Unhappiness is hearing that the one you used to love is hiring Marvin Mitchelson.
Mitchelson is the lawyer representing Michele Triola Marvin in her landmark $1 million lawsuit against her former lover, actor Lee Marvin -- and he's representing Bianca Jagger, who is suing her estranged husband Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones for half of an estimated $25 million in earnings.
But even before the Marvin trial made headlines, Mitchelson was on his way to becoming the F. Lee Bailey of family law.
Mitchelson represented the wives of Groucho Marx and Bob Dylan in their divorce cases -- winning a reported $12.5 million settlement for Sara Dylan -- and the former wife of Marlon Brando in a child custody suit against the actor. And in addition to the Marvin and Jagger cases, his current clients include the wives of Chevy Chase and Rod Steiger in their divorce actions.
Estimating his income last year as "kind of high up there, close to seven figures," Mitchelson, 50, says he is presently handling about 40 other cases, including 10 of the Marvin kind. He is so busy, in fact, that he turned down the opportunity to represent Kayatana Harrison, the 27-year-old dental assistant who is suing comedian Flip Wilson for half of his reported $2 million in another Marvin-type case.
Warner Books soon will publish a paperback version of his 1976 autobiographical book, "Made in Heaven, Settled in Court," while Simon and Schuster has advanced him $25,000 for a hardback handbook on Marvin cases nationwide. "I felt I did pretty well on '60 Minutes,'" he says with unabashed pleasure, and is looking forward to an upcoming NBC "Weekend" segment on him called "The Third Marvin."
Arriving Saturday afternoon at his 5,000-square-foot A-frame home atop the Hollywood Hills, Mitchelson bounces out of his two-tone Rolls, boyishly exuberant over some T-shirts he had just had made, emblazoned across the front with "It's Michelle's Money, Too."
In the kitchen, beneath a suspended antique bicycle from the movie, "Around the World in 80 Days," Marcella Mitchelson -- former Italian actress Marcella Ferri -- is making espresso. "I'll take one, too," Mitchelson says. "You're having tea," she replies. "Oh," he says, and takes the tea.
Married for 19 years, the Mitchelsons have one child -- a 14-year-old son, Morgan, who is watching a panel discussion of Jonestown and balks at his father's request to tape a UCLA basketball game for later viewing.
Marcella Mitchelson -- who after acting in 40 movies before her marriage, now says "I act at home" -- is slipping into a robe. She wants to iron an "old dress" which she thinks "might be in fashion again." She asks him to zip her into it, and he complies -- remarking, aside, that "this is a household chore. I'll have to charge you $3."
In contrast to this cozy domestic scene, Mitchelson describes the Los Angeles society on which his law practice is built. "This area is right for it -- you've got the entertainment industry, and in entertainment-type marriages there are a lot of factors spelling out eventual divorce. The husband or wife goes away on location, there're a lot of absences from one another, a lot of temptation with attractive people, made-up people, make-believe people -- and less time for family life."
To his critics (and there are many within the L.A. legal community) who call him, among other things, a publicity-monger, Mitchelson responds that law "has always been a referral business. You can't advertise."
"Publicity is good for business," he says. "And there is no question about it, the Marvin case has exposed me personally more than the collective cases I've had. It's on the front page in Tokyo, Germany and Italy." (He knows from his newspaper clipping service.)
"It's a just reward," he says. "Even though someone else would have come up with it [the Marvin case], I did it first. So I gladly accept the attention and recognition it's brought."
Something of a Los Angeles Horatio Alger figure, Mitchelson is the son of an immigrant Latvian house painter who moved his family form Detroit to California to benefit Mitchelson's polio-stricken older sister After his father died, Mitchelson says, he paid his way through Southwestern University school of law in downtown L.A. by serving unwelcome legal papers to the rich and famous, from Polly Bergen to Sophia Loren.
He dates his interest in the legal affairs of women to his teens; "I've searched into my psychological makeup many times and I think it might have something to do with the protectiveness toward my mother after my father died. I think it comes naturally for me to try to protect women. Even though lip service is given to their rights, it's a male world under the system of the law."
Mitchelson was not a strong student, ranking just above the middle of his law school class, he says. But six years after graduating and passing the California bar exam, he won a reported $2-million alimony suit for client Pamela Mason against actor James Mason and began specializing in family law.
Win or lose, the field has human rewards, he insists.His book recounts in heartwarming detail the joy of a client he successfully represented in a paternity suit against rock singer Stephen Stills a few years ago.
In response to Stills' testimony that he wasn't present at the child's conception, the 2-year-old in question grinned and pointed to Stills, crying out "Dada."
Even Stills couldn't suppress a losing smile, Mitchelson recalls. Last year, for his own child-custody suit, Stills retained Mitchelson and won.
Success and Ink
"Lawyers are a jealous breed," Mitchelson says. "I've had a lot of success and a lot of ink over the last 22 years, and a lot of people like to belittle my accomplishments and say I'm not really a good lawyer, that I just know how to get my name in the paper. But I'll stand on my record. I think I'm probably successful in 70 to 80 percent of my cases. In child custody it may be 95 percent.
"And I've certainly been helpful to a lot of other attorneys. I don't know a divorce lawyer in California who doesn't have a Marvin case or two. And they're going to settle these cases and make money."
Mitchelson points out that while it's considered unethical for an attorney to accept a contingency fee in a divorce case, it's not so with a Marvin-type case.
"I had the first such case and all I could do was take a percentage because my client doesn't have any money. But I've noticed that all the other attorneys have readily adopted contingency fees in their cases."
Though he accepted multimillion dollar companionship suits against actor Nick Nolte and rock-singer Alice Cooper on contingency, Mitchelson claims that "I haven't made any money at all on Marvin cases. This is new law. We probably face years of appeals on all these cases, and I've already spent a fortune on the Marvin case.
"I'll be happy when the Marvin decision is codified and put into a statute and fees are regulated. Then we won't have to go through every day of people's lives and their abortions and everything else that embarrasses them."
However, Mitchelson admits that he hopes Nolte and Cooper are watching the daily trial and tribulation of Lee Marvin and thinking it would be better to settle than face having their pasts exposed.
"Mitchelson is a good showman," says one prominent L.A. divorce attorney. "The press is always looking for something a little sensational and Marvin will give it to them in gobs. The media for him is truly the massage."
The Marvin trial has had its share of sensationalism. Testimony concerning the days of the Marvins' lives has ranged over abortion, drunkenness, attempted suicide and vehicular assault. Outside the courtroom, Mitchelson always has time for the gathered camera crews.
And sitting at home, dressed in a navy corduroy jacket and slacks the silver-haired attorney revels in media attention, slapping a newspaper with a Marvin trial article against his thigh. The paper reported that actor Lee Marvin's professional worth has increased due to his recent notoriety in the Marvin trial. "It plays right into my hands," Mitchelson crows.
But even Mitchelson's detractors give him points for his good nature and style. "I'm one of the few attorneys who genuinely likes him for what he is," says Sidney Traxler, another leading L.A. divorce lawyer. "He has many wonderful qualities for a lawyer. He's innovative, energetic, he doesn't mind taking chances and he works like a dog.
"And then he has a bunch of bad qualities. He's disorganized, gets excited and loses his temper."
Traxler himself has two "Marvin cases," one against film director William Friedkin ("The Exorcist" and "The French Connection") and the other against Wally Findlay, owner of the prestigious Findlay Galleries.
"Only California could originate something like the Marvin decision," Traxler says. "There's nothing lower than the value systems, the morality of this part of the world. And I swim in these waters like a piranha."
"When he [Mitchelson] comes on as the impassioned partisan of women, I've seen sophisticated women attorneys walk out of the room with tears in their eyes believing him," says another attorney who asked not to be identified. "And it's just his gimmick. This case has made him. He's got a horse and he's riding it."
Arthur Crowley -- another veteran L.A. divorce lawyer -- recalls that when he was representing the wife of singer Mel Torme in a divorce action, "Mitchelson was claiming my client wasn't entitled to a dime." As Torme's lawyer in that case, Mitchelson argued unsuccessfully that the couple had an oral prenuptial agreement not to share property.
Mitchelson smiles at the mention of the Torme case, dismissing the irony and calling it "just an innovative application of the Marvin decision to a marital situation."
As to the Marvin case itself: "I have doubts and fears about winning, but I've given every ounce of myself to it, and I'll always hold my head high because of that.
"I'm not out for sensationalism," Mitchelson says as he rises from his seat to pace the living room as if practicing his closing arguments before a judge. "I'm trying to prove my case by showing what Michele did in that relationship..." He launches into a detailed, impassioned summation of the case which continues for 20 minutes.
The phrases roll on: "... for his pleasure... sacrificing her ability to have children... devote herself entirely... gave up her career... fought for his health... when she read a letter from a movie star and it said... 'You're the only one for me, I tremble when I write you'... what do you think that simple lady thought? ... sharing a life... your spirit, your soul... 'I love you'... those are not empty words...."
Finally, Mitchelson drops back onto the couch, breathless. If he loses the case, he says, "Michelle won't have anything. It's her last chance. Her unemployment insurance ran out last week and she just got by on that."
After Groucho Marx's wife, Eden, won about $1 million in alimony and property in the 1969 case Mitchelson handled for her, Groucho spotted Mitchelson at the Hollywood hangout, Chasen's.
"I was having dinner with some friends," Mitchelson recalls in his book, "and he noticed me as he was leaving. Stepping over to my table, he tossed his dinner check at me and said, 'How about you picking up this bill, since you've certainly picked me clean in my divorce?'"
"Before I could answer, his cigar swept an arc, and he said, 'If any of these ladies at this table ever come to you, Mitchelson, don't forget who sent them!'"