After two sensational trials—the first ending in a conviction that was overturned on technical grounds—Claus von Bülow finally was acquitted last June of the charge that he attempted to murder his multimillionaire wife, Sunny. Shortly thereafter von Bülow, accompanied by his daughter, Cosima, and his lover, Andrea Reynolds, 47, left for an extended vacation in his native Europe.

But now Ala von Auersperg Kneissl, 27, and Alexander von Auersperg, 26, Sunny's children from her prior marriage, have filed a civil suit, charging von Bülow with attempting to murder Sunny, and seeking $56 million in damages.

Von Bülow doesn't have that kind of money, but Sunny, lying in an irreversible coma in a Manhattan hospital, does. And von Bülow, now her heir, intends to fight for it. Another court struggle looms. This time under civil, as opposed to criminal, law, Ala and Alexander don't need to prove their charges beyond a reasonable doubt—only that they are more likely true than not. If they win, Ala and Alexander will wrest Sunny's fortune from the man they are certain tried to kill her.

In an exclusive interview with correspondent Peter Dragadze in Switzerland, von Bülow attacked his stepchildren, claimed his motives were pure and fired the opening volleys of the battle for public opinion that could prove crucial in the coming court case. His remarks follow.

During the trials I suffered years of terrible anguish and strain. [With the civil suit] it has started again. These experiences give one that sickening thump-thump in the stomach from the moment you wake in the morning and wonder what is going to happen that day.

We heard about [the lawsuit] over the social grapevine in London. I was not only put out, I was staggered and disgusted. It is unbelievable that Ala and Alexander von Auersperg, who carry one of the most aristocratic, celebrated names of the Austro-Hungarian and Holy Roman Empire, can stoop to such levels of greed and lack of dignity. After all, isn't $90 million [their inheritance from their maternal grandmother] enough?

Naturally, the suit cast a pall over the vacation. It completely deranged my plans to settle in Europe. Cosima, Andrea and I left New York exactly 10 days after the verdict. We flew to Rome, rented a car—I think a Mercedes—and drove to the beautiful Hotel de la Pace at the Tuscan health resort of Montecatini. I used to go there with Sunny when we were first married and madly in love. It is an ideal place to relax, no social life, no paparazzi, and to make it even better, it is the native town of Sirio Maccioni, owner of Le Cirque, the fabulous restaurant in Manhattan, who personally made sure I had the best to eat and drink. We went to Siena, Florence, Pistoia, Arezzo and after that Rome and Venice, absorbing the marvelous art and culture I'd been deprived of for so long, and which I consider is Cosima's birthright and future. We were so very, very happy.

From Italy, we went to England—I lived there for 23 years. We were wined and dined by everyone. With the wonderful British sense of fair play, once you are declared innocent, that is the end of the matter.

Then we spent a week or so [in Gstaad, Switzerland] walking in the mountains, swimming, going to bed at 9 in the evening just like the peasants. Cosima returned [to the U.S.] to start her course at Brown University. On August 23 I saw Andrea off at the Geneva airport, and I went to Denmark to visit family and see places of my childhood.

I planned this tour with Cosima because she has shown interest in the history of art, the subject she will study, together with English literature, at Brown. There was a twofold purpose for this trip, however. The second was to return to Europe, to live here quietly, cease to be a public figure, to settle in Italy, England or Switzerland, where I have job possibilities in corporate finance. But this was not to be. I have to go back to fight this new pending civil litigation.

In 1982, at the age of 89, [Sunny's mother] Mrs. Crawford disinherited Sunny (because Sunny, being in a coma by then, could not use the money) and her granddaughter Cosima, leaving her fortune instead to Ala and Alexander von Auersperg. Six months later she filed an affidavit with the court saying she intended to treat all three grandchildren equally. She was obviously uncertain in her mind or had totally forgotten what she had done six months before. In any case, she was completely blind and could not read any document she was signing. Cosima's half sister and half brother contested this and as a result have also inherited $35 million their young sister should have received, as well as about $90 million of their own.

[Cosima was disinherited] for no reason other than her being my child, even though she is also Sunny's child. Ala and Alexander were declaring their love for their kid sister, but we wrongly assumed they might put their money where their mouth is.

To make sure there can be no equitable distribution, they are now suing me for everything I have got, including what I might inherit from Sunny, so I cannot redress the balance by leaving my inheritance from Sunny to Cosima.

Although up to now my will has read that whatever I inherit from Sunny goes equally to her three children, I now feel morally obliged to reestablish at least part of the balance owing Cosima. The $15 million or so I would get under Sunny's will shall now be exclusively the inheritance of Cosima.

I cannot see how they can win on the same charge [of which I was acquitted in the criminal case]—the injection of insulin. It doesn't matter if they or the establishment or the court consider I'm a bad guy, an adulterer, a rotten stepfather—that isn't a crime. But I am now forced to return to New York to deal with the suit. I will install myself in [Sunny's] New York apartment, take over, as Sunny's spouse, the Newport mansion and claim all advantages that go with it, everything a husband is legally entitled to. You name it, I'll get it.

I did not want to go back. I did not want all those possessions. But the von Auerspergs have now forced me to take what is legally mine. As Mr. von Bülow, husband of Mrs. von Bülow, I can live as if Sunny were with me every day. I can live by her standards of living. There is nothing to prevent me from ensuring that Cosima and I do so, having the bills settled by the people who handle [Sunny's] affairs. If there were 30 gardeners before, there can be 30 gardeners now. If there were 10 maids before, there can be 10 maids now.

If [Ala and Alexander] want to visit our apartments or houses, they legally have to ask me. You see, a surviving competent spouse has the right to go on living as if nothing has happened. That's what the brats cannot tolerate: I'm still the man in the driver's seat.

If those brats want a war they have me to contend with. I repeat, not for myself—whatever happens I will always live well—but for their sister. Their greed will be their downfall. They are morally indecent. I don't hate them. Not at all. I just think they are unbelievable crashing bores.

A saint I am definitely not, but neither am I a fool. The kids want war again, let them have it. I'm forced to return to the United States to teach them a lesson.

I was deeply in love with Sunny, and we were extremely happy for much of our married life. It was a love marriage, and she happened to be rich as well. I worked for J. Paul Getty from 1959 to 1966 as his executive assistant and then vice-president of Getty Oil Ltd. in London. Paul Getty Jr. did give me a million dollars [for my legal defense]. I have not lost a single friend and this is visible proof. The loyalty of my friends, Paul in particular, meant I could continue to fight and ultimately win. He is really a most exceptional human being, and I herewith express my deepest gratitude to him.

When I married Sunny [in 1966], I was 40 and thought I could continue working in the same job in New York, where we moved from London. To be an international oil executive and the perfect husband for a beautiful, very spoiled rich woman—it was a tragic miscalculation on my part. It just didn't work.

From Dec. 20,1979 Sunny and I were talking divorce, but what I resent from her friends and family is that none tried to help us solve our problems: My stepchildren, who were adults already, my mother-in-law, the family doctor, the butler, maids, the old ladies of Newport, they all gossiped to each other, but when we needed support they said in hushed religious whispers, "We do not want to interfere in a marriage."

Post-coma, I abandoned any intentions of divorcing Sunny. I will never divorce her. I will visit Sunny. I have no intention of abandoning her, but I cannot say anything about the far future. Andrea is very, very important in my life, and I love her very deeply. We can stay together. We don't have to marry for that. We are, after all, adults.

If I speak about living quietly in Europe in the future, it is because I desire a certain solitude. I'm 59 now and deeply desire a different sort of life. I like to believe there is a purpose for everything and that I am a better person for what has happened. I've spent considerable time in religious retreats in France and Italy, and now in America at Graymoor.

The temptation to become a monk has crossed my mind many times, but I must stay in the world to be near Cosima if called for. There are vital problems in which I can fulfill a father's role, and I don't think I could do that from a monastic cell.

I may conclude that we all write our own tombstones. I have no problems living with myself and my own conscience. My epitaph could be: "I've been a playboy. I'll seduce a woman if I have the chance. I've had girlfriends before and during my marriage. I am full of character defects, but of anything worse, I swear I am innocent, so help me God!"