Melvin Caesar Belli, filing in hand, at the Civic Center Courthouse on McAllister Street.
Like Father, Like(able) Son
by Hank Donat
Melvin Caesar Belli isn't running for office and doesn't owe me money. I joined him on his morning coffee run in Noe Valley for an old fashioned bull session to get his take on nothing really important and to share a few San Francisco tales between sons of the City.
Martha Bros. coffeehouse at 24th and Church is where Noe Valley rubs its eyes. Outside, neighborhood dogs tug at their leashes, slung around parking meters, hoping for wayward bits of croissant or affection. They hold court at sidewalk tables for bed-headed patrons, a mix of working class people and art directors. One of the latter types was busy showing samples from his portfolio to a buddy and comparing stories about a costume party from a few days earlier on this gray weekday morning.
When Belli, a 44 year-old personal injury attorney, shows up, he's vibrant. I get the impression he's been up for hours, even though it's only 8 a.m. It's his run so I follow the leader. This means ordering a toasted bagel two doors down at Manhattan Bagel then fetching it after taking out a cup of joe from Martha's. "They might give your bagel away before you get back, but so what," he says. Indeed the ritual is half the fun, and this day the credibility of the son of Melvin Belli, the late King of Torts whose genius revolutionized personal injury law, is good. The Manhattan Bagel bagel is indeed the best in town, as promised by Belli.
This Belli is his own man. For one thing, he's Caesar. Not Melvin, or Mel, or even J.R., though his life thus far has played out like several seasons of Dynasty. His father died in 1996 several weeks after filing for bankruptcy, leaving an 11th-hour widow, the embattled Nancy Ho, who married Belli 13 weeks before his death. An earlier stepmother, Lia Belli, left San Francisco after marrying Paul Lambrino, Prince of Rumania, a kingdom in the Balkan Peninsula. These details follow a life spent in the wake his eccentric and controversial father, the maverick attorney with whom Caesar was sometimes estranged, sometimes partnered in practice. There were also problems over Caesar's mishandling of a trust fund for his kid sister, Melia. The three made up the former law firm Belli, Belli & Belli.
Belli, the father, had his own brush with ethics charges when he was brought before the court for having sex with a client, Elena Yee. Belli was forced to testify in graphic detail about the encounter and famously added, "It wasn't very good and she didn't serve me breakfast."
All the Bellis are dog lovers and even the family pets got in on the drama. In their 1980s divorce, Melvin and Lia fought over custody of Ozzie and Rumpy (aka Weldon Rumproast III), their two obese greyhounds. "They were fat, but they were quick," says Caesar. When Examiner columnist Rob Morse published a phone-in contest to let the public choose who got the dogs, Melvin and Caesar loaded the votes from their Montgomery Street office so Morse scratched the referendum.
Also among the adventures of father and son, a 1968 episode of the original Star Trek series titled, "And the Children Shall Lead." In the episode, Melvin plays the featured villain, who disguises himself as a friendly angel and persuades the children of the planet Triacus to kill all the adults. Young Caesar is described in episode guides as the carrot-topped boy, Steve O'Connel. Capt. Kirk and crew defeat Belli and save the galaxy, of course.
Little residue from familial imbroglios seems present in our conversation. There is only affection in his voice for the entire cast of denizens in the Belli saga. He refers to his ex-wife as Gretchen. Yes, that is her name, but it's been a while since I heard a divorced man refer to his ex without sounding like a Soprano.
I observe that like Angela Alioto, another San Franciscan whose father casts a long shadow, Belli appears light, without the baggage of having a famous dad. "It depends on what day you catch me," he discloses.
He saves some disdain for Ho, but even that's void of real anger. Asked to explain as simply as possible the ongoing struggle over the historic building at Jackson Square that housed the Belli firm, Caesar says, "Nancy's using litigation to finance her building."
If there's anything a Belli knows, it's litigation. The senior Belli amassed a fortune in fees from his famous clients and sometimes brought his work home. "Errol Flynn stayed at the house when I was a kid," says Caesar, "and I met Jack Ruby. Later we had Leona Helmsley as a client, and Jim and Tammy Faye Baker. We also had Zsa Zsa Gabor, but not for the police slapping. We had her when she insulted Elke Summers."
His father's life outside the courtroom made him as well known as a San Franciscan as he was for his legal prowess. Melvin loved the opera opening, San Francisco's annual gala equal in stature here to the Oscars. One year, Melvin brought as his guest and introduced to San Francisco society the potentate of an obscure African nation. The man deferred to his host and spoke little. Before the evening was over, the so-called visiting dignitary was revealed as Belli's janitor, Art Jackson, when the pair hollered for the San Francisco Giants like kids from the Mission. The Giants game being played at Candlestick Park the same evening was picked up by transistor radio during the opera's intermission. Exposed by their all-American fervor, Melvin confessed the entire masquerade was his idea.
"He was a lot of fun to be around. He didn't take himself so seriously." says Caesar of his dad, "And he loved San Francisco. I think his legacy to the City is what made him interesting, his creativity and his character. In the law it's the same thing, that imagination. He brought demonstrative evidence and knew how to present it. You could say that a lot of the circus atmosphere you see in court today is his legacy, but really what he did was bring the stuff to life. He showed clearly how people suffered. That's what raised jury awards in liability cases."
Melvin Belli, who founded the American Trial Lawyers Association, also left behind a legacy in the law as a mentor. Says Caesar, "He was really unselfish about sharing what he knew with other lawyers."
Like his father, Caesar Belli appreciates character and loves San Francisco. He asks me if I've heard the rumor that Jack's is reopening, and is free with opinions on local figures. He thinks Willie Brown makes a good mayor, for his flamboyant persona and for his leadership. "You might not like the direction the ship is going in but at least it's going somewhere. He didn't fix Muni the first time but he said, 'Okay, let me try something else,' and eventually it improved." He thinks Alioto would be a good mayor, too. "We need someone with character. Look at the City's founders. Everyone's related to a prosecutor or a robber baron."
When I share with him a note I received from a Zodiac expert who claims to have used a letter the serial killer sent to Melvin as a key to decipher the killer's identity, Belli is skeptical. Researcher Ray Nixon says that anagrams contained in the Belli letter prove the killer is longtime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, the Vallejo schoolteacher who died of natural causes in 1992. Nixon says the Belli letter was a cry for help from Leigh and that earlier letters provide clues to unlocking mysteries contained in later ones. The younger Belli laughs the theory off, "And who killed Kennedy?" However, he admits that his father also believed the 1969 letter to be a cry for help from the killer. Caesar says his father once arranged to meet the Zodiac, but the plan was scotched when police were tipped off to the meeting.
Asked whether he thinks Noel & Knoller can be convicted on charges related to the mauling of Diane Whipple, Belli says, "I hope so. They should plead insanity. They'd get off in a minute. They're completely crazy."
We close our meeting by sharing a ride to the courthouse on McAllister, where Belli has to file a brief. He apologizes in advance, the car smells like dog. Before we split I ask Caesar if there's anything he can tell me about his dad that people might not know. "Yeah," he says, "He was a good father."
Welcome to MisterSF.com. Please visit the site often to keep in touch with San Francisco, for your own amusement, and to use the Local Joints section as a portal for independent businesses. Keep your money in the neighborhoods... Watch this space for observations, interviews and more from around town. All other sections of MisterSF.com are also updated continually, so come back and watch us grow!
Copyright 2001 Hank Donat