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The Trials of Marvin Mitchelson : After Years of Controversy, It's Judgment Day for America's Most Famous Divorce Lawyer

October 09, 1988|ANN LOUISE BARDACH | Ann Louise Bardach is a reporter and screenwriter.

THE SCENE was Stefanino's, on Sunset, which was the place to have dinner and be seen in Los Angeles in 1970. Steve McQueen, Don Rickles and Van Heflin were there that night. And so was Marvin Mitchelson, the attorney who had established himself as Hollywood's premier divorce lawyer when he scored $2 million for Pamela Mason in 1964.

Mitchelson was sitting at a table with an aspiring female newscaster. He was head over heels about this young woman, according to numerous sources, who also thought that Mitchelson and his wife, Marcella, had an arrangement of sorts. However, on this particular night it became clear that there was a misunderstanding concerning that arrangement as Marcella Mitchelson came flying through the doors of the restaurant. Nicky Blair, then-owner of Stefanino's, remembers Marcella storming over to the table, where she announced the obvious to the young woman. "You're sitting with my husband!" she bellowed, whereupon she snatched the Rolls-Royce keys off the table and grabbed a bowl of Caesar salad, dumping it over her rival's head, but not before tearing off the woman's hairpiece and throwing it in her husband's plate of linguine.

Blair and several waiters ran to the table and struggled to usher the raucous threesome out of the restaurant. Finally, they were pushed out the door. Back at their tables, all of Hollywood was atwitter, and the next day the whole affair made the trades. Oh, that crazy, wild Marvin . . . so indiscreet but so charming!

For Marvin Mitchelson, the memory of that evening brings laughter and some embarrassment, but no denials. After all, that's who he is--a lovable bad boy who, in his own words, "can't say no." After the laughter subsides, he sighs, perhaps for those good old days when people were more indulgent, more forgiving.

These days, Mitchelson, 60, is facing troubles that seem to multiply each week. Next Tuesday, he is scheduled to appear at a mandatory proceeding of the State Bar to defend himself against six counts of alleged wrongdoing that include charging "unconscionable fees," failing to return unearned portions of financial retainers and filing frivolous appeals. James Bascue, chief trial counsel of the State Bar, says more complaints are being investigated and might result in additional charges. Complaints against Mitchelson, Bascue says, have been coming in almost continuously since the Bar investigation became public in June.

In addition, the Internal Revenue Service and the Franchise Tax Board of California are after Mitchelson for back taxes, and Sotheby's is suing him for more than $1 million, saying that Mitchelson never paid for the jewels he bought last year at the auction of the Duchess of Windsor's treasures.

Moreover, his former secretary has told the district attorney and State Bar investigators that, during the time she worked for him, from 1973 to 1978, Mitchelson was a habitual user of cocaine and the narcotic Percodan.

Finally, two women, Patricia French and Kristen Barrett-Whitney, have accused Mitchelson of rape in formal charges and on a broadcast of "60 Minutes." Significantly, because of lack of evidence, the Los Angeles district attorney, the state attorney general and the county grand jury all declined to prosecute Mitchelson on rape charges.

Still, no one is leaping forward to defend the beleaguered Mitchelson. Even Howard Weitzman, Mitchelson's attorney in the rape investigation, puts a little distance between him and his famous client. "Marvin's a client. . . . I've known him a long time and I like him, but he's not a close friend."

In fact, many who have called themselves Mitchelson's friends are surprised that his troubles didn't swallow him some time ago. Mitchelson, they say, has been crumbling before their eyes for a long, long time. And ironically, the signatures of Marvin Mitchelson's fame--scandal, indiscretion, flamboyance--have fueled the momentum of his downhill slide.

MITCHELSON'S $12,000-a-month Century City offices, decorated with oversized, velvet-upholstered furniture, dark wood floors and doors inlaid with stained glass, succeed in being suitably somber, redolent of turn-of-the-century splendor and not a little grandiose. Mitchelson's personal office has a panoramic view of the Los Angeles Country Club and adjoins a kitchen and a law library. His much-photographed bathroom, where he once posed for television cameras grinning from the bubble bath in his spa, is covered with quasi-erotic wallpaper. Standing next to the door is a cutout of Mitchelson client Joan Collins. Propped along the bathtub's tiled edge are framed photographs of glamorous women, including Marcella, his wife of 27 years, and a bath pillow bearing the likeness of his mother.

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