Return of the great adventurer

The former Hollywood mogul is chasing Chrysler again. David Usborne tries to discover what is driving him to do it at the age of 77; profile

HOW to explain the phenomenon that is Kirk Kerkorian? What drives this son of an Armenian immigrant who, at the age of 77, has single-handedly sent one of the world's greatest business behemoths, the Chrysler Corporation, into a palpable tizzy with his quest if not to buy it then at least to control it? Greed might be an obvious answer, but that, surely, is not it.What then is it?

Fathoming the former Hollywood mogul and baron of the Las Vegas strip is made all the more difficult because of his obsession with privacy. He never attends public meetings and since being asked by a reporter 15 years ago about alleged mob ties to his business, he never gives interviews. Perhaps it was Lee Iacocca, the former chairman of Chrysler and close associate of Mr Kerkorian, who got closest to the truth when he said recently that the tycoon never rests because he wants to stay young.

Others who know Kerkorian testify to a drive that is exceptional for a septuagenarian. He still plays tennis daily, drives his own car and sports a perpetual tan. "He is young, that's a fact," says Patricia Glaser, a Los Angeles lawyer who has been a close friend and associate for many years. "And he is a businessman who right now is having a lot of fun." Ms Glaser describes a "wonderful and loyal friend", who is not at all like the oft-recycled image of a shy and unapproachable recluse and who is sometimes compared with an earlier icon of Las Vegas, Howard Hughes. "He is always straight with you," she says.

If wheeling and dealing is Kerkorian's secret elixir, then he is getting an especially good dose with his tangle with Chrysler. It began in April, when his Vegas-based investment corporation, Tracinda, made an astonishing $22.8bn (pounds 14.7bn) bid for the company, with Iacocca at his side as special adviser. Eventually, he was forced to withdraw after failing to persuade Wall Street of the offer's credibility. But last week, he was back in the ring after Tracinda recruited Jerome York, a former 14-year executive at Chrysler, from IBM. With York, Tracinda can now make a second run at the car maker.

"Frankly, I think he has been a little bored recently," ventures Peter Bart, the editor of Variety, who worked beneath Kerkorian at Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer in the 1980s. "He likes this kind of thing, It's an adventure to him." Mr Bart describes a man who operates by the seat of his pants, lunging for deals and sometimes showing little interest in the details. He recounts how Kerkorian once invited one of Hollywood's foremost figures on to his plane and impulsively suggested that the two of them buy the Rams, then an LA football team, for $60m. Is $60m right, the friend asked? "I just have a sense that that is the right number," came the reply. The Rams deal was one that did not happen.

After dropping out of what he once a called a "semi-reform" school for tearaways in east Los Angeles, Kerkor Kerkorian - his legal name - briefly flirted with amateur lightweight boxing, fighting under the name "Rifle Right" Kerkorian. In the Second World War, he served as a captain in Britain's Royal Air Force. When the fighting was over, he sold surplus war planes in North and South America before, in 1947, paying $60,000 for a single-aircraft charter service that ferried gamblers between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He rapidly expanded the company, which he named Trans International Airlines and in 1968 sold it to Transamerica Corp for $104m.

By then, Kerkorian had embarked on his second passion: Vegas itself. An avid player at the craps table, he three times built what was then the world's largest hotel in Las Vegas. The first, the International, was opened in 1969 and sold two years later. In 1973, he opened the first MGM Grand, selling that finally to Bally's in 1986. Then only two years ago, he introduced his second MGM Grand, a 5,000-room monster with a theme park almost as large as Disneyland.

All the while, however, Kerkorian was extending his ambitions, primarily into Hollywood and the airline industry. In the 1960s and 1970s, he held a controlling interest in the now-defunct Western Airlines. He eventually sold back his stake in the carrier at a generous premium. And he made unsuccessful runs at TWA and Pan Am. His appetite for the former evaporated when it became clear that its prized routes to London were to be sold off to American Airlines.

It is Kerkorian's long stewardship of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, in which he bought a controlling stake in 1969 for $82m, that stirs most controversy and has arguably most tarnished his reputation. Many have not forgiven him for gutting the studio, to which he added United Artists in 1981. One of his greatest critics has been Bart of Variety, who chronicled MGM's demise in a book, Fade Out. In it, he criticises Kerkorian as a poor manager, rarely recognising those who worked for him and unwilling to confront difficult issues or to sack those he should have. Now he more or less forgives the tycoon. "He trusted an inner circle of lawyers who just gave him terrible advice. He kept hiring the wrong people." Only rarely did Kerkorian offer any creative advice.

In 1986, he sold the studio to Ted Turner of Turner Broadcasting for $1.5bn only to buy it back five months later, minus its film archives, for $480m. Finally in 1990, he offloaded what remained of MGM to Pathe. The studio subsequently folded.

It was also in 1990 that Kerkorian turned his sights on Chrysler, America's number three vehicle-maker, spending $272m to take a 9.8 per cent stake in the company. In November last year, he sought permission to increase his holding to 15 per cent and made public his concern that Iacocca's successor as chief executive, Bob Eaton, was not doing enough to return new-found profits to shareholders.

From then on, Kerkorian has held the Chrysler board in his thrall. Eaton attempted to appease him by announcing a $1bn buyback of company stocks. Undeterred, Kerkorian made his bid in April, when Chrysler shares had dipped below $40. On the news this week of Tracinda hiring York, Eaton was forced to move once again, revealing that he will double to $2bn the share buyback programme initiated last year.

If the low valuation of Chrysler's shares was Kerkorian's principle concern when he first made his bid, he should now be more or less satisfied. Last week, the company's shares were trading healthily well over $50. It may be that Kerkorian has abandoned any hope of buying the corporation. Few believe that he is done with Eaton, however. The next battle may be to win control of the Chrysler board through a proxy fight. If so, he may be able to position York to take the chief executive's seat from under Eaton. Like the best of gamblers, Kerkorian is keeping his cards close to his chest. But few imagine that he is done with Chrysler. It is just the kind of game he relishes. And it keeps the wrinkles at bay.

Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape