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

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.

In his office, a backlighted reproduction of Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" is set into the ceiling and stares down at the reports of Mitchelson's victories framed on the wall. "Sheik's Wife Wins $81 Million," reads one headline. Other triumphs are documented in a 5-inch-thick leather scrapbook crammed with news clippings and photographs of Mitchelson with his celebrated clients: Pamela Mason; Soraya Khashoggi, ex-wife of jet-setting arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi; Bob Dylan's ex-wife, Sarah; Sonny Bono; Connie Stevens; Roxanne Pulitzer; Rock Hudson's boyfriend, Marc Christian, and, of course, the woman whose case created the word palimony , Michelle Triola Marvin. On the couch across from his desk is a throw pillow embroidered with the words "Old lawyers never die. They just lose their appeal."

Mitchelson is a voluble, persuasive man of no small charm, a practiced storyteller who defends himself, well, easily. He dismisses the idea that he's beset by problems. When pressed to explain the numerous complaints surrounding him, he says he attracts dozens of "crazies" among those who are drawn to his fame. "I can show you letters from the crazies . . . bizarre, unbelievable things. I had a call the other day from this lady in Louisiana. She says she's married to Michael Jackson the singer. 'Oh really,' I said. 'I didn't know he was married.' And she answered, 'I'm married spiritually to him.' And she wants a divorce from him. The only reason I listened," he says, laughing, "is I need a little relief from all this."

Mitchelson says his current troubles began last year when he was retained by former Playboy Playmate Carrie Leigh for a palimony action against her lover of six years, Hugh Hefner. Sitting in a high-backed, velvet-covered chair that he says once belonged to Rudolph Valentino, Mitchelson puffs on a Cuban cigar and adopts a professorial tone. "Mr. Hefner," he says, "vowed publicly that he's going to stop the criminal abuse of the (legal) process by Marvin Mitchelson. And I understand he sent a writer around to look up every complaint ever filed, every problem that ever happened, unpaid rent, bills . . . anything that ever happened to me in my entire life, and wrote a story . . . and circulated it."

Hefner did commission a Mitchelson story, but it was never published--a result, Mitchelson says, of the fact that Leigh married and dropped her suit. But no one, not even Mitchelson, could believe that all his current woes stem from the Hefner / Leigh case.

However, Mitchelson blames himself only for erring on the side of kindness. "I find great fault with myself," he says, "for taking up the problems of people. . . . I don't call people up on the phone. They come to me. They want me to represent them. . . . If someone comes in and they've got a problem, I'm a guy who can't say no."

He calls the two women who have accused him of rape "two professional extortionists" and categorically denies their charges. He shrugs off the tax problems and the Sotheby's case. The tax liens, he says, for the most part have been settled but not removed from his record. And he maintains that Sotheby's waived its money until an as-yet-unsettled legal case is resolved. He also says he will defend himself "vigorously" in the State Bar hearings and categorically denies that he has ever acted unethically in matters of money. Concerning his alleged drug use, Mitchelson leans across his broad desk and says: "I have never been addicted to anything. I'm looking you straight in the eye. I know how to do that without lying.

"I am victimized. I am really victimized. . . . How about a little justice for Mr. Mitchelson? Is he entitled?"

THE MARVIN Mitchelson story is the stuff of a Hollywood fable: An ambitious young man from a poor family learns early on that he too can be rich and famous by riding the coattails of the rich and famous.

Mitchelson grew up in Los Angeles and was graduated from Los Angeles High School. He is the youngest of three children and the only son of Russian immigrants who came through Ellis Island. Mitchelson remembers his father as a "workaholic" struggling to make a living through the Depression. He died after a heart attack when Marvin was 18. Mitchelson speaks adoringly of his mother, who died 3 1/2 years ago. "She was a wonderful lady," Mitchelson says, "I miss her every day."

After serving in the Navy and earning an undergraduate degree from UCLA, Mitchelson attended Southwestern University School of Law, supported by his mother. On the second try, he passed the California Bar. He says he was inspired by Clarence Darrow, but some colleagues suggest that the late Red-baiting attorney Roy Cohn was a more accurate role model. Although he denies it, Mitchelson's former secretary, Linda Acaldo, says his feelings toward Cohn bordered on "hero worship."

In the late '50s, he set up shop on Beverly Drive, at first taking whatever cases he could find. "Personal injuries . . . general criminal things," he remembers. Then, in 1964, Mitchelson took over the divorce case of Pamela Mason, wife of British actor James Mason. She was suing him for adultery, and she wanted $1 million, an unheard-of settlement figure at the time. Mitchelson says he subpoenaed 43 witnesses and, according to a source familiar with the case, told Mason's lawyers that he was prepared to disclose in the courtroom and in depositions available to the media private sexual matters that might embarrass James Mason. Terrified, the actor settled his divorce out of court for $2 million and put Marvin Mitchelson on the map.

Mitchelson does not deny the story. "It's not a threat," he says of the technique. In the days before no-fault divorce, "what we said to the lawyers was, 'Do we really want our clients to go through the dirt in court?' "

Mitchelson also frequently leaked scandalous tidbits to the media before he ever got to the courtroom but says, "I've never leaked anything that has been detrimental to my client or that my client did not want leaked." However, one of his clients, the late Vicki Morgan, Alfred Bloomingdale's mistress, felt besmirched by Mitchelson's description of her to the media and in depositions as trying to help Bloomingdale overcome his Marquis de Sade complex. Halfway through her palimony case, Morgan fired him.

Nevertheless, Mitchelson's methods and successes propelled him into the front ranks of divorce attorneys throughout the late '60s and '70s. His proximity to scandal, newsworthy clients, big-money settlements and his own antics also made him a media darling.

Mitchelson, who often employs a publicist, cultivated his image as a lovable bad boy, with the media's cooperation. As recently as last summer, Rolling Stone ran a coy article on Mitchelson in which he was interviewed by Corbin Bernsen, who portrays the charming but ruthless divorce attorney on "L.A. Law."

About the same time, on June 26, millions of Americans watched two women accuse Mitchelson of rape on "60 Minutes." In August, Acaldo, now a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles, told investigators that in 1983, five years after she had been employed by Mitchelson, she saw a newspaper item about rape accusations against him. Acaldo clipped it and mailed it to her former boss with a note: "The minute I saw this . . . I knew you were guilty." The next time she saw him, she says, he laughed and made a reference to the note. "Linda," he said, "you know me so well." Mitchelson denies that such an exchange ever took place.

KRISTEN Barrett-Whitney is a round-faced woman with short, reddish-auburn hair and a soft, almost childlike voice. She declines to give her age but appears to be in her mid-30s. It was August, 1984, when she first called Mitchelson and asked him to represent her in two separate sexual-assault cases. He says he turned her down, but that his sometime associate, William J. Glucksman, took the cases. A few months later, she called Mitchelson again, this time about her live-in boyfriend, Chase Revel, the controversial founder of Entrepreneur magazine. By November, 1985, Mitchelson's office was handling three suits for her--the two sexual-assault cases (against a Chicago psychiatrist and a Phoenix dentist / lay therapist) and a palimony action against Revel, which Mitchelson personally handled.

On Nov. 26, 1985, Barrett-Whitney says she arrived at noon at Mitchelson's office for a court appearance later that day on the Revel matter. After waiting for almost an hour, she was called into his office. He assured her that they would not be late for court. "Then," according to her sworn statement to the district attorney, "he got up from his chair and said, 'Come in here.' " He led Barrett-Whitney into his bathroom and shut the door behind them. "The next thing I knew," Barrett-Whitney says, "he fell to the floor, moaning, 'Help me, help me.' " Believing that he had had a heart attack, she leaned forward to help him. At that point, Barrett-Whitney says, Mitchelson pulled her down and raped her. Barrett-Whitney, who claims that she suffers from severe emotional problems (her psychiatrist describes her as "a child emotionally"), says she went into shock, a kind of trance, for the rest of her day with Mitchelson.

Immediately after the episode in the bathroom, Barrett-Whitney told the district attorney, she followed Mitchelson out of his office and into his Rolls-Royce. As Mitchelson drove them to court, Barrett-Whitney claims that he coerced her into masturbating him. On the ride back, she says that again Mitchelson insisted that she masturbate him. Once back at his office, she says, he asked her to follow him into the bathroom, where he then compelled her to perform oral sex. He told her that she would be sorry if she told anyone. "You know I'm the best lawyer," he said.

During the weeks after her alleged rape, Barrett-Whitney says she called several of the top attorneys in the country. The Washington attorney, the late Edward Bennett Williams, responded to her story and recommended the services of his L.A. associate, Pierce O'Donnell. In building Barrett-Whitney's case, O'Donnell discovered in the civil rolls that another woman, Patricia French, had accused Mitchelson of rape.

Patricia French, 42, who purchased time and hosted a talk show on the Christian radio station KGER for eight years, retained Mitchelson in August, 1981, to represent her in a palimony action against TV evangelist William Steuart McBirnie. In her sworn statement to the district attorney and in a report to the L.A. Police Department, she says that at her third appointment with Mitchelson, he appeared in his office in his bathrobe and led her into his bathroom, locked the door and raped her. He also warned her not to tell anyone about what happened. "I know everybody. Keep your mouth shut," she claims he said.

Both women's stories were investigated by Detective Robert Kestler, a 20-year LAPD veteran with four years of work on rape cases. "The two victims told similar stories, without knowing each other, with the incidents occurring some five years apart. . . . The similarities would help the reasonable man to believe, 'Hey, you know, something really did happen.' " Kestler recommended to Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen Sitkoff that Mitchelson be prosecuted for rape.

In the course of the district attorney's investigation, which went on for almost two years, Kestler and Sitkoff interviewed several former Mitchelson clients who claimed that the attorney had made sexual advances toward them. Two other women claimed that Mitchelson had become physically abusive during arguments over fees. All of the women declined to press charges, and none accused Mitchelson of rape.

In the end, although Sitkoff thought that French and Barrett-Whitney's stories were "credible," he didn't think they constituted sufficient evidence that a crime had been committed. There were just too many ways their claims could be impeached. There was no physical evidence of rape, no verifiable medical reports, no corroborating witnesses. Why didn't Barrett-Whitney run away after the first alleged rape? Why did French wait two years before filing a civil suit against Mitchelson? And Barrett-Whitney had a history of litigating on sexual-assault charges. She had filed charges in the cases handled by Glucksman, as well as in the case against her ex-lover, Chase Revel. As for French, she had written about 20 mailgrams to Mitchelson after the alleged rape. They were filled with affectionate messages such as, "Never had I felt such admiration and respect for any attorney, and my total faith in you abounded."

Pierce O'Donnell concedes that French's letters appear to suggest that nothing happened between Mitchelson and her. But O'Donnell says she was trying to get her money back from Mitchelson when she wrote them. As for Barrett-Whitney, O'Donnell says that it is "precisely because (her) story is so incredible that we know she is telling the truth. Who on earth would make up a story like that to frame somebody for rape?

"These are not perfect victims," he says. "But I believe they are telling the truth and they are still far more credible than Mitchelson."

Sitkoff maintains that the cases are not prosecutable. He believes that Mitchelson "picks on women with very little self-esteem who will be unable to defend themselves, either emotionally, physically, or who simply won't be credible in court." "We (tried) to build a case against him," Sitkoff says. "If this wasn't Marvin Mitchelson, it would have been an automatic reject. It takes two minutes. I reject cases like this all the time because there's no evidence, not enough evidence. We file cases where we feel we have a reasonable possibility to convince 12 members of the community beyond a reasonable doubt that the person is guilty."

And Sitkoff's boss, Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, bristles when asked what harm would have been done to let the two women have their day in court. "None of the 58 district attorneys in the state," he says, "would seriously entertain the idea that charges should be filed."

After the district attorney rejected the case, O'Donnell requested and received a review by the grand jury and the office of state attorney general. Both agencies ultimately concurred in the decision not to prosecute. Friends and associates of Mitchelson describe him as an inveterate womanizer. Linda Acaldo says he once told her that he thought of himself "as Rhett Butler--that he takes what's his." According to Beverly Hills real-estate agent Elaine Young, who has known Mitchelson for 20 years, "Marvin comes on to everyone." She adds that many women have been equally aggressive romantically with him. "They fall for his little-boy charm."

But rape? One Mitchelson client who refuses to be identified claims that during an office meeting he "chased" her around the desk and "pawed" at her. "When I went to the bathroom, he followed me in and shut the door. I said, 'Leave me alone,' and ran out." Asked whether she physically resisted him, she said it was only necessary to speak firmly to him. "I mean, he's not dangerous, in any way. If you yell at him, he cowers in the corner. He really is a coward."

Mitchelson, from the first revelation of the charges, declared his innocence. He states that he "didn't put a hand on them (Barrett-Whitney and French)." He seems as incredulous as he is indignant. "I'm the least aggressive sexual person I know. If a girl in high school didn't want to kiss me, I'd run away and probably never talk to her again because I was so embarrassed."

Mitchelson says he paid for and passed a lie-detector test concerning the rape allegations. He fails to mention that, according to Sitkoff and Weitzman, he didn't have to volunteer the results unless they exonerated him. Mitchelson was not interviewed on camera by Mike Wallace for "60 Minutes." In the broadcast, Wallace says Mitchelson cried and begged him not to air the report, offering Wallace "10 great stories" in exchange.

MITCHELSON SAYS that in his 31-year legal career "only recently, and I mean recently, are these people (his critics and accusers) coming out of the woodwork." However, interviews with some former clients, friends and associates of Mitchelson reveal a pattern of questionable financial and ethical behavior by Mitchelson.

A lawyer who has known Mitchelson for almost 20 years and who worked with him on several key cases over a period of about three years remembers being initially awed by the older, successful Mitchelson but was quickly disillusioned. "Marvin," says the attorney, who does not want to be named, "is a public relations creation."

In one of the cases being considered by the State Bar, California Court of Appeal Justice Lester Roth turned down a Mitchelson appeal in 1986 and fined him for filing it in the first place. He noted that Mitchelson's briefs in the case "state theories loosely, cite strained authorities, and discuss legal principles in a vacuum." The case originally had been decided against Mitchelson in part because it was determined that the statute of limitations had expired.

Similarly, in 1983 a woman named Genevieve Gillaizeau sued Mitchelson for malpractice. In the course of the suit, which was eventually settled out of court, a federal judge ruled that Mitchelson had "acted negligently." Mitchelson had missed a filing date, causing his client's case to be dismissed.

Robert Ross, a lawyer who has worked with Mitchelson since 1972, concedes that Mitchelson has a less-than-encyclopedic knowledge of the law. "Marvin is not a book-wise lawyer, he's a street-wise one," he says. "No one can charm a jury like Marvin."

The State Bar charges include allegations that Mitchelson kept unearned money despite clients' requests for refunds. The attorney who worked with him for about three years remembers more serious financial improprieties. He says he discovered that Mitchelson was dipping into client accounts for his personal use--sometimes borrowing, sometimes stealing. "He would settle (a case) but not tell the people, and he'd deposit the money and spend it. Or a settlement check would come in on a divorce case, an installment payment or something, and he would deny that he got the money."

The same attorney says some clients eventually recovered their money, but that most simply didn't have the stomach to pursue Mitchelson. "They thought he was a big guy and a big star and he would power them down. He was a predator. He took advantage of a lot of women that never knew what hit them." Acaldo was also familiar with Mitchelson's financial habits. She was Mitchelson's secretary for five years. For four of those years, Acaldo says, she had a non-exclusive affair with him. He wrote job recommendations for her when she graduated from his alma mater, Southwestern. Acaldo explains the end of their relationship this way: "Once I started law school I went on to clerking and other things. We left on good terms; we had to because he still owed me money."

She also says that she felt compelled to come forward when she learned that the district attorney was investigating Mitchelson for rape, out of a concern for "an ethical conflict in the office." Earlier this year, the State Bar contacted her and she gave them a statement.

Acaldo says Mitchelson had a sideline as an "investor." "Marvin would get a large settlement and then presume to invest it or 'borrow it,' " she said. "He called them investments, and he'd give people 10% on their money." The only hitch, Acaldo says, was that he often "spent the whole thing." She says: "I used to accuse him of being a thief, and he would say, 'Well, they're investing in Marvin Mitchelson, that's who they're investing in.' "

Mitchelson responds to all of Acaldo's claims by saying, "I am bemused almost to the point of incredulity. She adds new dimension to the term 'loyal secretary.' " He admits through Harold Rhoden, one of his attorneys and a sometime associate, that he borrowed from "two clients at 10% interest on loans which were secured," but he denies having made any investments, much less having stolen, from client accounts. In fact, Edith Strauss, a former Mitchelson divorce client who loaned him $250,000, has expressed satisfaction with the arrangement. She says that Mitchelson "was very kind to me during a difficult period in my life." Mitchelson also made investments on her behalf that she believes turned out well.

But Forrest Lander came to regret her financial arrangement with Mitchelson. Lander, who died 10 years ago, was a widow whose husband, owner of a chain of supermarkets, died in the early '70s and left her an estate of close to $200,000, according to estimates Paul Caruso heard at the time. Caruso ultimately represented Lander. The inheritance was to be held in an account by Mitchelson, according to what Lander told Caruso. Suddenly, Lander was "arrested for issuing checks without sufficient funds," Caruso says. Her account under Mitchelson's custody evidently had been emptied. "So here's this woman who pleads guilty to several felony counts," recalls Caruso. "I was just outraged."

Caruso did not file any action in any form but privately pursued restitution for Lander. He went after "as much money back for her as possible." At one point, according to Caruso, Mitchelson phoned him. "He said, 'Paul, give me a break. . . . Help me out.' I said, 'I'm going after every penny you've got,' and he said, 'Whatever I've got, you can have.' "

In the end, however, Mitchelson repaid only $18,000, Caruso says, and "his attorney, Martin Klass, had the chutzpah to ask me for attorney fees."

Mitchelson says he doesn't remember calling Caruso. Furthermore, he says, $18,000 was all that he owed Lander. "I have never, ever taken a penny out of a client's trust account that didn't belong to me." But Arthur Barens, who was a partner with Mitchelson at the time, was so disturbed by Mitchelson's handling of the Lander case and other similar matters that he terminated his professional relationship with him.

Bonnie Grant ended up spending the better part of five years pursuing restitution from Mitchelson. In 1972, she retained Mitchelson to handle her divorce from her husband, Robert Grant, a wealthy developer who owned the Santa Anita Race Track, among other assets. Originally it was agreed that Grant would be charged the hourly rate of $75. However, Mitchelson felt that because he had been successful in breaking "an irrevocable trust" held by her husband, he was entitled to an additional fee of $750,000, according to a complaint Grant filed in L.A. Superior Court in October, 1974. Subsequently, she claimed, Mitchelson arranged to sell all of Bonnie Grant's stock back to one of her husband's companies, which finalized the division of assets in the divorce. For this transaction, he charged her an additional $500,000.

Two sources familiar with the Grant case say Mitchelson had been wooing Grant throughout the divorce proceedings. He subsequently became her partner and investment counselor in managing her assets, which, in her complaint, she estimated at $5.5 million. Although the capital was Grant's, Mitchelson would share 50-50 in any profits above a 5% return.

Mitchelson's principal investment made on Grant's behalf was with Frank Heller, a Beverly Hills gallery owner, for the purchase of fine art. In January, 1976, Heller was arrested for grand theft, art fraud and usurious loan transactions, and his company went bankrupt. He later pleaded guilty to grand theft and served a six-month sentence.

In 1974, Grant complained to the State Bar. Then in 1975, Grant sued Mitchelson for $3.5 million, accusing him of charging unconscionable fees, malpractice, undue influence and breach of fiduciary trust. Four years later, Grant agreed to rescind her State Bar complaint and accepted a settlement of $1.5 million--an "amicable settlement," says Mitchelson, who includes himself among those whom Heller defrauded. Because Mitchelson had no money, Grant took possession of Mitchelson's glitzy home on Sunset Heights Drive and extensive acreage of desert land near Palm Springs--a transaction Mitchelson remembers as "voluntary" on his part. Both Mitchelson and Grant are constrained by the terms of their agreement from directly commenting on the case. Grant will say only that Mitchelson "is a man of no conscience who always plays both sides of the street."

Where did all of Mitchelson's money go? Robert Ross admits that his former boss "has lived the life of 20 men." Apparently, he ran up the bills to prove it. A typical trip to London meant flying on the Concord, staying at the posh Connaught Hotel and gambling at the Ambassador Club, a private casino, according to Acaldo.

Acaldo and the lawyer who alleged that Mitchelson misused client funds agree: The money flowed out to support the high life for Mitchelson--including drugs. She uses the word abuse . He says Mitchelson had "an awesome cocaine habit" and was taking "an unbelievable amount of Percodan."

A veteran of the drug detoxification program at Beverly Glen Hospital says she met Mitchelson, a fellow patient, there in 1983. "I was in for a Valium detox, and Marvin was in for a coke detox," she remembers. "I think he stayed a week or so." Mitchelson denies that he was ever a patient there, and the hospital will not disclose patient records.

Apparently, gambling was also part of the Mitchelson life style. Acaldo recalls that Mitchelson would frequently leave the office by 5:30 and fly to Las Vegas during the workweek. "Sometimes he'd call me from Vegas drunk or stoned; other times, he'd just show up the next day and have lost $5,000. He always gambled with the black chips--the $100 chips." Mitchelson says he occasionally gambles, but categorically denies ever having had a "gambling problem." Ross also says he is unaware that gambling was a problem for Mitchelson, but he does acknowledge that Mitchelson was continuously plagued by debt. In fact, Mitchelson's assets have long been a topic of speculation and rumor. The attorney who once worked with him says Mitchelson lived in a vicious cycle of debt, that he was constantly "robbing Peter to pay Paul." And Acaldo says that within a year of working for him, he started borrowing money from her, a total of $8,000 over the years in her estimation. "That's why I worked for him for so long," she says. "To get my money back." Acaldo also says that Mitchelson was continuously dogged by his landlord to pay rent for his office space. One former colleague says: "The big secret is that Marvin has nothing--zero, zip--to show for his illustrious career." His previous home, the one turned over to Bonnie Grant, had five mortgages on it. Still, Howard Weitzman said Mitchelson had no problems paying Weitzman his pricey fee, which Weitzman insisted upon in advance.

STEPHEN SITKOFF, THE deputy district attorney who investigated the rape charges against Mitchelson, says he was struck during the investigation by the slightly worn look of Mitchelson's possessions. "I mean, he had all the right stuff, but the Rolls was old, the furniture in the penthouse was getting a little shabby, and his expensive suit seemed frayed." It's a description that may fit Mitchelson's inner fabric as well.

Of course, controversy is nothing new to Mitchelson, who has an uncanny talent for turning it to his advantage. In fact, during the very time that his critics say he was misbehaving, he was garnering his greatest triumphs. Although Michelle Triola Marvin ultimately failed to win a penny in her precedent-setting palimony suit, the media buzz that attended the case tripled his business, according to Mitchelson. In 1981, the City of Hope honored Mitchelson as Man of the Year at a swank dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. And only last year, photographs of Mitchelson protectively escorting Joan Collins out of the courtroom after he rescued her from the financial claims of ex-husband Peter Holm were splashed across front pages throughout the country.

Although Mitchelson shrugs off the severity of his problems, he concedes that "business has slowed," and he is hardly leaving his fate to chance. He has dug in and armed himself with three lawyers to defend himself from current attacks and to deter future ones. Both French and Barrett-Whitney, stymied in their attempts to see him tried on criminal charges, have filed civil suits against him. French encountered a setback in July when an arbitrator considering her suit refused to award her damages. She says she will continue to pursue the case.

Although the California State Bar has been accused of foot-dragging in policing its ranks, its proceedings are now the most serious threat to Mitchelson. Tuesday's settlement conference is the first step in a disciplinary process that could culminate in punishment ranging from a reprimand to disbarment. After the conference, according to Victoria Molloy, State Bar senior trial counsel, the Bar will recommend a course of discipline. If Mitchelson refuses to accept it, the matter will be tried before a judge.

"I'm going to attend the conference in good faith," Molloy says, "but it is my impression that Mitchelson wants to have a trial."

Mitchelson is facing some stiff charges, and this time he may be up against unbeatable odds. But his resiliency is legendary, astounding both his detractors and admirers. Says Linda Acaldo: "Marvin always lands on his feet. I mean, he makes the Music Man look like an amateur."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
70°