Stories From The Grave
Row 3 Plot 15
Melvin Belli was born on July 29, 1907 in Sonora, California. He was the only child of Caesar A. and Leonie Mouron Belli. Caesar Belli was a prosperous banker and rancher whose family had emigrated from Switzerland after the Civil War. It was rumored that Melvin greatly admired his father, Caesar Belli, but he was less fond of his mother, Leonie, who dressed him in Little Lord Fauntleroy suits.
The family lived in apartment on the east corner of Washington Street and Linoberg Street above his maternal grandparent’s pharmacy, Dr. Julius Louis and Anna Christina Mouron. During his youth he was especially drawn to his maternal grandparents: he was fascinated by the medical collections of his grandfather and by the apothecary jars in their drugstore. His grandmother, Anna Mouron, was the first female pharmacist in California and his uncle, Otto Mouron, carried on her business.
Melvin attended grammar school at the old Dome Campus. He was classmates with Sonora business man Irving Symons, who remained a lifelong friend. 1920 the family moved to the city of Stockton where he was named valedictorian of his Stockton High School graduating class in 1925. He excelled in debating, acting, and writing for the school paper. However, he was caught hosting a beer party in the high school newspaper office, and school officials suspended him and threatened to withhold his diploma. But his father successfully sued the principal for Melvin's reinstatement. The incident impressed young Belli, who had long since decided to become a lawyer. Belli graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1929 where he only got average grades. After traveling around the world for a year he attended the Boalt Hall School of Law at Berkeley.
When Belli was admitted to the California Bar in November 1933, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, and private law firms were hiring few new associates. Belli eventually found a job with the National Recovery Administration (NRA), a federal agency, to investigate socioeconomic conditions of the unemployed. Traveling undercover and posing as a hobo, he "rode the rails" throughout the Southwest for six months, reporting on the dire poverty he witnessed. As a consequence of his efforts, the NRA created a migrant worker relief program. This episode also had a lasting effect on Belli, who later claimed that he developed a deep sympathy for the underdog during that time.
Belli began to attract attention in 1941 because of his aggressive representation of people who had been damaged in some way and his creative skill in developing courtroom techniques to present their cases. As his fame spread and his practice grew - Time Magazine called him the King of Torts for his groundbreaking work in personal injury action. The total of Belli's winning judgments over the course of his long career has been estimated at upwards of $350 million; some sources claim the figure is as high as $700 million.
Belli’s high profile clients included Mae West, Errol Flynn, Lenny Bruce, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Muhammad Ali, Alex Haley, the so-called “Angel of Death” – the Nevada nurse accused of murdering patients, television evangelist Jim Bakker and his wife Tammy Faye, the Korean jetliner disaster, the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas, the collapse of the Kansas City Hyatt walkway, the Benedictin birth defect cases, and Sirhan Sirhan. In his best known case, Belli represented Jack Ruby on trial for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President John F. Kennedy.
Belli enjoyed good food and fine wines as well as the company of attractive women, including many of his celebrity clients. His lifelong love for acting earned him minor roles in several movies, including Wild in the Streets (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970), and he also appeared on the television series Star Trek.
By the early 1990s Belli's career was in decline. His health had deteriorated, and he was now in serious financial difficulty, a consequence of delayed or obstructed payments for many of the prominent class-action suits he had won in the 1980s as well as the multi million-dollar settlement he was forced to pay his fifth wife after their divorce. Severe and costly damage to the Belli Building in a 1987 earthquake added to his woes; the building was deemed uninhabitable, and he could not afford repairs. His health declined, and at his death, which occurred at his San Francisco home six weeks after his marriage to Nancy Ho, he was suffering from pancreatic cancer, pneumonia, and the after-effects of a stroke. One of his sons, Caesar Belli, accused Nancy Ho Belli of murder and demanded an autopsy, claiming she had given his father lethal doses of a painkiller. The suit was dismissed following a coroner's verdict that Belli had died of natural causes.
Although living in San Francisco, Belli maintained an interest in the town where he was born. He kept title to his family business and mourned the loss of Washington’s street trees and crusaded for planting others. He urged preservation of the Dome and railed at those who wanted to move the administration center out of downtown Sonora in the mid-1970s.
Melvin Belli regularly visited his hometown of Sonora and on every trip he would stop at the IOOF Cemetery on Lytton Street where his maternal grandparents are buried. Although spending no more than a few days a year here, Belli was well liked in Sonora and over the years he received many honors from the historic society, chamber of commerce, and other Tuolumne County civic organizations.
Melvin Belli passed away on July 9, 1996 and at his request he was buried in the Sonora IOOF Cemetery in the Mouron Family Plot. He loved the law and the limelight equally and left behind a legacy of both creative and controversial “lawyering.”
Written by Denine Urquhart
Family Members buried in the Mouron Family Plot:
Leonie Mouron Belli (Mother) 10/20/1950
Anna Christina Mouron (Grandmother) 1852 - 3/10/1926
Dr. Julius Louis Mouron (Grandfather) 12/9/1884
Henri Mouron (Great-Grandfather) 1821 - 1888
Otto J. Mouron (Uncle) 1879 - 11/18/1949
Juliette E. Hood (Aunt) 1877 - 10/1/1937
Richard Severo - Melvin Belli Dies at 88, flamboyant lawyer relished his role as King of Torts
SF Gate - Melvin Belli, King of Torts, Dead at 88 / S.F. lawyer known for his flamboyance, celebrity cases
Golden Roots of the Motherlode - Odd Fellows Cemetery Sonora
American Nation Biography Online