LAS VEGAS – Billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, an eighth-grade dropout who built Las Vegas’ biggest hotels, tried to take over Chrysler and bought and sold MGM at a profit three times, has died. He was 98.
He died Monday night in Beverly Hills.
The reserved, unpretentious Kerkorian spent much of his life trying to stay out of the spotlight and rarely gave interviews. He called himself a “small-town boy who got lucky.”
He shunned glitzy Hollywood parties and movie premieres in favor of making deals. Rather than arrive at an event by limousine, he often drove himself in a Mercury station wagon.
“He was a very private guy who shunned the limelight, both in a business way and from a charitable standpoint,” said Patty Glaser, his attorney of four decades.
After making his first fortune ferrying gamblers to Las Vegas with Trans International Airlines, he built the 30-story, 1,568-room International Hotel, the world’s largest hotel when it opened in the late 1960s. He brought Elvis Presley to perform there in 1969 as the rock legend relaunched his live performance career.
Although medium-size by today’s Sin City standards, the hotel, now the Westgate Las Vegas, represented a major risk when most properties averaged 250 rooms.
“I had total confidence or I wouldn’t have gone into the project,” Kerkorian later said. “I’ve always been bullish on Las Vegas.”
When Kerkorian opened the first MGM Grand in Las Vegas in the 1970s, it was again the world’s largest hotel, containing more than 2,000 rooms and a 1,200-seat showroom. Years later, he would build another MGM Grand, this one with more than 5,000 rooms – again, the world’s largest.
Elsewhere, Kerkorian bought and sold the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio three times, each time realizing a profit on his investment. He invested in the auto industry and made unsuccessful attempts to take over Chrysler.
“Regardless of what people think, there was no great master plan,” Kerkorian once said. “Every year was a big year for me. First I was simply trying to earn enough to get something to eat, then enough to buy a car.”
Sen. Harry Reid said on the Senate floor Tuesday that “when history books are written, they’ll say a lot about this good man.”
He was born Kerkor Kerkorian in Fresno, California, in 1917, one of four children of a poor Armenian fruit grower.
During his brief boxing career, he became Pacific amateur welterweight champion. But he lacked the size to turn pro, so he went into business. During World War II, he worked for the RAF Air Transport Command in Canada, flying Mosquito bombers on dangerous runs from Canada to Scotland.
After the war, he refurbished a small twin-engine plane and flew passengers between Southern California and the growing desert gambling mecca of Las Vegas. In 1947, Kerkorian bought a tiny charter line and renamed it Trans International Airlines.
Nearly two decades later, he took TIA public and the stock soared. With cash from his stock and shrewd land deals along the Strip, he built the International Hotel.
Kerkorian married three times. He and his second wife had two daughters, Tracy and Linda.
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