The Brens, who've been married for 12 years, have a home in West Los Angeles, where they enjoy dining with close friends, including former Gov. Pete Wilson and his wife, Gayle. But the Brens spend most of their time at their waterfront villa on tiny Harbor Island, an exclusive neighborhood just a seven-minute drive from corporate headquarters.
Bren's home is designed in the style of Andrea Palladio, the 16th-century Renaissance architect whose influence is evident in the Pelican Hill Resort and other Irvine Co. properties. A student of architecture and history, Bren was inspired by Palladio's famous treatise, "The Four Books of Architecture."
"He's probably the most influential architect in the history of the modern world," Bren said. "I'm just in love with his designs."
Bren and his wife are Republicans, and he describes himself as "a fiscal conservative and social moderate." He backed Wilson's Senate campaign and contributed to Meg Whitman's gubernatorial bid. But he's also long supported Democrat Dianne Feinstein, whom he calls "a great senator for California."
Bren has worked diligently to keep his personal life private. He has six children, including one with Brigitte and three from his first two marriages.
The two other children, now 18 and 22, were with a former girlfriend. They battled Bren in court last year seeking $130 million in retroactive child support. Bren testified during the trial, and his attorneys noted that he had given the children more than $9 million since their birth and, although he rarely saw them, had already promised to pay their education expenses until the age of 25. The jury sided with Bren.
His two oldest sons are in the real estate business, though neither works for Irvine Co. "The best way for a young person to grow and prosper is on his own, as I did," Bren said.
Bren grew up in Bel-Air and later Beverly Hills, and graduated with the Beverly Hills High class of 1950. His father, Milton Bren, was a real estate investor and Hollywood film producer best known for the "Topper" screwball comedies of the 1930s and '40s.
His parents divorced when Donald and his brother were young, and their father married the film noir actress Claire Trevor in 1948, the year of her Oscar-winning turn in "Key Largo."
Trevor earned fame playing tough dames, though off-screen she was an intellectual, an accomplished painter and sculptor, and a friend of artists, particularly the 1950s-era abstract expressionists known as the New York School. She introduced Bren to many of those artists, and her appreciation for art had a profound effect on her stepson.
"That was such an exciting period," Bren recalled. "What I learned from Claire was to see a different dimension — the depth, the symmetry, the relationships, the color. That carried over to architecture for me."
Bren, who sits on the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, describes himself as a modest collector. Paintings by the late Richard Diebenkorn, a California artist and one of Bren's favorites, hang in the Bren home and at Irvine Co. headquarters.
Bren earned a degree in business and economics at UW, then entered the Marines as an infantry officer after the Korean War, leaving with the rank of first lieutenant. The discipline "was a rude awakening after college life," he recalled with a laugh. But it's something he still values, and he regularly attends the Marines' birthday celebration in Orange County.
After his discharge, Bren considered law school. But on a return visit to Newport Beach he spotted a waterfront lot for sale on Lido Isle, the same place he'd played as a youngster. He borrowed $10,000 from a friend at a bank, a little more from an acquaintance at a savings and loan, and became a home builder.
Bren Co. grew quickly in the post-World War II boom, developing a reputation for attractive designs and quality construction. He developed the first master plan for 10,000 acres in Mission Viejo, building homes, a shopping center and a golf course, and was erecting thousands of homes a year across California.
In 1977 he took the fateful gamble of buying a controlling interest in Irvine Co. with two other investors.
The company's signature property was the Irvine Ranch, 93,000 acres that stretched from Newport Beach to the Cleveland National Forest, five times the size of Manhattan and one-fifth of Orange County. The ranch was named for James Irvine, an Irish immigrant who pieced together Spanish and Mexican land grants during the Lincoln presidency.
When the housing market stalled in the early 1980s, Bren made a move that touched off one of the biggest legal battles in the history of Orange County.