The first Monday of the new year dawned foggy in Palm Beach, and stayed gray. It was atypical weather for Florida’s most empyrean playground, but it matched the mood of the young woman occupying the oddly shabby gray clapboard mansion on North Lake Way. Six days before, Florida Circuit Court Judge Carl Harper had dissolved her 1976 marriage to publishing heir Herbert “Peter” Pulitzer Jr. Along with it went her claims to his estimated $12 million fortune and the custody of their 5-year-old twins, Maclean and Zachary, whose two toy fire trucks now lay abandoned in a box in the sandy front yard. By the judge’s order, she would soon have to vacate the house, and so far she had neither a place to go nor much cash to get there. Branded by the judge a marriage wrecker guilty of “gross moral misconduct,” she had little credibility to spare. Tall (5’8″), blue-eyed, 31-year-old Roxanne Pulitzer may have been the author of her own plight, but it didn’t make her any less a damsel in distress. “I couldn’t believe it,” she told PEOPLE in her first post-ruling interview. “It was like someone had reached in and grabbed my insides and pulled them out.”
That plaintive cry was a clarion call to Roxanne’s new white knight: Marvin Mitchelson, the self-styled “Prince of Palimony” and Beverly Hills’ leading “bomber” (current argot for a big-bucks divorce lawyer). Winging in to Miami on the red-eye from Los Angeles, Mitchelson declared Roxanne “had been treated shabbily” by the Florida courts. Judge Harper had granted her $2,000 a month “rehabilitative” alimony for two years, the return of $7,000 she had invested in Peter’s yacht, Sea Hunter, her black 1978 Porsche and about $40,000 in jewelry. “It was,” Mitchelson fumed, “ridiculous.”
Hiring Mitchelson was not Roxanne’s idea but that of a Palm Beach stranger—Princess Sumair, a successful couture designer (PEOPLE, May 5, 1980), who thought the court ruling was a “monumental injustice” and “a decision that affects all women.” The Indian-born princess, a client of Mitchelson’s, looked up Roxanne’s number in a Palm Beach phone book, called her, and suggested she contact Marvin. When Roxanne first pleaded with him to take the case, Mitchelson recalls, “she sounded beaten, defeated, shattered. There were a lot of tears.” Still, Marvin had her dictate the judge’s decision to his secretary before he agreed to consider representing her.
Mitchelson spent the hours before his Florida sojourn girding for battle. At 9 p.m., after his standard 16-hour workday, he eased into the Jacuzzi in his Century City skyscraper office. Above him glowed Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, painted on a glass ceiling panel. Later, lounging in a black velour robe, he listened to a few minutes of his favorite Donizetti opera, The Elixir of Love, before changing into a gray-and-white pin-striped suit (one of 200 custom Cardins he owns) and driving to the L.A. airport in his red Mercedes for the 11:30 p.m. flight to Miami. Before making the 25-minute connection to West Palm Beach Airport Friday morning, he downed a cup of coffee and bought a can of hair spray to tame his bushy gray mane. In Palm Beach, he checked into a $375-a-day suite at the Breakers (at his own expense), changed into a dark suit, and climbed into a limo waiting to take him to meet Roxanne for the first time.
Her hearing before Judge Harper to appeal his decision had been scheduled for that afternoon. While the new attorney and his client discussed strategy, the doorbell rang—ex-husband Peter was bringing the twins for their first visit since the divorce ruling. “My Mack and Zack are back!” Roxanne exclaimed as they bounded up the stairs. “Guess what, boys. I have all your toys, even the walkie-talkie.” As the boys played upstairs, Roxanne and Peter spoke quietly downstairs about the effects of the divorce publicity on their children.
A maternal instinct was not something that came across strongly during the Pulitzers’ 18-day divorce proceeding. Peter (whom Roxanne sometimes calls Herbert) and his witnesses accused Roxanne of carrying on with a Grand Prix race driver, a real estate salesman, a purported drug dealer and a local French baker. And that was only the men. Her lovers, Peter claimed, also included Jacqueline Kimberly, 32, wife of Kleenex heir James Kimberly. Testimony also described certain elusive spirits whom Roxanne hoped to summon with the aid of a brass trumpet on her bed. Peter admitted once joining Roxanne and Kimberly for a ménage à trois, though Kimberly vehemently denied the dalliance. Roxanne did confess to taking cocaine—and Peter owned up to a toot or two himself.
Today Roxanne wonders, “Why do people think I am unfit to be a mother? I never did anything to warrant those kinds of accusations. Peter and I thought it would be just a quiet divorce. We were never enemies. The lawyers made it that kind of a divorce.”
In court that afternoon, Peter moved to have his ex-wife held in contempt for allowing pictures of herself and the twins to appear in newspapers. (Judge Harper chided her for violating “the spirit, though not the letter” of his order to shield the children from publicity.) Peter had promptly delivered the $102,000 fee he was required to pay Roxanne’s lawyer at the trial, Joseph Farish Jr. of West Palm Beach. But the first $2,000 alimony check was delivered to Roxanne four days late. (She spent it “on Christmas presents for the children and to pay bills.”) When a disagreement erupted in court over what furniture Roxanne would be allowed to take with her, Melvyn Frumkes, a Miami attorney working with Mitchelson, called out, “How picayune can a man be with $12 million if she wants to take a wicker chair?”
Farish had already rejected Mitchelson’s invitation to stay on the case, and Frumkes’ outbursts only solidified his decision to bail out of further proceedings. “These men are like two scorpions in a bottle,” Farish said. “I certainly hope Roxanne gains something in this appeal. She’s trying to find a place to live, she has no money. She’s a pawn again. Peter used her in a Palm Beach divorce scandal. Now Mitchelson is using her to hype himself.” On his way out of court for the last time, Farish pointedly murmured a few bars of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler (“You have to know when to hold ’em/Know when to fold ’em”) before whimsically adding, “Best of luck, Roxy.”
After the hearing Marvin sprang into action. “First I dump the lawyer, next I dump the judge,” he boasted. “It’s one thing for Peter to beat Roxanne in this case, but please don’t kick her to death. He’s making the mother of his children look like a gypsy. He and his attorneys have branded Roxanne the Scarlet Woman of the South. I don’t like that, and I’ll attack this man as much as I can.”
For Mitchelson, the issue at stake is the double standard. “I’m a feminist,” he says. “Roxanne fornicates and it is wrong. A man can do it and that’s okay. Once a marriage breaks down it doesn’t matter who slept with whom. Now the issue should be property settlement, not sex. My goal is to bring the law into changing times. That’s my whole life.”
The ever-flamboyant lawyer’s biggest stab at changing law for women was his introduction of palimony in the Michelle Triola Marvin case. Since a California court of appeals two years ago overturned the $104,000 award Michelle had won, Mitchelson’s victory seems a bit hollow. He’s done better with straight divorces. Among his 4,000-odd cases are a host of celebrated clients including Connie Stevens, Pamela Mason, Anna Kashfi (Marlon Brando’s ex), and Zsa Zsa Gabor (twice). The male heads in his trophy case include Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Mel Torme. Last year he negotiated in six countries where South African industrialist John Schlesinger owned property and came away with what he claims is a $26 million settlement for Schlesinger’s second wife, Rita—the biggest in South African history.
New York lawyer Roy Cohn, who represented Schlesinger(see box on p. 17), gives Mitchelson high marks as a haggler, but faults him for “taking some ridiculous cases.” For example, Cohn cites Soraya Khashoggi, who was divorced by her first husband, Adnan, married someone else, then hired Mitchelson to prove that the divorce was invalid and that she was owed $2.5 billion by the Saudi sheik. Unsuccessful in his bid to try the case in California (to take advantage of the state’s 50-50 community property law), Mitchelson finally settled out of court—for $100 million, according to one report.
Mitchelson has a well-deserved reputation for wining and dining his distaff clients. “Women going through a divorce are extremely vulnerable,” he says. “The first thing I try to do is build up their self-image.” That involves other risks. Sometimes, he concedes, “My clients feel they’re falling in love with me.” The cure for that is “not so much wining and dining as champagne and sympathy.” Once, however, a woman for whom he had just obtained a $13 million settlement demanded he leave his wife of 22 years, Marcella, for her. “She followed me home one night in her car and attacked me with a knife. Fortunately, I ran fast enough.”
For Roxanne, Mitchelson has at least temporarily forfeited his usual $15,000 retainer and $200-an-hour rates. But his wit remains intact. One night at a Palm Beach boîte, he called to a waiter, “Bring me a trumpet; let’s give Roxanne a chance!”
His client is ready to give him one. “Marvin is the first light in my life,” says Roxanne. “He has given me hope that I do have a chance of getting my children back.” In any new hearings Roxanne will have to change her courtroom behavior if she is to realize that hope. Judge Harper’s opinion contrasted “the embarrassment, painful hurt and frustrating concern exuding from Peter’s doleful eyes” with “the wife nonchalantly…doodling on a note pad.” Roxanne explains: “I may have appeared indifferent, but I was desperately trying to keep myself under control. I didn’t want to fall apart. If I had, it might have given the court the excuse that I was unstable emotionally. Whenever I’m nervous, my hands have to keep moving.” To relax between court appearances, she recalls, she would lie “flat on my bed and let my mind float. That is what saved my sanity.”
At the Jan. 7 hearing, Harper granted her a four-day extension at the 22-room, $1.5 million mansion instead of the 30 days Mitchelson had requested. Peter’s attorneys offered Roxanne the yacht as a temporary residence. But, noting with a shudder that servants who testified against her lived on board, Roxanne declined. She later rejected Peter’s offer that she move into the former apartment of Pulitzer’s current girlfriend, Jane Dean, 30ish, a Vero Beach car dealer. Afterward Roxanne took off for a weekend with Mack and Zack, taking them roller skating and to the movies and stuffing them with Big Macs.
Whether or not Roxanne is “very naive,” as Princess Sumair maintains, she is above all a Palm Beach outsider—without roots or resume. Raised in Cassadaga, N.Y., she was unemployed, divorced and living in a mobile home when she met Pulitzer at a Palm Beach party in 1974. Observed one well-heeled matron, “The dowager majority which rules Palm Beach looks down upon women who are younger and more attractive.” Judge Harper wrote that the case reminded him of a country tune by Jerry Reed, She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft). Some Palm Beachniks think Harper simply turned the lyric the other way.
Even if Mitchelson succeeds in prying open Peter Pulitzer’s pockets, his unpredictable client will probably have to follow the sun elsewhere. “Peter once told me he would bury me in Palm Beach,” Roxanne laments, forgetting momentarily her claim that they were never enemies. “He seems to have done it.”