During the Golden Age of Hollywood, Claire Trevor Bren earned her place in movie history by playing women with tarnished reputations.
She was the worn streetwalker in “Dead End” with Humphrey Bogart, the frontier prostitute in “Stagecoach” with John Wayne and gangster Edward G. Robinson’s alcoholic moll in “Key Largo,” for which she won the 1948 Oscar for best supporting actress.
But for Bren, stepmother of billionaire Irvine Co. Chairman Donald L. Bren, the role of actress was secondary.
“Honey, family always took priority with me,” she says in a voice once described as sounding like delicious trouble. “I never was the woman who gave up everything for her career. That’s the difference between Bette Davis and myself. She was besotted with ambition, and all she cared about was her career. If her career was interfered with, she was miserable. I mean, it was just the end of the world for her. That was not true with me. They came first.”
Seated in the living room of her home in Big Canyon in Newport Beach, Bren is doing something she did her best to avoid during her Hollywood heyday: an interview.
The talk ranges from her longtime marriage to movie producer-real estate developer Milton Bren–and the devastating loss within one year of both her husband and a son–to coming under Clark Gable’s wolfishly admiring gaze on the first day of shooting “Honky Tonk” (1941).
Wearing a white designer sweat suit, she looks and acts many years younger than her age, which is 85. She is not one to dwell on the past, but get her to talk about her Hollywood days and the stories unwind as freely as film through a projector. Her reminiscences are punctuated by a throaty laugh or a pause to light up a cigarette–just as she did as the gun-wielding “big-league blonde” in the 1944 screen version of Raymond Chandler’s “Murder, My Sweet” opposite Dick Powell.
Even though she did not put her career above all else, Bren was in 65 movies from 1933 to ’82, co-starred with Robinson on radio’s weekly newspaper drama “Big Town” in the ‘40s and appeared in numerous dramas during TV’s Golden Age in the ‘50s.
She still receives fan mail and requests for autographs from all over the world. And, on this day, she is in the middle of packing for her trip to the Cannes Film Festival, where she was invited to appear at a retrospective of the films of John Ford. Observed Bren without a trace of self-pity: “I’m probably the only one left alive out of ‘Stagecoach.’ ”
The New York City-born actress made her Broadway debut in 1931 and arrived in Hollywood in 1933, a time when the film capital was at its most glamorous.
She had her first taste of vodka at an intimate gathering for Polish-born concert pianist Artur Rubinstein. At another party, she was so mesmerized at meeting the great Greta Garbo that she could do little more than say, “How do you do?” and stare at that fabulous face. She once played hearts with “The Front Page” writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur all the way to New York on the Super Chief–and won every game. (“They were furious.”)
And there was a memorable dance with the debonair Ronald Colman.
“I almost fainted, I was so in love with him,” she recalled. “That’s the only time I met him, but he was absolutely handsome–twice as good-looking as on the screen. And his eyes; I’ll never forget his eyes–like burning coals–and he was so gentle and sweet.”
The true love of her life, however, was Milton Bren.
A onetime Hollywood agent, he produced “Topper,” starring Cary Grant, helped develop the Sunset Strip and won the first Newport-Ensenada International Yacht Race.
At the time of their marriage in 1948, she was twice divorced and had one son, Charles. Milton also was divorced and had two sons, Donald and Peter. All three young sons lived with the newlyweds.
“We were an instant family,” said Bren, who says the term stepmother, which she never uses, “grates” on her: “I raised both boys. They’re like my own.”
Bren is enthusiastically proud of Donald Bren’s phenomenal success. “It’s unbelievable, and it’s just thrilling. He is incredible,” she said, recalling Donald as an “extremely shy, almost bashful young boy–and he’s taught himself to get over that. He’s able to make wonderful speeches.”
Donald Bren, who describes his stepmother as “warm, loving and deeply devoted to my father and his children,” said he will “always appreciate her for the special attention and support she gave me” when he was young. “Claire has grace, style, a wonderful artistic touch and a keen intellect. She’s a very special person in my life.”
The Brens, friends say, had one of Hollywood’s truly good marriages. They lived in Beverly Hills but moved to Newport in the mid-’50s. They had visited Newport often on their racing sloop and had fallen in love with the casual beach lifestyle, she said.
Their circle of friends–linked by sailing as well as celebrity–included Bogart and Wayne. She recalls with a chuckle a
n episode with Bogart at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club:
“He’d tie up to the dock there, and one night he went into the bar and brought his skipper with him–Pete Peterson, whom he liked very much. They told him, ‘We don’t allow the crew in here.’ So he went out to the boat, took Peterson with him and made him half owner of the Santana and took him back to the bar and said, ‘He’s not a crew member. He’s part owner!’ Oh, it burned him up.”
Bren recalled that Bogart and her husband “would rib each other and play awful jokes on each other. Bogart loved that. One time [Milton] held Bogart’s face under water so he would take his words back or something. They’d act like kids.”
While sailing, the Brens frequently ran into Wayne. After Wayne moved to Newport in the mid-’60s, she said, “he lived two minutes away from us, so we were in each other’s houses all the time, and we were on Duke’s boat many, many times.”
Friends say there was never any Hollywood pretentiousness to the Brens, however.
“She and Milton were the most down-to-earth people you would ever meet,” said former next-door neighbor Marion Knott Montapert, who first got to know the Brens 40 years ago as her family’s former berry farm was becoming a major tourist attraction in Buena Park. “They were very compatible. Her husband was a tremendous tease, and she got a great kick out of that always. They just enjoyed each other very much.”
The daughter of a Belfast-born mother, who was “full of life, humor and enthusiasm,” and a strict, Paris-born father who had a custom tailor shop on 5th Avenue, Claire as a young child dreamed of being a ballerina. But along the way she got into school and church plays and realized, “This is fun.”
After studying art briefly at Columbia University, she attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. She had to drop out after six months, though, because her father’s business failed during the Depression, and he told her she’d have to help out.
“That shocked the hell out of me,” she recalled. “We weren’t rich, but I never thought of money as being a worry, so it scared me. I thought, ‘What do I know how to do? Acting is the only thing I know how to do,’ and to get a job in the middle of the Depression in New York was not easy.”
She performed in stock in St. Louis and did summer theater in South Hampton before making her Broadway debut in “Whistling in the Dark.” A national tour of the hit show led her to Hollywood where she made “elaborate” screen tests at MGM and several other studios. But, she said, “I turned them all down because they wanted me to sign for seven years. I thought, ‘Seven years! That’s a lifetime.’ My heart was in the theater, anyway.”
It was, she concedes, a mistake. She returned to New York, thinking all she had to do was say, “I’m the actress that was in the big hit play,” and she’d land another role: “Six months go by and absolutely nothing. It meant walking up and down the streets to every agent’s office, every producer’s office, seeing what might be available–nothing, nothing, nothing!”
When, in 1933, she received a telegram from 20th Century Fox offering her a five-year contract, she jumped at the chance.
At Fox, she made one picture after another, most of them with 18-day shooting schedules.
“I worked like a demon, and I knew it was a job,” she said, recalling the then-standard, six-day workweek. “Saturday night you never could plan on going out to dinner because we’d break for dinner for one hour and work till one, two, three, four, or five in the morning.”
Bren starred in more than two dozen B pictures for Fox before being loaned out to Goldwyn Studios for a small part in William Wyler’s 1937 classic “Dead End.” Although she received her first Oscar nomination for the small role as the streetwalker, she returned to Fox for more B movies.
Bren remains a staunch supporter of the old studio system.
“You had to do a lot of work that you didn’t want to do; that’s true–a lot of crummy pictures,” she said. “But they knew how to build a star, and they knew what to do with you. They also taught you everything. They had every kind of school where you could learn anything you wanted when you were there. So if you were a young kid and wanted to work, it was a great place, I thought.”
Her first picture after her Fox contract ended was “Stagecoach,” and she received top billing over B Western cowboy hero John Wayne in his star-making role. She ended up making four pictures with Wayne, including 1954’s “The High and the Mighty,” for which she received another Oscar nomination.
In the realm of Hollywood’s kings and queens, Claire Trevor Bren reigned as a sought-after supporting actress–playing everything from Shirley Temple’s mother in 1934’s “Baby Take a Bow” to Mrs. Babe Ruth in 1948’s “The Babe Ruth Story.”
“It’s tough to summarize her,” said film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. “She wasn’t a ‘person
ality’ actress, and so vehicles weren’t built around her. But she was a very versatile and reliable actress who was convincing playing tough dames, which she did quite a lot, and more vulnerable women too as exemplified by ‘Stagecoach,’ where both strains come into play.”
She displays the same vulnerability in her Oscar-winning role as the alcoholic ex-nightclub singer in “Key Largo,” a film that contains what has been called one of the great moments in movie history.
It comes when her sadistic gangster boyfriend, played by Robinson, forces her to sing “Moanin’ Low” in exchange for the drink she craves. She gamely manages to make it through the song. And when Robinson then coldly refuses her the drink, “because you were rotten,” a latter-day critic wrote, “the sense of humiliation is heartbreaking.”
“It was a terrifying moment,” recalled Bren, who had assumed she would be lip-syncing someone else’s voice in the scene. She had been hounding director John Huston for days, telling him that she wanted to go to the music department to rehearse the lyrics and phrasing of the song. But he kept putting her off, saying, “There’s plenty of time.”
When they returned to the sound stage after lunch one day, Bren recalled, “he said, ‘I think we’ll shoot the song this afternoon.’ I said, “What?! I haven’t been to rehearsal.’ I said, ‘Who’s going to sing it?’ He said, ‘You are.’ I said, ‘No, I can’t! I can’t sing. I go all off-key. I have no voice. I can’t do it!’ He said, ‘Yes, you will. You can. ‘ And [co-star] Lionel Barrymore said, ‘You can do it.’ I said, ‘Oh, God.’
“So they put me in the center of the set. Everyone’s sitting around looking. The crew was standing around, looking. And offstage, someone hit one note on the piano. Huston said, ‘OK, go.’ No accompaniment, no anything. But it was right. He was absolutely right. He was a great director, and what a joy to work with a great director.”
Bren’s life was struck by tragedy in the late 1970s.
In 1978, her son Charles was among 144 people killed in a collision over San Diego in what was considered the nation’s worst air disaster. In 1979, her husband of 31 years died of a brain tumor.
Bren said losing her husband “was the biggest loss except for our son, who was killed. That was something you never get over. But losing my husband left me without anybody. I mean, I felt completely alone.”
After Milton’s death, it was Donald Bren she learned to rely on.
“He has taken care of me like Milton would have,” she said. “He’s taken all the worries, all the fuss and fume. Donald smoothed over everything. I cannot say enough about him as a son.”
Feeling alone and adrift, Bren pulled up stakes in 1980 and moved to New York City.
“I had wonderful friends in Newport Beach and still do, but it’s really a couples’ town, and I had a lot of old friends in New York because I was born and raised there and kept in touch through the years.”
Stepson Peter, a New York-based real estate developer, told her, “If I were a woman alone, that’s where I’d go.” And, recalled Bren, “I thought, ‘He’s right. I don’t belong here anymore.’ So I just sold everything and moved. I’m prone to do those things–enormous decisions and a lot of work–on the spur of the moment: An idea hits me, and I’ll do it.”
In New York, she built a new life as a single woman, moving into an elegant 5th Avenue apartment in the Pierre Hotel that was featured in Architectural Digest. There was the usual round of art museums, the theater, lunches with old and new friends at 21 and Le Cirque and occasional acting comebacks–playing Sally Field’s mother in the 1982 romantic comedy “Kiss Me Goodbye” and an aged schoolteacher in the 1987 TV-movie “Norman Rockell’s Breaking Home Ties.”
After a dozen years in New York, though, Bren decided to return to California.
Wanting to lead a quieter life and be near her “dear friends,” a group of women who are “absolutely like my sisters,” she moved back to Newport Beach 18 months ago.
Those friends, whom she stayed close to while living in New York, include Montapert and Newport Beach interior designer Norma Meyer, who accompanied Bren to Cannes this month and has known her for 25 years. “She is one of the most sincere, natural, warm human beings that I have every known,” Meyer said.
Said longtime friend Montapert: “She’s probably the most gracious lady I have ever known, just an absolute dear friend, who would be there for you no matter what.”
Since moving back, Bren has kept a relatively low social profile, preferring small lunches and dinners with her friends. She once served as campaign chairman of the Orange County Arthritis Foundation in the 1970s and still attends a lot of charity parties, but she’s not one for working on committees. “I certainly believe in all the good work that’s being done, but I’m not an organizer at all,” she said.
Though she no longer sails (“I did enough
sailing for four lifetimes”), she is an avid bridge player and is gradually getting back to her longtime love of oil painting.
The vaulted ceiling in Bren’s spacious living room provides ample wall space to hang the portraits she paints from photographs–ranging from an impoverished Haitian woman to actress Barbra Streisand.
The living room is an elegant mix of antiques and modern furniture with a picture-window view of the Big Canyon golf course, which Bren jokingly calls “my estate.” On a coffee table is an enormous orchid plant, an Easter gift from Donald.
There are no mementos in the living room of her 60-year acting career. But her study, a cozy room where she knits and crochets while watching TV, offers a few notable clues to her Hollywood past: A bookcase bearing her Oscar and an Emmy, awarded for her live performance in a 1950s TV production of “Dodsworth.” There is also a framed publicity poster from “Stagecoach,” a gift from producer David Wolper.
Bren has a collection of videotapes of her films that she often loans to friends but rarely watches herself. “I hate to watch myself at any age,” she said. “I squirmed when I went to the theater to see my pictures years ago. I never looked like I wanted to, so now it’s even worse.”
Despite a stellar potential cast of characters, Bren has no intention of writing her autobiography. “Listen, it would take me the rest of my life to write,” she said. “It would be a wonderful story because it’s a happy story, but I hate looking back.”
Although Bren continues to be offered movie roles, she turns them down. “It would have to be something so great and a director so great–that’s not going to happen. I’m realistic enough to know that.”
Besides, she still feels there are more important things than pursuing an acting career.
Bren remembers seeing Bette Davis, thin and frail and showing the effects of a stroke, at a film festival in San Sebastian not long before she died in 1989.
“She was appearing in front of her fans. Her fans were the important thing,” Bren said. “Joan Crawford was the same. And they worked with the publicity department. Publicity! Publicity! The career was the whole thing. I dodged the publicity department. They were my enemies”–she laughed–“instead of being my friends.”
And to be as big a star as a Davis or a Crawford, she acknowledged, an actress had to go that route. “It takes everything that you have. Yes, everything,” Bren said. But she has no regrets.
“None whatsoever,” she said. “I had a very rich life, a wonderful life, very full and satisfying.”
by dennis mc.