Obituaries: Melvin Belli
Thursday 11 July 1996
He pioneered new techniques and won huge personal injury settlements with a flamboyance and flair that complemented his seriousness of purpose. Dressed in scarlet silk-lined suits, snakeskin boots and with his flowing mane of hair, he delivered lines with the leonine histrionics that befitted the actors amongst his clientele.
To his admirers, the attorney was a fighter for the little people against the moneyed interests. To detractors, he was a shameless self-promoter who inflated his own importance.
In 1964 he defended Jack Ruby, who had gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald two days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in a case that established his national celebrity. Though he lost, Belli beguiled the jurors and journalists alike with his eloquence. One reporter described a delivery that was "by turns a Stradivarius, a bugle, an oboe, a snare drum racing at breakneck speed through key passages of trial testimony".
Belli declared that Ruby should be treated with leniency because of his mental state; after he was found guilty Belli publicly accused Dallas of being "a sick, sick, sick city" and said that "Ruby was railroaded in a kangaroo court".
His courtroom display earned him the criticism of the American Bar Association. In a retort, Belli suggested his membership conferred as much prestige as membership to the Book-of-the-Month Club.
Propriety was sometimes scarce amongst Belli's clientele. Among them he included Mickey Cohen, the gangster who helped establish Las Vegas as a gambling mecca in the Nevada desert and who babysat his children; Errol Flynn (a great friend) with his numerous palimony suits; Mae West, the lasciviously quick-witted actress, and Lenny Bruce whose humour made heavy use of language that many found objectionable.
At times Belli's legal dramatics seemed indistinguishable from those of the acting profession he represented. He drank prodigious amounts of port and eventually began to play parts in films, including an extraterrestrial in Star Trek (1977) and an army colonel in Devil's Dolls .
There was also Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the television evangelists. As a token of their admiration for Belli - who ultimately failed to get them off 24 counts of fraud and conspi-racy - they gave him a gilt-edged bible as a band played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic". He gave them use of his yacht.
Melvin Mouron Belli was born in 1907, in Sonora, California to an Italian family from Switzerland. The name was pro-nounced Bell-eye, apparently because the Italian way it sound-ed like "belly". Belli claimed his maternal grandmother was the first female chemist in the state and expressed pride in his father's ability to do feats like multiply 8,648 times 1,342,765 without pen or paper.
He graduated with honours from Stockton High School in 1925 and attended the University of California at Berkeley. Despite only average grades he got into Boalt Hall, a prestigious Californian law school, where he studied torts, the legal label for an injury for which damages can be sought.
Belli was an innovator in the field of "demonstrative evidence" and he first attracted attention in 1941 in his representation of a young woman who had lost her leg under a San Francisco tram car. He won her $65,000 in damages which the tram company then appealed.
At the hearing, Belli appear-ed in court with a yellow box tied with a white string. This unnerved the judge and opposing lawyers who suspected it contained the severed leg. After a few days Belli started pushing the box around but only opened it at his summation. It contained the woman's artificial leg.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury," he said, "this is what my client will wear for the rest of her life. Take it." With that he dumped the leg on the lap of the first juror.
"Feel the warmth of life in the soft tissues of its flesh," he said. "Feel the pulse of the blood as it flows through the veins, feel the marvellous smooth articulation at the new joint and touch the rippling muscles of the calf."
The jury deliberated for 20 minutes and awarded $100,000 - $35,000 more than at the first trial and 10 times the going rate for a severed limb.
In a 1949 case he represented a woman who had been disfigured by breast surgery. To show evidence of the botched operation, Belli led his client into the judge's chambers with the jury, and had her disrobe to the waist. The woman won substantial damages.
Afterward, Belli recalled, a reporter asked him, "What were you thinking when she had her head bowed and the tears dropped out of her eyes and fell on the scars of her breast?"
"And I said, 'I could hear the angels sing and the cash register ring'."
In 1954, Life magazine called him the "King of Torts" and his practice at the elegant Belli Building began to assume the aspect of a bordello bedecked with crystal chandeliers, Persian carpets, lavender-tinted windows and gold cupids. On the roof was a flagpole and cannon. When Belli won a case, up went a Jolly Roger and the cannon boomed over the street, telling the neighbourhood that Belli had done it again.
On his desk he kept a jewelled crown that played "Let Me Call You Sweetheart". To the left was a skeleton and to the right, a female mannequin and a large bar. On the floor lay a tigerskin rug he had bought from Elizabeth Taylor.
In his later years Belli increasingly assumed a huge caseload that included seeking damages for 24,000 victims of the toxic gas disaster in Bhopal, India, for victims of hotel fires, plane crashes and earthquakes and for families of sailors killed in an Iraqi jet attack on a US Navy frigate.
Belli always denied he took on too much and estimated that by 1987 he had won over $350 million for his clients, written 72 books and worked on over 2,000 cases.
His firm ran into financial difficulties in a mass action over breast implants manufactured by the medical firm Dow Corning. Belli had expected to receive $200 million but instead was forced to file for bankruptcy last December.
An examiner appointed by a bankruptcy judge declared Belli "unfit to run the store" and at the time of his death he was said to be depressed over an attempt by his son, Caesar, to take control of the firm.
Belli's six marriages often resulted in messy divorces. In 1988, he divorced his fourth wife, Lia, and paid her millions of dollars in what a television show called "one of the most expensive in history". He married Nancy Ho, a San Francisco property developer, in March this year.
According to Caesar Belli (Belli's son by his third marriage and the only one of his children to become a lawyer), writes Tim Cornwell, the victory that gave his father the most pleasure was the one he brought against the San Francisco Giants in the 1950s. The team had boasted of the heating system at their stadium, but Belli claimed to have been frozen watching a game, and sued them. In the courtroom, heavily wrapped in winter clothes, he produced two men from the US Army's arctic survival team to testify they had been colder in Candlestick Park than on an arctic ice floe. The jury awarded Belli the price of a season ticket, and the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper declared "Chilly Belli Beats Giants".
He was married six times, but referred to it as "five and a practice landing" because his fourth marriage, to the San Francisco society hostess Patt Montandon, lasted only 34 days.
Belli arrived in his office seven days a week until the last months of his life. But in 1988, aged 80, he was dropped from the National Law Journal's list of America's 100 most powerful lawyers.
Melvin Mouron Belli, lawyer: born Sonora, California 29 July 1907; married six times (three sons, three daughters); died San Francisco 9 July 1996.
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