Small-time torch singer and aspiring starlet Michelle Triola, then 31, hadn’t cut a single track when she met the popular, silver-haired Lee Marvin on the Ship of Fools set in 1964. And their ensuing six-year affair would inspire only one poorly promoted record. Its title, ”Promise Me Your Love,” was prescient: Promises would be practically all the chanteuse could point to when, on Feb. 22, 1972, she filed suit for half of Marvin’s $3.6 million in assets — a fortune amassed from a career whose highlight was the 1965 Best Actor Oscar for Cat Ballou.
For there was one crucial way Marvin v. Marvin differed from all the other flashy Hollywood splits: Its principal players had never married. Marvin’s surname had reportedly appeared on Triola’s charge accounts since 1969, and she legally assumed it a year later. But the couple had no license, no children, and no legal precedents other than common-law marriage (abolished by California in 1895).
Though lower courts found no grounds for the suit, in 1976 the state supreme court ruled that Triola might sue for the spoils of her failed relationship. More than two years later, a gossipy 11-week trial commenced. Marvin Mitchelson, Triola’s flamboyant lawyer, argued that serving as the actor’s ”cook, companion, and confidante” had ruined his client’s shot at a singing career. For his part, Marvin enlisted countertestimonials from Gene Kelly and Mel Torme demeaning Triola’s unexceptional performing talent.
Judge Arthur Marshall’s 33-page decision awarded Triola $104,000 for ”rehabilitation,” so that she might learn new ”employable” skills. The sum was rescinded by an appeals court in 1981, but the precedent of ”palimony” stood. Wealthy stars like Rod Stewart, Nick Nolte, and Peter Frampton all faced suits from their spurned lovers around the same time. Because oral contracts are difficult to prove in court, however, most of the plaintiffs lost.
Since then, marriage has come back into fashion. But Triola’s legal struggle didn’t scare her away from relationships with actors: She and Dick Van Dyke have been linked for many years. ”I think they do have a contract,” Mitchelson says. ”Anyway, now we have a new word in the dictionary.”
Lee Marvin died of a heart attack in 1987, at age 63. Triola, who suffered the embarrassment of a shoplifting conviction in 1981, signed on with the William Morris Agency to pen a tell-all, but she never completed it. Then again, getting things in writing had never been her forte.