For Stoic Claus Von Bulow, Newport's Crime of the Century Ends in a Stunning Conviction

updated 03/29/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Claus von Bülow spoke before the jury just once in his seven-week trial for attempting to murder his wife. "I am not guilty," the aristocratic Dane answered stiffly when the charges against him were read in a Newport, R.I. courtroom. But last week the seven men and five women responsible for deciding his fate dramatically disagreed. After five and a half tempestuous days of deliberation, the jurors ruled that the superbly tailored, impeccably reared boulevardier was guilty as charged. Von Bülow, the jury found, injected insulin into the body of his sleeping wife, Sunny Crawford von Auersperg von Bülow, in December 1979 and again a year later. The second injection sent the 50-year-old utilities heiress into a coma from which doctors say she will never recover.

It was a stunning end to a case that set a Raymond Chandler plot against a Scott Fitzgerald milieu. "As the prosecution presented it," von Bülow, 55, commented dryly as he waited for a verdict, "it's a drama without comparison." The state charged that von Bülow tried to kill his wife in order to marry 36-year-old Alexandra Isles, a socialite and sometime soap opera actress. In steamy testimony that mesmerized the social colony of Newport, a procession of witnesses testified that Claus and Sunny von Bülow had ceased being physically intimate 14 years ago; that he frequently visited a prostitute; and that Sunny was a neurotic who compulsively misused drugs, from Valium and barbiturates to alcohol, aspirin and laxatives. A maid claimed that von Bülow ignored her pleas to summon medical help for his unconscious wife. A banker said that von Bülow stood to inherit $14.5 million from his wife's estate—and that the former aide to billionaire John Paul Getty had earned little or no money on his own during his 16-year marriage. Von Bülow's stepchildren testified against him. So did his mistress—although Alexandra did retrieve Claus' wedding ring from her apartment so that he could wear it during the trial. Swarms of spectators descended on the courtroom, hungry for every lurid detail. The defendant himself summed it up best in an out-of-court aside: "The case has shown that wealthy people are also ordinary people."

Perhaps for that reason, von Bülow became something of a folk hero in Newport during the long trial—and a line of Claus T-shirts sold out in a local store. "Most of the wealthy people of Newport believe I'm innocent," von Bülow said as the jury deliberated. "A small group are rubbing their hands with glee because I'm involved and they hope I'm guilty. A tiny number of very old and very rich women who find it terrible that I have a mistress think that is even worse than murder." No members of that third group were among the courtroom audience, which gasped in dismay when the verdict was announced. Pulling away from the courthouse, von Bülow's taxi was mobbed by local supporters. Their angry chant: "Free Claus."

The public adulation he received seemed to puzzle von Bülow as much as it cheered him. Throughout the trial, middle-aged and even teenaged women approached him to touch his hand or ask for his autograph; with instinctive courtliness, he always bowed to them, and sometimes lit their cigarettes. "They see me as the underdog," he mused. "I have received over 1,000 letters during the trial. The most astonishing thing is that they're all positive." Although he found the support comforting, von Bülow says his own resources sustained him. "I'm astonished at where the strength comes from," he said. "Think of all those people who learn they have cancer and they're going to die. That is a terrible thing—and yet they live a normal life without collapsing. It's the same inner strength that gets me through this."

The lionization of von Bülow irritates those who fought to convict him. "Maybe people are starving for heroes," prosecutor Stephen Famiglietti says acidly. "But there's no doubt in my mind that he's guilty." As Sunny von Bülow lay unconscious in a New York hospital room, where her medical costs are more than $1,000 per day, her two children (by her first marriage) followed their stepfather's case closely. They stayed in seclusion during the jury deliberation, after watching videotapes of the trial at their grandmother's Newport home every evening. They had triggered the prosecution by hiring a former Manhattan district attorney, Richard Kuh, to investigate their mother's collapse. Kuh spoke for the brother and sister when he offered his wry opinion of the biggest factor in the jury's decision: "Claus' guilt."

For von Bülow, the road to a Newport courtroom was tortuous. Born Claus Borberg in Denmark, he was the son of a noted critic and playwright accused of collaborating with the Nazis in World War II. (The father was later exonerated.) Claus adopted his mother's maiden name, and added the aristocratic "von" while a student at Cambridge. From 1946 to 1964 he worked as a lawyer in England. (If he had taken the stand at his trial, the prosecution would have brought out a striking coincidence: von Bülow was the law associate of the judge who presided over the first insulin murder trial in history—England's celebrated 1957 Barlow case.)

In 1964 Claus went to work for Getty. "I had a beautiful life as a bachelor, and a wonderful job with Getty Oil," he reminisces. "In London, I met and fell in love with Sunny. Maybe that was my mistake—not that I fell in love but that I had to give up my job. I could have had a job with Getty in Los Angeles, but my wife wanted her two children by her first marriage to grow up in New York." Sunny and Claus had one child of their own—Cosima, now 14 and a student at an exclusive New York private school. (During the trial Claus called her every night at the home of friends in Manhattan.)

Now the extravagant life to which Claus became accustomed—in Newport and in a $1 million Fifth Avenue co-op—has apparently come to an end. If his appeals fail, he could spend up to 40 years in prison. When asked after the conviction how he felt about Newport, he answered briskly: "The same way, I suppose, Mrs. Lincoln felt about the Ford Theatre."

As soon as the trial ended, von Bülow, freed on $100,000 bail, left with his attorney for New York to chart his next step. Five employees of the hotel where the defense team stayed throughout the trial lined up to see him off—and von Bülow, ever the patrician, responded with generous tips. The Newport police officer who sometimes escorted von Bülow through the daily courthouse throng had long admired the defendant's elegant brown fedora; von Bülow gallantly presented it to the officer. When the hotel maids burst into tears, von Bülow seemed genuinely moved. "Now, now," he comforted them. "I know this is not the way you wanted it to turn out, but it'll be okay." Then, as he stepped into a van for the four-hour drive down the Atlantic Coast, he turned to a Danish writer he had grown close to during the trial. For the first time, his stony composure seemed to crack. He told his friend goodbye, and adjured him: "Tell your people in Denmark never to come to the United States."

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