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Remembering my friend Claus von Bülow

The man had the gift of friendship, and he extended it to me with a generosity that took me by surprise

There is a paperback on my bookshelves with an inscription from Claus von Bulow, who died this week. ‘To Damian,’ it reads, ‘who is also quite innocent.’ The title of the book? Insulin Murders.

This may surprise anyone old enough to remember the tragedy and the two trials that made Claus notorious in the early 1980s. He was, after all, eventually acquitted of trying to murder his socialite wife Sunny by injecting her with insulin in her Newport mansion, plunging her into a decades-long coma that ended only with her death.

But that title is misleading. The chapter devoted to Claus von Bülow, written by Prof Vincent Marks, a world expert on hypoglycemia, concludes that the coma was not caused by insulin. Therefore no attempted murder took place. It supports the evidence, assembled by Alan Dershowitz at the second trial, that Claus – a toweringly handsome Dane who told sardonic anecdotes in a cultivated English accent – was framed.

Claus was my friend for nearly 20 years. During that time it never once seriously occurred to me that he was guilty. But his problem was that he made such a plausible Columbo villain. His charm was overpowering; the occasional thunderclaps of his rage made you jump out of your skin. You only had to hear one to imagine the rumpled lieutenant slapping his forehead and turning on his heel. ‘I nearly forgot – just one last question, Mr von Bülow.’

I’m recounting this from memory, so the wording won’t be exactly right, but towards the end of the trials there was an American pocket cartoon showing a socialite couple. ‘Darling, we can’t invite Claus von Bülow. It turns out he didn’t do it.’

His notoriety was glamorous. That must have appalled Sunny’s children by his first marriage, who were convinced of his guilt, but there it is. When I first glimpsed Claus at a Spectator party the scandal was fresh and thrill of seeing him undeniable. I hadn’t yet read much about the alleged crime and thought – as many people still do – that whether he did it or not was anyone’s guess. That’s the impression left by the film Reversal of Fortune, for which Jeremy Irons inexplicably won an Oscar: he looked a bit like the real man, but the voice and manner could have been captured better by Danny DeVito. Or Meryl Streep.

I’m just going to say he was innocent and leave it there. At the height of our friendship – in the decade before he became too ill to see visitors – I’d basically forgotten about his ‘troubles’, as he called them. The name Claus von Bülow meant something quite different. You couldn’t call us close friends, but we weren’t far off. Hundreds of people knew him better than me, but the man had the gift of friendship, and he extended it to me with a generosity that took me by surprise.

In the mid Nineties I was books editor of the Catholic Herald. Having seen him at so many parties, and knowing that he was a convert to Catholicism, I timidly went up to him and asked if he’d ever consider writing for us. He made the sign of the cross and said he would consider it his religious duty.

Within a couple of years he was the Herald’s drama critic – and, boy, he was good. Claus had many affairs during his life, but none was more obsessive than his love of the theater. He’d often take me along; no venue was too small if the subject matter intrigued him. And sometimes, despite what I said earlier, the surreality of it struck home. I’m in a room above pub in Hammersmith watching a left-wing play which my friend thinks is really brilliant. That friend is the right-wing Claus von Bülow, portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance, and no one here has a clue.

I’ll never forget going to see Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) with him at English National Opera on the evening of April 2, 2005. Claus not only loved but understood Wagner – an understanding greatly deepened, he insisted, by listening to the Ring Cycle on his own while smoking a spliff.

When we walked in we knew Pope John Paul II was dying. By the time Valhalla had burst into flames he was dead. It felt like a prophecy. Maybe it was, though it has taken until now for the Roman twilight to begin – symbolized for me by the imprisonment of Cardinal George Pell, framed just as outrageously as Claus.

It wasn’t well known that Claus had converted to Catholicism. I don’t know how devout he was: he certainly didn’t go to Mass as often as Andy Warhol, who reached out to him when his fortunes were at their lowest.

This I know because Claus told me. ‘Alzheimer’s is the worst thing that can happen to a professional name-dropper like me,’ he used to say. He didn’t have Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia. But you can’t reach your mid-eighties without the names of even close acquaintances temporarily vanishing. I remember a lunch party at which he whispered in my ear: ‘My very nice Australian friend. What’s his name?’ Since the friend wasn’t there, I couldn’t help without more information. ‘Very funny, clever, delightful. Dresses up as a woman,’ added Claus. Barry Humphries, of course.

So we can add Dame Edna Everage to the list of Claus von Bülow’s female fans. I didn’t quiz him about the legions of ladies with whom he was associated, but he mentioned one name because he knew I was obsessed by music. He’d been greatly smitten by the future Mrs Herbert von Karajan, he told me – which was intriguing because his mother had an affair with Karajan’s great predecessor at the Berlin Philharmonic, Wilhelm Furtwängler. Claus knew his conductors – and his composers. I once suggested to him that there must be people still alive who had met Richard Strauss, who died as recently as 1949. ‘Well, I hate to brag…’ came the reply.

All of which was thrilling for someone educated at Presentation College, Reading – now a building site thanks to the myopia and greed of the Presentation Brothers of Cork. When a group of us were trying to save it 15 years ago, I went to Claus. ‘If only John Paul Getty hadn’t just died,’ he said. ‘I’d have sorted something out.’

And he would have. When I think of Claus von Bülow, what always springs to mind – so painfully now – is the kindness he showed me. Every time I had a big piece in The Spectator, he would ring me to tell me how bloody marvelous it was, even if it wasn’t. Sometimes he rang ‘because you seemed a little lonely the other day, old friend’.

That’s what I will miss most of all. But also, of course, the virtuoso name-dropping, and the school-boyish humor. Claus told me the best dirty joke I’ve ever heard. It’s quite unsuitable for a family website, so I’ll leave you with only the punchline: ‘But she’s got Parkinson’s.’ If you can reconstruct the joke from that, then you should be ashamed of yourself.

This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.


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