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The only time I ever spoke to Melvin Belli, he threatened to sue me. Belli was upset over an article that I had written about him and some former partners who angrily split with their mentor during a novel suit against the regime of the late Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Belli and his former partners had agreed to handle the case jointly, but when the trial ended in a stunning $1.2 billion verdict for the plaintiffs — men and women tortured by Marcos’s operatives — a tug-of-war erupted over who deserved the credit for the win. The jockeying made for good copy.

It also made Belli very angry. That was in 1994, when the 86-year-old “King of Torts” was still practicing full-time. True to form, he was making headlines, only not the kind that he wanted. Details of his very nasty and very public spats with former clients, partners, an ex-wife, even his daughter, filled newspapers. Financial problems soon forced him into bankruptcy. Then a court declared him unfit to practice law and began reassigning his cases. In the midst of it all, Belli died in 1996 from complications associated with pancreatic cancer. To hear his sixth wife, Nancy Ho Belli, tell it, he died heartbroken.

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