12/22/2008 at 01:00 AM EST
Born in 1931 in her wealthy father's railway car, Martha Sharp Crawford was originally dubbed Choo-Choo. She emerged from her privileged New York City youth as Sunny, a nickname that reflected her vivacious disposition, her dazzling beauty and the glittering $100 million fortune she stood to inherit. But in 1980, 14 years after her marriage to Danish socialite Claus von Bülow, Sunny slipped into an irreversible coma in her Newport, R.I., mansion. While she slept, her case became a cause célèbre as Claus twice stood trial for attempting to murder her—and the trials became the basis of the film Reversal of Fortune, starring Glenn Close as Sunny and Jeremy Irons as Claus.
By the time Sunny died on Dec. 6 in a Manhattan nursing home at age 77, she had spent 28 years in a coma. Soon after she was found unconscious in 1980, an investigator hired by her two children from her first marriage (to Prince Alfred von Auersperg of Austria) searched her Newport mansion. He emerged with evidence Claus had been having an affair—and a black bag that was said to contain three syringes, one bearing traces of insulin. In 1982, Claus—who admitted the affair—stood trial, charged with twice trying to kill Sunny with injections of insulin. He was found guilty, but the verdict was thrown out after his attorney Alan Dershowitz argued that a critical police search had been illegal. At a 1985 retrial, Claus was acquitted.
In 1987, to settle a civil suit by the von Auersperg children, Claus agreed to divorce Sunny, leave the country and renounce any claim to her fortune in exchange for restoring an inheritance for Cosima, his and Sunny's daughter. The day after Sunny's death, Claus, now 82, living in London and a theater critic until 2006, told the London Times, "My daughter and I are both very sad."