Belli, Melvin Mouron
Belli, Melvin Mouron
(b. 29 July 1907 in Sonora, California; d. 9 July 1996 in San Francisco, California), attorney whose extravagant private life and flamboyant courtroom behavior often overshadowed formidable legal skills that, over time, reshaped the trial tactics of lawyers across the country, won his clients substantial settlements, and earned him the title “king of torts” in the second half of the twentieth century. Belli was the only child of Leonie Mouron Belli, a housewife, and Caesar Arthur Belli, a well-to-do banker and rancher whose Swiss-Protestant forebears had settled in the American West after the Civil War. Raised in Sonora and then in Stockton, California, he was named class valedictorian at Stockton High School in 1925, only to be expelled two weeks before graduation for being drunk on school grounds. His father successfully sued the school administration for his diploma, teaching him, he said, the power of the law and of lawyers to transform lives.
Belli entered the University of California, Berkeley, where he gained a reputation as a campus cutup and free spirit. Earning mostly B’s and C’s, he graduated with a B.A. in 1929. He then traveled to Europe and Asia as a licensed ordinary seaman on tramp steamers and returned home in the autumn of 1930 to enroll in Boalt Hall, Berkeley’s law school, graduating with an LL.B. in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression.
He found temporary work as an undercover investigator for the National Recovery Administration, riding boxcars and reporting on radical activities among the wandering homeless throughout the Southwest. Often chased, sometimes jailed, and once beaten by railroad and local police, Belli said he developed a “strong sympathy for the underdog and the outcast” and became determined to pursue a career as a trial lawyer to defend the rights of the powerless.
He squeaked through the California bar exam in August 1933 and immediately eloped to Reno, Nevada, with Elizabeth Ballantine, the first of his six wives, who worked as a secretary for Traveler’s Aid in San Francisco. The marriage lasted eighteen years and produced two sons and two daughters.
Beginning in 1933 Belli cobbled together a series of legal jobs. For a time he represented without pay a number of death-row prisoners at San Quentin as counsel to the prison’s Roman Catholic chaplain. By 1940 he had organized his own firm of Belli, Ashe & Gerry; the firm was transformed over the years into Belli, Belli, Brown, Monzione, Fabbro & Zakaria. A tireless self-promoter who later boasted that he had gone to his office seven days a week for more than fifty years, he built his legal reputation on the use of “demonstrative evidence” and the concept of “the more adequate award,” two elements of trial practice that he pioneered and popularized. Using whatever means he could to make jurors see how an injury had changed a plaintiffs life, he employed films, skeletons, charts, and graphs to support his claim for substantial damages. During one summation, in a case involving the loss of a limb, he dropped an artificial leg onto the lead juror’s lap, asking her to pass it on so that all the jurors could feel what his client was forced to wear every day.
Belli dominated a courtroom by his mere presence. Standing well over six feet tall, he was always impeccably dressed, his square-jawed face framed with black-rimmed glasses and topped in later years by a thick, flowing mane of white hair. One reporter wrote that listening to him was like hearing a great symphonic orchestra, so deep and resonating was his voice. His trial tactics and remarks to the press touched the outer edge of accepted legal decorum, and he was often threatened with disciplinary proceedings by judges, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America—an organization he had helped found—and the American Bar Association, which he dismissed as a protective society for corporate lawyers.
Belli’s appetite for food, drink, and good times was legendary. He appeared in several movies, including Wild in the Streets (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970). Divorced from his first wife in 1951, he was married within six months to Toni Nichols, a reporter, whom he divorced in 1954. On 3 May 1956 he married Joy Maybelle Turney, a stewardess, with whom he had a son; they divorced in 1965. His 1966 marriage to Pat Montandon, a model, was annulled within a matter of months. On 3 June 1972 he married Lia G. T. Triff, a twenty-three-year-old college graduate; they had a daughter and divorced in 1991.
His flamboyance was reflected in the Belli Building at 722 Montgomery Street in San Francisco. A regular stop for tour buses, the historic building, purchased in 1959, had lush gardens and a rooftop flagpole where Belli hoisted a Jolly Roger flag and fired two small signal guns at sunset to announce any courtroom victory. His office was decorated “in early bordertown bordello,” a critic said, and featured flame-red wallpaper, deep-piled Persian rugs, and four crystal chandeliers. At the side of his desk stood “Elmer,” a skeleton he brought to trial whenever a jury needed instruction in human anatomy. The desk itself was placed before a plate glass window at street level so passersby could wave at him when he was at work and he could wave back.
His client list included stars of the entertainment world, ranging from Errol Flynn and Mae West to the Rolling Stones, and some of the most notorious criminals of his time, including Jack Ruby, who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963, and a Nevada nurse known as the “Angel of Death.” He represented the families of black inmates killed or injured in a 1975 riot at Soledad State Prison. But he earned the title “king of torts” (assigned him by Life magazine in 1954) for his numerous victories in civil court, gaining huge settlements for the plaintiff in a broad range of individual and class cases, covering medical malpractice, product liability, personal injury, and divorce. He once claimed that he had recovered more than $700 million for his clients. In its heyday his firm had offices in eight California cities and in Washington, D.C.
In collaboration with a number of writing associates, Belli wrote or edited more than sixty books over thirty years, including several multivolume legal texts. The best known was the five-volume Modern Trials (1954–1960, rev. 1981), which became a standard text in a number of law schools and a bible for personal-injury lawyers nationwide. Other professional titles included: The Adequate Award (1953); The Modern Trial Lawyer (1954); the four-volume Trial and Tort Trends (1954, rev. 1960); Trial Tactics (1967); and Product Liability: The Blue Chip of Damages (1981).
Several of Belli’s books were popular accounts of his courtroom work, most notably Dallas Justice: The Real Story of Jack Ruby and His Trial (1964), written with Maurice C. Carroll. His other books for a lay audience included Blood Money: Ready for the Plaintiff (1956), an examination of personal injury law, and (with Danny R. Jones) Belli Looks at Life and Law in Japan (1960) and Belli Looks at Life and Law in Russia (1963). Over the years, he wrote a syndicated column for the San Francisco Chronicle and was an editor or contributor to several professional law journals, including Torts and the American Trial Lawyers Association Journal. Of all his books, only two were still in print after his death: Everybody’s Guide to the Law: The First Place to Look for the Legal Information You Need Most (1987), written with Allen P. Wilkinson, and Divorcing: The Complete Guide for Men and Women (1988), coauthored by Mel Krantzler, a psychologist, and Christopher S. Taylor, an attorney.
In the 1980s Belli entered a number of high-profile class-action suits that included the Union Carbide chemical spill in Bhopal, India, the downing of a Korean airliner by Soviet fighter planes, the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, and the Dow Corning breast implant cases. All of them produced millions of dollars in settlements or judgments, but because of drawn-out appeals, payments were not immediately forthcoming. For Belli, the delays proved disastrous because he was otherwise unable to meet the costs of litigation.
In the first of a series of setbacks in the final years of Belli’s life, the Belli Building sustained serious damage in the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1987 and had to be abandoned until structural upgrades, costing millions of dollars, made it safe for occupancy. Belli lacked the capital for such an undertaking, so the building was still in disrepair at the time of his death—and for years afterward—while his heirs and creditors struggled in court to determine who among them could claim ownership.
In 1991 Belli’s fifth marriage ended acrimoniously with a multimillion-dollar settlement that further strained his dwindling resources. Through the next five years he battled ill health, dissolved his law partnership (1993), reorganized his practice as The Law Offices of Melvin Belli, Sr., and fought in court with his former partners over the old firm’s client list and finances. He faced malpractice suits from clients and more than thirty suits from creditors. Both the state and federal governments made him the target of tax-evasion charges. In December 1995, months after Dow Corning defaulted on a $200 million settlement due him, Belli filed for bankruptcy protection. Six months later a federal judge placed his law firm in the hands of an independent examiner.
On 29 May 1996 he married Nancy Ho, a longtime friend who had earlier lent him money from her substantial real estate holdings in San Francisco. Within six weeks he was dead from a combination of pneumonia, a stroke, and pancreatic cancer. His son Caesar Belli demanded an autopsy and asked the district attorney to bring murder charges against Nancy Belli, hinting that a painkilling drug may have been misused. A week after the memorial service at Grace (Episcopal) Cathedral, the coroner ruled that the autopsy showed Belli had died from natural causes.
No charges were brought against Nancy Belli, but in an ironic ending to a storied law career, Belli’s death opened the way to dozens of lawsuits that dragged on for years, as clients, creditors, ex-wives, children, and former partners sued each other and the estate for what they believed was rightfully theirs. As many as 150 lawyers in three countries were engaged in untangling the legal mess Belli’s last years had created. It was exactly the kind of litigation he had found so exhilarating in his own career and was—some of his contemporaries suggested—exactly the kind of legacy he would have hoped to leave behind.
As a general rule Belli’s legal papers are protected in perpetuity by the attorney-client privilege and are not accessible to researchers; his personal papers are held by his estate. In addition to his autobiography, My Life on Trial (1976), written with Robert Kaiser, Belli scattered personal anecdotes throughout his books for a general audience, commenting on his marriages in Divorcing (1988) and on his law career in Blood Money: Ready for the Plaintiff (1956); The Belli Files: Reflections on the Wayward Law (1983); and Belli for Your Malpractice Defense (1986). See also the brief profile in Life magazine (18 Oct. 1954); the “Playboy Interview,” conducted by Alex Haley, Playboy (July 1965); and an interview with Digby Diehl, Supertalk (1974). Belli’s books also include The Use of Demonstrative Evidence in Achieving the More Adequate Award (1955); Modern Trial Law (1957); Modern Damages, 6 vols. (1959); Tort and Medical Yearbook 2 vols. (1961); The Urologist and the Law (1979); and The Successful Opening Statement (1981). There are two early popular biographies: Robert Wallace, Life and Limb: An Account of the Career of Melvin M. Belli, Personal-Injury Trial Lawyer (1955), and Norman Sheresky, On Trial: Masters of the Courtroom (1977). See also Krysten Crawford, “Tortious Maximus,” American Lawyer (2 Dec. 1999). The family squabbles and legal entanglements following Belli’s death are described by Lisa Davis in “Battle Belli,” SF Weekly (12 Apr. 2000). Obituaries are in the San Francisco Chronicle (10 July 1996) and New York Times (11 July 1996).
Allan L. Damon