IT WAS SPRINGTIME and the way I heard the story the woman named Brenda was walking down the street with her mother, the two of them shopping. Brenda fending off questions about whether she was living with a man. This was 10 or 12 years ago. Imagine the cars of the period and the clothes of the period and especially the morality of the period. It seems like a long time ago.
They would walk a bit, Brenda's mother would ask a question, and Brenda would always say no. This went on for blocks.
"It's all right," the mother says, "you can tell me."
"Listen, Brenda, this is 1966. I know things are different. I know young people these days . . .
"I wouldn't mind, really. Really, I wouldn't mind. Why should I mind? Tell me, why should I mind? You can tell me. Are you living with him?"
"Trash! Is this the way your father and I raised you? Is this what you were taught at home? Is this . . . ?
You get the point. There was a time when living together was a daring thing to do - bohemian and all that. You did it sometimes in the open but sometimes you did it by maintaining a facade of two apartments and you did it sometimes with two telephones - red for her, black for him, in case, God forbid, a parent called in the middle of the night.
I bring this up now because of a California Supreme Court case called Marvin V. Marvin, which has had an impact on what used to be called living in sin. It has forced lots of unmarried couples to visit the lawyer before setting up housekeeping and while its impact, in a legal sense, has been limited to California, there seems little doubt that its reasoning will be applied elsewhere.
One of the Marvins, as everyone knows, is the actor. Lee, and the other is the former Michelle Triola who took the name Marvin. They began living together in October 1964. According to a suit brought by Michelle Marvin, she and Lee had a deal. Despite the fact that they were not married, she said, she agreed to give up what was termed her "lucrative career as an entertainer (and) singer" and instead "render her services as a companion, homemaker, housekeeper and cook . . ." In return for all this rendering, she said, Lee was supposed to cut her in on half of all the wealth they acquired while living together. Just who was responsible for taking out the garbage is not disclosed.
Anyway, even the best of alleged oral contracts go on the rocks and this one did. In May 1970, Michelle says she was shown the door and about a year later Lee stopped supporting her altogether. She sued, citing her alleged oral contract, but Lee came back, citing even higher law. Even if there was an oral contract, he said, it would not be valid since their relationship had been "immoral" and any contract would "violate public policy." He said, in effect that relationships such as theirs had no business in court.
In the end, it was the California Supreme Court that overturned the decision. It saw a distinction between relationships based solely on what it called "meretricious sexual services" and ones in which everyone is rendering all kinds of things to everyone else. But it also saw that it had a duty to say something, finally, about unmarried couples. It ruled in a case concerning the Marvins, but it acknowledged that it also was making law for other unmarried couples. The court said Michelle Marvin could sue and ever since then unmarried couples have been seeing their lawyers, making perfectly clear, as they used to say, who gets what when love goes the way of the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes - tap, tap, tap into oblivion.
Now all this makes a lot of sense. The whole concept of living in sin is outdated and there has always been a certain utility to living together without benefit of marriage - like before marriage, for example. But there is a certain irony here and it has to do somewhat with the fact that the Marvins were in their seventh year when they split and that many unmarried couples go even longer than that. What you get is the sense that things have been stood on their heads, that the one thing that you are not supposed to care about when you live with someone with all that jazz about property and wealth - security. You live together for love and for love only - a romantic outlaw of sorts who has triumphed over bourgeois cares. That is why Brenda, for one, smiled when she told me the story about her mother. It was the sweet smile of triumph.
Anyway, nothing is that simply and you cannot fault someone for wanting a measure of protection or equity or anything you want to call it. But you look at all those contracts, written or implied, and all the lawyers getting into the act and wonder if the truly daring and romanic thing to do is not simply to it without the lawyers, take the plunge, commit for the distance - do in fact what Lee Marvin did with another woman.
He got married.