NEW YORK – Martha “Sunny” von Bulow, an heiress who spent the last 28 years of her life in oblivion after what prosecutors alleged in a pair of sensational trials were two murder attempts by her husband, died Saturday at age 76.
She died at a nursing home in New York, her children said in a statement.
Sunny von Bulow was a personification of romantic notions about high society – a stunning heiress who brought her American millions to marriages with men who gave her honored old European names.
But she ended her days in a coma, showing no sign of awareness as she was visited by her children and tended around the clock by nurses.
In the 1980s, she was the offstage presence that haunted her husband’s two sensational trials in Newport and Providence, R.I.
At the first trial, in 1982, Claus von Bulow was convicted of trying twice to kill her by injecting her with insulin at their estate in Newport, R.I. That verdict was thrown out on appeal, and he was acquitted at a second trial in 1985.
The murder case split Newport society, produced lurid headlines and was later made into the 1990 film “Reversal of Fortune,” starring Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons.
Claus von Bulow is now living in London, “mostly taking care of his grandchildren,” said Alan Dershowitz, the defense lawyer who handled the appeal and won his acquittal at the second trial.
Claus von Bulow’s main accusers were his wife’s children by a previous marriage to Austrian Prince Alfred von Auersperg: Princess Annie-Laurie “Ala” von Auersperg Isham and Prince Alexander von Auersperg. They renewed the charges against their stepfather in a civil lawsuit a month after his acquittal.
Two years later, Claus von Bulow agreed to give up any claims to his wife’s estimated $25 million-to-$40 million fortune and to the $120,000-a-year income trust she set up for him. He also agreed to divorce her, leave the country and never profit from their story.
Sales of Sunny von Bulow’s property brought $4.2 million from her oceanfront estate in Newport, $6.25 million from her 12-room apartment on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and $11.5 million from the art and antiques from the homes.
Prosecutors contended that Claus von Bulow wanted to get rid of his wife to inherit a large chunk of her wealth and be free to marry a mistress. The defense countered by painting Sunny von Bulow, who suffered from low blood sugar, as an alcoholic and pill popper who drank herself into a coma.
Claus von Bulow was accused of injecting his wife with insulin first in December 1979, causing a coma from which she revived. Prosecutors said he tried again a year later, on Dec. 21, 1980, and the 49-year-old heiress fell into what her children on Saturday called “a persistent vegetative state.”
Her world was reduced to a private, guarded room in the Harkness Pavilion and later the McKeen Pavilion of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. She died at the Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home, her family said.
She was born Martha Sharp Crawford aboard a railcar in Manassas, Va., on Sept. 1, 1932, daughter of utilities tycoon George Crawford, who died when she was 4.
Sunny, nicknamed for her disposition, was raised by her mother in New York City.
While touring Europe with her mother, she met Prince Alfred von Auersperg, who was younger, penniless and working as a tennis pro at an Austrian resort catering to rich Americans. They were married in 1957 and divorced eight years later after she returned alone to New York with their young son and daughter.
On June 6, 1966, she married von Bulow, who then quit his job as an aide to oilman J. Paul Getty.
In addition to her two children from her first marriage, Sunny von Bulow is survived by Cosima Pavoncelli, a daughter from her marriage to von Bulow. Pavoncelli sided with her father during the trials.