How Attorney Sorrell Trope Invented the Hollywood Divorce

Michael Trope remembers the day he entered the living room of his childhood home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles to find Cary Grant sipping a martini. Michael’s father, famed attorney Sorrell Trope, was representing Grant in his 1968 divorce from Dyan Cannon.

“My father used to love to tell the story about how Cary Grant became his client,” says Michael Trope, an LA-based trial lawyer and former sports agent.

“Cary Grant went to a mattress store to buy a mattress,” Michael Trope continues. “He was talking to the mattress salesman and testing out mattresses because he wanted to buy a bed. And he started complaining to this mattress salesman about his divorce. The mattress salesman then said, ‘Oh, I went through a divorce. And I had a great experience with my lawyer. He did a really phenomenal job for me.’ And Cary Grant said, ‘Well, who was that?’ And the mattress salesman went and got my dad’s business card and gave it to Cary Grant. And then my dad wound up representing Cary Grant for over 20 years.”

The anecdote is notable for myriad reasons, among them the fact that Sorrell Trope, a legacy-making pioneer in the arena of family law who died in May 2020 at age 93, spent his career advocating on behalf of high-profile movie stars—he represented Nicole Kidman in her split from Tom Cruise—as well as small-time salesclerks.

“Sorrell took care of people,” says Linda Trope, Sorrell’s widow.  They met when she was his legal secretary and were happily married for 54 years.

“I remember, we went to Hillside (cemetery) to buy plots,” continues Linda Trope. “This was around 2017 after he retired, and the woman who was taking care of us looked at us, and she said (to Sorrell), ‘You handled my divorce 25 years ago. I could not afford you. And you did not charge me.’ That was who Sorrell was. He did a tremendous amount of pro bono work.”

There is not a divorce attorney in Hollywood today–or any American city for that matter–that is not indebted, in some way or shape, to Sorrell Trope’s groundbreaking professional imprint. In the 1950’s and 60’s, divorce law was considered the bargain-basement of the legal arena. It had no clout, no cachet. “It was kind of like getting your fingernails dirty,” says Michael Trope.

Sorrell Trope changed all that, elevating the field to a strata it had not seen before.

Born in upstate New York, Sorrell Trope was 13 years-old when his family relocated to Los Angeles. He graduated top of his class in 1949 from University of Southern California Gould School of Law—“Sorrell was the youngest person in his class,” says Linda Trope—and was a practicing attorney by age 21, hanging up his first shingle on a stretch of North La Cienega Ave.

Striking out solo was indeed an act of necessity, as Antisemitism was rife. In the late 1940’s, no white shoe firm would hire Sorrell Trope, “a Jewish kid from New York,” notes Neal Hersh, founding partner of Hersh Mannis.

“He couldn’t get a job in Los Angeles with all of the fancy firms because he was a Jewish–so he stuck out on his own,” says Hersh, for whom Sorrell Trope was a mentor, friend and sometimes legal adversary.

“That in and of itself was trailblazing,” adds Hersh. “He had no choice but to make it on his own.”

In the beginning, Sorrell Trope was, per Michael Trope, “a black bag lawyer,” handling almost any type of case that came his way–breach of contract, collection, criminal cases. It was during  these “wild, wooly days of divorce law” that Sorrell Trope retained his first divorce client, Mark Taper, the American-British financier, real estate magnate and philanthropist.

“Mark was married to a much younger woman (actress Roberta Gale) who got pregnant, and Taper had some suspicions that because of his advanced age, he might not be the father,” says Michael Trope. “My father produced  evidence showing that somebody else was probably the father of the child. And the bottom line is that this gal didn’t do very well in the divorce–she got slaughtered. The case got a lot of attention because it was sort of salacious. All of a sudden, all these people in Beverly Hills started hiring my dad. He was getting phone calls from a lot of the big firms who didn’t do family law, but they had corporate clients who were getting divorced. And they needed a go-to guy to whom they could send their wealthy clients.”

Later, Sorrell’s brother, Eugene, would join the firm and Trope and Trope would balloon to become California’s largest boutique family law practice, boasting a staff of some 30 attorneys.

“My father created a sophistication where it wasn’t just a divorce,” says Michael Trope. “It was figuring out the law in terms of dividing assets, valuing businesses, child custody—he took the practice to a higher level of just trying to figure out who was cheating on who, because there was a time in California (prior to 1970) that California was not no-fault. Almost every almost every big or important case in Los Angeles for a good number of years—my father was on one side or the other.”

Sorrell Trope was also a man of impeccable taste, partial to Hermes ties and Turnball & Asser custom-made shirts. He drove a Bentley and dressed to the nines every day. Says Linda Trope, “He always wore cufflinks.”

“I think Sorrell felt that in order to be respected as a lawyer by your clients, aside from your performance, you had to look like a lawyer who deserved to be respected,” says Mark Vincent Kaplan, former partner at Trope and Trope and current founding partner of Schuchman, Kaplan, & Gekht.

“He had an amazing command of the courtroom,” adds Kaplan. “I would see expert witnesses literally stumble over their words and be observably nervous right before they were to testify to be cross examined by him. I think he was intimidating to many of the lawyers at the firm, and certainly to the lawyers who opposed him.”

As foreboding as Sorrell Trope was in court, he was likewise “a sentimentalist,” says Kaplan, generous of his time, spirit and advice.

“I don’t want to say took me under his wing, but he sort of did,” says Hersh. “When I was building my firm, I would call him up and say, ‘Can we go have lunch?’ And he always accepted. And we would go out and I would ask him, ‘How did you build your firm? How do you manage the work?’ And I remember he said two things: ‘You have to learn how to delegate and you have to have a good memory.’ And I always took that to heart.”

Whether it was teaching a law class at USC or the fellowship he established at the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law, established to assist low-income victims of domestic violence, Sorrell Trope left an indelible mark in the legal world, says Linda Trope. More than that, he helped save people’s lives.

“He would give people our home phone number. He was always connected and concerned about his clients,” she says. “He was more than just a lawyer to so many of his clients–he was like a father.”