A gruesome discovery made at Clarendon Court on the morning of December 22, 1980, set in motion one of the most sensational scandals in Newport’s history, involving money, adultery, and drugs, a scandal that would leave the resort community deeply divided.
Sunny von Bülow, a wealthy Newport resident active in charity and social organizations, was found unconscious and undressed on the floor of her bathroom. Sunny had suffered catastrophic brain damage and would likely remain in a persistent vegetative state for the rest of her life.
Before this, Sunny appeared to have it all. In her younger years, people said she resembled actress Grace Kelly. She knew literary giants, aristocrats, and movie stars. She was the beneficiary of a fortune conservatively valued at $75 million. All this and she had a suave spouse to boot: Claus von Bülow.
Claus and Sunny met while she was wed to her first husband, Prince Alfred von Ausberg of Austria, whom Sunny wished to divorce. A witty Dane and lawyer who had spent much of his young life in London, Claus was tall, handsome, and eccentric, but with impeccable manners. Sunny saw him as a knight in charming armor. Claus and Sunny wed in 1966, and moved with Sunny’s two young children to the United States, where the family split their time between a spacious Fifth Avenue apartment and this immense mansion in Newport. Less than two decades later, Claus’ new family accused him of trying to kill Sunny and the court of public opinion soon agreed.
During trial at Newport’s Municipal Court, the prosecution contended that Claus had injected Sunny with an overdose of insulin and he was found guilty of Sunny’s attempted murder and sentenced to serve thirty years. This verdict was overturned on technical grounds during an appeal led by Professor Alan Dershowitz, one of Harvard Law School’s most illustrious faculty members.
In 1986, Dershowitz published a book based on the case, Reversal of Fortune, which was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film in 1990 by director Barbet Schroeder. Ron Silver’s performance as Dershowitz garnered wide praise, and Jeremy Irons won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Claus. Critics also marveled at Glen Close’s portrayal of Sunny, though her children publicly disputed its accuracy.
Claus eventually moved to London, where he wrote theatre reviews and remains a fixture on the city’s social scene. Sunny, meanwhile, never woke from her coma. She died in December 2008, surrounded by her children, at a nursing home in New York City, almost twenty-eight years to the day after she lost consciousness.