Kirk Kerkorian, an eighth-grade dropout who later became the richest person in Los Angeles, died at age 98 of age-related causes on Monday at his home in Beverly Hills, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Kerkorian built the three biggest hotel-casinos in the world in their time, all in Las Vegas, including the International, now called the Westgate Las Vegas, in 1969; the MGM Grand, now called Bally’s, in 1973; and the current MGM Grand Las Vegas, in 1993. He also variously owned the Desert Inn, the Sands, and the Flamingo.
Born the youngest of four children into a poor Armenian family in Fresno in 1917, Kerkorian left a school for delinquents in downtown Los Angeles in eight grade, later becoming an amateur boxer using the monikers “the Bakersfield Bomber” and “Rifle Right Kerkorian,” winning 29 fights.
After falling in love with flying, he became a flight instructor and joined the Canadian Royal Air Force in 1942, flying De Havilland Mosquitoes from Canada to Britain. Only one of every four planes made the trip successfully, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal.
In 1947, Kerkorian bought Los Angeles Air Service, later called Trans International Airlines. He offered the first jet service on a nonscheduled airline. In 1965, when he took TIA public, Armenian-Americans, familiar with him, purchased enough so the stock rose $9.75 to $32. In 1968 he sold TIA to TransAmerica, obtaining roughly $85 million worth of stock and leaving him the biggest shareholder.
But it was in 1962 that Kerkorian pulled off a grand coup: He purchased 80 acres across the Las Vegas Strip from the Flamingo for $960,000. The land was used to build Caesar’s Palace.
Kerkorian bought and sold MGM frequently; he sold the historic studio lot in Culver City, sold the studio’s film rights to cable channels, and finally sold the studio to Sony in 2004.
His Lincy Foundation donated over $1 billion to various causes, including $180 million in response to the 1988 earthquake that killed roughly 25,000 people in Armenia; he rejected requests for landmarks honoring him.
Kerkorian owned the most shares of Chrysler before it was bought by Daimler-Benz in the 1990s. By 2004, he controlled over half of the Las Vegas strip’s hotel rooms, Bloomberg notes; his company, MGM Grand Inc., had bought Steve Wynn’s Mirage Resorts Inc. for $6.4 billion in 2000 and bought the Mandalay Resort Group for $4.8 billion in 2004.
Kerkorian had an enormous residence, as well as a 190-foot yacht and 737 jet, but he drove more down-to-earth cars such as a Pontiac Firebird and a Jeep Grand Cherokee. His fortune declined from $18 billion to $3 billion from 2007 to 2009 as his investments in Las Vegas, which was hit hard by the recession, declined, the Times notes.
News agencies contributed to this report.