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Donald Bren's intensely private life becomes public as child-support trial begins

The billionaire Irvine Co. chairman calls his relationship with a former girlfriend an infrequent, loveless romance. She says they saw each other frequently and cohabited for a significant period.

August 20, 2010|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times

Billionaire Donald L. Bren walked into a Los Angeles courtroom Thursday wearing a suit and sneakers. His footwear may have been comfortable, but the occasion certainly wasn't: A lawyer representing two of his children peppered the intensely private Irvine Co. chairman with questions about his wealth and personal life.

Bren's own attorneys made the case that he's been a somewhat absentee father in raising the two now-adult children: no parent-teacher meetings, no school events, no sleepovers at his house, not even a hospital visit when they were born.

His children — Christie Bren, 22, and David Bren, 18 — are seeking retroactive child support of $400,000 a month each. They contend that out-of-court payments Bren made to their mother when they were youngsters were well below what would have been awarded in a family court.

But Bren's attorneys say he made four separate agreements with former girlfriend Jennifer McKay Gold and stuck to each, providing generously for the children.

Bren, 78, described his relationship with Gold as a loveless, infrequent romance that was never meant to lead to marriage or children. He said he was shocked when he learned Gold had become pregnant the first time and was even more stunned the second time around.

"I felt betrayed in that she promised me that she was protected," he said. "And obviously she wasn't."

Gold, who also testified, told another story. She said Bren knew she was not using contraception, and she described in detail Bren's preference not to use it either.

Despite the personal nature of much of the testimony, Bren rarely appeared fazed.

"Did you ever tell Jennifer you loved her?" asked attorney Hillel Chodos, who represents Gold and her adult children.

"No, sir," Bren replied.

"Are you sure?" Chodos asked.

"I'm sure," Bren said.

Bren has an estimated net worth of $12 billion and is 16th in Forbes magazine's ranking of the 400 richest Americans. He rarely grants interviews or gives public speeches.

His daughter and son looked on as the real estate magnate recounted how he met their mother in 1984. The two were introduced by a mutual friend, and several weeks later Gold sent him a note asking him to get a drink with her, Bren said.

They had been seeing each other infrequently for a few years when Gold told him she was pregnant with their first child, he said. Because of their "unconventional relationship" and the risk of kidnappings and extortion attempts that his wealth posed, they agreed to have the baby discreetly, he said.

Gold left Los Angeles for Aspen, Colo., where she spent the final months of her first pregnancy and gave birth, Bren said.

Toward the end of their relationship, he said, meetings between the two became rare. Bren said visits to the children were also infrequent, though he sent them toys and paid for their educations.

Gold described her relationship with Bren differently, saying they saw each other multiple times a week for years and socialized with other couples. Trips together on chartered planes were common, she said, adding that Bren liked to regularly take weekend ski getaways.

She said the two lived together for a significant period in Los Angeles, frequenting restaurants that were "the hippest, nicest — Spago, whatever was in." Bren denied they ever cohabited.

The payments being sought are deserved, attorneys for Bren's children say, given the $3 million to $5 million a month they contend he was spending during the years he would have been paying formal child support. Bren's attorneys disputed that amount.

Gold has said Bren enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle, including a fleet of five jets with two full-time pilots, a 240-foot yacht with crew, a speedboat, lavish homes in Los Angeles and Orange County, a ranch in Idaho and a large staff of servants.

"It costs a lot of money to keep all of these things going," Gold has recalled Bren saying in a conversation about his spending.

In testimony Thursday, Bren sought to downplay some of those assets, saying they belonged to his businesses, not him personally.

Gold said Bren broke his agreement to maintain a fatherly relationship with the children, particularly after she told him she no longer wanted to be intimate after more than a decade together.

She acknowledged under questioning from Bren's attorney that she received about $3 million in child support from Bren from 1988 to 2002. But she said she thought she and the children deserved more considering Bren's wealth. The money was virtually the only income the family had then, she said.

Gold's time on the stand, which was contentious under cross-examination, seemed to take a toll. The former model could be seen in the hallway during breaks being comforted by her children.

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