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Marvin Mitchelson, 76; Attorney Pioneered Concept of 'Palimony'

September 20, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Marvin Mitchelson, the flamboyant and controversial divorce lawyer who pioneered the right to "palimony" with a landmark lawsuit against actor Lee Marvin in the 1970s and two decades later spent more than two years in federal prison for tax fraud, has died. He was 76.

Mitchelson, who had suffered from heart problems and skin cancer in recent years, died Saturday night in a Beverly Hills hospice of complications from those diseases, said attorney Cary W. Goldstein.

Since handling his first high-publicity divorce case in 1964 on behalf of actor James Mason's wife, Pamela, Mitchelson established himself as Hollywood's premiere divorce lawyer.

His clients were a virtual who's who of celebrities, including Sonny Bono, Tony Curtis, Mel Torme, Stephen Stills and Carl Sagan. But Mitchelson was known primarily as a "woman's lawyer," representing Joan Collins, Bianca Jagger, Rhonda Fleming and Connie Stevens, among others.

His most famous case was that of Michelle Triola Marvin, who had abandoned her nightclub singing career to be Lee Marvin's live-in companion and, after they broke up, demanded half the actor's $3.6-million income made during the six years they lived together. Although they were never married, she had legally changed her surname to Marvin.

A Superior Court rejected the breach-of-contract lawsuit Mitchelson filed for her and a state appeals court affirmed the dismissal.

But in late 1976 the California Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling stating that unmarried, cohabitating partners could legally seek to share in a partner's property when they separated, if the partners had express written or oral contracts, and that judges also could consider the partners' conduct to determine whether a contract was implied.

"I'm not trying to paint myself as a big crusader, but this was a case I believed in," he told People magazine. "I was waiting for one like it to come along. I believed that a woman who has lived exactly as a wife with everything but an $8 marriage license should have the same rights."

Despite Mitchelson's new-law victory, Marvin vs. Marvin wasn't over.

In 1979, after a 10-week trial, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled that there was neither an express nor an implied contract between the Marvins and that Triola Marvin was not entitled to anything.

The judge awarded Triola Marvin $104,000 to learn new job skills, but in 1981 the state appeals court overturned that award.

Despite Mitchelson's eventual loss in the trial, the high-profile case not only multiplied his business dramatically -- "I made millions" out of the publicity, he boasted to the Los Angeles Times in 1986 -- it made him one of the most famous lawyers in the world.

In the process, he earned a reputation for what a New York Times writer once described as "a self-promoter intoxicated with his own success" -- a lawyer who, as Los Angeles Times writer Ted Rohrlich put it in 1988, "is as well-known for his dramatic flair and courtship of the media as for his legal victories."

"Although Marvin had some extremely difficult times," Goldstein said Sunday, "he was extraordinarily tenacious and eloquent. The law usually wasn't important to Marvin. He would fight for what he believed was right."

Born in Detroit on May 7, 1928, Mitchelson was the youngest of three children and the only son of a Ukrainian immigrant mother and Polish immigrant father who was a painter and paperhanger. The family moved to Los Angeles when Mitchelson was 18 months old.

A Los Angeles High School graduate, Mitchelson served in the Navy as a medical corpsman and earned degrees from UCLA in 1953 and Southwestern University School of Law in 1956. After passing the bar the following year, he set up practice in Beverly Hills.

He handled run-of-the-mill cases before landing a capital murder case in 1958 that resulted in the acquittal of his client. Assorted divorce, child-custody and libel cases against tabloids followed.

In 1963, Mitchelson successfully argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that, along with another case, led to landmark decisions guaranteeing indigents the right to counsel at the trial-court level and for appeals.

"That was my proudest moment," he once recalled.

In 1964, he took over representing talk-show host Pamela Mason in her divorce from her British actor husband.

Two weeks before the trial, after Mitchelson subpoenaed about 40 of the Masons' prominent friends to describe details of James Mason's private sexual matters, the actor settled out of court. He agreed to a $1.5-million settlement for Pamela -- the first divorce settlement to break the million-dollar mark.

"After that, I never had to look back," Mitchelson told the Washington Post in 1982.

Mitchelson enjoyed a jet-set lifestyle, with an elaborately furnished Sunset Strip-area mansion called "the Castle" and a car collection that included two Rolls-Royces and a custom-made convertible once owned by Clark Gable.

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