Kennedy Wilson recalls a brief encounter, involving an Oscar-winning librettist, that led to a messy divorce.

ALAN Jay Lerner was the famed American lyricist of such hit musicals as Camelot, Gigi, and the unforgettable Brigadoon, but he received a different kind of fame in the mid-sixties during his divorce trial from hell. Like many theatre folk Lerner was superstitious. He always avoided the number 13 until he met his fourth wife, two of whose initials were ``M'', the thirteenth letter of the alphabet.

``Never fancy a lawyer,'' (the word wasn't ``fancy'') one of Lerner's friends counselled. But it was too late. Alan Jay Lerner had fallen for Corsican-born Micheline Muselli Pozzo di Borgo, the youngest avocat ever called to the French Bar.

In 1965, at the height of Lerner's fame - his classic stage musical My Fair Lady had just been filmed - he was involved in the messiest divorce case since Lord Wheatley presided over the marathon proceedings between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll at the Edinburgh Court of Session two years earlier.

Perhaps Lerner's most enigmatic production with his longtime collaborator Fritz Loewe was Camelot, based on the King Arthur legend. Dedicated to Micheline, the 1960 Broadway hit starred Richard Burton and Julie Andrews and told of ``one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot''. Like Camelot, Lerner's fourth marriage was brought to a sad end too. The lyricist married Micheline in 1957 and by most accounts she was a tough cookie and henpecker. Not for nothing had she made her name in Paris legal circles as a formidable criminal lawyer who prided herself on never losing a case.

Clearly she was not the sort of person to tangle with in court, something her husband was soon to discover. All but the last of Lerner's eight marriages ended in divorce. ``I have been married repeatedly,'' Lerner once said. ``I am not proud of it, nor am I ashamed of it.''

Many people in the Lerner and Loewe circle suggested that it was Micheline's interfering that helped end the musical pair's winning partnership in 1962. In his autobiography Lerner wrote: ``All my wives were (lovely) - with one aberrational exception whose name will not appear in this book.'' This was Micheline.

Success had not been altogether kind to the Oscar-winning librettist who had acquired an addiction to the drug methedrine. His amphetamine problem was partly responsible for his turbulent marriage to Micheline, the fate of which was sealed in 1964 when she filed for a separation claiming ``marital cruelty''. Micheline engaged the original celebrity lawyer, Roy M Cohn. Cohn had been Joseph McCarthy's legal henchman, had prosecuted Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the atom bomb spies, and was generally seen as a man who would stop at nothing to win a case (including entrapment, harassment, and bribery of witnesses).

Like Micheline, Cohn had an early, precocious talent, being admitted to the New York Bar at the age of 21. He was first hailed a ``boy wonder'', later a ``legal executioner''. As brilliant as he was arrogant Cohn soon rose to become special assistant to the US attorney general and was a protege of J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI. Although he saw himself as a maverick, standing against long-established, respectable law firms and winning against the odds, Cohn went on to become a power broker and Mr Fixit for an array of high-profile and fashionable clients.

Hilarious accusations flew in the Lerner v Lerner courtroom. The most reported was that Micheline was a spendthrift, ploughing through $500 worth of cold cream in seven months. Lerner said that one particularly argumentative summer with his wife ``would have attracted the professional eye of any passing exorcist''. When Micheline locked her husband out of their Manhattan townhouse he climbed in an upstairs window via the roof and was only ejected by four policemen and six lawyers. After the slippery Cohn played on Mr Lerner's success and status he won for Mrs L the largest alimony payment in the history of New York state. She balked at the $50,000 legal bill. To regain the money Cohn approached a witness from the separation case whom he had wanted to testify against Mr Lerner and tried to persuade him (the witness) to testify against Mrs Lerner in the case over Micheline's unpaid legal fees.

FOLLOWING a humiliating few months of bad press Alan J Lerner took Micheline to the divorce courts in 1965. He claimed that she had called him ``a cheap musical comedy writer'' and referred to her ``cacophonic willfulness''; she said that their marriage was ``sexless and violent''.

Cohn was hired to impugn Lerner's character. ``It is ironic (that) Roy Cohn used an imputation of homosexuality to smear Lerner. After his death of Aids (in 1986) it was revealed that Cohn had been an active homosexual,'' observes Gene Lees, Lerner's biographer.

Throughout his life the divorce courts became accustomed to Alan J Lerner's face, but the trial between Alan and Micheline dogged the former for years after the decree absolute. Up until the year he died Micheline sought thousands of dollars in alimony arrears. Lerner's career never again scaled the heights of his My Fair Lady success. His musical on the life of Coco Chanel was a particular flop. Lerner once said: ``The female sex has no greater fan than I, and I have the bills to prove it.''

Roy M Cohn was thrice tried and acquitted on federal charges of conspiracy, bribery, and fraud, and was finally disbarred only two months before his death. Humourist and broadcaster Ned Sherrin recalls interviewing Cohn in 1978 over breakfast during which the lawyer turned to an aide and, within Sherrin's earshot, said: ``Did you mail that cheque to the judge?''