family was one of the most distinguished in Austrian history, and he no doubt had impeccable manners. There was, however, one big thing missing.

Alfred Alfi von Auersperg (left)United Archives, Getty Images

7. It Wasn’t What It Seemed

Prince Alfred may have had the title, but he certainly didn’t have the money. When they met, WWI had long ago ravaged Europe and—more importantly—collapsed the Austrian Empire in its wake. As such, for all their good breeding, Alfred’s family were practically penniless, at least in noble terms. Which made the next development very convenient.

Italian mountain artillery troops in, CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

8. She Found What She Wanted

Evidently, Sunny liked what she saw in Prince Alfred, and the two eventually became engaged. For both, the relationship had some extra perks: Sunny and her American merchant family got the benefit of a royal name, while Prince Alfred and his strapped-for-cash parents got access to bigger bank accounts than they could imagine.

It was looking like a fairy tale ending. Of course, looks can be deceiving.

Countess Sunny Von Bulow at homeFairchild Archive, Getty Images

9. She Had A Royal Wedding

Sunny and her prince married in the summer of 1957, and before long they had two children together, Princess Annie-Laurie (or Ala) in 1958 and Prince Alexander just a year later. At the time of her second child’s birth, Sunny was just 27 years old and already the mother to two royals, plus the wife to another. But not every ending is happy.

Princess Ala von Auersperg in floral dressRon Galella, Getty Images

10. Her Fairy Tale Was Doomed

The next years of Sunny’s life were far gloomier than she displayed to the world. Although the secrets of the royal marriage were mostly kept between tight lips, in 1965, it all fell apart. That year, shy of a decade of marriage, Sunny and Prince Alfred filed for divorce. And Sunny’s next move had everybody whispering “scandal”.

Alfred Alfi von Auersperg playing golfUnited Archives, Getty Images

11. She Met A Dashing Suitor

In 1966, just a year after her split from her prince, Sunny made another splash in society—by marrying Claus von Bulow, the right-hand man of the enormously wealthy J Paul Getty. The tall, elegant Danish socialite was a true man-about-town and a noble himself, so despite any of the whispers coming from New York’s upper crust, everyone could at least understand why Sunny had done it.

It’s the rest of her marriage that devolved into mystery and madness.

CLAUS VON BULOW in suit looking at the cameraPA Images, Getty Images

12. She Had The Perfect Family Again

Once more, everything seemed impeccably normal in the von Bulow household. Sunny already had her two children from her previous marriage, but in 1967 she gave birth to a daughter, Cosima, with Claus. The lady and man of the house were now seen everywhere that mattered over the next years, always photo-ready and in the best clothes. And the good times kept on rolling—at first.

Jeremy Irons  as Claus von Bulow in movieWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

13. She Lived The High Life

By 1979, Sunny’s older children were all but grown up, and her young daughter Cosima was well on her way to becoming a successful socialite herself. More than that, the von Bulows owned several properties, including an apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York, and a mansion, Clarendon Court, in Newport, Rhode Island.

If anyone on the street looked at them, they would have thought they were the ideal couple. Nothing was further from the truth.

Clarendon CourtReading Tom, Flickr

14. Her Marriage Was A Sham

In the late 70s, Sunny and Claus’s marriage had taken a dark turn. They were frequently at odds with each other, and although they could put a good face on for the public, in private they barely touched one another, much less smiled, and acts of any intimacy were few and far between.

It didn’t help, either, that Claus was frequently in New York while Sunny was in Newport, adding to their distance. Only, that was the least of it.

Glenn Close as  Sunny von Bulow in  the movie wearing pink dress at weddingWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

15. Her Husband Resented Her

Much like her first marriage to Prince Alfred, Sunny was very much the wealthy one in her relationship with Claus, and had even given her husband a trust of $120,000 per year, which came off the interest of her own assets. This had a sinister effect on Claus. Although he certainly liked the money, he despised feeling like a “kept” man, and soon staged a cruel rebellion.

Jeremy Irons  as Claus von Bulow in movie

16. There Was Another Woman

Around this time, it was an open secret that Claus no longer considered his marriage vows to Sunny particularly binding. In fact, he was brazenly courting the sultry, former soap opera star Alexandra Isles, and he didn’t seem to particularly care if Sunny knew or not. After all, he had to get his freedom somewhere, right?

Except that his illicit relationship wasn’t just harmless fun.

Alexandra IslesWWD, Getty Images

17. She Called The Shots

Alexandra Isles wasn’t content as the other woman, and she and Claus began talking of marriage—if only Claus could manage to divorce his wife. But there was a catch. Isles also wasn’t going to settle for a poor man, and Claus knew if Sunny went, so did his hefty allowance. Amidst all this, there was also an unsettling issue with Sunny herself.

Jeremy Irons  as Claus von Bulow in movieWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

18. She Didn’t Want To Let Him Go

Reportedly, Claus told his lover that the biggest reason he couldn’t leave Sunny was her mental instability. Because while Claus had one foot out of the door, Sunny was still determined to make their marriage work, and he didn’t know what she would do if he left her.

Isles, upset, broke off their affair. But before the lovers might have gone “on” again, something explosive happened.

Jeremy Irons  as Claus von Bulow in movieWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

19. She Brought Them All Together

In December of 1979, Sunny’s large and disparate family managed to come together at their Rhode Island mansion for a Christmas celebration on the 26th, dysfunction or not. That day, Sunny and her adult son Alexander spent the hours happily drinking a couple of spiked eggnogs together in the family library. Yet even this was a dark sign.

Glenn Close as  Sunny von Bulow in movieWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

20. She Had A Severe Problem

According to more than one friend of the family, Sunny was hiding a dark secret. People close to the von Bulows claimed that Sunny had a drinking problem. As one of them put it, her "one failing was that once she took one drink, she would not know how to stop”. Reportedly, even just a couple of drinks could make her behave erratically—more than erratically, actually.

Jeremy Irons  as Claus von Bulow in movie

21. She Needed An Intervention

It wasn’t just regular tipsiness that overcame Sunny when she drank; she would become almost unable to use her body after drinking. She would end up toppling furniture, or hitting herself on the head when she was leaving rooms, and at one point she even collapsed in the bathroom.

It had gotten so bad that one friend even suggested an AA intervention. During that holiday in Rhode Island, these behaviors came to a climax.

Glenn Close as  Sunny von Bulow in  the movie wearing gray sweaterWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

22. She Was Barely Conscious

After all those eggnogs with Alexander, Sunny became, as usual, somewhat incoherent and sleepy. Judging it was time for his mother to go to sleep, Alexander helped Sunny into her bedroom and left her there for the rest of the evening. But—and this is something everyone in the family agrees on—it was not to be a silent night.

Jeremy Irons  as Claus von Bulow in movie

23. She Had A Bitter Fight

According to Claus von Bulow, Sunny didn’t come into the room and immediately go to bed. Instead, she began to unravel. She argued with Claus about how much his work took him away from her and the family, and Claus himself admitted later that, “We discussed splitting up. I was trying to have a discreet separation”. It was not going to be discreet at all.

Glenn Close as  Sunny von Bulow in  the movie wearing  pink bathrobeWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

24. She Took A Turn For The Worse

The next hours were foggy for everyone involved, but at some point during the night, Sunny seemed to fall into a kind of unconscious stupor—and while the von Bulows’ maid Maria Schrallhammer was worried about her, Claus himself insisted that Sunny was just sleeping off her eggnogs and their fight, and they need not call a doctor. This proved to be a grave error.

maid Maria SchrallhammerWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

25. She Fell Into A Coma

It took Sunny’s son Alexander coming in the next day and shaking at his unresponsive mother to convince Claus something was wrong. Very, very wrong. Once they finally called the doctor, he took one look at her and rushed her to the hospital to try to understand what was going on. Then the situation grew truly dire.

On the way, Sunny slipped into a coma, leaving her children panic-stricken and begging doctors for an answer. When one came, it was deceptively simple.

Glenn Close as  Sunny von Bulow in  the movie at hospitalWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

26. She Got A Surprise Diagnosis

Luckily, doctors managed to revive Sunny von Bulow from her coma—and with her cure they also found the problem. They informed the socialite that she was hypoglycemic, and had fallen unconscious because of dangerously low blood sugar. The key, they informed her, was just to avoid too many sweet foods and eat meals regularly.

But as her family would later learn, this may not have been the whole story.

Glenn Close as  Sunny von Bulow in  the movie at hospitalWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

27. There Was A Suspicious Bag

Ever since that strange evening and morning where Claus von Bulow refused to call a doctor, the family maid Maria had harbored suspicions that Sunny’s husband knew more than he was letting on. Then, months later, she made a heart-stopping discovery. 

She happened to open a compartment of Claus’s travel bag, and found it full of illicit sedatives. Her discoveries didn’t stop there.

Jeremy Irons  as Claus von Bulow in movieWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

28. They Made Another Dark Discovery

Maria was unsettled by the sedatives, but she also had no further proof that something was amiss—even after Sunny again grew disoriented, went to the hospital, and was told to better manage her apparent hypoglycemia. Then one day, Maria noted a new, oddly terrifying addition to the black bag: A syringe of insulin.

But the puzzle pieces still hadn’t quite yet clicked into place, and although she told Sunny’s son Alexander about her find, they both remained quiet. They both would regret it.

maid Maria SchrallhammerWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

29. She Found Herself Back In The Hospital

The next—and last—months of Sunny’s life were one tragedy after another. Suffering a sinus infection, she overdosed on aspirin and became, as Maria put it, “slurry,” necessitating another trip to the hospital. As it turned out, the enormous dose of tablets was nearly fatal, and the socialite had to stay there for three days. And back home, her life wasn’t any better.

Jeremy Irons  as Claus von Bulow in movieWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

30. Her Marriage Was In Tatters

The tensions between Claus and Sunny von Bulow were now at an all-time high. Sunny, who was down on herself about her current weight gain, seemed to cling to her husband even more and want the outside world less. They had no more parties with friends and very little on their calendar, and Sunny couldn’t seem to get out of this slump that had recently gripped her. She never would.

Jeremy Irons  as Claus von Bulow in movieWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

31. She Went Back Where It All Started

Near Christmas 1980, almost a year to the day after Sunny’s first horrifying trip to the hospital, the von Bulow family was back in their Rhode Island mansion of Clarendon Court for the holiday season. On the 21st, the family had dinner together, went to a local theater to watch a film, and then Sunny went into her private bath for a bit.

When she returned, she was carrying a glass of ginger ale—or at least her son Alexander assumed it was ginger ale. Given the next events, anything is possible.

Glenn Close as  Sunny von Bulow in  the movie sitting on a couchWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

32. She Underwent A Transformation

After asking Claus to get her a bowl of leftover chicken soup from the kitchen, a horrific change suddenly overcame Sunny. First, her voice grew weak, and then faltered. She began to even have difficulty holding onto her glass and, when she tried to get up, started to stagger. Terrified, Alexander asked her If she’d taken any sedatives, and she said she hadn’t.

Then Alexander made the mistake that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Glenn Close as  Sunny von Bulow in  the movieWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

33. Her Family Downplayed Her Condition

Although Sunny von Bulow was clearly having difficulties, they didn’t seem to be out of the ordinary from her latest issues, and Alexander believed his mother needed nothing more than a good rest again. Still, just to be safe he told Claus what was happening, and after his stepfather entered the bedroom, Alexander went to meet some friends at the pub. He would never see his mother conscious again.

Sunny von Bulow's children  in  the movieWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

34. She Disappeared

The next morning was a macabre repeat of the last December—with one key change. Claus and Alexander met each other at breakfast close to 11 am, while Sunny was nowhere to be found. Although she tended to sleep in, this was strange even for her, even though Claus had been lying beside her all night and hadn’t appeared to notice anything was the matter.

But when he went back to the bedroom to check on her, everything was the matter.

Jeremy Irons  as Claus von Bulow in the movieWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

35. They Found Her In A Horrific State

After one quick look in the bedroom, Claus called to Alexander with alarm, and they both stepped into Sunny’s private bathroom. The sight was harrowing. Sunny was laying there, unconscious and bleeding from her lip. When Alexander checked his mother’s pulse, he could find none—and Sunny herself was cold.

The family rushed into action, but the results were nightmarish.

Jeremy Irons  as Claus von Bulow in the movieWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

36. She Was Gone Forever

Over the next days, all the best doctors and a battery of tests confirmed the same thing: Sunny von Bulow was in a coma again, and this time they couldn’t get her out of it. She had sustained so much injury to her brain that she was now in a vegetative state. As the maid Maria would later say with tears in her eyes, “They told me there was no hope”.

Other medical discoveries in those days told of more tragedies.

Glenn Close as  Sunny von BulowWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

37. She Was A Mystery

As the physicians ran more tests on Sunny’s almost lifeless form, they found inconclusive results on what had actually caused the coma. Although some of her symptoms resembled a second overdose, other lab results pointed to another brutal attack of hypoglycemia. But for Sunny’s eldest children, those answers weren’t even the point. They had a much bigger culprit in mind.

Glenn Close as  Sunny von Bulow in the movie in hospital Warner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

38. Her Children Knew Who Did It

Over the past year, small dark thoughts had been growing in Alexander’s mind, as well in his sister Ala’s. Both of Sunny’s children with Prince Alfred couldn’t ignore that syringe of insulin in Claus’s black bag, nor could they forget his indifference to her first coma or the significant sum of money he would get from Sunny if she died.

For them, however he had done it, Claus was responsible for their mother’s condition. But they had to tread carefully.

Claus von Bulow Leaving Court in Rhode IslandBettmann, Getty Images

39. They Launched A Secret Investigation

Sunny von Bulow was a notoriously private socialite, and had often turned down the many requests she got to do magazine shoots and interviews. So the last thing her children wanted was to splash this scandal all over the front pages. Instead, they discreetly approached a lawyer, Richard Kuh, and asked him what the evidence looked like to him. But before they even met, they got a shocking answer.

Sunny von Bulow' s children Warner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

40. They Met A Whistleblower

The von Auersperg children were at their mother’s bedside constantly, which is where they learned a gut-wrenching truth. One of the neurologists caring for Sunny von Bulow was so suspicious of the situation, he went up to them and told them he believed that Sunny hadn’t overdosed, nor had she become naturally hypoglycemic and slipped into a coma. According to the doctor, she must have been injected with a syringe of insulin.

A syringe exactly like the one that—unbeknownst to the neurologist—was in Claus von Bulow’s little black bag. The children sprang into action for their mother…but that doesn’t mean they got what they wanted.

Jad Mager as Alexander von Auersberg in the movieWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

41. They Aired Her Dirty Laundry

At the urging of Sunny’s two eldest, Richard Kuh went into action against Claus von Bulow, and by July 1981 a grand jury had indicted him on two charges of attempted murder—one for the incident in December 1979, and one for December 1980. The news was now all over the world: The prominent von Bulow family had skeletons in their closet. More were going to come out.

Alexander Von Auersperg in suit speaking to a JournalistsBettmann, Getty Images

42. He Faced A Bitter Trial

In February 1982, Claus von Bulow went on trial while his wife Sunny von Bulow still lay, unconscious and unknowing, in a hospital bed. The prosecution included testimony from witnesses like the maid Maria Schrallhammer, even as they contended with arguments about Sunny’s casual use of sedatives, her previous overdose of aspirin, and her general deteriorating mental state.

But there was one single smoking gun, and it spelled Claus’s doom.

Jeremy Irons  as Claus von Bulow in movieWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

43. They Found Compelling Evidence

In their sweep of the von Bulow’s Rhode Island property, investigators found one piece of evidence that shocked everyone into silence. Inside Claus’s infamous black bag was now a used syringe, and tests showed that it had traces of insulin on it.

This slim weapon was, perhaps more than any other piece of evidence, what had landed Claus von Bulow on trial in the first place. It also sealed his coming fate.

Financier Claus Von Bulow at courtBettmann, Getty Images

44. She Got Justice

After this, Claus von Bulow was convicted of the charges at the end of his trial—everything had seemed to add up too easily. His stepchildren rejoiced even as they mourned the vibrant mother they had once know, and the rest of the world seemed certain that the suave socialite had gotten what he’d deserved, too.

It appeared that justice, for once, had been done. Then: a twist.

Ron Silver as Alan Dershowitz in the movieWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

45. Her Husband Fought Back

Guilty or innocent, Claus von Bulow was a fighter and a winner, and he didn’t back down after his conviction. He immediately called for an appeal, and hired the (in)famous lawyer and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz—who would later go on to win OJ Simpson’s case—to defend him. It brought about a complete reversal of fortunes.

Claus von Bulow and lawyer  Alan DershowitzBoston Globe, Getty Images

46. He Won In The End

In the appeal trial, Dershowitz systematically unraveled all the prosecution’s claims, from casting doubt on their witnesses to questioning even the residue of the insulin left on that key syringe. Dershowitz also pressed more on Sunny’s state of mind and her use of sedatives—until, at last, Claus von Bulow won the appeal and walked out a free man for good.

But in the end, no one could escape Sunny’s fate, or its consequences.

Ron Silver as Alan Dershowitz in the movieWarner Bros., Reversal of Fortune (1990)

47. Her Family Tore Themselves Apart

In the aftermath of the trials, Sunny’s family was ripped apart. While her two eldest children, Alexander and Ala, remained convinced of Claus’s guilt and decried the result of the appeal, her young daughter Cosima couldn’t bring herself to suspect her own father, and remained steadfast to him until the end—so much so that Sunny’s mother ended up temporarily disinheriting the girl.

And the older children got revenge in other ways.

Annie Laurie Ala von Auersperg and her brother Alexander, Sunny von Bulow's childrenUnited Archives, Getty Images

48. They Went For Him Any Way They Could

Mere days after Claus’s acquittal, Sunny’s children inflicted a new wound on their stepfather. They began a civil trial against him on behalf of their mother, and this time their desired results stuck. They settled out of court with a ruling that Claus needed to divorce Sunny, give up their mother’s millions in the split, and then leave the country entirely.

Finally, they could find some peace…even if their mother couldn’t.

Annie-Laurie Kneissl and Alexander Von Auersperg, the children of Martha Bettmann, Getty Images

49. She Suffered More Unknown Tragedies

For the next decades, Sunny von Bulow lay in her vegetative state, never experiencing a miracle and waking up. Indeed, she even outlived her first husband, and in an eerie way: Just three years after Sunny fell into her coma, Prince Alfred got into a crash and fell into one of his own vegetative states. When he passed in 1992, the former husband and wife were entirely unaware of each other.

Then in 2008, Sunny followed Prince Alfred, passing from a heart attack in December—never her lucky month—at the age of 76. And her story has one last bitter coda.

The Brick Presbyterian Church, Nyc, 2003EditorE92, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

50. Her Story Is Still Unfinished

In the end, Claus von Bulow lived to the extremely ripe age of 92, and passed only in 2019. He had spent his remaining years living mostly in London and staying completely out of the spotlight, but dark shadows nonetheless lingered over him. Although debate still rages about his guilt or innocence, the assistant attorney on his appeal, Jim Cramer, certainly thought he knew the truth.

Cramer later described Claus von Bulow as: “supremely guilty”.

Claus von BulowUnknown Author, Getty Images

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