Kirk Kerkorian: Self-Made Billionaire and Casino Tycoon
While Kirk Kerkorian is probably best known for opening one of the most
luxurious resorts on the Strip, the MGM Grand, he has also had his hand in a
variety of other business ventures over the years. This self-made billionaire,
who doesn’t have a formal education beyond the 8th grade, overcame tremendous
odds to build his fortune.
Continue reading this detailed biography to learn more about Kirk Kerkorian,
including everything from his childhood to his early love of aviation to his
impact on Las Vegas. While Kerkorian may no longer be with us, we will never
forget what he has done for the gambling industry, and we will forever be
thankful for the legacy he left behind.
Kerkorian was born on June 6, 1917, to Ahron and Lily Kerkorian. His parents
had recently immigrated to the United States from their home country of Armenia
with their 3 children. They moved to the US to escape the Armenia Genocide, as
millions of Armenians were being killed by the Ottoman government.
Although they felt safer in the United States and had no intentions of
returning to Armenia, they still didn’t want their children to be completely
separated from the Armenian culture. For this reason, Kerkorian’s parents only
spoke Armenian in their home. Armenian became Kerkorian’s first language, as he
didn’t learn English until he started school.
Kerkorian loved going to school. He picked up English quickly and was
advanced when it came to mathematics and science. Unfortunately, the Depression
left his family in a financial state of emergency. Kerkorian was forced to drop
out of school after the 8th grade to help financially support his family. He
sold produce with his father during the days and practiced his boxing at night.
He was an excellent boxer who performed well in all the competitions he
participated in. People started calling him “Rifle Right Kerkorian” the moment
he won the Pacific Amateur Welterweight Championship.
His love of boxing was soon replaced with a love for aviation. After one of
his co-workers took him for a ride on his single-engine airplane, he had a
desire to learn how to fly. He made a deal with Florence “Pancho” Barnes,
agreeing to tend to her cows in exchange for flying lessons. Impressed by his
determination, she agreed to take him on as her first student.
His aviation skills earned him a spot in the Royal Canadian Airforce during
World War II. He was responsible for delivering airplanes to Scotland. Every
trip he took earned him $1,000. He found this to be a wonderful opportunity to
save up money, and by the time the war had ended, he had earned enough cash to
purchase his own airplane.
Now that he had the proper transportation, he started making frequent trips
to Las Vegas. His favorite game to play at the casinos was craps, with roulette
and blackjack coming in as close seconds. Kerkorian quickly became known as a
loose player, often winning and losing tens of thousands of dollars at one time.
To make more money to fund his gambling adventures, Kerkorian purchased a
small charter airline for $60,000 in 1947. He named it the Trans International
Airline and started offering flights to and from Las Vegas. He eventually
offered more flights within the US and ultimately moved on to international
Impact on Las Vegas
Using his profits from the Trans International Airline, Kerkorian purchased
80 acres of land near the booming Las Vegas Strip. Caesars Palace ended up
renting the land from Kerkorian for several years before they bought it from him
in 1968. Kerkorian made $9 million off that deal.
He then went on to purchase another 82 acres of land on Paradise Road in Las
Vegas. This time, he built one of Las Vegas’ first family-friendly hotel and
casinos: the International Hotel. They offered activities for kids and provided
discounts to family-fun attractions in the area. Many famous performers made an
appearance at the International Hotel, including Elvis Presley and Barbra
Kerkorian also bought the Flamingo Hotel, which he would later sell alongside
the International Hotel as a package deal to the Hilton Hotels Corporation. He
used the profits from that deal to purchase the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios,
which he turned into the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. At the time, the MGM Grand
was the largest hotel on the Strip, and it attracted thousands of people from
all over the world.
A devastating fire at the MGM Grand would lead to the death of 87 people and
cause the hotel to be closed for several months. Soon after it reopened,
Kerkorian sold it to Bally Manufacturing for just under $600 million. While
Bally Manufacturing now owned the hotel, they did not own the rights to the MGM
Kerkorian would eventually build a new MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in 1990.
This resort was bigger and better than the original, and it set the bar high for
other casinos on the Strip. Kerkorian went on to own and operate a number of
other high-end resorts in Las Vegas at one time or another, including the
Mirage, the Bellagio, Monte Carlo, Treasure Island, and several others.
Dabbling in the Auto Industry
Kerkorian teamed up with Lee Iacocca, the former chairman of Chrysler
Corporation, in an attempt to take over the company. He bought as many Chrysler
shares as he could and applied several business tactics to increase the value of
the company’s stock. The members of the board quickly stepped in and stopped
their hostile takeover dead in its tracks. Kerkorian was still able to walk away
from this ordeal a few billion dollars richer.
Moving on from Chrysler, Kerkorian purchased nearly a 10% stake in General
Motors. He then hired someone to represent him on the company’s board. He warned
General Motors of a potential merger between Nissan and Renault and suggested
they appoint Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn as the chairman of their board. His request
was denied, so Kerkorian quickly sold most of his GM stock.
Finally, in 2008, he started buying stock in the Ford Motor company. After
investing about $1 billion, he owned roughly 6% of the company’s shares.
Unfortunately for Kerkorian, Ford Motor ran into some financial difficulties,
and his investment soon lost two-thirds of its value. That’s when he decided to
start selling his Ford Motor stocks and get out of the auto industry for good.
Kirk Kerkorian Gives Back
In 1988, the Spitak earthquake struck Armenia, killing thousands of people
and destroying the infrastructures of numerous buildings across the country.
Armenia was left in ruins, and Kerkorian felt horrible. He knew he had to help,
so he founded the Lincy Foundation. It provided houses and apartment buildings
to the countless citizens of Armenia who were left homeless after the
earthquake. It also paid to rebuild many of the bridges and roads that had been
After Armenia had recovered from the earthquake, Kerkorian decided to use the
foundation to improve other areas of Armenian life. Money was donated to
hospitals, schools, and recreation facilities in almost every major city in
Armenia. Kerkorian poured more than $1 billion into Armenia over the years. To
show his appreciation, the president of Armenia presented him with the “Medal of
Fatherland,” naming him as one of their country’s heroes.
In 2011, the Lincy Foundation transferred all of its assets, a total of $200
million, to form the Dream Fund at UCLA. This fund is used to conduct medical
research, enhance UCLA’s academic programs, and give students the chance to
participate in other charitable projects around the world.
Kirk Kerkorian has been married a total of 3 times. His first wife was Hilda
Schmidt, and their marriage lasted nearly a decade. She broke off the marriage
because she feared he was becoming addicted to gambling. Since she had been
raised by a father who also had a gambling problem, she chose to leave Kerkorian
before his gambling habits got worse.
Two years after the divorce, Kerkorian was ready to wed again. This time, he
married Jean Maree Hardy, who would be his sweetheart for almost 30 years. They
had two daughters together: Tracy and Linda. Although it has never been proven,
rumor has it that their marriage ended because Kerkorian cheated on his wife
while away on business.
Kerkorian’s third marriage was by far his shortest. He married Lisa Bonder,
who was a professional tennis player at the time. There was a 48-year difference
between the couple, which was a huge factor as to why their marriage only lasted
28 days. Bonder tried claiming that Kerkorian was the father of her unborn
daughter, but a DNA paternity test would prove otherwise.
In 2013, Lisa frantically called the police, saying that Kerkorian was being
held hostage by his legal advisors at the Tracinda Corporation. She claimed he
had been missing for over 5 months and she was worried that he might be dead.
After a thorough investigation, the police realized it was all just a big scam
for her to get more money from the divorce settlement. The Tracinda Corporation
was forced to release a statement saying her allegations were false and that
Kerkorian was perfectly fine.
Kerkorian’s physical fitness was always very important to him. Even in his
80s, he went for runs and played tennis with his friends. When he wasn’t doing
that, you would probably find him spending time with his two daughters or any of
his four grandchildren. He always made spending time with family one of his top
Making it to the ripe age of 98, Kirk Kerkorian passed away on June 15th,
2015. Thousands of people gathered together to show their respects to Kerkorian
and his family. Many people even traveled from Armenia to show their
appreciation for all the improvements he has made over there.
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