In his extraordinarily varied life, Kirk Kerkorian was a boxer, a pilot who became a minor hero of the Second World War, flying planes across the North Atlantic to Scotland for service in the RAF, often in highly dangerous conditions,before becoming one of his country’s most remarkable businessmen. Later on, he found time to shake up the struggling US car makers. his greatest passions were the movie and gambling industries – and above all, perhaps, dealmaking which is a bit of both.
The son of indigent immigrants from Ottomanruled Armenia, he dropped out of school at14. he went on to become one of America’richest men, worth at his height some $16according to Forbes magazine, before the 2008financial crisis hit his interests in Las Vegas,reducing his net wealth to around $4billion .Immediately after the Second World War,
Kerkorian spent much time in that city, making a living at the tables of what was then a shabby desert outpost of gambling. Those were the days when the mob was starting to move in,when Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was opening the Flamingo in 1946, and the first incarnation of The Golden Nugget casino, today the largest in the Vegas downtown, saw the light of day. He was hooked, and Las Vegas, almost inevitably, was where his business dealings began in earnest, with his purchase in 1947 of Trans International Airlines for $60,000.
Despite its imposing name it was a small charter service which flew in gamblers from Los Angeles. Kerkorian ran it until 1968,then sold it for $104m to Americanism Corpration – and thereafter he never looked back.In a dizzying series of massive deals and even more massive construction projects, he built over the years what was claimed as the largest hotel in the world no less than three times.
First came the International in 1969(despite attempts by Howard Hughes, then a fierce competitor in the Vegas hotel business,to scupper the project), where Elvis Presley made his comeback as a live artist; then the MGM Grand Hotel, which he sold to Bally Corporation, and finally the current MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, with 6,500 rooms, part of a complex covering seven acres, including rivers and its own sports arena, venue of many of boxing’s most high-profile fights
Over 30 years he bought and sold the celebrated Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios three times, always at a profit to himself – though,most would argue, not to the benefit of MGM. Under his stewardship, the studios produced little that was memorable, while Kerkorian made a fortune, licensing its old hits to television channels and for CDs, before selling MGM for the third and final time to Sony. In 2010 the studios went bankrupt.
Gambling might have been in Kerkorian’s DNA, but he knew when to stop. He could quit when he was ahead – “I don’t try to getall the meat off the bone. When I get a good figure, I just move something,” he once told the business magazine Fortune – and he set a limit to his losses. If that money was gone, he too was gone from the table.
Another chance to win would always come along.Though he operated in Los Angeles, the national capital of hype and selfpromotion,Kerkorian was a deeply private man. He made huge headlines but he shunned the media. He had the outward trappings of wealth, including a Boeing 737 jet and a string of luxury residences. He would hang out with the likes of Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra.
He was also a philanthropist, above all towards Armenia, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake of December 1988. In 2004, Kerkorian was made a National Hero of Armenia, the highest state award of the country of his ancestors, and the prime beneficiary of the $1billion disbursed by the now disbandment Foundation – like his personal holding company Tracinda Corporation, an amalgam of the names of his daughters, Tracy and Linda.
“I just lucked into things. I used to think that if I made $50,000, I’d be the happiest guy in the world.” RUPERT CORNWELL for the UK Independent
Kerkor Kerkorian, businessman and investor:
- born Fresno, California 6 June 1917;
- 1942 Hilda Schmidt (divorced 1951),
- 1954 Jean Maree Harbour Hardy (divorced 1984;two daughters),
- 1999 Lisa Bonder (divorced 1999);