U.S.A.

A dotted line, a loaf of bread—and thou

William Lowther April 30 1979
U.S.A.

A dotted line, a loaf of bread—and thou

William Lowther April 30 1979

A dotted line, a loaf of bread—and thou

U.S.A.

Lee Marvin, the silver-haired actor whose pillow-talk promises turned out to be daydreams, was ordered to pay his former girl-friend $104,000 last week—to help her climb down from her six years among the Hollywood stars.

The decision—after an 11-week trial, 63 witnesses, 8,000 pages of testimony and enormous publicity, to say nothing of a bill for $30,000 payable by Los Angeles taxpayers—turned out not to be the mistress’s charter widely expected. Michelle Trióla Marvin had claimed $1.8 million. But California Superior Court Judge Arthur Marshall’s award to Ms. Marvin did establish some ground rules for live-in affairs.

From now on, most experts agree, the wage-earning or wealthy partner may be legally obliged to pay alimony (or “palimony” in the cutesy jargon of Californians) for as long as it reasonably takes a cast-off lover to re-establish an independent life. But if they want to

share their partner’s property, said one leading Washington lawyer last week, “they should get it in writing from the very start.”

So there can hardly be a woman in the United States who doesn’t understand what she’s getting into by saying “yes” before “I do.” Afterward both parties were claiming victory. Said Ms. Marvin—who changed her name legally to match Lee’s: “I’m excited to get something. It’s a victory for women.” The actor—he won an Oscar for his portrayal of a gunslinger in Cat Ballou— thought the result “sensational.”

It was a rare unanimity. Throughout the hearing the two scarcely agreed about anything. Ms. Marvin told the court she had given up her singing career to devote her life to be cook, homemaker and bedmate to Marvin after he had said that he loved her and would look after her forever. Marvin insisted

that his vows were no more than “idle male promises” and that all movie stars used such terms of endearment as “I love you” as a matter of course.

In the end Marvin threw his Ms. out of their luxury beach house because she was nagging him too much about his drinking, and Michelle, 46, went running to another Marvin, Marvin Mitchelson—the most famous “family” (or divorce) lawyer in California.

There then ensued the sort of saga which delights the legal profession but leaves the onlooker agape and, if he is a local taxpayer, out of pocket. Mitchelson filed suit asking the courts to determine Michelle’s contract and property rights and grant her half the property acquired during the relationship. Two lower California courts threw out the case. But Mitchelson appealed to California’s Supreme Court and, in December, 1976, he won. The court noted the modern prevalence of non-marital relationships and held that courts might no longer apply doctrines founded on a public policy that tended to find such relationships illegal.

It was a landmark decision and, in the months before last week’s verdict, thousands of similar suits were filed in as many as 15 different states. Most involve ordinary people but some concern the rich and famous. Karen Ecklund is asking for $5 million from her ex-partner, Nick Nolte; Cynthia Lang has filed suit against former roommate, rock star Alice Cooper, for $3.5 million; and only one day before the Marvin decision, a New York judge dismissed a suit brought by Penelope McCall against her onetime love, rock star Peter Frampton. The judge’s ruling, now under appeal, was that she was married to someone else when she moved in and the relationship with Frampton therefore was adulterous and illegal in the state.

Just what all that means for the future of United States society, to say nothing of its morals, depends on your point of view. Feminist Gloria Steinern claimed: “Women will now be far more likely to insist on a financial agreement. If this results in men complaining that women no longer believe in the promises of romance, let them complain to the Lee Marvins.”

In fact, however, no one is complaining-least of all the Marvins. Lawyer Mitchelson’s law practice has tripled and he’s writing a book about Marvintype cases; Michelle has her $104,000, is also writing a book (about her life with Lee) and may make a movie; while Lee, at 55, has a new zip in his career. His picture price, which had been dropping below the magic $1 million, has shot up again and he has received “dozens” of offers of roles.

William Lowther