Marvin Mitchelson, 76; Attorney Pioneered Concept of ‘Palimony’

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.

Tanned and silver-haired, Mitchelson sported $5,000 hand-tailored suits, was known to make more than a dozen trips to Europe every year and, although married, was frequently seen with an attractive young woman on his arm.

His conspicuous consumption extended to his Century City law offices, which were laden with Persian rugs, Victorian furniture and Renaissance, Pre-Raphaelite and art nouveau pictures of women. The red-plush throne-like chair behind his desk was once owned by Rudolph Valentino. A stain-glassed replica of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” graced the ceiling.

But the good life skidded to a halt in 1988, when the State Bar of California charged that in six separate instances Mitchelson either charged clients “unconscionable fees,” failed to return unearned portions of financial retainers or performed his work badly -- all of which Mitchelson denied.

The Internal Revenue Service and the state Franchise Tax Board were after him for back taxes, and Sotheby’s was suing him for more than $1 million for jewels he had bought at auction but hadn’t paid for.

And, according to a Los Angeles Times account of Mitchelson’s travails, his former secretary told the district attorney and state bar investigators that Mitchelson was a habitual user of cocaine and the prescription painkiller Percodan during the five years she worked for him in the 1970s.

Two women also filed charges against Mitchelson, alleging that he had raped them separately in his opulent law-office bathroom. The women repeated their allegations on a segment of TV’s “60 Minutes,” in which four other women also accused Mitchelson of rape or sexual assault.

Mitchelson, who did not appear on camera, strongly denied the accusations. Prosecutors declined to file charges because of lack of evidence.

In 1993, a federal jury in Los Angeles found him guilty of four felony counts of tax fraud for hiding nearly $2 million in income between 1983 and 1986.

Mitchelson, who blamed his accountant for the tax problems during the trial, had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection shortly before his conviction.

Placed on “indefinite suspension” by the state bar, which prevented him from practicing law during his appeal, he spent the next three years fighting to avoid prison while also undergoing treatment for malignant melanoma and heart disease and surgery for crushed spinal disks from a childhood injury.

In April 1996, after all appeals were exhausted, Mitchelson entered federal prison.

“I started to cry,” he wrote in a law journal in 2001, “just as I had the day before when I bid my wife and son goodbye, apologizing over and over again for the pain and humiliation I had put us all through.”

While in prison -- first in Fort Worth and later in Lompoc --Mitchelson ran the law library, wrote appeals for inmates and taught others to read and write. After his release in May 1998, he worked as a paralegal and consultant to other lawyers.

Frail from his health problems but wearing a stylish black suit and signature glasses with tinted lenses, Mitchelson admitted at a State Bar Court hearing in 2000 that he had succumbed to fame, occasionally abused cocaine and neglected some clients by overextending himself to remain in the limelight.

“I’m guilty of arrogance,” he testified. “I know I did wrong. I can see it was a fast life, and it overcame me.”

With tears in his eyes, he said that he had survived in prison “by never giving up. I’ve lived just to be a lawyer again. I studied and read and worked ... just in hopes I could come back to the profession.”

At the end of the hearing, State Bar Court Judge Eugene E. Brott lifted Mitchelson’s suspension from legal practice, finding that “he is rehabilitated” and “is remorseful.”

Mitchelson, who opened a relatively modest law office above Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood in 2001, is survived by his wife, Marcella, and son, Morgan. Services will be private.