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About the Author
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THE FIRST TRIAL:
OF BLUE BLOODS,
AND SUGAR DADDIES
The Maid’s Story:
Loyalty and Treachery
The first trial of Claus von Bülow told, in essence, the maid’s story. Maria Schrallhammer was the star witness, and a masterful witness she was. In a case based almost entirely on circumstantial inferences, Maria came closer to being an eyewitness than anyone else.
According to Stephen Famiglietti, the state’s very able prosecutor at the first trial, “it was Maria Schrallhammer” who “really started this investigation.” “If you believe her,” asked Lieutenant John Reise, the Rhode Island State Police officer who investigated the case and was credited with cracking it, “how could you think that guy was innocent?” And most observers, including, ultimately, several of the jurors, agreed with one writer’s assessment that “Maria’s testimony did von Bülow the most harm.”
Who, then, was this woman variously referred to as the “iron maid,” the “maid of the century” and, recalling the loyal maid in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, “Mrs. Danvers”?”
Maria Schrallhammer was first and foremost a “lady’s maid,” and second a German Frau. Born in a small village outside Munich, she trained for a life of servitude to the aristocracy at a local Catholic convent. Before going to work for Sunny von Auersperg she had performed domestic service for the family of Alfried von Krupp, the notorious armaments manufacturer who used slave labor during the Nazi regime and was convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg. When Sunny married Prince Alfred (“Alfie”) von Auersperg, the couple sought an appropriate, personal maid for Sunny. Baroness von Krupp’s maid was suggested and eventually hired.
From that moment on, Maria Schrallhammer devoted her entire existence to Sunny—whom she always referred to as her “lady.” Maria’s best friend said “she just lived for the family”; they were “her life.” But another life awaited her as well. Her plan was to return eventually to Germany—where she maintained her citizenship—and live out her last years in her beloved fatherland after reaching retirement age.
Although Maria was dedicated to Sunny’s entire family, she was not a family servant. She was Sunny’s personal maid: the “lady’s maid.” Husbands may come and go, children grow up and leave. But Sunny was the constant. Sunny was Maria’s unique responsibility in a home full of servants and domestics.
The relationship between Maria and Sunny may be difficult to understand for people not used to such personal attention. But Maria understood her role in life with exceptional clarity. She took care of every detail of her lady’s life; she dressed her, listened to her, and watched over her. “I did everything for her,” she told the jury. Another servant—noting that Maria was the only person who had access to the most intimate details of Sunny’s life—said they were almost like sisters. But Maria denied being like a sister to Sunny. “Did she ever confide in you?” Maria was asked at the first trial. “No, she very seldom.” “Did you confide in her?” “Yeah, I would tell her if something bothered me.”
This relationship continued throughout Sunny’s marriage to Claus von Bülow. It continues in its own strange way even now, while Sunny lies in an irreversible coma. Until recently, Maria visited her lady several times each week and talked to her. Now she prays for her.
No one—not Sunny’s husbands, parents, children or friends—was closer to Sunny von Bülow. No one was in a better position to observe her daily habits and activities. No one could be a better witness at a trial involving her life—and possible attempts to end it. It was almost as if a videotape camera had been following Sunny von Bülow nearly everywhere during the last twenty-three years of her active life.
Maria Schrallhammer told her story several times after learning that her lady would never recover from her second coma. The first lawyer she told it to was Richard Kuh, the attorney hired by Sunny’s family to investigate the causes of the two comas. On January 8, 1981, eighteen days after Sunny was stricken with her final coma, Maria met with Richard Kuh in his office. Kuh, a private lawyer who was a former District Attorney of New York County, had been recommended by Sunny’s banker as the perfect choice for conducting a discreet investigation to determine whether Sunny’s comas were caused by criminal means. The first step in that investigation was for Kuh to interview all the crucial witnesses to the events surrounding the comas—without alerting Claus von Bülow to the family’s suspicions.
The January 8 Schrallhammer-Kuh interview was obviously important, because it was the first time Maria had told her story to an outsider, a story that had reached its denouement only two weeks earlier. It was also important because the story was told before the family had arrived at any firm conclusions about what had occurred and what they should do. Maria was under no pressure, therefore, to try to fit her story into any preconceived theory. All Kuh was interested in was—in the famous words of Dragnet’s Joe Friday—“the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”
Maria spent nearly an hour with Kuh giving him the crucial facts about which she would testify at both trials. Kuh took detailed notes of exactly what she said. But neither the prosecution nor the defense had access to the notes’ contents during the first trial. The reason they remained secret was that Kuh and the prosecutors claimed that they were protected by the confidentiality of various lawyer-client privileges, which prohibit the lawyer from revealing certain secrets that were disclosed to him in confidence as part of the professional relationship. The trial judge at the first trial agreed and did not require Kuh to produce the notes in response to a subpoena from the defense. Thus, the first jury never learned what Maria had told Richard Kuh during that initial meeting. This was to become a central issue throughout the remainder of the case. So even Maria’s silence about her first account of the events assumed an important aspect.
Maria later told her story to the Rhode Island police and a grand jury. And then, on February 4, 1982, the entire world heard and saw Schrallhammer as she testified before the jury—and the television cameras—in the first trial of Claus von Bülow at Newport, Rhode Island. What viewers saw was a fifty-nine-year-old woman who looked the part of the loyal German maid. The thin features, sad expression, grey complexion, nervous smile and dark, conservative dress combined to make her appear frail and diffident—at least during her direct examination by prosecutor Famiglietti.
The prosecutor quickly took Maria through the biographical and historical foundation for her eyewitness testimony. Soon she was describing that fateful day of December 27, 1979, when Sunny von Bülow nearly died in her Newport “cottage,” Clarendon Court, the fabulous twenty-room mansion that had served as the set for the motion picture High Society.
Maria began by telling the jury about Sunny’s mood on the evening before her first coma. She was sad, but not depressed, because her oldest child, Annie Laurie, had left with her fiancé Franz Kneissl, heir to a ski equipment company, for a two-week visit to his family in Europe. The family had been drinking homemade eggnog in the spirit of the holidays. Sunny had imbibed a glass or two. At about 8:00 P.M. she retired for the night to the bedroom she shared with her husband, Claus.
The next morning at about 9:30 Maria was coming down from the servants’ quarters when she encountered Claus. Maria was on her way to the master bedroom to see if her lady was awake. Claus told her that Sunny had a sore throat and that Maria should not wake her. About five minutes later, Maria approached Sunny’s closed bedroom door and heard her moaning: Maria knocked and then entered. Claus had gotten back in bed by this time. Maria approached her lady and reached for her right arm, which was hanging over the side of the bed. It was “ice cold.… I put her arm into the bed and I tried to wake her up,” but Sunny did not move.
Maria shouted at Sunny and shook her. Still no response. “She was limp. I thought she was unconscious.” Since Sunny was usually a light sleeper who would awaken at the slightest sound or touch, Maria became frightened. “Call the doctor,” she urged Claus. “Call her mother,” she insisted.
“She’s sleeping,” Claus responded calmly. “We didn’t sleep the previous night,” he explained. “Let her sleep.”
“She’s not sleeping,” Maria shouted. “She’s unconscious. I can’t wake her up.”
But Claus insisted that she would be perfectly fine in a few hours, and Maria left the bedroom. A half hour later she returned and saw no improvement. Again she tried to awaken her lady. Again, no response. Maria repeated her request that Claus, who was lying in the giant bed reading next to his wife, call a doctor. Claus told Maria that the family had no local doctor, but Maria reminded him that Sunny had been to see a Dr. Gailitis in Newport. “She was drinking” last night, Claus told Maria. “Let her sleep it off.”
Maria knew that Sunny had a low tolerance for alcohol. “She was drunk after two drinks,” Maria testified. But this seemed like more than her usual reaction to a bit of post-Christmas overindulgence. Maria kept going in and out of the bedroom, checking on her lady and asking Claus to call the doctor or Sunny’s mother. Maria explained to the jury that she would not take the initiative herself “because he wouldn’t have liked me to call, and I didn’t know a doctor anyway in Newport.”