News your connection to The Boston Globe

Marvin Mitchelson, 76; was divorce attorney for the stars

LOS ANGELES -- Divorce lawyer Marvin M. Mitchelson, who worked on high-profile, big-money marital disputes involving scores of Hollywood stars, died Saturday at the Rehabilitation Center of Beverly Hills. He was 76 and had been battling cancer.

"He was practicing [law] up until the time he got sick a couple of months ago," said Sy Presten, his publicist. "He was a workaholic; he worked around the clock."

Mr. Mitchelson began practicing law in 1957 and first gained national attention in 1963, when he won a landmark US Supreme Court decision guaranteeing attorneys for indigent people appealing previous court rulings.

Gold-plated Hollywood divorces, however, became the specialty of the flamboyant lawyer -- even when there wasn't an actual marriage involved.

The Marvin vs. Marvin palimony case made him a household name in the 1970s, and he made the term "palimony" a household word. Mr. Mitchelson won a $104,000 award for Michelle Triola Marvin, the live-in lover of actor Lee Marvin.

The award was later overturned, but the precedent-setting concept of palimony upheld by the California Supreme Court as part of the case came to signify a new social order for unmarried, cohabitating partners. Mr. Mitchelson often quipped palimony was "a commitment with no rings attached," Presten said.

Michelle Triola took the name Marvin during their liaison. Mr. Mitchelson won her right to bring the lawsuit and would say later that the day she was allowed into court was the day marriage and family law changed forever.

"I'm not trying to paint myself as a big crusader, but this was a case I believed in," he told People magazine.

Born in Detroit, Mr. 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 he was 18 months old.

Mr. Mitchelson served in the Navy as a medical corpsman and earned degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1953 and Southwestern University School of Law in 1956. After passing the bar the following year, he set up practice in Beverly Hills.

While Mr. Mitchelson saw the indigent defendants case as his greatest accomplishment, his practice took a turn toward the glamorous following Marvin v. Marvin.

"They came to him," Presten said of celebrity clients. "The more celebrities you have, the more you get. . . . He loved to get the publicity."

Mr. Mitchelson eventually worked on cases involving such famous names as Quincy Jones, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Hugh Hefner, Robert De Niro, Bob Dylan, Sylvester Stallone, Mick Jagger, Mike Tyson, and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. Most of the cases involved divorces.

In his first celebrity divorce case, representing actor James Mason's wife, Pamela, in the 1960s, Mr. Mitchelson won a then-astonishing $1 million settlement.

He also successfully defended actress Joan Collins in a case involving a prenuptial agreement with former husband Peter Holm.

"I had a tremendous practice," Mr. Mitchelson said in 2001. "I practiced in 45 of 50 states and had lots of overseas cases. I was flying around a lot. I was totally caught up in it for 20 or 30 years. . . . I was all over the place and I was totally stressed out."

In 1993, the high-flying lawyer lost everything when he was convicted and jailed for evading taxes on $2 million in income. The state bar suspended him, and he was forced into bankruptcy. He lost the fabled Sunset Strip "castle" where he and his family lived and a collection of Rolls-Royces.

During the next three years, he fought to stay out of prison while undergoing treatment for heart disease and malignant melanoma.

Mr. Mitchelson would recall later how he wept during his first day in federal prison in Fort Worth and his determination to survive the sentence.

He became a prison appellate attorney and helped gain freedom for three inmates. He also helped others learn to read and started prison French and opera clubs.

When he left prison in 1997, Mr. Mitchelson returned to law. He worked as a consultant for other lawyers until his license was restored in 2000.

In recent years, Mr. Mitchelson observed that the majority of prenuptial agreements end up in divorce.

He, however, had no need for his own counsel. He was married for 45 years and often joked that he wasn't setting a good example for his law practice.

Mr. Mitchelson leaves his wife, Marcella, a son, Morgan, and a sister.

Material from the Los Angeles Times was used in this obituary.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives