Kirk Kerkorian: The Building of an Empire
Kirk Kerkorian is a Las Vegas godfather and billionaire who has at various times been called "the smiling cobra," "Rifle Right Kerkorian," and "the father of the megaresort." His involvement in Las Vegas dates back to the 1950s, and on three separate occasions he has constructed the largest casino resort in the world.
Kirk is the president and CEO of the Tracinda Corporation, which is his private investment firm. He is the Chairman emeritus of MGM International and is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in developing Las Vegas as we know it today.
Kirk Kerkorian was born in 1917 to Armenian immigrants in California. He left school in the 8th grade so he could help his father haul produce. From there, Kirk went on to become a successful amateur boxer, amassing a record of 29-4 and earning the nickname "Rifle Right Kerkorian" on his way to winning the Pacific amateur welterweight championship.
Later, Kerkorian met a friend who was training to be a pilot. Kerkorian took a ride with his friend on a flight and immediately fell in love with aviation. Kerkorian then decided to take his own private lessons under a woman in return for looking after her cattle.
Kerkorian became a skilled pilot and eventually moved on to training commercial airline pilots. During WWII, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and started earning his first serious money. At the time, Canada was delivering airplanes to Scotland via a dangerous route in which 1 out of 4 pilots were forced to ditch their planes. He took the job, however, because it paid $1,000 per trip.
Two and a half years later the War ended and Kerkorian used his substantial savings to purchase his own Cessna for $5,000. He made his first visit to Las Vegas in 1945 and saw great opportunity in the city. He was soon chartering passengers from LA to and from Las Vegas.
Building His Empire
The charter business was successful and two years later, he bought Los Angeles Air Service for $60,000 with money earned from the business and gambling in Vegas. It consisted of just three pilots and planes, but he grew the company over time. He later renamed it Trans International Airlines and added more planes to the fleet.
Kirk started dabbling in Las Vegas real estate in the 1950s with the money earned from Trans International. His first purchase was a $50,000 share in the Dunes Hotel in 1955. He lost the investment and resolved that from that point on, that he would run his own show.
In 1962, Kerkorian bought an 80 acre piece of land across the Strip from the Flamingo for $960,000. Caesars Palace would later rent and then purchase this land from Kerkorian, which netted him $9,000,000.
In 1967, Kerkorian bought 82 acres of land on Paradise Road for $5,000,000. He had an architect draw up plans and build the International Hotel. At the time, it was the largest hotel in the world. It was also considered the first mega-resort in Las Vegas. This may not sound like a major distinction today, but his mega resort impacted the industry forever. Las Vegas would eventually become a complete destination rather than a place to just gamble.
All through this time, he continued to run his successful airline which served tourists, high rollers, and celebrities to and from Vegas. He finally sold the airline to the Transamerica Corporation in 1968 and earned $104 million. The sale of the airline gave him the cash he needed to become a serious player in the Las Vegas gambling industry.
Kerkorian eventually bought the Flamingo Hotel and later sold it to Hilton for an undisclosed sum. His next big move was to purchase MGM studios in 1969. He then had the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino built, which at the time was the largest hotel in the world. Then, disaster struck.
On November 21st, 1980, a fire broke out at the MGM Grand and 85 people were killed. There were more than 5,000 people in the hotel at the time, and 1,000 of those had to be rescued from the rooftop via a massive helicopter rescue operation.
The hotel was repaired and rebranded as the "new" MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. Kerkorian sold the MGM to Bally Manufacturing in 1986 for nearly $600 million. It continues operation to this day as Bally's Las Vegas.
In 1993, Kerkorian's MGM built and opened a second (or third, depending on how you look at it) MGM Grand. This made for the third time in which Kirk Kerkorian had built the largest hotel in the world. MGM Grand holds that title to this day.
Kirk Kerkorian has remained active in business, dabbling in the ownership of movie studios, automobile manufacturers, and gambling companies. He continues to buy, sell, and trade interests in major companies to this day.
Kirk founded the Lincy Foundation in 1989 in response to a devastating earthquake that rocked Armenia and killed 25,000 people. His foundation helped rebuild the affected cities and has since distributed more than $200 million to various causes throughout Armenia.
The foundation has helped build infrastructure in Armenia including highways, bridges, and new apartment buildings in areas that were hit especially hard by the earthquake. He also donated $200 million to UCLA's medical school in 2002. In 2005, the president of Armenia awarded Kerkorian with the "Medal of Fatherland" and titled him as a national hero: the country's highest honor.
Private Life and Personal Fortune
Kirk Kerkorian maintains a very private personal life. He rarely appears in public or gives interviews. He has been married 3 times and has two daughters: Tracy and Lincy. His Lincy Foundation was named after a combination of his daughters' names.
At one point, Kerkorian had a personal fortune with upwards of $16 billion. The 2008 recession hit him hard, and his wealth has since dwindled to roughly $4 billion.
Reports of Kerkorian Being Held Hostage
In 2013, Kerkorian's ex-wife Lisa Bonder Kerkorian claimed that the aging Kirk Kerkorian was being held "hostage" by his legal advisors at the Tracinda Corporation. She claimed that he had been missing for 5 months and needed to be saved.
It's unclear what happened after this point, but the Tracinda Corporation released a statement saying that the allegations were completely false. Speculation was that his ex-wife was merely looking for a piece of the Kerkorian fortune. After all, this wasn't the first public dispute between Kerkorian and his ex.
In 1999, the two split after a short 28-day marriage. His ex-wife claimed that Kerkorian was the father of her daughter Kira. Lisa Bonder fought to have a court-appointed conservator manage Kerkorian's finances to ensure Kira's continued access to Kerkorian's wealth.
In response, Kerkorian hired a private investigator who was able to obtain a piece of dental floss from the trash outside Lisa's ex-boyfriend's house. A DNA analysis revealed that Kira actually was the daughter of her ex-boyfriend and NOT of Kerkorian.
Author: Wesley Burns
Updated: March 2015
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