Melvin Belli, the feisty barrister whose clients ranged from Mae West and Errol Flynn to Jack Ruby and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, died Tuesday at his San Francisco home. He was 88.
Belli had a stroke last week, brought on by pancreatic cancer, and he developed pneumonia three days ago, said his fifth wife, Nancy Ho Belli. They had married on March 29.
“He was very happy, at peace,” she said. “In the beginning he was fighting. We finally told him to let go.”
Belli, who specialized in personal injury cases, was dubbed the “King of Torts.” His law firm grew to have offices in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Sacramento, the Monterey area, San Diego, Stockton and Orange County.
In recent years, he was hurt financially by his lengthy fight over his 1991 divorce from Lia Belli, as well as Dow Corning’s decision to file bankruptcy amid lawsuits over silicone breast implants.
Belli filed for personal bankruptcy last December, and his firm was being managed by an examiner, appointed last month by a bankruptcy judge who declared Belli “unfit to run the store.”
“The Belli firm was to receive over $200 million prior to Dow Corning filing bankruptcy,” Belli told the judge. “That’s the case that got us into trouble.”
Nancy Ho Belli said her husband was depressed because of the bankruptcy and an attempt by his son, Caesar, to take control of the firm.
Belli’s client list also included Lana Turner, Tony Curtis and Zsa Zsa Gabor. He was the author or coauthor of over 60 books, including five volumes of “Modern Trials,” widely used in law classes.
To admirers, the flamboyant attorney was a fighter for the little people. To detractors, he was a shameless self-promoter.