WAY BACK WHEN I first went into the column business, I made some vows. I vowed that I would never write a colum about spring in Washington and never one in the form of a letter to my son, and never have one entitled The Readers' Mailbag in which I, more or less, let the readers do my work for me. Somewhere along the line, though, I added another, and that was that I would never do yet another column about Lee Marvin, Michelle Triola and that stuff my son, in his pithy way, would characterize as "ugh, gross." I'm about to break one of those vows. This column is not about spring in Washington.
I have my reasons. My reasons is that in reading the stories about the court decision awarding Michelle Triola $104,000 I came across the fact, buried and just barely mentioned, that she had worked for six years after she and Lee went splitsville. It turned out that she worked for the William Morris Agency as a secretary and assistant to one of their agents. William Morris would say no more than that. I am prepared to say plenty.
This news so stunned me that I refused to deal with it. I read the story and then said nothing to anyone about it, and after awhile I thought, maybe I had dreamed it all. I asked around, and no one I talked to knew anything about a job for the to-be-pitied Michelle. No one had read of it and no one knew of it, and even after I found the story I doubted the truth of the account. Only a confirmation from the William Morris Agency leads me to believe it's true.
The more I thought about this the more I had to conclude that a lot of us, especially men, liked it this way. It was nice to us that Michelle had no job. It was neat. It fit a lot of preconceptions not only of Triola, whom I don't know at all, but also of women. Just exactly what we had all thought she had been doing, how she had been supporting herself is something that I cannot answer. Maybe we thought she was just suffering alone, poor-living in a home for scorned and overaged women.
What this means, I think, is that throughout this whole episode, no matter what we thought of Michelle Triola, we were seeing her primarily as a woman-as someone who needed a man. All the legal issues aside, there was always a piece of me that felt this way, that felt that, sure, she should not have gotten $10 million of Lee's bucks, or believed that she really had a contract, or thought, in a strictly legal sense, that she deserved one red cent. I did however, sort of want to comfort her treat her as a woman as distinct from just a person. Something inside of me thought she deserved a little something just to tide her over.
Maybe this becomes clearer if everything is reversed. Suppose we are talking about a man who gives up his career and six years of his life to live with a rich woman. If that affair had ended, if he had gone to court and cried foul, shrieked about an oral contract and vows of eternal love, everyone would have been sickened. We would have felt, to one degree or another, that the guy took his chances, had six good years of doing what is not exactly stoop labor, and should stop crying. But more than that, we would all be saying that he should shut up and get a job-any job. It would not have concerned us at all if he worked as a waiter or carhop or even, say, as a secretary-aide for the William Morris Agency.
It is that element in the Marvin case that lingers past the verdict itself, that remains intriguing-the notion of how much everything is colored by the fact that the so-called aggrieved party is a woman.
It makes you wonder, for instance, if the judge would have given a hypothetical man two years and $104,000 to retrain himself when, as the record showed, he already proved he could get and hold a job.
This is where the Marvin case made law or made its law-whatever the case may be. It's continuing legacy is the perpetuation of the double standard this male view of women as needing special protection. The difference between a woman at Michelle Triola's age and a man at her age is negligible-certainly something not worth going to court about. What the judge, and to some extent lots of other men, subscribed to was a view of the world that's propounded by Phyllis Schlafly: Women are equal of men-only a bit less so.
The outcome of the case was no victory for feminists, as they claim. No showing that a woman gets compensation for what she does, and no victory certainly for Marvin. It was a clear win for Michelle.She got her $104,000. Now she can go back to work.