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.
Kerkorian died Monday, said Jim Murren, chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International.
“MGM Resorts and our family of 62,000 employees are honoring the memory of a great man, a great business leader, a great community leader, an innovator, and one of our country’s greatest generation,” Murren said in a statement.
The reserved, unpretentious Kerkorian spent much of his life trying to stay out of the spotlight and rarely gave interviews. Kerkorian, who had dropped out of school to pursue a boxing career, 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.
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 Las Vegas to perform there in 1969 as the rock legend relaunched his live performance career.
Although medium-size by today’s Las Vegas standards, the hotel, now the Las Vegas Hilton, represented a major risk at a time when most hotels were in the range of 250 rooms.
“I had total confidence or I wouldn’t have gone into the project,” Kerkorian would say later. “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 resort 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 — and again, the world’s largest.
“He built the rooms and attractions to bring an incredibly broad base of affluent people to Las Vegas,” Hal Rothman, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, once said. “He’s the guy who put the pieces of entertainment together on a dramatic scale.”
Elsewhere, Kerkorian bought and sold the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio three times, each time realizing a profit on his investment. He also invested heavily in the auto industry and made unsuccessful attempts to take over Chrysler.
“I didn’t have any really big motivation in my life,” Kerkorian once said. “Regardless of what people think, there was no great master plan. 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. Now I’ve got that big plane.”
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 was known as Rifle Right Kerkorian and became Pacific amateur welterweight champion. But he lacked the size to turn pro, so he went into business. During World War II, he went to work for the RAF Air Transport Command in Canada, flying Mosquito bombers on dangerous delivery runs from Canada to Scotland.
His ties to Las Vegas were established after World War II, when he used his piloting experience and earnings to refurbish a small twin-engine plane and ferry passengers between Southern California and the growing desert gambling mecca. In 1947, Kerkorian bought a tiny charter line and changed the name to 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 Las Vegas Strip, he built the International Hotel. While making a splash in Las Vegas, Kerkorian also bought stock in financially ailing MGM.
By 1970, he had working control of the company and began a more than 30-year run of deals involving the historic studio. In 2004, he agreed to sell the studio and its lucrative library of post-1986 films to Sony Corp., Comcast and other investors for about $3 billion.
He was also at the helm when the first MGM Grand became the scene of one of the city’s worst disasters in 1980 when an electrical fire killing 85 people. Although personally devastated by the tragedy, Kerkorian managed to reopen the hotel within a year and later sold it and other properties to Bally Corp. for $594 million, while retaining rights to the MGM Grand name.
Around that time, he also unloaded the MGM studio to cable TV mogul Ted Turner for a reported $1.5 billion. Turner sold it back just three months later for $300 million amid financial trouble, but kept the library of pre-1986 MGM films, including Turner’s favorite, “Gone With the Wind.”
Kerkorian later sold the studio to Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti for $1.3 billion, beginning MGM’s darkest era. Its money problems were so bad at times that the once-great studio couldn’t afford to distribute movies it had already made.
Kerkorian bought it back in 1996 for $1.3 billion from a French state bank that had seized control from Parretti in 1991. Back in Las Vegas, he once again opened what was the world’s largest hotel — the 5,005-room MGM Grand Hotel and Casino — and went on to orchestrate the $6.4 billion merger between MGM Grand and Steve Wynn’s Mirage Resorts Inc.
In 2005, the renamed MGM Mirage Inc. completed its $4.8 billion acquisition of Mandalay Resort Group. The combined company’s holdings included the Bellagio, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay Resort, Excalibur and seven nearby hotels.
Kerkorian had set his sights on the auto industry in 1995, trying to seize control of Chrysler Corp. in a failed $23 billion hostile bid. While not taking control, Kerkorian’s wholly owned Tracinda Corp. became Chrysler’s largest shareholder.
Three years later, German automaker DaimlerBenz joined with Chrysler. Kerkorian eventually sued DaimlerChrysler, claiming that the German company had cheated him out of billions by inaccurately casting the deal as a merger of equals rather than a takeover. But a federal judge ruled in DaimlerChrysler’s favor in 2005.
That ruling was upheld in September 2007. Meanwhile, the German-American combination fizzled. Kerkorian made another bid for Chrysler in spring 2007 when DaimlerChrysler put the struggling division on the market, offering $4.5 billion. But DaimlerChrysler instead sold Chrysler to private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management for $7.4 billion. Although he was unable to obtain his own automaker, in 2006 Kerkorian did own nearly 10 percent of General Motors.
Between dealmaking, Kerkorian married three times. He and his second wife, former dancer Jean Maree Hardy, had two daughters, Tracy and Linda, and Kerkorian fashioned the name of his investment company, Tracinda Corp., in their honor.
His third marriage, to former tennis pro Lisa Bonder Kerkorian, made headlines in 2002 when she sued for what would have been the biggest child support award in California history, $320,000 a month. During divorce proceedings, it was revealed that Kerkorian was not the biological father of his much younger wife’s daughter, however. She was eventually awarded a much smaller but still significant amount.