The long, clamorous saga of Lee Marvin’s divorce, bachelor style, is finally approaching a dénouement in Los Angeles Superior Court. At issue is whether the bonds of cohabitation, no less than those of matrimony, may be redeemed in cash and goods. To resolve the question for herself and other ousted live-ins, Michelle Triola Marvin, 46, Lee’s roommate from 1964 to 1970, is suing for $1.5 million (roughly half his property from their years together) and, perhaps, some alimony as well. The trial is expected to last several weeks, barring any out-of-court settlement.
Michelle has already taken Round One; in 1976 the California Supreme Court set forth the historic Marvin decision, which established that a vow to share property between unmarried partners may be just as binding as that between spouses. Marvin, 54, insists that no such promise was made, and even Michelle admits there is nothing in writing. Still, her lawyer, Marvin Mitchelson, emcee of many a celebrity breakup (and in for a third of Michelle’s potential take), is nurturing great expectations. “A victory in the case would show that there’s no such thing as living together without responsibility,” he says. “Living together is itself an implied contract.”
The burden of proof, of course, is on his client, and the evidence to date is ambiguous. Mitchelson says Michelle cooked and cleaned for Marvin, traveled with him, gave up a singing career to be with him, soothed him on mornings-after and nights-before, and was always accorded the title “Mrs. Marvin,” which she later legally adopted. “I couldn’t do anything about that,” says Marvin. “You can change your name to Gary Cooper if you’ve got the 15 bucks.” To support Triola’s case, Mitchelson brandishes love letters Marvin wrote her while filming The Dirty Dozen in London in 1966. True to the genre, they descend at times to undifferentiated goo (“Baby, you are mine…I want you, not just bits and parts of you but all of you”). Yet occasionally a hint of cool equivocation creeps in. “I do spend a lot of time thinking of you,” he assured her at one point, “with a lot of kindness.”
Clearly, the story at this point is far from complete. Michelle claims to feel no bitterness toward Marvin. “I will never understand what changed him,” she said after her earlier court victory. “I’ve never considered the relationship ended. I do not know the Lee Marvin who presents himself today. I’ve been in a state of shock all these years.” Marvin was less generous. “Let’s let the facts do their job at the trial,” he said, adding ominously: “I’ll try not to pull the heavy shots. There’s so much bad information that I’d hate to have to do it to anybody.”
The disenchanted duo met 15 years ago on the set of Ship of Fools. Marvin was a Manhattan-born, middle-class tough who passed through several prep schools without ever graduating. Later he served in the Marines in World War II, making and then losing his corporal’s stripes. By 1964 he was in the process of watching his career take off and his private life capsize. Marriage to Betty Marvin, his wife of 12 years and mother of their four children, had gone sour, and he was living in his dressing room on the Columbia lot. Michelle, a blues singer with a small dancing part in the movie, was also freshly divorced from actor Skip Ward (courtesy of Mitchelson). She was still hoping to patch things up, she says, until Marvin came along. Soon he was living in her Hollywood Hills bungalow, but marriage was out from the start. She says he joked that it was only a license for a woman to wear curlers to breakfast. But “we had both been married before,” she says, “so we knew that this was married life again.”
To be with him on location, she says, she eventually had to choose between a career or the relationship. During the next six years she nursed him through triumphs like Cat Ballou (for which he won the 1965 Oscar) and flops like Paint Your Wagon. Their life together was rarely a rose garden. “Lee is a very demanding person psychologically,” she said once. “You end up giving so much that you feel empty afterward, drained.” She vividly remembers his notorious bouts with alcohol. “Those times were horrid,” she says. “It wasn’t funny.”
Then in October 1970 came an out-of-the-blue phone call from Las Vegas. Marvin told her he had just married Pamela Feeley, now 47, an old flame from Woodstock, N.Y. “I like to think Lee was smashed when he went through with the wedding,” says Michelle. “I suppose it helps my ego.” Marvin’s lawyers put her on notice to vacate his Malibu home, though monthly checks for $800 helped tide her over for a year and a half. After that, she says, “I was destitute. I wasn’t emotionally capable of going back to a public career. Suddenly his philosophy about marriage licenses not meaning anything had turned into a lie.”
Friends helped her land a job in the William Morris Agency, but five years later she quit to help prepare her legal counterattack. “There are millions of women like me who could simply not hold back on loving someone until they got a piece of paper,” she says. “Now this trial will show them exactly where they stand.”
That, at least, is her side of the story. Marvin has been more closemouthed about the case since the beginning. “It doesn’t disturb me,” he says. “It’s just that I’m sure it will embarrass my family and my friends. That’s part of the position I’m in.” His eight-year-old second marriage seems intact, but Mitchelson is not moved. “My client gave Lee the best years of her life,” he says, echoing a timeworn but still potent sentiment. “She even gave up her career, and she’s hurt that he didn’t keep his promises.”
The law being made in Marvin vs. Marvin could go far beyond this courtroom—extending to more than 1,000 similar cases already on the dockets in California and to untold actions yet to be filed. Seven states have followed California’s lead in recognizing the rights of roommates, and homosexuals have already begun using the precedent set by Marvin to sue each other for support. Now the courts will be left to cope with such bizarre corollaries as child-custody claims by unwed fathers and the complex litigation of multiple ménages. But what of ordinary couples who just want to live together without risking the complications of community property? “Better have a contract,” advises Mitchelson. “You have to say you just want to live together loud and clear or you’ll find yourself in Marvin’s situation. Take your affairs seriously.” Regardless of the Marvin verdict, Mitchelson’s seven-year battle on behalf of Triola has made that point abundantly clear.