Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Claus von Bulow Case


On the surface, Martha "Sunny" Crawford von Bülow seemed to have it all.

Sunny von Auersberg, 1957 wedding photo
Sunny von Auersberg,
1957 wedding photo

She was attractive. Photographs of her when she was young show a woman who looks remarkably like Grace Kelly. She was rich, having inherited a fortune conservatively valued at $75 million. And she once held the title of Princess von Auersperg because of her first marriage to Alfred, Prince von Auersperg. She had three loving children, two by Prince Alfie — Alexander and Annie Laurie, nicknamed Ala — and another daughter, Cosima, by her second husband, Claus. They were all as handsome as their mother and had the poise, personality and intelligence to match their immense fortune.

Sunny lived in a world where servants were on hand 24 hours a day to meet their mistress's every whim. But she was not exactly the "idle rich." Sunny was busy when she wanted to be. She was active in Newport, R.I., and New York society, serving on volunteer boards, hosting and attending charity fundraisers and tending to the activities required to maintain her fortune. She had trusts to monitor, business deals to approve, and general interactions with the staff who managed her holdings.

But Sunny was not happy. She often thought about death and suffered from agonizing bouts of depression that made her almost an invalid. No one will ever know if this depression drove her to attempt suicide or if, as many contend, she was the victim of her husband's crime. All we know for certain is that on December 21, 1980, Sunny von Bülow slipped into an irreversible coma. The rest is mystery.

George Crawford, Sunny's father
George Crawford,
Sunny's father

Left fatherless at age four, Sunny was raised by her mother and maternal grandmother. The trio spent the summers at the family estate, Tamerlane, in Greenwich, Conn., and wintered in New York City, where young Sunny attended the exclusive Chapin School. Each morning, a Rolls Royce would pull up outside the Fifth Avenue building, where the family lived in a large suite of apartments, to take Sunny to school.

"The two older women had strong personalities as well as brains, looks and vast wealth," wrote William Wright, an author who covered the Von Bülow case from its inception. "They lavished attention on her, exacting the same flawless deportment that a court chamberlain would demand from an heir apparent."

Friends of Sunny remember a beautiful, but reserved young lady who was always pleasant, even friendly, but whose shyness made her seem a pathetic creature. Her timidity was almost pathological, some recalled, leading casual associates to unfairly label her as "slow."

"She was absolutely gorgeous," one former acquaintance told Wright. "But she didn't have a brain in her head."

But those who knew Sunny intimately argue that such a characterization was inaccurate. Although she often seemed distracted in a crowd, as if she could sense something there that no one else could, this only added to Sunny's ethereal quality.

When she was 18, Sunny had a coming out ball at Tamerlane. She became a staple on the summer party scene, and despite her shyness, no party that season was complete without an appearance by the heiress. That year Sunny graduated from Chapin but opted not to attend college. She did take the college boards, however and explained her high scores to her mother as proof that she could have gone to college if she had wanted to.

Annie Laurie Crawford
Annie Laurie Crawford

Having formally entered New York's high society and graduated secondary school, Sunny was whisked away to Europe by her mother, Annie Laurie, who wanted her daughter to experience the continent as only the super-rich can. Because of her mother's love of shooting — she was a world-class target shot — the Crawfords and Annie Laurie's soon-to-be husband, Russell Aitken, visited the Schloss Mittersell resort in the Austrian Alps.

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