Battle Belli

The international soap opera that surrounds the crumbling San Francisco landmark that was center stage for the incomparable "King of Torts," Melvin Belli

The younger Belli's legal troubles also grew to include his mother. Last year, Trustee Damir filed a federal lawsuit against Joy Turney Belli over properties in Los Angeles and Sausalito. Damir alleges that Caesar transferred his share of the properties, worth collectively about $800,000, to his mother in order to keep the property out of his bankruptcy. Damir wants Caesar's half returned to the bankruptcy estate. So far, Joy Belli has refused, and the suit is pending.

Meanwhile, the state Bar of California had its own issues with Caesar Belli. After his half sister Melia won her judgment against Caesar for misusing her trust funds, and another client accused him of severely mishandling his case -- an event resulting in court sanctions of more than $1,000 -- the Bar took action. Among other things, the Bar accused Caesar of moral turpitude and violating his oath as an attorney. Last August, Caesar was suspended from practicing law by the Supreme Court of California for one year, which ruled to keep the ban in place until he pays off his debt to his half sister. U.S. District Chief Judge Marilyn Patel mirrored the ban in federal court. According to the Bar, Caesar's last known address was somewhere in Mexico.

The Belli Building not only saw its owner through a myriad of legal cases, famous and not, but also through four wives. None of those marriages lasted as long, or ended as badly, as Belli's 1988 divorce from Lia Triff Belli, his fifth wife. More than a decade later, remnants of the Melvin-Lia split live on in Belli's bankruptcy and estate battle, and in Superior Court lawsuits.

When Belli married Lia, she was a 23-year-old student at the University of Maryland and he a 65-year-old lawyer who had long been famous. Lia Belli took easily to San Francisco society. She was a director of protocol for the city government and a minor player in state Democratic politics. Lia ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate, but was twice head of the California Democratic Caucus. Former President Jimmy Carter appointed her a special affairs assistant. Lia was also an A-list socialite and party hostess extraordinaire. The couple's Broadway mansion saw such guests as South African Bishop Desmond Tutu and distant parts of various royal families.

The Bellis' divorce is probably more famous than anything they did while married. The event played out in the press for months. Lia accused her husband of violence. He accused her of affairs with everyone from Tutu to the house staff. (Only a few years before, Belli had been involved in a lawsuit over fees in which he admitted having a sexual relationship with the heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, who was a client.)

The couple fought over everything, including a heavily contested custody battle for one of the dogs, an Italian Greyhound named Whelldone Rumproast IV.

It seemed that no one would say "uncle," and the fight was pricey. In the end, a judge sealed the Belli divorce file, owing to concerns about their young daughter, Melia, and the media circus that surrounded her battling parents. But Belli later said that the split had cost him $15 million. Lia was awarded support payments of nearly $20,000 a month, and got custody of the couple's mansion on Broadway, in which they remained joint owners.

The split was so acrimonious that one of the contested Belli wills includes the following statement: "I charge my executors to see that nothing, but absolutely nothing, goes to Lia Triff, and I charge them to contest ultimately any claim by this miserable, deceitful person."

Post-Belli, Lia divided her time between San Francisco and London, where she studied business at Oxford University. In 1996, she married Prince Paul, heir to the throne of Romania, taking the title "Princess Paul" (as opposed to "Princess Lia," which was perhaps too reminiscent of the Star Wars character for her taste). She now lives in Bucharest.

Nonetheless, Lia remains the largest creditor in Melvin Belli's bankruptcy estate, with a claim of more than $400,000, relating to their divorce settlement. Because of that settlement, a percentage of every dime collected by the estate goes to the princess. Of course, like everyone else who's worn the name Belli, a goodly portion of her take goes to legal fees, including nearly $300,000 stemming from their divorce.

But that's not all.

Two years ago, she became the subject of an action by her daughter, Melia, and her former butler, Allyn Olson. Melia sued her mother for cashing $90,000 in stock that belonged to Lia's trust and, Melia alleged, spending it. At the same time, Olson sued Lia for unpaid wages. Olson was the Belli family butler and stayed in the home following their divorce. Olson alleged that Lia had not paid him money he was owed for baby-sitting the Broadway mansion while it was for sale and Lia was out of the country. (The house eventually sold for $7 million.)

Alas, according to Lia's attorney, Russell Longaway, Lia has more worldly concerns on her mind than the claims of a daughter and a butler. In a letter filed in court last April, Longaway said: "Lia and her husband are presently involved in diplomatic efforts concerning the war in Kosovo. This of course has great meaning to us and them, accordingly she will complete her diplomatic duties before addressing this case further."

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