08/05/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT
LINDA LAVIN HAS MADE A CAREER OUT of playing strong women, including nine years on CBS as a struggling single parent in Alice and a stint on Broadway as the steamroller stage mom in Gypsy. Last week she gave one of her grittiest performances, before an audience she would rather not have faced: a New York State Supreme Court judge in Manhattan.
In a bitter settlement battle with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, actor-director Clifford "Kip" Niven, the 53-year-old actress was forced to publicly describe her sex life, recount Niven's criticism of her acting and appearance, and listen to Niven's lovers providing details of his affairs. On the witness stand, Lavin said she learned of Niven's infidelity when she noticed unfamiliar numbers on their phone bills. She claimed that he made her feel "like an old bag lady" while she was convalescing from eye surgery and generally treated her with "disgust and contempt." She described sex with Niven as "perfunctory. I got the feeling he was pretending I was someone else," she says.
Married since 1982, Lavin filed for divorce in February 1990, charging Niven with mental and emotional cruelty, "profligate spending" of her income and adultery. "I believe that psychological and emotional abuse is as heinous and perhaps more insidious than physical abuse because the scars are invisible," she told a hushed courtroom last week. Niven's attorneys declined to comment.
The 46-year-old Niven, who had roles in 1970s films such as Earthquake and Airport '75, is demanding an undisclosed amount of financial support from Lavin. Her attorney, who says the actress supported Niven and his two children almost completely during the marriage, terms the request "outrageous."
No matter how painful or embarrassing the courtroom revelations, Lavin appeared determined to see the battle through. Said the actress through her attorney: "I'm reclaiming my life."