Breakup by the Bay: Bellis' Messy Divorce

Times Staff Writer

"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."

(An Anglican church official in Cape Town, South Africa, said by telephone that Tutu is attending a conference in Cambridge, England, and cannot be contacted. However, Lia Belli has publicly scoffed at the idea she has been intimate with the clergyman, whom she met while doing charity work.)

Lia Belli's allegations of threats and abuse were repeated in her court petition for legal separation. But in any case, outlandish charges are hardly the strangest thing about the case.

There are, for example, the matters of a mysterious gunman, other claims of gunplay and death threats, and the young viscount has gone by at least two names.

Then, too, there are the principals--Mel Belli, the famous lawyer who once was ordered to pay $1.1 million in damages to a former law associate who said Belli made false accusations against him, and Lia Belli, who acknowledged falsifying her educational background when she unsuccessfully ran for the Legislature in 1984 and was fined $75,000 by state authorities in June for concealing campaign contributions during that campaign.

The mysterious gunman raised the curtain on this bizarre melodrama June 28. Lia Belli told police that at 5:15 that morning, she was awakened by barking dogs to find a prowler in the house. When she peeked out from behind a door to see who it was, the man fired two bullets at her and fled. She was not harmed.

Inspector Joe Toomey said the San Francisco Police Department is continuing to investigate the case, but has no motive nor suspect.

Subsequently, Lia Belli filed for separation, informing reporters she thought her husband was trying to hurt her and adding that she had rewritten her will. She said she had tape recordings of her husband threatening her, and got a court order barring him from their 16-room, 8,700-square-foot Tudor-style mansion.

Mel Belli--made famous by defending Jack Ruby, the man accused of killing Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, and made wealthy by breaking new ground in personal-injury lawsuits--responded that he, too, fears for his life.

He told reporters he received a telephoned death threat in March and later found a .38-caliber revolver and ammunition in his wife's possession. He gave the gun to police, who returned it to her, its registered owner.

Mel Belli added that he has been threatened by the viscount.

Viscount Alexander Charles David Drogo Montagu--plain Alex Montagu to his pals--is the Australian-born eldest son of Lord Angus Charles Drogo Montagu, the 12th Duke of Manchester.

'Viscountess' on Passport

Lia Belli acknowledges going on cruises with the viscount, whom she had first met as a child and saw again when he retained Mel Belli to recover a share of the contested Montagu family fortune. She also said that she has a passport listing her as Montagu's "viscountess."

She and Montagu both concede Montagu once threatened to kill Mel Belli. The viscount told a KPIX television interviewer he did it to stop Mel Belli from hurting his wife.

But she denies her husband's allegation that she has had an affair with the young man--or anyone else, for that matter. Montagu has gone on television to deny being either her lover or the mysterious gunman who shot at her. He has told police he was drunk and in Los Angeles at the time.

Such stories make Montagu seem exotic to many here, although he is familiar to reporters in his native Australia. There, he also is known as David Charles Kimbolton, an amalgam of his given name and that of an ancient Huntingdonshire castle once used by his family.

Two Addresses

The state Department of Motor Vehicles has no listing for Alexander Charles David Montagu, but does show a David Charles Kimbolton, who gave two addresses in the last year--the Belli house and a flat about six blocks away.

Australian newspaper accounts say Montagu was convicted in 1984 for assault with a spear gun, and again in 1985 for credit-card fraud and forgery. Said by a psychiatrist to have a "borderline personality disorder," the viscount was sentenced to three years in prison for the forgery conviction, according to the Australian press. He was released a year later and ordered to pay restitution.

In a telephone interview from Los Angeles, Montagu acknowledged his run-ins with the law in Australia but said he had been forced into the acts by a private detective linked to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Montagu said the private eye had his arms and legs broken and threatened to kill him unless he falsely pleaded guilty to the charges. "I got set up," he said. "I did not do any of those crimes. I wanted to plead innocent to all charges, but was unable to."

After he was reportedly released from jail, Montagu moved to California and met the Bellis. By May, 1987, he was at the wheel of a 1986 Chrysler registered to Mel Belli's law office when the car was ticketed for speeding in San Luis Obispo County, state records show.

However, it was not his most serious brush with the law in this country. He was arrested by Burbank police April 9 and held for a 72-hour psychiatric exam after he allegedly brandished a knife at the Bellis in a hotel room, then went out to Lia Belli's limousine and shot and slightly wounded himself, police said.

Montagu denied the assault charge in a television interview, contending Mel Belli made it all up. But Burbank Detective Mike Gough said that Lia Belli was the one who actually filed, and later withdrew, the charges. In any case, once Montagu was released from the Olive View Hospital, police said he was immediately deported to Australia because his visa had expired.

He swiftly applied for a new visa and returned.

Regardless of Montagu's background, Lia Belli told reporters that by the time the young viscount arrived on the scene, her marriage already was a mess. She said her husband had begun beating and berating her, a charge she sought to substantiate by dramatically displaying a 6-inch scar on her upper left arm during one press briefing. She also accused him of haranguing and assaulting their daughter.

This last charge was corroborated by Anna Skibinsky, the 15-year-old friend of the couple's daughter, who has been vacationing in England.

"I was an eyewitness," the girl said, reading aloud a statement that she later told the Chronicle had been written by Lia Belli. "On the night of the Joan Collins film tribute, I was at the Belli home."

Skibinsky, a braid of hair draped carefully down the front of her expensive dress, recalled that Mel Belli at first smashed a glass while speaking sharply to his daughter, then returned later clad only in his underwear to shake Melia and verbally discipline her again.

Later, Mel Belli acknowledged disciplining his daughter for having smoked a cigarette, but he denied using excessive force. His lawyer said Lia Belli's scar was the result of plastic surgery.

Even in his ninth decade, moreover, Melvin Belli is not one to let himself be put on the defensive for long.

He already has told reporters that his legal practice was "never better," and confidently predicted that the national publicity generated by his divorce will only help.

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