An Unwitting Muse: Sunny von Bulow

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Published December 12, 2008

 

She was born in her father’s private train car in 1932; found collapsed on the marble bathroom floor of her Newport, Rhode Island, mansion in 1980; and died, last Saturday, in the nursing home in which she lay in a coma for 27 years, 11 months and 15 days, on New York’s Upper East Side.

Her hair and makeup were done twice a week for that entire time. The private room that became her tomb cost a reported $500,000 per year, and was filled with fresh flowers and family photographs she could not see. Everything about the story is tragic. Everything about the story is glamorous.

And so, just a week after her death, Sunny von Bulow seems an ideal fashion muse: She was an icy beauty, a double heiress, a haute couture client while still a young woman, one of Vogue‘s best dressed. She married twice: first, in 1958, to a poor Austrian prince, the handsome tennis pro at a Tyrolean resort.

Her second, Claus, had added the noble von to his own, lesser name, and together they reigned in society from 960 Fifth Avenue and Clarendon Court, the Newport estate where Claus was accused of injecting her already drug-addled body with insulin for the $30 million he would inherit upon her death. He was charged in 1982 and then acquitted in 1985 in the “trial of the century” (anticipating O.J. Simpson). The 1990 release of Reversal of Fortune meant people worldwide knew her name.

Sunny von Bulow’s story is made of things fashion loves—money, seduction, mystery, fancy things and places. It’s easy to picture a Sunny-inspired collection: pristine coats and gala gowns, clothes for the pool and clothes for the slopes and clothes for town.

But perhaps Sunny von Bulow is a muse for less obvious reasons. What if a designer imagined her free of the influence of camp, tragic beauty and old school glamour? What if, rather than dying, Sunny had woken up after missing nearly three decades of style? She essentially slept through 1980s New Romantics, Power Dressing, Madonna and Lady Di. She missed 1990s piercing and Grunge. She never carried an It bag. She never wore Marc Jacobs, Elber Albaz, Prada, or Nicholas Ghesquiere. What would she wear? It’s up to the imagination.