Bette Laderoute
Special Assignment – Jo Lee Magazine

Sunny Crawford von Bülow slipped into a coma on December 21, 1980 and stayed there until her death on December 6, 2008.  Thus ended a chapter in what appeared to be the unhappy life of a woman born to privilege, accustomed to all that money could buy, but seemingly unable to make a match with the right man for her.  Although she loved him, money bought her husband number one, the impoverished German Prince Alfie von Auersperg, and made her a Princess.  It was 1957 and post World War II American heiresses were ripe for the picking by penniless members of European aristocracy.


Two children later and a good deal of infidelity on the part of the Prince, the marriage came to an end.  By 1966, Sunny had met and married Claus von Bülow.  This union produced a daughter, but by 1979 cracks in the couple’s relationship began to show and the pair openly talked about divorce. Claus began to court another woman, Alexandra Isles.


After Christmas 1979 Sunny suffered her first coma. A stay in hospital turned up a diagnosis of hypoglycemia.  Another trip to a hospital after Thanksgiving 1980 saved Sunny from succumbing to the overdose of acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) she had taken to combat a sinus infection.  Just before Christmas, December 21, 1980, Sunny again collapsed and went into a coma that was deemed irreversible.   Claus wanted Sunny removed from life support but the children were against it. In the end it didn’t matter. When medical staff removed the respirator, Sunny began breathing on her own.


Sunny remained in what medical science describes as a state of profound or deep state of unconsciousness.  One can’t help but wonder what, if anything, went through whatever was left of her mind.  Did anybody tell her silent self about The Trials, The Book, The Movie?  If they did, could she hear what was being said to her?  Did she think Claus tried to kill her?  Did she know he did?  Maybe she thought about the good times.


Born Martha Sharp Crawford in Manassas, Virginia, on September 1, 1932, she was nicknamed Sunny because of her disposition. She was considered to be sweet and shy. She was also called Choo Choo when she was very young because she had been born in her father’s private railway car on its way from Virginia to New York.  She grew up to be a beautiful woman. An heiress at the age of four when her father, utilities mogul George Crawford, died and left her a reported $100 million U.S., Sunny enjoyed socialite status and was applauded for her philanthropy and her fundraising activities.



In America, Sunny divided her time between homes in New York City and in Newport, RI.  Although things didn’t work out for the two, Sunny and Alfie remained friendly after their divorce.  With the later addition of Claus and another daughter, Cosima, Sunny’s family has been described as loving, and the children esteemed to be “as handsome as their mother and had the poise, personality and intelligence to match their immense fortune.”  There must have been some good times.


Sadly, with The Trials, The Book, The Movie, tales of possible alcoholism, over-the-counter and prescription drug abuse, suspicion and accusations, sides drawn and the not so nice underbelly of the rich and famous, spilled out onto a courtroom floor.  Claus was first found guilty of attempted murder and later acquitted in a second trial on appeal.  With the second trial the U.S. super lawyer Alan Dershowitz had come on board.  Eventually Dershowitz would write The Book, Reversal of Fortune, which spawned The Movie of the same name.  And Sunny slumbered on.


Perhaps thoughts of her family sustained her all that time. It turns out her actual sojourn in that comatose state was 27 years, 11 months and 15 days.  When she died, a New York Times obituary stated:  “She is survived by her daughters, Annie-Laurie von Auersperg Kneissl Isham and Cosima Pavoncelli; her son, Alexander von Auersperg; and nine grandchildren.” It also said the official cause of death was cardiopulmonary arrest.  Others might say she had died some time ago of a broken heart.

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