December 24, 1979 12:00 PM

Lawyer Marvin Mitchelson plans to spend New Year’s Eve watching his Italian-born wife, Marcella (shown with him, opposite), perform with a local L.A. folk-dance troupe. That may sound like a tame evening for the globe-trotting sultan of split who made “palimony” a household threat and earns into seven figures representing divorce case clients like Sara Dylan, Bianca Jagger and Zsa Zsa Gabor (twice). Curiously, Mitchelson has never seen Marcella dance, even though the ex-actress has been at it two years. “All relationships go stale,” he observes. “You make them better if you work at them.” Then, too, Mitchelson grimaces at the thought of Marcella suing him for divorce after 19 years together (one unwed). “She would be represented by any one of a dozen top lawyers in town—they’d stand in line to take a shot at me,” he groans. “It’s painful to even think about.”

Mitchelson expects no quarter because he’s not known for giving any. He took no fee from Michelle Triola Marvin for the seven years of preliminaries and the grueling 11-week trial last winter, which won her $104,000 for “rehabilitation.” But because new law was made—establishing the right of unmarried lovers to sue for a property settlement and alimony after a split—Mitchelson claims he is entitled, under California law, to receive his $500,000 legal fee from defendant Lee Marvin. (The case is under appeal.)

“The impact of the Marvin case is tremendous in the U.S. and the world,” Mitchelson brags. It has also tripled his business. He just filed a $2.54 billion divorce suit—the biggest in history—on behalf of Soraya Khashoggi, the beautiful English-born wife of Saudi-born arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi.

Mitchelson, 51, himself grew up on a different side of the L.A. tracks. He was the youngest child and only son of Russian Jewish immigrants (his father started as a house painter). “I felt my family was always picking on me,” he recalls. “Later I learned that they were just trying to make something of me, but I always had to argue to defend myself against two older sisters. That’s helped me in my legal work.” He graduated from UCLA and Southwestern Law School, and made news in 1963 by establishing before the U.S. Supreme Court an indigent defendant’s right to counsel (“It’s still the case I’m proudest of”). A year later he made his reputation in divorce litigation by winning Pamela Mason a $1 million settlement from James Mason.

“My priorities,” he says, “have always been recognition first, health second and money third.” He’s gotten them all. Now worth more than $3 million, Mitchelson owns three Rolls-Royces (“One is always in the shop”) and an art collection of Picasso, Matisse, Monet and Renoir, which is mostly on loan to museums. The Mitchelsons and their son, Morgan, 15, live in an antique-filled A-frame house in the Hollywood Hills, but Dad is away much of the time either on business or totally distracted by it. “Marvin starts out on the phone at 6 a.m. calling back East,” reports Marcella. “He’ll get up during the night and pace, or watch TV because he can’t sleep. Sometimes I feel very single.” She adds, though, that “Marvin likes to be married, that’s for sure.” Indeed their modus vivendi has been smoother of late, because now, at 44, she’s become a painter, had two shows and grown fond of having so much free time.

Open marriage is not for Marcella, however. She once spied Marvin at a restaurant with a woman clearly not a client and dumped the woman’s hairpiece into a plate of fettucini. Says Mitchelson: “So I learned not to go out in public.” His consciousness obviously pricked by his female clients, he admits, “I know I’m not around home enough. And my work is not conducive to a growing relationship. But I think Marcella understands and accepts that.” He adds, “It wouldn’t do her much good if she didn’t, because that’s the way I live my life. I’m chauvinistic,” he smiles. “But I’m working on it.”

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