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Breakup by the Bay: Bellis' Messy Divorce

July 15, 1988|MARK A. STEIN | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — "Extraordinary" does not begin to describe the scene:

Flanked by a publicist and a private eye, one of San Francisco's wealthiest women rents a suite in the city's toniest hotel for a fancy tea-party-cum-news conference that attracts nearly two dozen journalists and is broadcast live by one local television station.

As cameras roll and pens jot, she spins a tale of brutality and infidelity, bares her scar as well as her soul, talks of a mysterious gunman and a custody fight--and produces a teen-age friend of her daughter for corroboration.

Then--and here's the capper--the attractive, well-dressed woman introduces domestic employees, including one young man barely able to speak English and a gay male secretary, and asks them one by one to deny having had sex with her.

What's going on here? Is this a rehearsal for some cheesy TV miniseries?

Not quite. Not yet, anyway.

The unusual press conference--which took place Monday--is but one episode in the too-wild-for-fiction marital breakup of two of San Francisco's most publicity-conscious socialites, famed 81-year-old lawyer Melvin Belli and his 39-year-old wife, Lia.

A Murder Attempt?

The curtain rose on the final act in their stormy 16-year marriage shortly after an intruder allegedly tried to gun down Lia Belli in the couple's big Pacific Heights mansion two weeks ago, while her husband vacationed in Moscow.

She filed for legal separation July 1, then summoned local reporters and in interviews accused her husband of verbally and physically abusing both her and their 15-year-old daughter, Melia. She also told the San Francisco Examiner that her husband falsely accused her of a number of extramarital affairs with, among others, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and actress Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Belli promptly responded with his own media broadside, saying at a press conference that he plans to file for divorce and accusing his wife of spending upwards of $1 million on jewelry and other extravagances while romancing a 25-year-old Australian-born viscount, a man who, according to Australian newspapers, has a criminal record as well as a title.

The mutual accusations may be hard to believe, but the Bellis' dueling news briefings also make them hard to ignore. As a result, the "Battling Bellis" have been soaking up a lot of ink and air time here.

"More Belli bombshells" screamed a 1 1/2-inch-high headline across a recent Examiner front page. "Melvin Sliced Up at Lia's Tea Party," responded the San Francisco Chronicle.

Television station KPIX, the local CBS affiliate, broadcast live her latest--and last, she says--press conference, while it and other stations have set aside large blocks of local news time for the story.

Radio station KNBR even aired a mock soap opera, in which host Leo Laporte poked savage fun at two of the more odd aspects of the divorce--the couple's separate bedrooms and their skirmish for custody of the four family dogs.

The real-life Lia Belli's most searing accusations, in which she made specific allegations of abuse during the press conference at the elegant Clift Hotel, came just as book reviewers received copies of the latest of her husband's more than two dozen books, "Divorcing: The Complete Guide for Men and Women."

A Good Question

The book promises it will "help you keep the breakup of your marriage from becoming a legal nightmare or an emotional catastrophe," while inside it asks the question, "Are the rich and famous able to resolve their divorce problems in an easier, less painful way than the rest of us?"

In a personal aside, he writes that "My marriage to Lia has . . . continued to become better with each passing year," but notes, "If I had to do it over again, here's how I would handle my divorces: I would not voice my bitterness, anger and feelings of rejection to the world."

Considering that sage counsel from a well-known, five-times-married lawyer, why would a wealthy couple go so far out of their way to so publicly air their anger?

Lia Belli said at her Clift Hotel press conference Monday she wants only to "set the record straight."

"I have had to withstand the . . . personal humiliation of being maligned in national papers," she said, denying all the charges.

In fact, accusations of her alleged infidelities became widely known only when Lia Belli, herself, revealed them to an Examiner reporter after she filed for a legal separation. Melvin Belli was still out of the country.

(For the record, Gabor's publicist, Phil Paladino, said Gabor met Lia Belli for the first and only time at a public function in Pasadena three weeks ago. He added that the actress has retained Melvin Belli to represent her in a libel suit against the New York Post.

("She met the lady for about one second at a big gathering," he said from Los Angeles by phone. "It (the allegation of an affair) is the most ludicrous thing in the world. . . . Absolutely ludicrous. Absolutely untrue."

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