The tale of the Great Belli

5 Mar

Good Morning,

For the better part of half a century, if you happened to walk down Montgomery Street in the heart of San Francisco you could be treated to any one of a number of amazing sights. For there in Montgomery Street, at number 722 to be precise, you would come across the offices of the remarkable– and very often utterly mad– Melvin Mouron Belli.

“Who?” I hear you ask!

Melvin Mouron ( pronounced moron ) Belli ( pronounced Bell eye as opposed to belly ).

Now, if I told you that Melvin had a leading role as a villain in a 1968 episode of Star Trek, and also appeared as the Mayor of San Francisco in an episode of Lady in the House, and as an army colonel in Devil’s Dolls, and as the trial judge in an episode of Murder She Wrote with Angela Lansbury – you would be forgiven for thinking that Melvin was an actor.

Well, In many ways you would be correct because in addition to these credits, he made various other on screen appearances over a career that spanned decades.

However, despite having a speaking voice described as”by turns a Stradivarius, a bugle, an oboe, and a snare drum racing at breakneck speed”, Melvin’s main occupation was not as an actor.

He was an author of some 70 plus books, a raconteur, an after dinner speaker, a wag, a gadabout town, a serial lover of women, an imbiber of fine wine, a gastronome and no doubt many other things.

However, in the main he will be remembered as one of the most successful and remarkable lawyers ever to tread the boards in an American court of law – and for being completely eccentric if not completely mad by the time he met his demise in his 88th year.

Melvin Belli was a very different type of lawyer to the ones we mostly see in this country. Not for him the image of the dark suited conservative establishment figures we get hanging about the Courts of Session and Parliament Square in Edinburgh.

Not for him the neat and tidy respectful type of modern office that we envisage and associate with a large firm of corporate solicitors.

Oh no!

If you passed by the ground floor of 722 Montgomery Street you could often see Melvin sitting at his desk through the giant plate glass window that formed the entire ground floor wall of his office. He would sit in one of his many brightly coloured– some would say dazzling, others would say gaudy – checked suits with the red silk lining, resplendent in the finest snakeskin boots, behind a giant desk. On the desk was a full velvet and ermine crown, seemingly encrusted with jewels, which would play “let me call you sweetheart” as soon as anyone attempted to move it. The office had a fully stocked bar, a life size skeleton, female mannequin , crystal chandeliers, various velvet boxes filled with papers and reports, a full tiger skin rug ( allegedly bought from Elizabeth Taylor ) and various other – decorations – using that term very loosely. In the past his office has been described as a badly decorated bordello! The offices of ” You gotta call Saul” out of Breaking Bad must surely have been based on the style set by Melvin.

Whatsmore, if you chose to stand outside and wave at Melvin through the glass window there is every chance you would get a hearty wave back in return.

Melvin Belli came from a Swiss/Italian family who had come to America. His was no rags to riches story as his grandfather was a surgeon, his father a banker and his grandmother one of the few female pharmacists of the time. In short he had a very good middle to upper class professional background.

He was far from a brilliant student, achieving average grades from the law school at the University of California Berkley from which he graduated in 1933. Immediately on leaving the law school he took a job posing as a hobo for the Works Progress Administration and riding the rails to observe the Depression’s impact on the country’s vagrant population. This was an experience that may well have changed Melvin’s life.

He would be a trial lawyer representing the little man – the poor man – the forgotten man – but he would do it in such a fashion as to gain complete and utter notoriety.

”Who are you representing Mr Belli?”

”Mr X, the little man with no hope!”

“And you have filed suit against all these defendants?”

”Yes – Corporation A, their president Mr B, their Vice president Mr C – all a shower of complete bastards!”

So went Melvin’s pre trial press conferences as is the want in America.

In his career Melvin Belli had many notable cases against big corporations and he won so much money – some say as much as $600,000,000 — in damages for “poor” clients that he became known as the Robin Hood of lawyers.

Again, if you happened to be in Montgomery Street when a judgement came in which showed that Melvin had won yet another decision against “The Bastards” you may just be lucky enough to witness one of his more spectacular eccentricities.

On such occasions he was known to take his very expensive suit up on to the roof of the building with a bottle of his choice – be it of brandy, port, whisky, champagne or whatever – and once up on the roof he would hoist the Jolly Rodger flag on the building’s flag pole and fire a small cannon to signify that the enemy had been defeated and brought to justice by Melvin the pirate!

Now lest it be thought that Melvin Belli was only some sort of caricature I would have to stress that he was far more than that. He was extremely successful and had a number of high profile clients including Mohhamed Ali, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Lenny Bruce, The Rolling Stones and in his early years Errol Flynn with whom he was very friendly. Even Jack Ruby, whom he unsuccessfully defended for shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, came calling at Melvin the pirate’s bordello.

He was also sufficiently successful throughout the courts of his homeland that he was widely given the nickname – King of Torts – an area of the law where he showed a complete and utter mastery.

Further he was the foremost advocate of a courtroom technique which he pioneered – and that was the introduction of what became known as “Demonstrative Evidence”. No piece of demonstrative evidence was ever too small, too big or too outlandish to be used when making a point.

He would introduce a full scale model train and track to show how defective rails had caused an accident and the subsequent injury.

He once had a female client strip to the waist in the privacy of the court before judge and jury to demonstrate the effects of defective surgery. In so doing the woman was shy, embarrassed, mortified and tearful – she received record damages!

On another occasion he addressed a jury while representing a woman who had had to have a leg amputated as a result of an accident. Throughout the trial he had on his table, in clear view of the jury, a long box wrapped in cheap orange/yellow paper. He would push it about, stand it up, lay it down, but never opened it. Only when he started his final address to the jury did he unwrapp the box and opened it so that everyone could see its contents.

There inside, as everyone had suspected but could never be sure, was a brand new artificial limb belonging to his client.

He more or less dumped it in the lap of the first juror and asked him to pass it along saying:

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,this is what my client will wear for the rest of her life. Take it. Feel the warmth of life in the soft tissues of its flesh.  Feel the pulse of the blood as it flows through the veins, feel the marvellous smooth articulation at the knee joint and touch the rippling muscles of the calf.”

The jury deliberated for 20 minutes and awarded $100,000 – 10 times the going rate for a severed limb.

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. He also represented victims of hotel fires, plane crashes and earthquakes and the families of sailors killed in an Iraqi jet attack on a US Navy frigate.

However, the case that gave Melvin the most pleasure was the one he personally 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 flow.

The jury awarded Belli the price of a season ticket, and the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper, having got a quote from the mesmeric Melvin declared: –  “Chilly Belli Beats Giants”!

At times his courtroom display earned him the criticism of the American Bar Association. In a retort, Belli suggested his membership of said Bar Association conferred as much prestige as membership of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

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, and used every outlandish trick in the book to further his own reputation.

Whatever view you take of the great Belli ( be he great because he was a showman or because he was a pioneering and campaigning lawyer ) he ultimately perished his legal career chasing ”The Bastards”.

His firm sued the Dow Corning chemical company on behalf of hundreds of women who had been provided with defective breast implants which were made by the company. The cumulative damages were set to top $200,000,000  when the very ethical Dow corporation simply filed for bankruptcy and folded up lock stock and barrel.

Belli had brought the whole giant conglomerate down.

However, in so doing, he created a huge problem for himself and his own firm fell into bankruptcy when they could not pay the fees of the numerous expert witnesses they had hired to “get the bastards” at Dow. He started to argue with his partners, including his son, many of whom were of the view that the “old man” should have retired years before – as by this time he was showing clear signs of being a true medically defined nut case.

In his private life he was married six times – one wife lasted only 34 days – and even his own divorce hearings were conducted like a pantomime.

In one divorce trial he insisted on calling the then wife seated at the opposite court table ”El Trampo” in all his submissions and would not desist when asked by the court.

Further, he referred to his spouse’s attorney throughout as “The Warthog”– a reference to the female lawyer’s looks.

However, what eventually lead the judge to find him in contempt of court was when the judge reached an interim decision in favour of “El Trampo” on one aspect of the case which lead Belli to address the court saying that the Judge could only have reached such a conclusion because he had been sleeping with both El Trampo and the Warthog!

Yet, apparently these insults were delivered with such charm that the fine levied was only one of $1,000 which Belli paid out of his loose change.

Eventually, a court declared that Melvin was  “unfit to mind the store” and only a few weeks later he died at the age of 88.

He simply sat in his chair, stopped talking and stopped breathing.

I most definitely am not a fan of certain parts of the American legal system nor the kind of contingency lawyer that we often see portrayed on our televisions.

However, it would be wrong to say that there is nothing to be learned from American courts nor the lawyers who practice within those courts. Melvin Belli was  as large as life if not larger. He was outrageous, outlandish, probably lacked a great deal of taste, was completely eccentric, sometimes deliberately rude for effect but on occasion was absolutely brilliant.

He took the view that if you were hauling a shower of Bastards through the court, then the court – or tribunal- or panel – or inquiry should be asked to do only two things.

The first was to find the defendent liable ( guilty ) or not liable ( not guilty ).

The second was that If the verdict was Liable – or Guilty — then the court should hand down a sentence or make an award that was punitive, that was meant to represent fair compensation to the victim and was sufficient to send a message to the wrongdoer, be they an individual, a large corporation, a government department or even a sporting body.

The message was that the penalty for breaking the rules was so steep – so drastic – so punitive — that the perpetrator of the wrongdoing or anyone else would be in no doubt that it would never be worth repeating the action complained of at any time in the future.

“Who do you represent mr Belli?”

”The little man, the forgotten man, the man with no voice!”

“And who do you cite?”

”These guys – those in power, with money, establishment and arrogance at their backs – a scurrilous shower of bastards”.

Having produced the life and times of Melvin Mouron Belli (pronounced Bell Eye) without further ado  — I rest my case

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10 Responses to “The tale of the Great Belli”

  1. Raymac March 5, 2013 at 3:53 pm #

    We have had a few lawyers here in N.I. who paid the price for standing up for the little man–Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson. All sorts of chicanary going on involving the FRU (Force Research Unit) and various paramilitary groups. Reporters have also been shot. Guess where the shooters came from?

  2. Raymac March 5, 2013 at 3:54 pm #

    By the way, have you ever read Studs Terkel?

  3. timabhouy March 5, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

    If his son is a lawyer maybe we could get him over to sue the : sfa . spl

  4. voguepunter March 5, 2013 at 6:06 pm #

    BRT&H,like the man himself,very entertaining.

  5. Edward Lozzi March 11, 2013 at 7:17 am #

    Melvin Belli was one one of my idols. I was his Director of Communications for the last 5 years of his life and Times. I was in my 40’s he i his 80’s. He was like a grandfather who turned to me for his voracious appetite to speak in the media…He was one of the talkig heads on CNN, Court TV and E-Entertainment Tv daily during the OJ murder incident and trials. He left us soon after. As the father of the American Trial Lawyers Association and the Belli Society at Stanford I was privileged to represent him. Even my 3 years in White House Press Office before him was not as exciting as the Belli storm, He was a whirlwind and most younger men, including myself could not keep up with his wine women and song. Edward Rhodes Lozzi http://www.lozzipr.com Beverly Hills

    • Brogan Rogan Trevino and Hogan March 11, 2013 at 8:17 am #

      Good Morning Edward,

      Thakyou very much for that. A work colleague of mine was saying just the other day that his life would undoubtedly be much richer had he known and met Mr Belli– and I agree with that entirely.

      I spent many happy years practising law with some older characters who were brought up and lived in times that are very different to today. These guys either went to war, were prisoners of war, or were brought up in the aftermath of war and so were not spellbound or prepared to live by the rules of being seen to conform with what was expected masquerading as professional ambition.

      Being threatened by a law professor with a report to the law society for some form of perceived rudeness or whatever was nothing in comparison to waking up each day facing a bayonet in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp– and so they were of a type who were at times outrageous but from whom you could learn a great deal– and not just about the law.

      I hope you found my piece about Belli both respectful and humorous as that was what was intended— we are all a great deal poorer for the absence of such characters.

      • Edward Lozzi March 26, 2013 at 1:54 am #

        Very well said. THank you

  6. Sharron Long March 25, 2013 at 7:08 pm #

    What a wonderful article. I came across it as I was doing a search for information on the current owner of The Belli Building. I worked for Mel Belli in the 60’s and what a wonderful time that was! It has always made me sad that his legacy speaks more to his latter years and his bankruptcy than to the brilliant attorney and SF icon that he was. I stayed in touch with him over the years and always felt privileged to have known him. Thank you so much for writing an article that reminded me of the man I knew.

    • Brogan Rogan Trevino and Hogan March 25, 2013 at 9:19 pm #

      Sharron,

      Thankyou for that. I am glad you enjoyed it and that it brought back good memories for you. If you have any good memories of Mr Belli that you feel like sharing then please do not hesitate to get in touch. I have sent you a direct e-mail as well.

      Thanks again.

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