By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Illustration by Kathryn HyattI was willing to look past Donald Bren's penis until it was suddenly staring me in the face: six, eight, maybe 10 feet high, thrusting into the sky, rock-hard, tanned, encircled by portals feeding the pool below. People sat around it, this obelisk-as-fountain that might resemble a fun-size Washington Monument to some, but to anyone reading the papers lately is evocative of a monument a man erects to himself to celebrate the manliness of making babies into his 60s, placing it at the entrance to his most celebrated creation—the Irvine Spectrum Center—for good measure, so people can not only see it and touch it, but view it from above.
I'd come to the Spectrum to get to know Bren, chairman of the Irvine Co. and, until recently—two weeks ago, actually—known only as the richest and most powerful man in Orange County. But life is funny and not ha-ha funny. Bren, benefactor of the political right, intimate of the current president of the United States, spent his life building things—including a reputation as a visionary, if the local business press is to be believed. He was doing a pretty good job of it, too, until one day, May 13 to be exact, a woman named Jennifer McKay Gold filed a lawsuit alleging that Bren fathered her two children, now ages 15 and 11—which he has acknowledged—and had not taken care of them financially as he promised—which he denies. What's more, and worse, both sides seem to agree that Bren has not been a part of the children's lives, has not had contact with them for at least 10 years, which is a long time for an 11-year-old kid.
It's the kind of revelation that would be painfully embarrassing to anyone, but especially the wary Bren, who's almost as well-known for his shyness as for his wealth; so well-known, in fact, that one suspects it's only urban legend that his retainers clear whole corridors of his Newport Beach office to spare the boss the obscene burden of actual eye contact. Some have compared him in that regard to Howard Hughes, and Bren's eyes do have the same dark, flat quality that distinguished the late Mr. Crazy. Chapman University president James Doti once said that Bren was "not a real talkative guy, but he listens very well." Which is what you say when there are extended silences with a billionaire and you're a university president always looking to add a building—especially if you're a university president whose well-suited butt is currently ensconced in the Donald Bren Distinguished Chair of Business and Economics.
So talking directly with Bren was not going to happen for me. I decided I would go to the Spectrum to find clues for the disconnect between the man who's contributed so much money to Republican candidates who rage against promiscuity but who has, with two women, fathered a total of three children out of wedlock, two of them now age 11. I came to bask in the duplicity of the man who has in every sense but financial abandoned at least two of his children but was in the inner sanctum of the George W. Bush campaign, where the main domestic plank was called "No Child Left Behind."
In the same way one peers into the cruel psyche of Picasso by viewing his paintings or finds clues into Wilde's secret life upon reading Dorian Gray, I looked for signs about Bren in the things he'd built. It would be too easy to judge him by the sordid details of recent revelations(1) and assume that he is an irresponsible man who doesn't care for children. Perhaps there could be a larger purpose found here, in his work.
He's long thought of what he does as art. In a recent OC Metro piece—a nearly 9,000-word tome only slightly less fawning toward its subject than the gospels are toward theirs—he talked about visiting the Old World to learn and "translate some of that architecture and planning and bring it forward," more than hinting that he sees himself as a Renaissance artisan at least. Irvine Co. missives have been known to refer to Orange County as the canvas on which the master works. Indeed, Bren hired Garrett White, then head of publications for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to produce and edit a book of more than 300 photographs called Irvine Ranch: Different by Design, Images 1960-2000. Then he hired Gardner Lithograph of Buena Park, one of the country's premier printers of art and photography books, to print it. The result is not so much about Orange County as Bren, and that is what he asks us to judge him by. Fair enough(2). I wouldn't judge him—I wouldn't assume, for instance, that he doesn't like children simply because of his apparent mistreatment of two of his own. I would let his life's work speak for him.
I rode the Ferris wheel.
* * *
The Ferris wheel is blue. A beautiful, understated, lapis kind of blue. Like something you see in a model kitchen. The wheel is located right at one of the main entrances and from it you can look down on the obelisk fountain and the rest of the Spectrum Center—the paste jewel of the Irvine Spectrum—that bears the Moorish touches and qualities of his travels to the Alhambra in Spain—including, with this Ferris wheel, the name of a Spanish city bestowed upon each car—Barcelona, Cordoba, etc. It's a clean machine, exceedingly clean and tasteful and about as inviting to play, merriment and wild, screaming, messy kids as a model kitchen. It is very big and when you're at the top you can look out over most of Irvine, where the parks Bren has built are equally pristine and equally unlikely as locations of rough and tumble play. Rather than playcenters, they seem more like huge, well-manicured lawns, perfectly kept, the kind some old man was always telling you to keep off(3). It's the kind of place that encourages the kind of play you see a lot of now: subdued, organized; the kind of play that reflects well on the parents.