The Paladin of Palimony

Marvin Mitchelson (1928-2004)

Like many implausible characters, he was at home in the fiction of Jackie Collins. In Hollywood Wives, one of the women discovers that her husband is having an affair with her best friend, a Miss Karen Lancaster: "She escorted him to the door. 'Tomorrow I am phoning Marvin Mitchelson,' she announced grandly. 'By the time I am finished with you the only milk you'll be able to afford is from Karen Lancaster's tits!'"

As withering putdowns go, it doesn't quite work. But the Mitchelson detail has the ring of authenticity. In real life it was he who did most of the milking—not just of his clients' unfortunate husbands but of the cases themselves, for every last drop of publicity. His was a faded name by the end, which must have distressed him. But for two decades he was a genuine celebrity—the celebrity who changed the way other celebrities live. He was the lawyer who seized an opportunity in evolving attitudes toward divorce—or, at any rate, celebrity divorce. In the old days Hollywood handled splitsville discreetly: the studios could usually square things with Hedda and Louella, and the discarded spouse got a one-way ticket on the oblivion express. But in Mitchelson's hands divorce was just part of the show, and he expected his stars to perform. And happily for him, some of his movie-star clients made much better clients than they ever did movie stars. In the oft retailed alimony gags of the period he's the unseen presence. Zsa Zsa Gabor on her fifth husband: "He taught me housekeeping. When I divorce, I keep the house."

In fairness, the man who taught Hollywood women housekeeping was Mitchelson, who represented Zsa Zsa in two sevenths of her divorces. He performed the same service for two of Alan Jay Lerner's eight wives. Lerner wrote many musicals, but there was one plot he liked so much he kept writing it over and over: young unformed woman taken in hand by older worldly man. That's the gist of My Fair Lady (1956), Gigi (1958), and, eventually and inevitably, Lolita, My Love (1971), which proved to be one reprise too many of "Thank Heaven for Little Girls." In life Lerner found the happy endings harder to come by. A serial monogamist, he discovered that little girls don't always grow up in the most delightful way. Sometimes they grow up and grow out of love, and someone gives them Marvin Mitchelson's phone number.

That's what the lawyer made his specialty: the Alan Jay Lerner woman, the young unknown taken up by an older, more powerful Hollywood man. Mitchelson represented Mrs. Marlon Brando and Mrs. Bob Dylan. He made his name forty years ago with Hollywood's first "million-dollar divorce," representing Pamela Mason against her husband James. A "million-dollar divorce" sounds almost quaint in an age when Britney's minders make sure she always has the photocopied pre-nup with GROOM [YOUR NAME HERE] tucked in her purse when she's out for a cocktail on a Saturday night. But it was big news back then. Mitchelson subpoenaed dozens of witnesses and threatened to reveal in court James Mason's more recherché sexual exploits. The actor was glad to settle.

Mitchelson's mother worked hard to see him through law school, and for a while he was a doughty champion of the poor. He was proudest, he said, of winning the right of indigents to legal representation, in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963. But he had a flair for tabloid publicity, and after the Mason case he chose to be a doughty champion of the prospectively poor: ex—trophy wives. For Camelot, Alan Lerner wrote a song called "How to Handle a Woman." Easier said than done. The real problem is how to handle a woman who gets Marvin Mitchelson to handle her divorce. Indeed, How to Handle a Woman would have made a much better title for Mitchelson's autobiography than the one he plumped for: Made in Heaven, Settled in Court. On a TV special back in the 1970s Bob Hope sang a duet of "How to Handle a Woman" with Richard Burton. "One thing's for sure," Hope cracked over the final chord. "We won't ask Lee Marvin."

The Marvin case was Mitchelson's big expansion of his franchise, the one that introduced a new legal concept: "palimony." Michelle Triola had lived with Lee Marvin in Malibu Beach for seven years without benefit of clergy, but Mitchelson saw no reason why lack of marriage should be an obstacle to a divorce settlement. To back up the innovation, he disdained fusty legal principles and opted for one-liners: palimony was "a commitment with no rings attached." Not bad. Even better, the California Supreme Court bought it: live-in lovers could sue for financial support. The ruling, Mitchelson declared, was "the biggest setback for show business since John Wilkes Booth."

It was great news for Mitchelson, less good for his client. Instead of a multimillion-dollar settlement Miss Triola was awarded a crummy hundred grand for "retraining" (in her pre-Marvin days she had been a "singer") and lost even that on appeal. But as a general rule, regardless of whether his client won the case, the lawyer always emerged with some kind of victory. Lee Marvin was everybody's all-time great grizzled, squinty tough guy, but he ended his days as a butt for lounge-act divorce gags. Following the same trajectory, Adnan Khashoggi was everybody's all-time great international man of mystery, the ne plus ultra of shadowy billionaire arms dealers and confidants of the big-time Saudi royals. But then his relationship with his wife Soraya, the daughter of a London waitress, whom he'd married when she was nineteen, hit the rocks. In accordance with Islamic law, Adnan told Soraya "I divorce thee" three times, the third making it final. In accordance with non-Islamic law, Soraya called Mitchelson.

He demanded a settlement of $2.5 billion, based on the facts that Khashoggi spent a quarter of a million bucks a day and she was the mother of five of his children. But he also worked the case assiduously through the Fleet Street tabloids: after Khashoggi, Soraya had married and divorced another husband, who was the ex-boyfriend of a daughter she'd had out of wedlock before marrying Khashoggi, and had an affair with Winston Churchill, a prominent MP, grandson of the former Prime Minister, and rumored father of her seventh child. The point wasn't to build a rational case so much as to turn the Khashoggi name into a tabloid joke, which it quickly became. For a while The Guinness Book of Records included the case as the world's most expensive settlement: $950 million. Those in the know said it was up to $948 million south of that, but whatever the check Khashoggi had to write, it was nothing compared with the damage to his reputation and the permanent diminishment of his status with the House of Saud.

That was the Mitchelson trick. He Zsa Zsa—ed everyone. No matter how cool, refined, or sinister you were, by the time he was through with you, you sounded like a bit part in a Jackie Collins. Only Groucho Marx gave as good as he got. When his third wife, Eden Hartford, sued for divorce, in part because he'd threatened to kill her, Groucho countered that there was no point giving her the house, because her sloth made her unsuited for housekeeping; that he'd ponied up all the money she'd ever asked for, including a hundred bucks a month for her mother; and that in fact he was giving her an allowance before he even married her. "Since I'm a very bad lay, she was entitled to this," he said in his deposition. Mitchelson got a million dollars for Miss Hartford, but Groucho, like Zsa Zsa, kept the house.

Mitchelson moved with the times. As film stars faded, he turned to rockers. As marriage faded, he pushed palimony. When AIDS arrived, he represented Rock Hudson's under-informed lover. Just as lack of a wedding certificate was no reason to forgo the divorce, so lack of paternity was no reason to forgo the paternity suit. He sued Robert De Niro in behalf of the daughter of an old girlfriend, dismissing as irrelevant DNA tests proving that the actor couldn't be the father. "She loves him," the lawyer said. "She feels he's her dad." No matter what kind of relationship or nonrelationship you had going, you were on the hook to somebody for something. Because of lawyers like Mitchelson, Hollywood marriage brokers dreamed up the pre-nup—a device he despised.

In court he could reduce you to tears, or worse. "I once reduced a witness to death," he claimed. "He had a heart attack while I was cross-examining him. I did mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in court and thought about giving up law for the rest of the evening." But most of the time Mitchelson just made you feel queasy in a nonfatal way. He was a terrible ham, weeping and wailing, breaking down, cracking up, collapsing in a coughing fit, whatever it took. He had a two-tone Rolls and drove a Merc with the license plate PALIMONY. He paid $600,000 for the Duchess of Windsor's amethyst-and-turquoise necklace and announced he'd bought it in honor of his mother.

In the 1990s it all caught up with him. A fortune built on the personal failings of others fell victim to his own: he was charged with fraud; his staff said he was addicted to cocaine; two clients accused him of rape; he was convicted of tax evasion, lost his license, and in 1996 went to federal prison, where he ran the law library and helped fellow inmates with their appeals. On his release he was broke, and worked as a paralegal.

He would have done well from gay marriage, which after just a few months in Ontario has already led to the first gay divorce. Somewhere in Beverly Hills there's a turkey baster lying abandoned in the kitchen drawer of a famous Hollywood single mom for whom he could probably have won a landmark $10 million settlement. Instead, in the time between the restoration of his license and the onset of his final illness he won one last great settlement: $216 million for the estranged wife of a minor Saudi royal.

And for all the cocaine, fraud, rape, and tax accusations, there was one mess he managed to avoid. He leaves a widow, Marcella, his wife of forty-five years.