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Tidy Lawn a Strange Place for Wild Oats

May 18, 2003|Dana Parsons

Donald Bren, master planner.

Well, sort of.

You'd think the billionaire titan who sits astride the Irvine Co. -- with its international reputation for meticulous planning down to the last blade of grass and garage-door color -- would bring that same sense of attention to his private life.

Instead, a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles last week has brought into the open something talked about in Orange County social circles for years: that in addition to the daughter Bren, now 71, had conceded fathering out of wedlock 11 years ago, he's also the father of two other children. Those three youngsters (the eldest is 15) are in addition to the three children, all adults, he sired with his first two wives.

Of the hundreds of meetings the man has taken over the years, couldn't at least one of them have been with someone from Planned Parenthood?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 76 words Type of Material: Correction
Donald Bren lawsuit -- A Dana Parsons column in some editions of Sunday's California section incorrectly reported that a former girlfriend of Irvine Co. owner Donald Bren alleges in a lawsuit that he has paid less in child support than he had promised in a private agreement. Rather, the suit alleges the support is less than it would be if a judge had set the amount under the law, which bases payments on a parent's income.

Perhaps more to the point, with Bren lore including tales of him personally fussing over screws in switch plates and the color of trim on Irvine Co. projects, how can he be so un-diligent in his personal affairs?

Not that Bren isn't allowed any foibles. It's just that you'd expect the renowned control freak to put extra-special care into the important stuff -- like fathering children.

No wonder Bren is notoriously reluctant to give interviews.

"Tell us a little about your family, Mr. Bren."

"Uh, on advice of counsel, I'd rather not."

For someone as private and detail-oriented as Bren -- an associate said he once sketched out on a notepad what would become the Irvine Spectrum -- the public disclosure of two more out-of-wedlock children must be a most unwelcome development. If you can plan the Spectrum, why not your offspring?

Filed by Jennifer McKay Gold, a companion of Bren in the late 1980s, the suit indicates that the two privately agreed years ago to child-support terms. That was because Bren, according to the suit, was "extremely eager to avoid any public court proceedings pertaining to his obligations of child support."

That language will only fuel society-circle speculation as to whether there are other "arrangements" with other women involving other children.

The lawsuit alleges that Bren over the years has paid less than he agreed to and has distanced himself from the children. The suit asks for unspecified payments.

Last week, a spokesman for Bren told a Times reporter that Bren has fulfilled the terms of his arrangement with Gold.

The timing couldn't be worse for Bren. Eighteen months ago, he was the toast of the town, being hailed for the company's set-aside of another 11,000 acres for permanent open space in Orange County. I wrote at the time that the gift would outlive his company's planned communities.

His legacy, which friends say matters greatly to him, now must include that at times he's acted less like a visionary executive and more like Secretariat.

Even if historians will write it in smaller print, Bren's legacy must now include his propensity to father children irresponsibly. All of us live in glass houses, but it's not being moralistic to point out that being a father involves more than writing checks.

The high-stakes dispute over money leaves me cold.

What amazes me, however, is how someone like Bren, with one eye always looking over the next horizon when he's behind a desk, could have such a blind spot when it comes to his private life. Bren certainly didn't invent the art of fathering children out of wedlock, but would it have been too much to ask that he not advance it, either?

Donald Bren, master planner? Sure, give him his due.

But the epitaph now comes with a very large asterisk.

*

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at dana.parsons@latimes.com or at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.

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