Billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian dies at 98

Casino tycoon, movie mogul, and auto investor Kirk Kerkorian was a key figure in the shaping of the Las Vegas strip

Billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, a key figure in the shaping of the Las Vegas strip of casinos and hotels, has died at the age of 98.

Billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian, the son of poor Armenian immigrants who used his gambler's instincts to become a multibillionaire Las Vegas casino tycoon, Hollywood mogul, airline owner and auto industry investor, died at age 98.

Kerkorian, who founded MGM Resorts International and was its largest shareholder, died in Los Angeles on Monday night, the company said in a statement yesterday.

He passed away after a brief illness, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.

Kerkorian had little formal education and dropped out of school at age 16. In his youth he was known as “Rifle Right Kerkorian” for his punching power as a small-time boxer. He would become an enduring American business heavyweight with a knack for placing winning bets in the corporate world.


Last month, Forbes magazine estimated Kerkorian’s wealth at $4.2 billion after he took a hit on his investments in 2008, when the magazine said he was worth $16 billion.

Three different times - in 1969, 1973 and 1993 - Kerkorian built the world’s biggest hotel in Las Vegas, the desert gambling capital where he first made his fortune in the 1950s and 1960s.

On his way to becoming a casino magnate, he befriended "Rat Pack" stars Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and other Las Vegas headliners.

Kerkorian owned some of the biggest and best-known Las Vegas hotels and casinos, at one time owning more than half the hotel rooms on the famous Las Vegas Strip. He also was instrumental in turning Las Vegas into a family destination rather than merely a naughty pleasure spot for adults.

Kerkorian bought and sold the venerable MGM film studio three times, acquired the United Artists studio and tried to buy Columbia Pictures.

Yet, even as a studio chief, he would stand in line to buy movie tickets at a theater with everyone else rather than attend private screenings.

Kerkorian mounted high-stakes pursuits of US automakers but never acquired one. He twice tried to buy Chrysler, triggering a massive legal tussle, and made big investments in General Motors and Ford.

He was a skilled aviator who flew dangerous missions delivering warplanes from Canada to Britain during the second World War and later opened a charter flight business serving gamblers wanting to get from Los Angeles to Las Vegas more quickly than a 10-hour drive.

He began buying property in Las Vegas in 1962 after selling his charter airline, which he later repurchased, and was on his way to becoming a Las Vegas power player.

“When you’re a self-made man you start very early in life,” Kerkorian once told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “... You get a drive that’s a little different, maybe a little stronger, than somebody who inherited.”

He later bought and sold airlines including Western Airlines, started the failed luxury airline MGM Grand Air and launched an unsuccessful bid for Trans World Airlines.

In the business world, he was known more for making a deal than for nurturing a company over the long haul, often taking a major risk, reaping the benefits and getting out. For example, MGM under Kerkorian often languished artistically and even sold off such items as its studio lot and movie props including Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz.”

"He's a born gambler with a sixth sense for sniffing out value," former auto executive Lee Iacocca, who joined Kerkorian in the unsuccessful Chrysler takeover bid in 1995, told the Los Angeles Times in 2005. "Doing deals is what keeps him alive."

Kerkorian agreed. “I’m a gambler at heart,” he told the Times. “That’s my life.”

The only other person with a resume like his - an aviator and owner of an airline, film studio and Las Vegas casinos - was fabled billionaire recluse Howard Hughes, who died in 1976.

Kerkorian avoided public events, usually shunned publicity and rarely spoke to the media but was not a recluse.

He was born as Kerkor Kerkorian in Fresno, California, on June 6th, 1917, the youngest of four children of Armenian immigrant parents. His family lost its farmland amid financial difficulties in the 1920s and he had to work to help out.

Kerkorian was sent to reform school and dropped out at age 16. A friend with whom he worked installing furnaces changed his life by taking him on a flight in a single-engine plane. Kerkorian then paid for flying lessons with famous woman pilot Pancho Barnes by milking cows and shoveling manure at her ranch. His love of flight launched his business career.

- Reuters