Courtship, River Oaks Style

High-powered attorney Earle Lilly was Linda Sarofim Lowe's divorce lawyer, then her lover. Now he's left her, and she wants her $6 million in attorney fees and her Mercedes back.

Hurley brought in two more divorce cases, both his own, for Lilly. There was also a little criminal work mixed in. Hurley's fourth bride was reported to have been distraught over the end of the relationship and tried to leap from the eighth-floor balcony of his posh Memorial Drive apartment, police were told. An aide, who served as Hurley's driver and butler, told of grabbing her arms and trying to hang on. His grip was not quite good enough, apparently, as she plummeted to the ground for the final -- and literal -- breakup of the relationship.

Lilly's law career, however, soared higher than ever.
Couples who could resolve their differences in divorce, or walk away without major wars, usually selected other attorneys. The scorned, or those intent on having their way at any cost, came to Lilly if they could afford it.

Now 60, Lilly still relies on his trademark raspy tones tinged with the northern accent that lingers from his Boston youth. He employs these tones effectively in pleading for compassion for clients or commanding them to correct the wrongs of their condemned counterparts.

A trace of Bogart once radiated from that low voice and long-jowled face. Years have sent his hairline in gray retreat and widened his waist until he could pass for a dapper, charming big brother of actor Danny DeVito.

Lilly's courtroom opponents say they are sometimes appalled at how he can push the limits of the legally acceptable. In past cases, his private investigators did not merely trail the former husband or wife -- they acted as bait to see if their target could be caught soliciting a sexual liaison.

He once had a female investigator make herself available for propositioning by an estranged wife who was reported to be attracted to women. Lilly said criticisms of that method and other tactics are unjustified, because they are taken out of context and were used in past eras, when such investigative conduct was considered more acceptable. Another favored ploy of Lilly's is to provide videotapes of his angelic clients at home, lovingly caring for their children.

Opposing attorneys said most of his tactics are stock-in-trade for divorce battles, although Lilly takes them to new highs -- or lows. With the immense wealth of many of his clients, he can bankroll broad investigations that regularly find their marks.

Lilly is considered a master showman and self-publicist who maximizes his triumphs -- and they are many, over his career. Socialite Carolyn Farb had signed a prenuptial agreement limiting her to $1 million if she ever divorced developer Harold Farb. She did. Lilly got her $23 million from her now-deceased husband.

King Ranch co-owner Robert Shelton gained custody of four of his children in a divorce from wife Deborah -- then he hired Lilly to take the final two from her as well. In a 1990 interview, she said she was "nailed to a cross and hung upside down" by Lilly. Her only apparent crime as an ex-wife was dating an unattached man, but that was enough for Lilly.

His personal favorites are the cases that garnered him the most acclaim, as well as guest appearances on the national television talk-show circuits.

In 1988, Lilly represented Patti Sue Sullivan Chiles in her divorce after two years of marriage to Jerry Chiles, son of Eddie Chiles, former owner of the Texas Rangers baseball franchise.

Lilly broke new legal ground in his suit, asking that Patti Sue's prenuptial agreement be voided and that she receive $5 million in damages for "emotional abuse," a claim previously barred by Texas family courts.

Chiles protested that he was being victimized by a gold digger who had pushed him into prolonged drinking. In typical Lilly fashion, the attorney presented Chiles as an abuser, cocaine user, drunkard and philanderer -- who was infected with venereal disease as well. A Houston jury awarded Patti Sue $500,000.

In that same period, Lilly won damages for former airline flight attendant Sandra Renfro, who gave birth to a child by former baseball star Dave Winfield. That award came on her contention that the two had a legal -- if short-lived -- common-law marriage under Texas law.

He cites those cases as ones propelling him beyond the role of tough divorce attorney, and into the loftier status of legal scholar. But Lilly is less eager to discuss the aftermath of the Chiles and Winfield cases -- long after the publicity, outcomes in both cases were rejected on appellate review.

Lilly protests that they were not technically reversals, but concedes that appeals courts wiped away the verdicts and shipped them back for retrials. The Winfield case was settled when the baseball star agreed to pay $26,000 in attorney fees, and Lilly points out that the state Legislature did expand the law later to include emotional-abuse damages in divorce cases.

On a personal level, Lilly also has ample experience in divorce court. He has had three failed marriages, but he said he counts each of them a success for the years together and the four children they produced. Divorces did not douse his romantic fires, by all indications.

He delighted in relating his story about the humble Russian immigrant who turned to him for help in gaining custody of his child, then persisted in arranging a date for him with a young actress named Laura Keys, 25 years younger than Lilly. Readers of Maxine Mesinger's Houston Chronicle society column learned that Lilly proposed to her in 1990 by hiding a ring in her glass of champagne.

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