Kirk Kerkorian, the media-shy investor who became one of the richest Americans by betting his money on ventures like casinos and film studios, died Monday night at his home in Beverly Hills, California. He was 98.
Born poor, the legendary investor was a brawling amateur boxer, a daredevil pilot and a high-stakes poker player before figuring out safer ways to amass a multibillion-dollar fortune. He pursued strategies that baffled business rivals and Wall Street analysts and that left him sometimes on the verge of bankruptcy. Other times, his moves brought him windfalls.
He bought and sold MGM three times. He created a commercial airline, sold it and then purchased it again before reselling it for good. And in his 80s, he made an unsolicited but successful bid for Mirage Resorts, the giant casino company controlled by Stephen Wynn, the uncrowned king of Las Vegas.
Mr Wynn was not the only mogul to underestimate Mr Kerkorian. Mr Kerkorian had earlier outmaneuvred better-known and seemingly more powerful entrepreneurs. Howard Hughes tried to undermine his Las Vegas projects, and Ted Turner mistakenly thought he had bought MGM studios from Mr Kerkorian for a song.
Kirk Kerkorian, majority shareholder of MGM Mirage, at the Nevada Gaming Control Board hearing in Las Vegas in 2005. Credit: Joe Cavaretta/Associated Press
But Mr Kerkorian never publicly reveled in his successes and always avoided the limelight.
"What good does it do being rich?" the journalist Dial Torgerson quoted him as saying in the biography "Kerkorian: An American Success Story" (1974). "I can't do what I want to do. I don't like to get dressed up and go to see bankers. I hate that kind of thing."
Mr Kerkorian skipped most shareholder meetings at the companies he owned, and he said little when he did attend. But he resented being portrayed as a recluse.
"I have 30- or 40-year friendships that I prefer to meeting new people," he told The Las Vegas Review-Journal in 1999 in one of his rare interviews. "Just because I don't go to a lot of events and I'm not out in public all the time doesn't mean I'm antisocial."
His close friends included Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra, who often joined him at Los Angeles restaurants and Las Vegas gambling tables.
He was a polarising figure. Some said he was an unscrupulous manipulator who disregarded the rights of minority shareholders. On occasion he was sued and forced to settle such allegations out of court.
But his defenders insisted that any investors who stuck by him were bound to make big returns.
"Kirk has always made money for people who buy in with him," Lee Isgur, an analyst with Paine Webber, told The New York Times in 1985.
Kerkor Kerkorian — he americanised his name to Kirk as a boy — was born in Fresno, California, on June 6, 1917, one of four children of Armenian immigrants. His mother, Lily, was a homemaker; his father, Ahron, was a fruit merchant whose get-rich-quick schemes often left his family struggling to stay afloat.
"We moved at least 20 times when I was a kid," Mr Kerkorian told Fortune magazine in 1969."We often could not pay our rent and would get booted out."
Young Kirk got no further than the eighth grade, leaving school to take odd jobs. He became a promising lightweight boxer, winning 29 of 33 amateur bouts, but quit the ring in 1939 to take flying lessons and soon became a private pilot and later an instructor.
In World War II, Mr Kerkorian ferried bomber planes across the Atlantic and as far as India for the British Royal Air Force. After the war he purchased surplus military transport planes, refurbished them and sold them around the world, using the profits to buy a small air charter operation, based in Los Angeles, in 1947.
Mr Kerkorian often flew Hollywood entertainers into Las Vegas, which was becoming a gambling capital, and joined them at the blackjack and dice tables, where he became renowned as a high roller. It was in Las Vegas where he met Jean Maree Hardy, a dancer and choreographer. They married in 1954 and had two daughters. That marriage ended in divorce after almost 30 years. (His first marriage to Hilda Schmidt had also ended in divorce, in 1951.)
His daughters Tracy Kerkorian and Linda Kemper as well as three grandchildren survive him, a family spokesman said.
Mr Kerkorian bought property in Las Vegas, just off the Strip, in 1962. That year he merged his charter company, Trans International Airlines, with the Studebaker Corporation, retaining operating control.
Using Studebaker revenue, he expanded the airline's fleet and destinations. He then repurchased the airline in 1964 and left Studebaker. Over the next three years he sold the airline in two separate transactions, making more than $US100 million in overall profits and funneling the proceeds into the three business arenas — airlines, gambling resorts and film studios — that would sustain him as an investor for the rest of his life. By the end of 1969 Mr Kerkorian had beaten out the Bronfman family, the Canadian liquor magnates, for control of MGM and amassed almost 40 per cent of its shares. Meanwhile, he began to develop his Las Vegas acreage, breaking ground in 1968 for what he promised would be the largest hotel and casino in the world.
The project infuriated Hughes, the reclusive former airline and movie magnate, who had recently moved to Las Vegas intending to dominate the casino and resort business. Hughes announced a huge expansion of his own Sands Hotel, aimed at convincing creditors that Mr Kerkorian's International Hotel would not be viable in what looked like an overbuilt market. In the end, Mr Kerkorian found other creditors and completed his hotel on schedule in 1969.
Soon he was facing bigger threats. The 1969-70 recession caught him badly overextended. The Securities and Exchange Commission prevented his holding company, the International Leisure Corporation, from making a secondary offering of stock, which would have helped him repay his loans, because the Flamingo Hotel, an International Leisure property, had once been owned by racketeers. Mr Kerkorian was sinking fast. His International Leisure stock was worth $US180 million at the beginning of 1970, but a year later he was forced to sell half his holdings in the company for $US16.5 million.
'Sometimes you lose'
Sometimes you lose, but that's the nature of the game," he was quoted as saying by Time magazine in 1970. "There's always another game and another chance to win."
He found one when he sought help in shoring up his finances from MGM, in which he had accumulated a controlling share. At his prodding, the MGM board announced that it would build the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, surpassing Mr Kerkorian's International Hotel as the world's largest gambling and resort hotel.
The original MGM Grand opened in 1973 with more than 2000 rooms. A year later, Mr Kerkorian increased his holdings in MGM to just over 50 per cent.
With a strong flow of revenue from his Las Vegas operations, Mr Kerkorian sought to expand his Hollywood investments. He bought 25.5 per cent of Columbia Pictures in 1978, which he later sold. In 1981, he lost a bid to buy 20th Century Fox but succeeded in acquiring United Artists. He then split MGM into two publicly owned entities: MGM/UA Entertainment, which included film and television production and a large library of films; and MGM Grand Hotels, which owned and managed hotels, casinos and luxury cruise ships.
By 1986, Mr Kerkorian had agreed to sell MGM/UA, which was struggling, to Mr Turner, the cable television magnate, for $US1.5 billion. Hollywood rivals and Wall Street analysts considered it a good deal for Mr Kerkorian. It became a terrific one a year later, when Mr Turner, crushed by debts, sold all but MGM's film library back to Mr Kerkorian for only $US300 million. In effect, Mr Kerkorian had sold off the MGM library for $US1.2 billion.
Mr Kerkorian did not hold on to MGM/UA for long. In 1990, he sold it to the Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti and his holding company, Pathé Communications, for $US1.3 billion. A year later Mr. Parretti was ousted by his main creditor, the French bank Crédit Lyonnais, which then sued Mr. Kerkorian, accusing him of committing fraud by knowingly selling worthless assets. The case was settled out of court in 1995 when Mr. Kerkorian agreed to pay an undisclosed amount.
The battle for Chrysler
By then Mr Kerkorian was focused on the biggest gamble of his career: an effort to take over the Chrysler Corporation. In 1995, with the support of its former chairman, Lee A. Iacocca, he proposed to buy Chrysler for $US22.8 billion and take it private. Chrysler's board rejected the proposal.
But he and the board struck a deal in 1996 when he agreed to limit his Chrysler holdings to no more than 13.8 per cent of its stock and the company agreed to rid itself of its nonautomotive businesses. In 1998, Daimler-Benz, the maker of Mercedes-Benz automobiles, acquired Chrysler in a $US36 billion merger. The deal was a windfall for Mr Kerkorian, raising the value of his Chrysler holdings to nearly $US5 billion, more than triple the original investment he had made in 1990.
Even as he battled Chrysler, Mr Kerkorian was moving back into the film business. In 1996, after settling his legal disputes with Crédit Lyonnais, he bought back MGM/UA for $US1.3 billion. It was Mr Kerkorian's third takeover of MGM, and he seemed determined to restore the company's vitality. But he ended up selling it in 2004 to a consortium led by Sony.
MGM burns down
He held onto his interest in Las Vegas gambling resorts, however. After the MGM Grand burned down in 1980, leaving more than 80 people dead, he rebuilt it and, in 1986, sold it to the Bally Manufacturing Corporation, which renamed it Bally's Grand.
Then, in 1993, he unveiled a new MGM Grand, built at a cost of more than $US1 billion. (The original building had been badly damaged in a fire in 1980.) Again laying claim to be the largest hotel and casino in the world, it had 5005 rooms, 170,000 square feet of casinos, a 15,000-seat arena, a 33-acre theme park and a giant gold lion serving as its entrance.
"He doesn't do it for the money," Mr Iacocca, then an MGM Grand board member, said about Mr Kerkorian in The Los Angeles Times in 1993. "He does it because he gets bug-eyed like a little kid when he goes through the place."
In 1999 Mr Kerkorian married Lisa Bonder, a former tennis pro. The marriage lasted only one month, and in 2002 she asked Los Angeles Superior Court for the largest child-support award in California history, $US320,000 a month.
A lawyer for Mr Kerkorian, Terry Christensen, was later convicted of wiretapping Ms Bonder's phone. Prosecutors said he had paid Anthony Pellicano, a private investigator, $US100,000 to eavesdrop after Ms Bonder sued Mr Kerkorian for child support. A judge rejected Mr Christensen's contention that he hired Mr Pellicano to help determine the biological father of the child after it had been made public that the child was not Mr Kerkorian's. Mr Pellicano was also convicted.
By the time the marriage ended, Mr Kerkorian was worth about $US7 billion, according to Forbes magazine. But his appetite for acquisitions was as great as ever.
Chasing the Mirage
In February 2000, his MGM Grand made an unsolicited offer to acquire Mirage Resorts, the company created by Mr Wynn to help turn Las Vegas into a major family destination. Within two weeks, Mirage Resorts agreed to be acquired by MGM Grand for $US4.4 billion in cash. The deal left Mr Kerkorian in control of five of the most glittering casino resorts on the Las Vegas Strip, as well as casinos in Australia and elsewhere in the United States.
Nearing 88 years old in 2005, Mr Kerkorian made yet another splash on Wall Street by buying a 9.9 per cent stake in General Motors. Though financially troubled, GM remained the world's largest automaker, and Mr Kerkorian was betting that he could force it to pursue a more successful strategy. But his gamble failed when GM's management refused to accept his proposal to sell off money-losing car brands and form an international alliance with the rival automakers Nissan and Renault. Mr Kerkorian sold his GM investment in 2006.
He was not entirely finished with the automobile business. In 2008 he acquired a 6.5 per cent stake in the Ford Motor Company, only to sell it within a few months after Ford's stock plummeted. By that time his casino business had sustained heavy losses as well. But Mr Kerkorian remained undeterred.
"Kirk has seen this before," his friend Alex Yemenidjian, a former MGM chief executive, told The Times in 2009. "To him, this is just a bump on the road."
Mr. Kerkorian offered his own assessment of the fires that motivated him. "When you're a self-made man, you start very early in life," he told The Las Vegas Review-Journal in 1999. "In my case it was at 9 years old when I started bringing income into the family. You get a drive that's a little different, maybe a little stronger, than somebody who inherited."
The New York Times