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On Mitchelson, palimony and contractual obligations

September 21, 2004|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

What a pity that the legal scuffle between actor Lee Marvin and his live-in lover, Michelle Triola, happened in the Dark Ages, before cable TV turned celebrity scandals into America's wallpaper, with sound. Their fight began in 1970, when the Oscar-winning tough guy told his girlfriend to move out of their Malibu home. He cushioned the breakup with a promise to pay her $800 a month for the next five years. The checks stopped coming after a year and a half. By then Marvin had made his hometown sweetheart his second wife and Triola had changed her last name to his.

Marvin M. Mitchelson, who died in Beverly Hills on Saturday, was just the man to make their romantic feud a precedent-setting cause celebre. Mitchelson, who represented Michelle Triola Marvin, had already made a name for himself as a celebrity divorce lawyer in love with the limelight, but the Marvin case spread his fame as quickly as being caught naked on tape with Minnie Mouse would have. And it added to the popular lexicon a rather sweet-sounding term for a controversial idea: palimony.

Never underestimate the power of cute. Domestic partner post-dissolution support doesn't have quite the ring of "palimony," a felicitous pairing of pal and alimony that was coined by either Mitchelson or a Newsweek writer interviewing him. (It would not have been out of character for the attorney to claim credit for someone else's creation.) The sexy case, cultivated in the rich loam of Hollywood, had everything today's tabloid TV thrives on: intense emotions, lots of money at stake and broad social significance.

The fact that Marvin vs. Marvin earned Mitchelson a place in history is somewhat surprising, since with hindsight, palimony looks like just a phase, more evolution than hard-fought rebellion. In the ensuing years, palimony suits have been all but eclipsed by premarital agreements and cohabitation contracts. While the word lives on, not many people remember that Mitchelson, and the sorority of undocumented mistresses most likely to gain from his test case, lost their groundbreaking battle.

Mitchelson spent seven years on the case. He first went to court in 1972, claiming that Marvin and his client had an oral agreement that she would give up her career as a singer to become his companion and homemaker, and he would support her for the rest of her life. The trial court and intermediate appellate court rejected the suit because they considered a woman living with a man to whom she wasn't married to be in a meretricious -- meaning a prostitution-like -- relationship. Mitchelson brought the case to the California Supreme Court, which ruled in 1976 that Michelle Marvin was entitled to a trial to prove she had the oral contract she claimed she had.

The ruling granting her the right to sue based on her claim of a significant relationship arising out of cohabitation represented Mitchelson's most important win, one that established a precedent. In a bow to times that were a-changing, the state Supreme Court decided that the doctrine of meretricious relationships was no longer valid, because the law should not "impose a standard based on alleged moral considerations that have apparently been so widely abandoned by so many."

The case went back to a lower court, and at the end of an 11-week trial in 1979, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Arthur K. Marshall ruled that Lee Marvin had never made an agreement to share his earnings with his roommate, and she had no claim to $1.8 million, half the money he made in their six years together. The plaintiff and her lawyer enjoyed a brief triumph when the judge noted that her chances of resuming her singing career were "doubtful" and he awarded her $104,000, two --years' worth of the highest weekly salary she had earned as a singer. The money, the judge ruled, was "for rehabilitation purposes ... to reeducate herself and to learn new, employable skills." Two years later, the award was overturned on appeal.

Lee Marvin, who met Triola on a movie set where she worked as a bit player, called the case "the worst setback for show business since John Wilkes Booth."

Michelle Triola Marvin explained her relationship philosophy by saying, "If a man wants to leave a toothbrush at my house, he better bloody well marry me."

On "Saturday Night Live," Dan Aykroyd called Ms. Marvin "a screeching, squealing, rapacious swamp sow."

Mitchelson told Esquire magazine, "I've been waiting for a few years for a case like Michelle Marvin's. I've always been fascinated by the question of why the existence or nonexistence of a marriage license should alter people's rights. Any two idiots can get a marriage license."

Acceptance, the undoing

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