Getting up close with Lee Marvin

A couple of months before he died (at age 95!), Ernest Borgnine appeared at Texas Frightmare Weekend, one of the nation’s biggest get-togethers for horror movie aficionados.  During a Q and A session, someone asked him what Lee Marvin, with whom he had appeared in three movies, was like.  He succinctly replied, “He was a Marine.”  That’s a big part of the story but not the whole story.

Like Humphrey Bogart, another longtime screen tough guy, Marvin was born to a prominent New York family with deep roots in American history.  He was an incorrigible youth until World War II came along.

He enlisted in the Marines at age 18 and was badly wounded by machine gun fire (he barely dodged permanent paralysis) at the Battle of Saipan, a particularly grueling and gruesome siege from June 15 to July 9, 1944, in which 3,246 Americans were killed and 10,364 wounded.  The Japanese, soldiers and civilians, fared even worse.

One can’t help but wonder how a young man who escaped from that slaughterhouse would conduct his life thereafter.  Some biographers think Marvin felt guilty for surviving.  Perhaps we could call it Last Man Standing Syndrome.  Then again, we probably could not, as the American Psychological Association would have to sign off on this terminology, and they haven’t been too male-friendly of late.

After the war, Lee Marvin stumbled into acting and began compiling a lengthy list of stage, screen, and TV credits; at the same time, he shaped a legendary persona thanks to both his public and on-screen behavior.  Understandably, having witnessed how cheap life can be, he was something of a fatalist.  “Anything over 40’s gravy,” he once said.  Indeed his lifestyle was not conducive to longevity, but it did endow him with living legend status.

Another understandable result of his wartime experiences was his gusto for living.  Indeed, Marvin’s reputation as a boozer, brawler, carouser, and all-purpose hell-raiser was outstanding, even by Hollywood standards.  Like a smoking volcano, he looked as though he could erupt at any minute – and he often did.  If he were in his prime today, he surely would have merited a few seconds of screen time in that infamous finger-wagging Gillette commercial.

Among the opinions of those who knew him:

Not since Attila the Hun swept across Europe leaving five hundred years of blackness has there been a man like Lee Marvin.

  • Director Joshua Logan

He looks like a cartoon wolf about to blow someone’s house down.

  • Author Lloyd Hughes

A snarl with a juggernaut behind it.

  • Film critic John Baxter

Sounds like toxic masculinity, you say?  Well, Marvin never heard that term during his lifetime, but he might have agreed:

Films have given me an opportunity to do things that normally you’d be locked up for, put into prison and executed for.

If you’re going to be bad, be real bad…I leaned on people real hard.

Lean of body with a craggy face and eyebrows that got bushier as he got older, he had a unique screen presence, brutal but not stupid, mean but not petty.  To this day, I can’t make up my mind whether The Dirty Dozen is a tribute to fascism or anarchism; either way, Marvin was the ideal actor to bridge that duality.

Two of Marvin’s observations about women would surely raise eyebrows today:

Too many women don’t realize they’re women and that disturbs me.

Take a snatch away from a broad and what’s she got left?

Despite – or more likely because of – his demeanor, he oozed sex appeal.  Mamas might not have wanted their babies to grow up to be Lee Marvin, but they might not have minded his fathering their babies.  According to actresses who knew him.

He’s more male than anyone I have ever acted with.

  • Jeanne Moreau

Lee was the personification of a man.  Ohhh!  He was more than good.  You wanted to be good with him.

  • Angie Dickinson

As unpredictable, honest, inflammable as I imagined.  He is usually interesting; in the way that war is more interesting than peace.

  • Candice Bergen

Then there is this anecdote from the late Bosley Crowther, longtime New York Times film critic:

I heard a middle-aged woman awesomely and rapturously exclaim to her equally galvanized companion at a showing of Point Blank last week – right at a spot of hideous violence – “What a gorgeous man!”

Most importantly, we have this opinion:

Lee is probably the most pure man I have ever known in my entire life.

This quote is particularly relevant as it was uttered by Michelle Triola, a small-time actress/dancer/singer, Marvin’s mistress from 1964 to 1970.  In February 1972 she sued for what came to be called “palimony.”  That Lee Marvin, the ultimate tough guy, was the defendant in the case could be considered irony or poetic justice.

By Hollywood standards, Marvin’s sex life was hardly sordid.  He was married twice, to Betty Ebeling from 1951-1967, and to Pamela Feeley from 1970 till his death.  Michelle Triola was Ms. In-Between.

A theater arts major at UCLA, Triola met Marvin on the set of Ship of Fools in 1964 and lived with him (his first marriage was already on the rocks) in their love nest on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu from 1965 till Marvin’s second marriage.  When Triola met Marvin, she was a recent divorcée, having just ended a brief marriage to actor Skip Ward.

As difficult as it may be to believe today, “living in sin” was rare in 1964.  To be sure, men of means who wanted a mistress had one, but she was stashed away in a place of her own.  Typically, the man and woman did not live under the same roof.  A man setting up a household with a woman without benefit of clergy was simply not done, at least not by “decent” people.  As late as 1968, a Barnard College undergrad was disciplined for living with her boyfriend, a Columbia University student, in an off-campus apartment.  And these were Seven Sisters/Ivy League schools in ultra-liberal New York City!  As trivial as this sounds today, the travails of Linda LeClair and Peter Behr made headline news nationwide.  Yet cohabitation was growing by leaps and bounds.  So when Michelle Triola sued for palimony (Marvin v Marvin, 18 Cal. 3d 660, 557 P.2d 106) in 1972, it didn’t seem so far-fetched as it might have when she set up housekeeping with Marvin in 1965.

Triola went straight to the top and hired renowned Hollywood attorney Marvin Mitchelson, who had been a divorce lawyer since 1964 when he achieved a $1.5 million settlement for Pamela Mason, former wife of James Mason.  It was headline news at the time as it was the biggest divorce settlement ever.

Mitchelson immediately became the go-to guy for Hollywood divorces.  He represented Rhonda Fleming, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joan Collins, Connie Stevens, Bianca Jagger, Lesley-Anne Down and Mrs. Groucho Marx and Mrs. William Shatner, among other women.  He was not just a ladies’ man, as he also represented Robert De Niro, Mickey Rooney, Sylvester Stallone, Sonny Bono, Tony Curtis, and curiously, Carl Sagan.  Mitchelson once characterized himself as “a chameleon with a law book.”

As is the case with any hotshot lawyer, Mitchelson relished the opportunity to make legal history – and headlines – with a high-profile case involving “marriage with no rings attached.”  Indeed by the time Triola filed her suit, it had become hip to assert that a marriage license was just a piece of paper.  Serial relationships had long been common in Hollywood but they had always been accompanied by that piece of paper.  The studios would not have allowed otherwise.  Actors had morals clauses in their contracts, though lax morality (if not downright criminal behavior) was more likely to be covered up than punished.  The studio system, however, had vanished.

So Marvin Mitchelson was in the right place at the right time.  He could apply his Hollywood divorce experience to Hollywood cohabitation.  According to Mitchelson:

A woman should have the right to a good divorce and community property even if she is not licensed to marry the man she loved and lived with…it costs three dollars to get a marriage license.  I say that for this money one should not have different rights than one who has the same relationship but doesn’t pay the three dollars.  I consider this unequal protection under the law.

He was in effect equating cohabitation with marriage.  He might have been making a backhanded effort to reinstate common law marriage, which all but disappeared from California in 1895.  Well, I’m no attorney but I have to wonder if unlicensed drivers or doctors could argue that the state denying them the same rights as licensees is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Triola played the victim card by portraying the wronged woman who was pure of heart.  More than that, she claimed she stood for “women who simply could not hold back on loving someone until they got a piece of paper with signatures on it.”  Unceremoniously dumped after six years (though Marvin did pay her a modest allowance for a year – severance pay, so to speak), she had loved well but not wisely.  Wasn’t she entitled to half of the $3.6 million he earned during their time together?  Didn’t she and Lee have an oral agreement to that effect?

She argued that she had provided all the duties of a wife (cooking/cleaning/sex) for six years and was entitled to half of Marvin’s earnings.  Needless to say, if Marvin had hired a cook and a maid while keeping a call girl on speed dial, he would not have to shell out anything more if he decided to terminate their services after six years.  In other words, did she deserve anything more than what she received during their time together?

According to Michelle, “I gave Lee the best years of my life.”

Marvin countered with, “Yeah?  Well, I also gave her the best years of her life.

She also testified that she had given up her career in show biz.  She was already 32 when she shacked up with Marvin, so whether she was a rising star or a fading star (if indeed she ever was a star) was open to question.  Not only had she not worked during the six-year relationship, she adopted Lee’s last name (hence the case name Marvin v. Marvin).  And didn’t she sit next to him at the Academy Awards in 1966 when he won the Best Actor Oscar for Cat Ballou?

Well, Marvin v. Marvin had a lengthy history in the California courts.  The first two trial courts threw out her case.  Then in 1976, the Supreme Court of California reinstated it, arguing:

The fact that a man and woman live together without marriage and engage in a sexual relationship does not in itself invalidate agreements between them relating to their earnings.

So the case was back on the docket.  Even without that piece of paper, a woman could sue after a breakup if – and it’s a big if – there was an agreement pertaining to their assets.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a law professor, commented that the case demonstrated “the breakdown of the legal line between married and unmarried union.”  Grey areas mean every case must be considered individually…hence litigation…hence more work for more lawyers, who owe a profound debt to Marvin Mitchelson.

Predictably, the 11-week trial, starting in January 1979, was high soap opera.  Promises were made, promises were broken, there were pregnancies, there were abortions, infidelities, accusations, and recriminations…plus lots of emoting from Triola.  Of course, in any courtroom proceeding a tearful, sniffling woman always has an advantage over a man.  Marvin was especially at a disadvantage, as he had to live with his screen image.  It was a lot easier to paint him as an insensitive troglodyte after he had portrayed same in so many movies.

When it was all over, Judge Arthur K. Marshall ruled that there was no contract obligating Marvin to share his earnings with her.  He did award her $104,000 for “rehabilitation purposes,” but the case was appealed so the award was put on hold.  In 1981, the appeals court overturned the award.  So Marvin never paid her another penny.  No telling what his legal fees were, however.

Curiously, both sides claimed victory.  Though Marvin paid no palimony, Triola felt she had claimed a moral victory on behalf of similarly situated women.  In truth, numerous palimony lawsuits were filed in the wake of Marvin v. Marvin.  A significant number involved homosexual couples.  Two of the more prominent suits involved celebrity pianists Liberace and Van Cliburn.  Women were not exempt, as tennis stars Billie Jean King, and Martina Navratilova had their days in court (hence the term “galimony”).

After the conclusion of the trial, Triola said, “If a man wants to leave his toothbrush at my house, he better bloody well marry me.”  Nevertheless, she cohabited with Dick Van Dyke till she died of lung cancer in 2009.  How to account for that?  Well, Van Dyke also had a place in Malibu.  If she couldn’t get any palimony from Marvin, at least she could live in the manner to which she had become accustomed.  She did have a contract, but since she died before Van Dyke (he’s still alive and kicking at age 93), the provisions of the contract were moot.

Mitchelson reaped gobs of publicity from the trial, enabling him to maintain his Beverly Hills mansion, collection of luxury cars, and stash of cocaine, and engage in various forms of conspicuous consumption.  It wasn’t all blue skies, however, as he had to contend with his own legal problems.  After various tax evasion, fraud, and sexual assault claims, he was sent to federal prison for two years.  After getting out, he opened a less prominent law practice in West Hollywood in 2001.  He died in Beverly Hills in 2004.

Lee Marvin died of a heart attack in 1987.  He was 63 years old so he enjoyed 23 years of “gravy.”  Had he lived long enough to witness Mitchelson’s travails, he doubtless would have enjoyed those also.


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