Is it possible for a billionaire to have delusions of grandeur?
We ask because, a few weeks ago, somebody handed us a Los Angeles Times story about Donald Bren, the reclusive billionaire and head of the Irvine Company. The story suggests that Bren was the model for spiteful billionaire developer Caleb Nichol, on TV's The O.C. The story, by Times staffers Jean Pasco and Jeff Gottlieb, was fun to read, but there was nothing remarkable about it since anyone aware of Bren and Nichol had made the connection years ago. C'mon, The Newport Group? Please.
Well, there was this one thing: the story, written in May, never ran. It was killed by Times Orange Countyeditor Pat McMann who told us he decided not to run the story for reasons of timeliness. The person who gave us the story said what actually swayed McMann were threats that the Irvine Company would pull its ads from the paper if the article ever ran. There's some evidence to support that claim, right in the story itself: "Bren zealously guards his image," Pasco and Gottlieb wrote, "and Irvine Co. executive vice president Larry Thomas went ballistic when asked about the Nichol/Bren parallels."
The person who gave us the story said Thomas' displeasure went beyond verbal histrionics and that some very real financial threats were made. Another Times staffer said McMann was upset that the paper would antagonize Bren over what McMann regarded as fluff.
(If anyone doubts the Irvine Company would make good on such threats, be advised that the company pulled its ads from this paper several years ago after I wrote a story that dealt with Bren having fathered two children out of wedlock—granted, the story did run under the headline "Don Bren's Phallus Complex." Oh, by the way: Caleb Nichol sired a daughter out of wedlock.)
McMann told us his reasons for scuttling the story had nothing to do with threats and everything to do with timing. Written in the spring of this year, the story was either going to run around the time of the May 12 season finale—when it was expected that there would be an attempt on Nichol's life—or during the summer when McMann said he assumed viewers would be wondering whether Nichol was alive or dead. He said all that was blown to hell when Nichol quite clearly died in the May 12 finale.
"We were going on the assumption there would be this kind of 'Who Shot J.R.?' cliffhanger," McMann said. "But when [Nichol] died, that was gone."
Likewise, in an e-mail, Pasco said McMann's reasons had to do with a "timing issue"; that Nichol's "death" meant that "we were writing about a character who no longer would be portrayed on the show [and] undercut the reason for doing the story." Pasco added that she believed the story could run despite Nichol's passing, "because the story line would still continue, since the 'death' was unresolved, and [I] was overruled."
But McMann, who became the TimesOCeditor a few months before the story was written, said Nichol's death was only the final strike against the story—that though he thought it "sounded pretty good" when he first heard the pitch, he became uneasy when he discovered the Nichol character had been around since the show's inception in 2003 and started wondering, "Why we hadn't done the story for the two years the show had been on the air?"
By the time the story was ready, McMann said, he was left with an old bit of news about a character who no longer existed.
"Basically we were saying, 'Hey, read this story about a guy who we could have written about two years ago but who's no longer on the show.' I killed it and I'd kill it again."
Whatever McMann's reasons for killing the Bren story, they're not as interesting as the fact that Bren would want the story killed. As the Times piece points out, Bren, whom Forbes ranks as the 38th richest American, with an estimated worth of $4.3 billion, is one of the nation's least public billionaires. One could say that's because Bren guards his privacy so jealously, but so did Howard Hughes and Doris Duke, and people were fascinated with them. The difference is that Hughes was in businesses that fascinated people; Bren builds houses and shopping centers. True, Bren wields more power than Hughes ever did, probably as much as any man in America over a concentrated region—determining not only how people live and shop but who governs them. But the fact is people really don't care much about him, even in Orange County.
"So I'm speaking to a class of, I don't know, 120 political science majors at UC Irvine," Weekly Publisher Will Swaim e-mailed me the other day." And I ask, 'How many of you know Don Bren?' Eight or 10 hands go up. So, max, we're talking about like eight percent. I pick somebody: 'He's the Bren Events Center.' Close, I say. Somebody else: 'He's a guy at the Irvine Co.' Closer! We're a couple of miles from Bren's office at Newport Center, and this is the best we can do. By contrast, half the class knew Jon Stewart."
Though anyone involved in the business of Orange County news knows Bren is the root word of much of what is written about Orange County, we also regularly experience talking about Bren in such terms to regular folk who, invariably, chime in at some point with, "Uh, um, who's Donald Bren?"
Yet Bren, and by extension his company, seems under the impression that the world eagerly awaits his every move. Perhaps he and his people believe that the present fascination with everything Orange County—a fascination The O.C.helped create—includes a fascination with him.
When a region like Orange County becomes a national obsession, invariably the interest is limited to one particularly group. When Dallas hogged the spotlight, people seemed drawn to its wildcatters and their big-haired wives/mistresses. When Miami took its turn, folks gawked at its jet set trashplants such as Madonna and Versace. The allure of Orange County is clearly its youth, its very young youth, generally 21-and-under, presented not only in shows such as The O.C. and Laguna Beach: The Real O.C., but in the youthful energy of its fashion designers—Paul Frank's monkey—and its bands. As much as the country likes to listen to the music and wear the clothes made by people from Orange County, they seem just as captivated at looking at beautiful young people from Orange County listening to the music and wearing the clothes; far more captivated by the Orange County Bren helped to create than they are with Bren the creator.
Bren and his lieutenants' prickliness over the Times piece suggests they don't get it. At the end of the Times' ill-fated story, Pasco and Gottlieb use a quote from former Register reporter Patrick J. Kiger who suggested that Bren's people could have been "clever" about the whole Nichol matter if they had gone to the producers of The O.C. and suggested an episode "where Bren does a cameo as Nichol's rival."
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Indeed that would have allowed Bren to cast himself as Nichol's polar opposite (though the two could have compared notes about what it's like to marry younger women: Nichol married a woman his daughter's age; Bren, in 1998 at the age of 66, married former child actress Brigitte Muller, then 32). It may have been a clever move, but one so inside that it's assured virtually all of TheO.C.'s viewing audience would have been completely oblivious to its significance or humor.
And Donald Bren is nothing if not a man who appreciates a good joke. Why, just last year, he gave UC Irvine a bunch of money to endow a school. The university enthusiastically accepted the money and, to much fanfare, announced that the school had been given a new name: The Bren School of Information.