There are file cabinets in the pantry. Off the kitchen of the Park Avenue co-op owned by Howard and Christina Bellin stand rows of horizontal files filled with hundreds of press clippings about their parties, achievements and antics. The walls in other rooms are covered with framed newspaper stories and pictures of the Bellins posing with celebrities. Everywhere are scrapbooks with gold-embossed titles: "Howard & Christina, Kenya Safari, April 1977" or "Around the World, 1978."
The newest addition is "Howard's Belly Button Saga, May 1979," containing clippings from around the world following last month's jury decision that Howard Bellin, plastic surgeon to the rich, must pay $854,219 to a woman who claimed that Bellin botched her abdominal surgery - destroying her sex life, self-image and career by leaving her navel off-center.
"I'm delighted this happened," says Bellin. "At first I thought it would be crummy, all this publicity. But my appointments for surgery are fully booked five days a week until October."
That expensive decision has since been reduced to $200,000, but it served to focus attention again on this couple with the most public of lives - conspicious living into which the Bellins seem eager to invite the world.
The doctor is a short, wiry man who grew up as the son of a store owner in East Orange, N.J. Balding slightly at 43, he is a discotheque habitue who dresses for dancing in shirts unbuttoned to reveal a gold chain or two. He talks and moves fast, with little apparent patience for the ordinary. Everything about him is New York quick: his handshake, laugh and temper.
His wife, the Countess Christina Paolozzi Bellin, is the 39-year-old daughter of an Italian count and a Boston heiress to the United Fruit fortune. She speaks with a voice pitched too high to match the tawny, green-eyed good looks that suggest an actress pitching perfume from a tiger-skin rug.
Christina's flamboyant style was apparent in a recent demonstration of solidarity for her husband: At a fashion show to raise funds for Israel last month, she bared her midriff on the runway at the Waldorf Astoria to reveal a tag that read "BELLIN BUTTON." The next afternoon her picture was on the front page of The New York Post.
Christina's mother thought the tabloid display of her daughter's navel tacky. Christin didn't.
"After four hours of talking about Auschwitz and Buchenwald," she said later, "don't you think they deserved a laugh?"
The Bellins are a couple for the media-savvy '70s. As rich and self-indulgent as characters in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, they seem to mark their life with press notices.
Howard retains a public relations man who will tell you that when the doctor isn't fixing noses, tummies, eyelids or other aging flesh, he practices karate, races autos, flies airplanes or plays the saxophone. ("Dancing, karate and lovemaking are three incredible things I do and they keep me in total shape and I haven't had any plastic surgery," Bellin says.)
A household staff of three and a part-time secretary help Christina through her Elizabeth Arden mornings, charity luncheons, disco nights, Hamptom days and globe-trotting weeks. She began modeling after attending a Swiss boarding school, and was tossed out of the Social Register in the early '60s after posing topless for a Richard Avedon portrait in Harper's Bazaar.
That secured her niche in history. A couple of years later, in a Life magazine photo spread titled "That Audacious Countessa," she cheerily confessed to being "sinfully spoiled, self-willed, capricious or almost anything else - anything except being a bore."
Reprints of that Life article, among hundreds of others chronicling the social vicissitudes of the Bellins, are neatly stored in the pantry file cabinets. Near a video recorder in a study are rows of tape cassettes of the Bellins on television. The archives presumably include such movements as the Bellins discussing their open marriage a couple of years ago on Barbara Walters' "Not For Women Only" and Howard's recent breast implant for a girlfriend in front of cameras of the local CBS station.
When the Bellins embark on a journey, mimeogrpahed copies of their itinerary - with hotels, flight numbers and car-rental agencies - are mailed to acquaintances. And upon her return, Christina often dispatches a newsletter describing reunions with old lovers and other intimate tidbits more commonly shared in small groups.
Last year's Christmas card featured four pages of photos and text about the Bellins and their two sons, aged 10 and 12. Titled "Greetings From Around the World," the front page pictured the family foursome posing with the giant turtles of the Galapagos Islands and a second portrait of Howard and Christina posing in front of the King's Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. Inside were shots of the Bellins with Yul Brynner as well as Howard's office address and phone number. A back-page blurb noted that "Howard's immense talent and caliber of his surgery continues to bring him great rewards." There then followed a list of the TV shows on which he'd appeared.
Bellin acknowledges that his brashness and flamboyance (he drives a metallic blue Panterra) irritate some of his colleagues. And he knows that news of the judgement against him in what the press dubbed "The Battle of the Midway" delighted some who thought he'd received a well-deserved punishment for pursing a life style more expected of a rock star than a surgeon.
As if to thumb his nose, Howard Bellin promptly celebrated "the absurdity of it all" with dinner at 21. The wire services, newsweeklies and People magazine were there.
Howard and Christina Bellin met in 1963 when he was a resident at a New York hospital and she was a jet-setting model. They had little in common except that both had spent summers in the Adirondacks. But Howard passed the hot months of his youth in a boys' camp while Christina swooped in each August from Europe to stay at a hideaway for millionaires near Majorie Merriweather Post's Camp Topridge.
One Friday night in September of 1963, both attended the opening of Peter Duchin's orchestra at the St. Regis. Howard flirted with Christina's eyes on the dance floor, and he was delighted to learn he was seated next to her sister. But when Christina approached their table, she spied Howard, turned on a heel, and snubbed the man who one week later she would ask to marry her.
Howard remembers grabbing his date and dancing "shoulder to shoulder to Christina, but never looking at her again - which irked her."
As he began to leave the dance floor, Christina "grabbed on to my coattail and wouldn't let go," Howard recalls. "I had never said a word, but my heart went to my throat. I knew I had been had."
From her sister he obtained Christina's phone number, and he called her the next day to ask her out Monday.
"She, of course, had a date and pretended she didn't know who I was," Howard says.
Remembers Christina: "I was 23 and hated doctors, Brooks Brothers, crew cuts and short socks. He was 27 and hated socialites. He told me, 'Listen, I really want my degree, I don't have time for crazy ladies.'"
On their second date, four days after their meeting at the St. Regis, Howard says Christina "handed me a toothbrush and a key to her apartment and said, 'You live here.'"
That weekend, driving through Central Park in his Austin-Healy 3000, she asked him to marry her. He turned the car around, drove to New Jersey and introduced his mother to his fiancee.
They were married a year later when, they both agree, Christina woke up one morning to find she didn't have any major modeling assignments or social projects for the coming month. Why not, she thought, toss a gala wedding? And the audacious countessa picked up the phone and put together "a fairy tale wedding" with 600 guests.
For most of the 15 years of their unusual marriage, the Bellins have lived in their spacious co-op. On walls not decorated with photos and newspaper articles are Cambodian rubbings, a piece of Larry Rivers art and Haitian paintings. A closet adjacent to the living room houses enough stereo equipment to power a small disco, and, in fact, the Bellins like dinner parties that end with dancing long into the night. Aside from travel, entertaining and "doing favors for friends" occupy much of Christina's time.
"Being European, I don't feel the same compulsion to achieve that American women do," she says. Last year she took some journalism courses at Columbia University and announced a new career as a magazine writer, though she says she had difficulty with "the simple things - spelling, composition, punctuation." She grimaces, but says she worked hard, even returning early from Europe upon occasion so as not to miss a class.
Christina had one article published, a paean to rock music in New York magazine. "That," she says, "will keep me satisfied for two years."
In the article she paid homage to an 18-year-old Israeli soldier who in 1977 introduced her to the world of discos. "I am alive," she rejoiced in print, "Eyal's visit turned out to be the most exciting six months of my life. I was old enough to understand what was happening and to enjoy it."
These days Christina is more talkative on the subject than her husband. he is chief plastic surgeon at a Catholic hospital, where detailed reports of his extracurricular love life - such as the one he gave on the Barbara Walters show - are not greeted enthusiastically.
Parents of some of the girls who attend private school with the Bellin's older son forbid their daughters to visit the Bellin home, Christian says, ever since she and Howard publicly declared their arrangement.
"I grew up Catholic, and my father had many girlfriends, which hurt my feelings," says Christina. "My mother had boyfriends, but she at least always went out with them. My children will be the exact opposite. They think [our open marriage] is appalling! They think every man I bring home is a chmuck, a blackmailer."
Would she like another child, a daughter perhaps?
"I'd love to" she says. "But with whom? I don't sleep with my husband, and I'm much too petit bourgeois to have an illegitimate child. I really am middle class."
Yet for all their disregard of martial convention, there seems to be an enduring reciporcal magnetism between the Bellins.
Suzy Soro, a Manhattan actress who sometimes dates Howard, says she thinks he is attracted to Christina's title and entree to international society, while Christina admires Howard's intelligence and medical skill.
For her part, Christina says she stays married to Howard because "at age 40, yet get bad habits that a person you've been with 16 years allows you to get away with. My bad habits are 10 times more interesting than anybody's. The only person who allows me to be me is my husband.
"We never fight - how can you fight with a friend? Yes, I fight with lovers, all the time. They want to be my husband. I spent half the time ego-building. Everybody wants to be Howard Bellin. And 90 percent of his girlfriends came up with harebrained schemes to make money, thinking he'll leave me. But I think I give him a sence of importance none of the other little girls give him."
Says Howard: "Christian is wonderfully unpredictable, with a mind like nothing I've ever met. Bright, witty, sensitive, a different person every day since I met her. Sometimes it's exasperating. But I'd say in the 15 years I've known her and all the other women I've met, there is only one other girl I could conceivably be married to."
Christina says she's never met another man to whom she could be married. She prefers one lover at a time, avoids married men, and demands that her lovers remain faithful to her.
To Christina, American men make love the way Amercians perform ballet: "technically proficient but with little soul. I had to be in love with either a crazy Mediterranean or a crazy Russian. As soon as they're logical and reasonable forget it. I see the picket fence and little house."
Once, at a dinner party whose guest list included designer Mary McFadden, actor Yul Brynner, radio personality Barry Farber and about 50 others, Christina was sporting a fresh black eye. Her lover had grown angry, she said, because she hadn't accompanied the car and driver she'd sent to pick him up.
The press clippings overlook some of the couple's painful moments, such as the first son's brush with death.
Born with a rare intestenial disease, he nearly died at three months. As a baby he underwent 13 operations, during which time Christina sometimes lived at his hospital, even while pregnant with her second son.
("I couldn't stand the death ward," she recalls, "so I went down to the welfare ward. To keep my sanity, I was always perfectly made up. Afterall, that had been my job before.")
On evening her mother convinced Christina to leave the hospital for a dinner at Quo Vadis. As the waiter approached their table with Christina's Soup Senagalese, he collapsed. While other patrons turned away, Christina rushed to the waiter's assistance and pounded on his chest. (Christina remembers that her dress was above her knees.) The waiter died, and Christina remembers telling her mother, "I don't belong here, I belong at the hospital. Take me home."
During the Yom Kippur War, However Bellin volunteered to work in a Jerusalem hospital receiving battle casualties. The experience seemed to sharpen his appetitie for living. "For the longest time," Christina says, "he didn't feel he should get paid for something he has to do, which is medicine. But after the war his attitude changed."
Howard Bellin's life seemed to accelerate as he worked 12 hours a day, five days a week. He came to expect others to do the same.
Suzy Soro remembers him looking at her recently at a disco and saying bluntly: "Let's face it. You're talented, but you're 30 years old, and you don't have any ambition."
Says Soro: "He borders on Nietzsche when he thinks he can be anyone, do anything, make love to anyone. He can't stand to lose, or to have anyone see him lose. I wanted to go to his first race, but he wouldn't let me. You know that he said? He said, 'I'll call you when I win.' But he'll wake you up, he's good that way. A few days after that night at the disco I was on the phone yelling at my agent to find me work. Three days later I had a job."
It is after midnight in Manhattan's Xenon disco, and Howard Bellin does not want to go home. He is in a party mood, despite the jokes of friends he spots who gesture to their belly button and rib him: "Will you put mine over here for $800,000?" Or: "I'll take mine in the middle of my forehead for that price!"
Bellin pauses for a last look at the Xenon crowd. On the large dance floor in this renovated theater are a dozen male body-builders in bikini briefs, their legs and torsos glistening with oil and sweat beneath the disco's flashing lights. In attendance to promote an upcoming muscle-man contest, they are mingling now with men in suits or jeans, women wearing dresses, jogging shorts and T-shirts, or - in the case of one bored-looking blond - a black camisole with matching panties, gaterbelt and seamed stockings.
Howard is finally alone, Christina departed before him, about an hour earlier, confiding happily to her entourage that her lover "lives only two blocks away."
Bellin reluctantly heads toward Xenon's exit.
"I have surgery at 9 in the morning," he shouts above the music. "I really hate to leave - there's so much action here tonight." CAPTION: Picture 1, Howard and Christina Bellin on the patio of their New York apartment; Picture 2, dancing at the discotheque Xenon, By Donal F. Holway for The Washington Post.