Life With Lee

 

Pamela Feeley was 17 when she became pregnant by her childhood sweetheart, Lee Marvin - then 24 and a decorated war hero. They had been together for four years. Shortly after an illegal abortion which nearly killed her, Lee told her he was going away.

"I recall an emptiness, an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss as the car drove down the road and disappeared around the bend. I knew by the clutching feeling in my stomach that it wasn't just for the summer."

She was right. But more than 20 years later he came back for her. They each had a son and three daughters by other people by then but their marriages were over - Pamela had been through three - when one day he reappeared in Woodstock, the hometown of their childhood, walked into her kitchen and said: "You know I've come to get you, don't you."

Some people might have been eaten up with bitter memories but not this woman of great charm and gentle manners. Of the time around the abortion she now says: "On reflection I was glad that we didn't get married at that time because I doubt we would have stayed together. As it was, we each had our own sons later, and life worked it out for us to be together after all."

Now she's put it all down in Lee: A Romance, published in Britain this week, where she's blazing the publicity trail. When we met in Co Wicklow last weekend she was, like thousands of others, composing herself after watching the coverage of Princess Diana's funeral.

"I've been so touched, thinking about her and her boys, and the light she brought to the world."

Pamela was married for 17 years to Lee Marvin. Her book is an extraordinary tale of two lives, hers and Lee's, a tale of their meeting, their divergence and their final coming together. Here is that most unusual of things: a Hollywood marriage that worked, right up to Lee's death 10 years ago.

The story begins in Woodstock in upstate New York where Pamela and Lee were sweethearts in the 1950s and where he came to fetch her more than two decades later. "At that time I had four children, I was broke, no luxuries, everything was such a struggle - and within a week I was living in Malibu and married to a famous movie star. Suddenly I was on top of the world."

From here the book chronicles their life together, their shared obsession with marlin fishing - for five years Pamela held the world record for Atlantic marlin - and, of course, it covers his wild excesses and drinking bouts. It has taken six of the last 10 years to write this book. She was encouraged to do it by their friend, the director John Boorman, who wrote the foreword. John and Lee had worked together on Point Blank and Hell In The Pacific and remained lifelong friends. During these past years she produced more than 1,200 pages.

"It's odd, when you start it's almost as if you're going back in time, you see it in front of you, you see people's expressions: it's like a tableau. It comes back."

So what happened to the 800 pages that aren't in this book?

"I have this wonderful editor at Faber called Walter Donoghue who felt that 400 to 500 pages was as much as anyone could digest. So when I'd got it down to 700 and couldn't take out any more I was stuck. Walter read it and said we should take out the middle section - which covered our experiences on movies - and make that into another book."

Pamela Marvin is as fiercely loyal to her husband's memory as she was to him. This finds expression in the longest section of her book, about half of it, which covers the court case between Lee and Michelle Triola. This was the case in 1979 which coined the term "palimony" and brought Triola's attorney, Marvin Mitchelson, notoriety. In essence Triola and Mitchelson were claiming that as a live-in lover Triola had the

property rights of a wife and that, as such, she was entitled to half of his property and earnings. By the time it came to court, Lee and Pamela had been married for nine years and they faced what turned out to be a three-month trauma together. In the end Triola lost her case on every count.

This section was the main reason for the length of the book's gestation. "It wasn't an important trial, it just took on a life of its own. Probably it could only have happened in America. Unfortunately it left a lasting impression. Even friends misconstrued a lot. That's why I decided to really go into it. I studied 8,000 pages of transcript from which I gleaned 187 pages. I wanted to make my point, to disprove accusations with testimony that was sprinkled throughout the 8,000 pages."

Early on, Triola had been prepared to settle for less money than Lee eventually paid his lawyers. But for Lee it was a matter of principle and he refused to settle. Pamela agreed. "It was something he had to defend himself against, because it really did malign his character." The level of press attention to this trial was enormous and Lee was unwilling to call friends as witnesses because he didn't want to expose them to the media jackals. Yet despite his objections they turned up to refute Triola's claims.

A defining part of Lee's life was his time as a marine. He served in the Pacific during the second World War, often as part of advance landing parties. He left the war decorated with the Purple Heart for bravery - and a wound in his buttocks which he found more than a little humiliating. Pamela believes it was his marine training combined with his actor's ability to control his emotions that enabled him to survive the rigours of the trial. Woodstock is pivotal in their lives: it's where they grew up, where they first met, and where after 20 years they took up where they'd left off. "It's a small village. When I was growing up it had tops maybe 2,000 people, a mix of farmers, artists and writers. Not very different from where we are now in the Wicklow hills. It was a wonderful place to grow up."

How would she sum up Lee Marvin, the man she knew and loved? "He was an actor, a marine, an angler from the age of four, a great reader, very eloquent with a down-to-earth style and very intellectual."

Lee: A Romance by Pamela Marvin is published this week by Faber and Faber. Price £15.99 in the UK.