Not Trashy Enough


Reversal of Fortune

Alan M. Dershowitz

Random House; 267 pages.

MONEY, SEX, DRUGS, mistresses, heiresses, revenge, murder and due process appeals briefs. One of these things is not like the others. But Alan M. Dershowitz thinks they all go together, so he's written a book about them. Reversal of Fortune is the Harvard Law School professor's story of the media event that passed for the von Bulow trial in Rhode Island.

Which brings us to an interesting point. The von Bulow trial was a media event because it was exciting. It was trash: good, all-American trash. It was not, however, a media event because of the fancy legal maneuvering that accompanied Claus von Bulow's initial conviction--and subsequent acquittal--for twice attempting to murder his heiress wife Sunny Crawford von Auersperg von Bulow.

So do you read this book for a scholarly, in depth look at the appeals process, which Dershowitz directed and which gained a second trial for von Bulow? Come on, you want to read about the sleaze. You want to know about the big mansions in Newport, the drugs, the booze, the fast cars, the lifestyles of the rich and famous. What about Claus' many mistresses? What about those rumors that Sunny popped every pill in the book?

And then there was the courtroom drama. The confessions of von Bulow's ex-mistress and soap opera actress Alexandra Isles. The detective work of Sunny's maid Maria Schrallhammer, who it seems hated von Bulow with a passion. The Old Testament fury with which Sunny's children by a previous marriage pursued von Bulow.

The problem with Reversal of Fortune is that it tries too hard to mix in the sleaze with a balanced, legalistic approach to the trial. In the end, anyone who wanted to know just how Dershowitz--the nation's premier criminal appeals attorney--handled this case would feel a little short shrift, and so would anyone who wanted to read about all the trashy gossip.

IT STARTED AROUND Christmas 1979, when Sunny, heiress to the Columbia Gas and Electric fortune, fell into a coma. According to Schrallhammer's account, von Bulow ignored Sunny's poor condition for several hours until Schrallhammer convinced him to call a doctor. Some quick action by the doctor saved Sunny, and life went on as usual.

A year later, she lapsed into her final and irreversible coma. On Saturday night, December 20, 1980, Sunny ate an ice cream sundae for dessert and went to see a movie with the family. In talking to her son Alex von Auersperg after the movie, her voice faltered, and when she stood up to go to bed, she staggered. She told her son she hadn't been taking any drugs, and he carried his mother to bed. The next morning, von Bulow called him up to Sunny's bedroom, where Alex found his mother crumpled on the bathroom floor. Sunny was rushed to the hospital where she had a heart attack, and has been in a coma ever since.

Then the real drama began--the media show. The von Auersperg's suspected von Bulow and hired a private investigator to help search the mansion. The investigator and Alex found the little black bag of drugs which Schrallhammer had discovered after Sunny's first coma. Chemical analyses revealed deposits of insulin on a used hypodermic needle found in the bag, along with a bottle of insulin and other containers with prescriptions for von Bulow on them. From that information the state and the von Auerspergs built their case against von Bulow.

In the first trial, von Bulow looked as guilty as sin. He had a mistress who wanted him to marry her and was putting pressure on him. He stood to inherit a good bit of money if Sunny died. He appeared to have carried around a black bag with insulin and a variety of drugs in them. Sunny had a low blood sugar problem, and medical experts at the trial testified that an insulin injection definitely caused Sunny's first and second comas.

Von Bulow was convicted of trying to kill his wife two times. Then he called in Dershowitz to appeal the verdict to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. With his hot shot team of lawyers and law students, Dershowitz argued that von Bulow's initial trial had been unfair because defense attorneys had not been given access to certain evidence. Dershowitz also argued that the use of a private investigator to uncover evidence for prosecution could imperil people's liberty from unwarranted searches of their private property. He won on the first argument but not on the second.

So the von Bulow case went to trial for a second time, and Von Bulow was acquitted. The medical experts said that the insulin reading on the syringe could very likely be false, that insulin would not have accumulated on a needle injected into someone, and that the coma could have been naturally induced. And then more evidence vindicating von Bulow--the prescription bottle with his name on it was not necessarily found in his black bag. The insulin theory began to look cooked up.

DERSHOWITZ TELLS the tale of the trials very well. He has a way with describing the scene and explaining the legal maneuvering. So two-thirds of his book is spent recounting the trials and the other third recounting the appeals process. He also introduces some evidence that could never have been brought to trial--Truman Capote's assertion that he had seen Sunny inject herself and that she was a well-known drug user, and the assertions of a minor drug dealer who said he had delivered drugs to Sunny.

But these stories lack the bite and the spirit that one might expect from such a dramatic situation. We never really get a feel for Sunny or von Bulow or any of the other people who lived out this sad tale. And when we get to the legal arguments, we don't get much of a scholarly analysis of either the appeals process or the real issues. Dershowitz does a fine job telling two stories. But the problem is that we would much rather read a totally trashy novel or a good sociological study or a good legal analysis, not all three at once.