A most curious tale of playboys, socialites, lawyers and real estate moguls
This week the mystery buyer of Clarendon Court, the former marital home of Claus and Martha “Sunny” Von Bülow (1932 – 2008), was revealed as a restaurateur and real estate mogul named Paul Roiff. Separately, the New York Post reported that Mr Von Bülow’s former lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, had purchased an apartment in Sutton Place, New York at the same time as a postal worker was on trial for killing his sister. The lives of the rich and famous are never anything other than dramatic.
8-bedroomed Clarendon Court on Bellvue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island is best known for the events surrounding the utilities heiress Martha Crawford Von Bülow falling into a 28-year coma there and her husband subsequently being tried, convicted and then acquitted for her attempted murder, but this fine residence has much else in its past as well.
Designed by the most prominent Ameircan architect of the “Gilded Age,” Horace Trumbauer (1868 – 1938), this Palladian style villa was commissioned in 1903 by Edward Collings Knight, Jr. (1863 – 1936), a sugar-refiner and railroad executive, and his wife, Clara. It was built on an acre plot with views of the Narragansett Bay and is most curiously termed “one of Newport’s finest cottages.” The mansion that was constructed for the couple is an almost exact replica of a proposed house by Colin Campbell at Chester-le-Street in County Durham, England and features Doric columns, quoins and an urn-embellished balustrade. It provided a suitable illustration of Mr and Mrs Knight’s wealth and status.
Edward Knight, who was once described as exhibiting “more talent at spending money than making it,” named the house Claradon Court in honour of his wife and shortly before it was completed in 1904, he acquired an additional six acres of land behind the plot with direct frontage to the Atlantic. Here, he had Trumbauer design a vast carriage house in an early Georgian vernacular as well as a series of high brick walls to protect the gardens from the ocean winds.
The Knights engaged a Parisian decorator named Jules Allard to decorate Claradon Court in the English Georgian manner and after several seasons in residence added two wings onto the back of the house. Following Clara Knight’s death in 1928, her husband sold the estate, moved to a more modest Trumbauer designed house in neighbouring Middleton and remarried. His second wife, Marie Louise LeBel, is remembered as a “foul-mouthed, hard-drinking [woman], who thought nothing of killing a neighbour’s dog with a shot from her pearl-handled pistol.” Together they went on to spend the vast sum of constructing a $383,000 mansion in North Carolina as a hunting lodge. It is now the home of the Whalehead Club.
The purchaser of Claradon Court was a First World War hero named Colonel William Hayward (1877 – 1944) and his wife, Mae (1880 – 1956). Whilst the colonel is remembered as the commander of the “Harlem Hellfighters,” a regiment that “never lost a man captured, a trench, or a foot of ground,” his wife was truly a character.
Born in Connecticut, Mae Cadwell had divorced her first husband Selden B. Manwaring of Hartford in 1914 to marry the older and richer Morton F. Plant of New York and New London, Connecticut. Morton Plant adopted her son by her first marriage, Philip “Paul” Morgan Manwaring Plant (1901 – 1941), and when he married the well-known actress Constance Bennett (1904 – 1965) in 1925 more controversy followed. The millionaire socialite Plant’s life is well documented not only as it was for him that the term “playboy” was originally created but also because of his bitter divorce from Bennett in 1929.
Following their purchase, Colonel and Mrs Hayward decided to have the name of Claradon Court changed to Clarendon Court to distance any lingering associations with Clara Knight and she is said to have filled the building with fine and decorative art. The colonel died in 1944 and his widow married for the fourth time, this time taking the president of the American Car & Foundry Company, John E. Rovensky, as her husband. After her death in 1956, Rovensky continued to use Clarendon Court until his own death in 1970 and even allowed it to be used as the set of the 1956 American musical comedy film High Society that starred Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra.
In 1970, Clarendon Court’s most notorious chapter commenced when the utilities heiress Sunny Von Bülow and her husband Claus purchased the house as it was here in December 1980 that Mrs Von Bülow fell into the irreversible coma that she was to remain in until her death in December 2008. The story of Claus Von Bülow’s trials for the attempted murder of his wife is well known and the 1990 film Reversal of Fortune, starring Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close and Ron Silver, is most definitely a true masterpiece.
Considered a couple of “exceptional taste,” the Von Bülows were described as having filled Clarendon Court with exceptional 18th and 19th century English furniture. They also significantly improved the grounds by hiring the landscapers Innocenti & Webel to create an elegant allée to the sea by removing a hillock that had always deprived the ground floor rooms of an ocean view.
In 1974, Claus Von Bülow wrote of Clarendon Court in an article for the Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society:
“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.”
Von Bülow, at that time, plainly could not have imagined the tragic event that was to follow in December 1980 and for what the house would indeed become best known.
A committee managing Sunny Von Bülow’s affairs sold Clarendon Court in 1988 to a fine art and antique dealer named Glenn C. Randall and his wife Patricia for $4,300,000. The couple converted the service wing into a gallery for their collection and lived there until Mrs Randall died after a battle with cervical cancer in May 2010. The 12,800 square foot house and it’s 10,000 square foot coach house were placed on the market for $17,800,000 in October 2010 and whilst the price was subsequently was brought down to $15,800,000, it languished until being sold in July 2012.
The new master of Clarendon Court, Paul G. Roiff, is a graduate of Boston University and Suffolk Law School. He is the president of a real estate company named Heath Properties and also co-owns a number of restaurants in Boston including Mistral, Mooo, Teatro and Sorellina as well as a 63-bedroom hotel named XV Beacon.
Plainly publicity shy, Roiff, who also owns homes in Florida and Michigan, used one of his employees, Keith Beardsley, to purchase Clarendon Court on his behalf. He paid $13,126,000 for the estate.
In another development, on the 25th September The New York Observer reported that the lawyer who became famous representing Claus Von Bülow, Alan M. Dershowitz, had bought a 3-bedroomed apartment in the “stronghold of old money,” 45 Sutton Place, for $1,680,000. Plainly Mr Dershowitz, who subsequently represented O. J. Simpson, has done well and is plainly now richer than his first “celebrity” client. He also owns a 6-bedroom residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was able to use his verbal talent to persuade the sellers of the Sutton Place co-op downwards from their original $2,290,000 asking price.
Separately, late last month, Dershowitz and his family were in court for the trial of a postal worker named Ian Clement. A 7-tonne truck driven by Clement had crushed and killed Marilyn, the 68-year old sister-in-law of Alan Dershowitz, in New York in July 2011. Dershowitz, a retired special referee for the New York court system, had been out for a bicycle ride with her husband, Nathan, a partner at Dershowitz, Eiger & Anderson.
Surprisingly and much to the distaste of the Dershowitz family, Clement, who had been charged with leaving the scene of a fatal accident, was acquitted by a jury on the 20th September. Of this, Alan Dershowitz commented:
“The facts clearly justified a guilty verdict… I think a stronger presentation might have brought about justice. Instead, we have an injustice.”
Both the Von Bülows and the Dershowitz family have endured loss and a huge amount of media attention since the events of the early 1980s. Perhaps these most recent moves will bring with them a new chapter for both Clarendon Court and Mr Dershowitz himself. Meanwhile, Claus Von Bülow, though not quite as wealthy as he was in his days at Clarendon, prospers in London and is considered one of the city’s “finest wits.” How fortunes do indeed revolve.
For more details about The Whalehead Club, go to: http://www.whaleheadclub.org
Contact Alan M. Dershowitz at: Hauser Hall 520, 1575 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MA 02138. Telephone: +1 (617) 495-4617. View his official website at: http://www.alandershowitz.com/ or follow him on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/alandersh
The agent for Glenn C. Randall in the sale of Clarendon Court was Paul Leys of Gustave White who can be contacted on +1 (401) 848-6706 or by email at: [email protected]