Murder or mishap?

Corner of Yznaga Street and Bellevue Avenue, Newport

Perhaps the most notorious of the Newport "cottages," this twenty-room structure was built in 1904 and was named Claradon for Clara Knight, the wife of Edward R. Knight, the Pennsylvania Railroad executive who commissioned the house. A subsequent owner changed the name of the house to Clarendon Court. In 1956 Clarendon Court served as a set for High Society, the musical version of The Philadelphia Story that starred Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly (in her last film).

In 1970 a new family took possession of the house and performed extensive renovations. A few years later, in 1974, the new owner wrote an article about the house that appeared in the Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society. He ended the article with the following paragraph:

The author of this article has lived happily at "Clarendon" for the past four years. As a European he has found much to admire in Newport, with its sense of history and its preservation of a unique architectural heritage. He hopes some future writer will cover the occupancy of his family at "Clarendon" with as much wistful charity as he has endeavored to extend to its previous owners.

"Wistful charity"? We're afraid not, because on December 21, 1980, Clarendon Court and the writer of that article were thrust into the spotlight when socialite Martha "Sunny" von Bulow was discovered lying on the bathroom floor of her Newport home. She had slipped into a deep, irreversible coma. Soon Sunny's children Ala and Alexander (from a previous marriage, to Austrian Prince Alexander von Auersperg) were pointing the finger at their stepfather, Claus von Bulow. They claimed he had tried to kill his wife with an overdose of insulin.

But did Claus really have anything to do with it? Evidence at the 1982 trial showed that he had a plausible motive: the von Bulow marriage was shaky as Claus was cheating with a former soap opera actress named Alexandra Isles—and Sunny was worth well over 100 million bucks. Tests revealed that Sunny had had a dangerously low blood-sugar level, possibly pointing to a corresponding high level of insulin in her system. An insulin-encrusted hypodermic was discovered hidden in a black bag in Claus' bedroom closet. On top of all that, it wasn't the first time Sunny had fallen into a coma. A similar condition the year before was reversed only after Claus, very belatedly, called for a doctor. The jury spent nearly six days in deliberations—a Rhode Island record—and on the strength of the circumstantial evidence they convicted the Danish expatriate. Judge Thomas Needham handed down a sentence of thirty years behind bars.

However, based on the fact that a search warrant had not been issued when the contents of the black bag were tested by state officials, Claus got a new trial on appeal in 1985. This time the defense, led by Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz, focused on Sunny's history of depression, substance abuse, food bingeing, and hypoglycemia. It was shown that an injection of insulin was not the only possible cause of her coma: her condition could have been the result of an accidental overdose of barbiturates and alcohol coupled with hypothermia caused by lying on the cold bathroom floor. It was further shown that the only possible way for the hypodermic to have become encrusted with insulin was if it had been deliberately dipped in the substance, which seemed to point to an attempt at framing von Bulow. On June 10, 1985, the jury acquitted Claus of all charges.

After his acquittal Claus no longer felt comfortable in America, and in 1987 he returned to Europe. Sunny's fortune was split between Ala and Alexander (the discoverer of the insulin-encrusted syringe!). Cosima, Sunny's only child with Claus, was initially disinherited because she had sided with her father during the trial, but she was later cut in for a cool $30 million in exchange for Claus's promise to drop any claims to his wife's estate.

As of her 75th birthday, on September 1, 2007, twenty-seven years after her unfortunate accident, Sunny was still alive. A 1996 University of Toronto classroom case study on the ethics of death described her life this way:

In her room in Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, located in a slummy corner of north Manhattan, she is dressed daily by round-the-clock attendants who also see to her hair, makeup and nails. A small stereo radio fills the room with her favorite music. At no time during this period [1982-96] has Sunny von Bulow ever given any sign of self-awareness. She cannot respond to stimuli—sights, sounds, touch. She is nourished via a food tube. Neurological experts declare that her loss of consciousness is irreversible. And yet: she is capable of breathing on her own, without a respirator. Her brain-waves show sleep-wake sequences. Now and then her lips curl into a smile. Her eyes open periodically and are said to tear when she is visited by her children Ala and Alexander Auersperg.

Creepy.

Sunny has since been moved to a private nursing home, but we imagine her daily routine is not much changed.

As for Claus, he's doing perfectly well, even without his inheritance. An item in the November 2002 issue of Yankee Magazine reveals that he "today lives in a posh London flat, where he writes theater and art reviews and—citing a poll last year by the magazine Tatler—describes himself as 'the 46th most popular guest in London.'"

Clarendon Court Mansion was sold in August 1988, around the same time that Claus returned to Europe, to Washington DC art dealer Glenn C. Randall and his wife Patricia for $4.2 million. It is not open to the public, but you can still walk up to the gates to gawk... and wonder. Do you suppose the present owners ever think about Sunny while using the bathroom where she was found unconscious? Does Sunny ever travel out of her shriveling body to visit her former home? Does she ever bump into Grace Kelly on the way?

A film about the trials, Reversal of Fortune, was released in 1990. It starred Jeremy Irons as Claus, Glenn Close as Sunny, and Ron Silver as attorney Dershowitz. The part of Clarendon Court was played by a movie set.

Update, December 6, 2008: After nearly three decades in a coma, Martha "Sunny" von Bulow died at Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home on Manhattan's east side. She was 76.

Update, July 12, 2012: Clarendon Court was sold to an anonymous buyer, under the name of Clarendon Court Trust, for $13,126,000. The 313,632 square foot property includes a 10,200 square foot carriage house as well as the 12,000 square foot mansion. The price was the second highest ever for a residential property in Newport, with the first being $17,150,000 paid for Miramar in 2006.

Information

Cost: free

Time required: a glance will do you, unless you are some kind of sicko

Hours: dawn to dusk; after dark you're liable to be mistaken for a prowler

This is private property. Please be respectful.

Finding it: from Route 195 in Massachusetts take exit 8 to Route 24 west; follow Route 24 to Route 138; follow Route 138 to Route 138A (Aquidneck Avenue); Aquidneck Avenue becomes Memorial Boulevard; turn left onto Bellevue Avenue; Clarendon Court is toward the end, on the left, on the corner of Bellevue and Yznaga Street.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to rights of way or angry hippies. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited January 5, 2013

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