Kirk Kerkorian: Businessman who delighted in deal-making and made a fortune in the gambling, motor and film industries

Kerkorian dropped out of school at 14 but he went on to become one of America's richest men

Click to follow
The Independent Online

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 carmakers. But his greatest passions were the movie and gambling industries – and above all, perhaps, deal-making itself.

The son of indigent immigrants from Ottoman-ruled Armenia, he dropped out of school at 14. But he went on to become one of America's richest men, worth at his height some $16bn according to Forbes magazine, before the 2008 financial crisis hit his interests in Las Vegas, reducing his net wealth to around $4bn.

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.

Kerkorian, however, 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 Transamerica Corporation – 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 5,500 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.

As the names involved suggest, many of these transactions were cross-fertilised with Kerkorian's second abiding interest, Hollywood. Over three decades, 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 and the wider film industry.

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. To this day many hold Kerkorian responsible for its demise. In 1978 he bought, and soon sold, a 26 per cent stake in Columbia Pictures. Three years later, he failed in an attempt to buy 20th Century Fox, but ended up with the consolation prize of United Artists, which he merged with MGM.

Then there was the motor industry. He bought a large stake in Chrysler in the 1980s when the carmaker seemed doomed, and then selling as it recovered, before launching an unsuccessful $23bn takeover bid in 1995 in alliance with Chrysler's former chairman, Lee Iacocca. Kerkorian did the much the same with a near bankrupt General Motors a decade later, acquiring 9.9 per cent of GM's stock, which he also resold at a profit. Some saw him as a ruthless corporate raider, ready to trample on minority shareholders. Stick with him, though, and you usually made money. In 2007, he made a second $4.5bn bid for Chrysler, but once again without success.

In many of his dealings, Kerkorian tended to operate by instinct. If he trusted someone, he went with it, often sealing a transaction quickly, his handshake a guarantee. "He had more nerve than a Missouri mule," his childhood friend Norman Hungerford once recalled.

But that nerve was partnered by cool judgement. 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 get all 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 self-promotion, 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. But his main off-duty pleasures were tennis with friends, and going to the movies just like everyone else.

That privacy crumbled in 1999, with his marriage and almost instant divorce from Lisa Bonder, a one-time tennis professional, his wife of just 28 days and 48 years his junior. The case was truly sensational. She demanded a record $320,000 a month in support for a child that proved not to be Kerkorian's. Ultimately, his lawyer and a private investigator were convicted of wiretapping his ex-wife's phone.

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 $1bn disbursed by the now disbanded Lincy Foundation – like his personal holding company Tracinda Corporation, an amalgam of the names of his daughters, Tracy and Linda.

Perhaps the closest analogy was with Howard Hughes, an even larger-than-life figure with whom Kerkorian had his clashes in the 1960s. But his own story, a classic tale of the immigrant's son made good in a rags-to-riches American Dream, unfolded far more fortunately than that of the paranoid and secretive Hughes.

"I've had more people ask me, did you envision this or that?" he told The Los Angeles Times in 2005. "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

Kerkor Kerkorian, businessman and investor: born Fresno, California 6 June 1917; married 1942 Hilda Schmidt (divorced 1951), 1954 Jean Maree Harbour-Hardy (divorced 1984; two daughters), 1999 Lisa Bonder (divorced 1999); died Los Angeles 15 June 2015.

Comments