Claus von Bülow’s reversal of fortune offers hope to sunken sub owner

As grim as it looks for Peter Madsen, the case of the Danish socialite eventually cleared of attempting to murder his wife offers a chink of light

An eccentric Danish inventor, the suspected murder of a young woman and a crime scene that fits a Sherlock Holmes novel – there’s no doubt submarine owner Peter Madsen has caught the attention of the world’s media.

Though the investigation is ongoing and questions remain unanswered, the media appear to have already convicted Madsen of murdering Kim Wall, a Swedish journalist who got on board his 60ft submarine, the UC3 Nautilus, 11 days before washing up off the Copenhagen coast.

Madsen’s personal life has been heavily scrutinised – from dissections of his character to anecdotes about his sex life and sanity offered to the newspapers by ‘those who know him best’.

And the feeding frenzy is reminiscent of another involving an eccentric Dane in the early 1980s. Aristocrat Claus von Bülow faced similar treatment after he was charged with the attempted murder of his wife, Martha ‘Sunny’ von Bülow, an American heiress.

Aristocratic airs
It’s a trivial coincidence, but Claus von Bülow celebrated his 91st birthday on the same day that Kim Wall’s disappearance broke in the media: August 11. Like Madsen, he grew up estranged from his father – but that’s where the similarities end, or at least until their arrests.

Born Claus Cecil Borberg, he was the son of well-known Danish playwright Svend Borberg. His parents divorced when he was just four. He left Denmark with his mother Jonna during World War II and ended up reading law at Trinity College, Cambridge. His father, meanwhile, was a Nazi collaborator during the Occupation and died in disgrace in 1947.

Because of the stigma attached to his father’s surname, Claus adopted his mother’s maiden name. Jonna was the daughter of Frits Toxwerdt von Bülow, a prominent Danish politician and member of a Danish-German aristocratic family.

When Claus first met Sunny in London, she was already married to Prince Alfred von Auersperg of Austria, whom she divorced a year before becoming Mrs Von Bülow in 1966. Sunny had two children from her first marriage – Princess Annie-Laurie ‘Ala’ von Auersperg and Prince Alexander Georg Auersperg – and a year after marrying Claus she gave birth to another daughter, Cosima von Bülow.

Claus had meanwhile forged a successful career in law in the 1950s: first as a barrister and then from 1959 as the personal assistant of American oil baron John Paul Getty – a job he was reportedly unhappy to give up when he relocated with his wife to New York following their marriage.

Comas for Christmas
The couple first acquired an imposing Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park before buying Clarendon Court, a 23-room Georgian mansion built over ten acres overlooking the Atlantic in Newport, Rhode Island. The property had been used as a set for the 1956 movie ‘High Society’ as the home of Grace Kelly’s character – an actress often compared to Sunny.

It was in the Rhode Island mansion, on 26 December 1979, where Sunny was found unconscious for the first time and rushed to hospital. Her coma, which lasted for a few days, was according to the medical report a result of low blood sugar. She was diagnosed as hypoglycaemic and nothing untoward was reported.

One year later at the mansion, on 21 December 1980, she was found again, unconscious and unresponsive – only this time she did not wake up.

A syringe laced with insulin was found next to her body, prompting the children from her first marriage to hire private investigator Richard Kuh, a former New York district attorney, to look into the case. He duly discovered a black bag containing insulin and syringes in a closet in the study.

The bag and its contents would become central evidence in the two trials that followed in 1982 and 1985, as the Von Bülows became a family divided. While the prince’s children believed Claus was guilty, Cosima von Bülow stood firmly by her father’s side.

The two trials
Following the bag’s discovery, the State of Rhode Island charged Claus with attempted murder and his trial began in January 1982. The prosecution claimed he was having an affair with soap star Alexandra Isles, who wanted him to end his relationship with his wife. A divorce, they argued, would have left him penniless. On the other hand, if Sunny died, he stood to gain half his wife’s wealth.

The defence argued that Sunny was responsible for her condition.

“Mrs von Bülow was a woman who indulged in sweets and alcohol and daily consumed four to five packs of cigarettes, 20 aspirin, 24 laxative tablets and a variety of tranquilisers and other drugs including valium, seconal and barbiturates,” argued the defence, according to a New York Times report.

“She was stricken as a result of an overdose of amobarbital. What happened to her was not anyone’s fault but her own.”

Nevertheless, the jury convicted Claus and sentenced him to 30 years in prison. It is believed the testimony of Sunny’s maid, Maria Schrallhammer, was critical. She told the court that when Sunny had fallen into a coma the first time, Claus had been reluctant to call a doctor and she had found a bag belonging to him containing a hypodermic needle and a bottle marked “insulin”.

Following his conviction, Claus hired Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor, to handle his appeal and the result was a retrial in April 1985. Dershowitz argued that the first judge had been wrong to admit the black bag as evidence as it was obtained without a search warrant.

During the second trial, a panel of nine experts in endocrinology and forensic science established the complete absence of exogenous insulin in Sunny’s body and on the hypodermic needle. The defence team established that three weeks prior to slipping into her permanent coma Sunny had ingested nearly 100 aspirin and been rushed to hospital.

They argued the coma was the result of the consummation of barbiturates, alcohol, beta-blockers and aspirin, combined with hypothermia. Claus was acquitted on all counts.

Conversely no fortune
Following his acquittal, his step-children filed a 56 million dollar civil suit, which was settled out of court in 1987 under the provision Claus would divorce his wife thus waiving his claim to any future inheritance. In turn, Alexander and Ala confirmed they would equally share their mother’s money with their half-sister Cosima.

But that wasn’t the end of the media attention. Dershowitz, who would go on to act as an appellate adviser to OJ Simpson’s defence team a decade later, had published a book in 1986 entitled ‘Reversal of Fortune: Inside the Von Bülow Case’ and in 1990 the media circus started all over again when the movie ‘Reversal of Fortune’ was released.

Starring Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons as the fateful couple, the British actor picked up the Oscar for Best Actor – the second winner in just six years with a somewhat unconventional Danish accent.

Today, Claus von Bülow’s Wikipedia page describes him as a British socialite, even though he is by blood and birth a Dane. He moved back to London after the lawsuit, where he worked as an art and theatre critic before retiring.

Now in his tenth decade, he is described as a polite and intelligent man known for his distinguished appearance, and as a devoted grandfather to Cosima’s three children.

Sunny, meanwhile, passed away in 2008 after a coma lasting 28 years.