Melvin Belli (1907 - 1996)
Early Legal Career
There are two portraits of Melvin Belli in our collection. Two portraits because Melvin Belli was anything if not complex and multifaceted. There were those who saw him as Melvin "Bellicose" and those who favored the more caring image of this great controversial figure. To admirers, he was a tireless fighter for the little people. To detractors, he was a shameless self-promoter. But he unquestionably built his career by defending the rights of the individual.
Belli, Melvin. 14" x 19". 2005. Collection of Lesti Structured Settlements Inc. Los Altos, CA.
After graduating from law school, Belli posed as an indigent for the Federal Government and rode the rails to observe the Depression's impact on the country's vagrant population. His findings were later used as the basis for transient relief programs throughout the nation. He was admitted to the California Bar in November 1933 and served as counsel for the resident Catholic priest at San Quentin Prison, taking up the challenging task of defending men on death row.
Representing individuals in personal injury cases and raising awards to then-unprecedented heights, he earned the title of “King of Torts” in a 1954 profile written for Life magazine by writer Robert Wallace. In his first personal injury lawsuit, Mel Belli represented an injured cable car grip man. Over the defense attorney’s objections, Belli brought a large model of a cable car intersection and the gearbox and chain involved in the accident to court to demonstrate to the jurors exactly what happened. This pioneering work in illustrating in court the nature of his clients’ injuries and his early use of photographs, movies, scale models, human skeletons, animals, prostheses, and other devices was dramatic, riveting, and highly effective. He truly was the “Father of Demonstrative Evidence.”
Belli, Melvin. 25" x 33". 2005. Collection of Estate of Gary B. Pillersdorf. New York, NY.
He represented a huge number of high profile clients, including Mae West, Errol Flynn... Zsa Zsa Gabor, Muhammad Ali...and Sirhan Sirhan.
He represented a huge number of high profile clients, including Mae West, Errol Flynn, Lenny Bruce, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Muhammad Ali, Alex Haley, television evangelist Jim Baker and his wife Tammy Faye, and Sirhan Sirhan. Many of his cases made national headlines, such as the Korean Airlines disaster in 1983, the MGM Grand Fire in Las Vegas in 1980, the collapse of the Kansas City Hyatt walkway in 1981, and the birth defect cases caused by the anti-nausea drug Benedictin. In his best known case, Mel Belli represented Jack Ruby on trial for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President John F. Kennedy.
Personal Life and Legacy
Belli wrote more than 60 books, including the classic textbook on demonstrative evidence “Modern Trials.” He appeared on countless television and radio talk shows and loved to act in movies, most famously in the original Star Trek television series in 1968 in the episode titled, “And the Children Shall Lead.”
His flamboyant character was intimately linked to the life of San Francisco and his eccentric offices and lifestyle were the keen focus of media and tourist attention. He reveled in his victories and, after winning a big case, raised a Jolly Roger on the roof of his landmark building and fired off two blasts from a signal cannon to herald the imminent celebration party.
His courageous, innovative use of demonstrative evidence and his willingness to teach and share his techniques were second to none. The Belli Society continues his tradition with hard-hitting, practical seminars with great emphasis on courtroom skills. The rapid-fire, idea-packed programs feature brief presentations, followed by spirited audience participation and questions.
Melvin Belli loved the law and the limelight equally and lived in both worlds to the fullest. The King of Torts is dead. Long live the King!