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.
It's a big wheel, and from the top you not only see the swirls and minarets of the mall, but if you look south you can see the dry grass of Quail Hill, one of the open tracts of land that Bren has set aside not to be developed. Bren gets much props for doing this with more than 53,000 acres that he owns at the Irvine Ranch, and it seems every year some environmental group wants to give him an award. Of course, much of the land is unsalable land, some of it absolute, breakneck, sheer cliff that he donates to the county for tax breaks. The land that couldbe used by, say, a family with kids, he fences off like Quail Hill, which is bordered by Strawberry Farms Golf Club and rapid building on all other sides—Quail Meadows, with homes and apartments, is going up right now. No one is allowed on Quail Hill. What would they do, have a picnic? Run around? Laugh? And anyone who so much as breaches the fence is astonished to find a guard materialize like a space alien and tell them, Grapes of Wrath-like, to move on.
Given those circumstances, a lot of kids beat it to the Spectrum Center. You can see them, too, from the top of the Ferris wheel. There they are, sitting in their parents' cars on the San Diego Freeway, which runs in front of the mall, sullenly waiting to be off-loaded, these teens and tweens in search of something to do, who will then sullenly stalk and then sullenly wait to be loaded up again. To find them we must get off the wheel and head into the heart of the Spectrum. We do this by any of a number of ever-narrowing passages lined with stores selling $185 toddler suede jumpsuits and $320—on sale—Jerry West vintage jerseys.
When this place was built, Rick Evans, then the Irvine Co.'s retail division chief, said the mall would "defy all the rules." Exactly what rules they defy is unclear, because the Spectrum Center looks like any other outdoor mall with a Wetzel's Pretzels and a Jamba Juice. Perhaps he was referring to the Spectrum Center's defiance of the rule that a retail mall is intended as a destination for family entertainment. I heard a passerby explain to a friend that this was "less of a shopping center and more of a place to do things." But from the looks of things, the only thing you can do is buy stuff. Yes, there's a movie theater, but, hey, the Westminster Mall has a movie theater. There's a comedy club—no kids. There's a country music club—what self-respecting family would send their child into that(4). Most everything else is just a means for moving merchandise, and high-end Oakley sunglass-type merchandise at that.
The narrowness of the passages inhibits the flow of people, and you're less likely to linger with someone at your back. This seems to take the life right out of the teens, who have few places to hang. They do their best to gather and look tough smoking their clove cigarettes outside of Brookstone, but they look out of place, desperately seeking something to rebel against, somehow anesthetized to the fact that it—the something to rebel against—envelopes them at the moment.
Bren's mentor Ray Watson may have showed him how to turn that trick. He designed the Woodbridge section of Irvine and put in two lakes, lakes that might invite reveling and carrying on and kids getting wet and all manner of chaos. So he gave the lakes a strange blue-green tint, like the sheen one would see cast from an alien spacecraft. Who would jump into that? The lakes look like the Dead Sea. Even the most optimistic Huck Finn who walks to their edges to fish—what could live in that?—is soon approached by security and asked for some ID(5).
If you walk long enough, the passageways eventually open onto a large court that stands in front of the kajillion-screen movie theater, but don't look for any open space here. The square is jammed with the same kind of merchants' carts that dot the passageways, many of them manned by young people who sit avoiding glances as their carts announce, "Yes! We have Nukkles!"(6) The carts sell cell phones, temporary tattoos and toy cars and are arranged in such random clutter that it looks like a cross between Jesus meeting the money changers and that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy is confronted by an entire square of people toting dirty laundry. Perhaps the rules are a good thing.
From here, there are more passageways that wind in such a way that you cannot immediately see the food court that lies at the end. Stashed in the corner behind the food court, where people gnaw on hamburger and teriyaki-chicken combos, is a small space for the younger set with yet another fountain. This one is of pulsing water that spurts forth in spasmodic bursts much in the manner of, well, you know. The kids love it and run around to be showered unseen by the rest of the mall's patrons, hidden, not seen and not heard. Those are Bren's rules.
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And that's pretty much the Spectrum Center. It's not a particularly large place. There is an entrance that bears a swirling message that begins: "Legend tells of a powerful wizard who placed this great palace under a spell protecting it from all manners of harm and disaster." If it is to be assumed that Bren is that wizard, what manner of harm and disaster is he protecting people from? Unruly kids? Noisy kids? Kids who do as they want? Kids who won't go away?
Who knows. Maybe all it tells us is that it may not be the greatest thing to have a billionaire for a dad . . . or building and running your county. Apparently it doesn't do much for the billionaire either. Life's funny that way. Ha ha.
* * *
1)2)3)4)5)6) I have no idea. The kid, if he lives in Bren's Woodbridge, will have it. Yes, there is the Dave & Buster's uber-arcade, but I once tried to bring my 8-year-old there in the evening and was told to take a powder by the guy at the door. Apparently, after dark, the Skee-Ball gets a little bluuuue. Donald Bren is 71. "Not fair at all," I hear some of you say, "what Donald Bren has done in his private life has nothing to do with the good he does for the public." This is like the cry regarding Bill Bennett, the virtues magnate recently exposed for losing $8 million gambling: "It's nobody's business!" This is convenient, of course. Conservatives—always eager to tell you how to live, who to have sex with and how—morph into libertarians when their gambling habits (Bennett), naked photos (Laura Schlessinger), extramarital affairs (Newt Gingrich) or three neglected children (Bren) come to light. They can't make the argument stick, of course, because it is this same bunch, funded by Bren to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, that argued most vociferously that a man's private life informs his public actions. The same bunch that spent millions in an attempt to remove a popular president because he received oral sex. And please, don't embarrass both of us by arguing that Donald Bren is not a public person. If you live in Orange County, he plays a bigger part in your life than any politician. You pay him rent or association fees or you vote for the candidates he deems useful. Which is more than the Republicans whom Bren bankrolls were willing to do for Bill Clinton. It didn't matter how well Clinton did his job—remember the days of low crime, a boom economy and a little something called "peace"? All that mattered was his penis. Now, given the revelations about Bren's conduct, isn't it at least sadly laudable that Clinton had enough responsibility to keep his sex acts to those of a nonreproductive nature?