Winning bets on casinos and films

The marquee at MGM Grand Hotel & Casino displays a video tribute (far left) to the late Kirk Kerkorian (left), who founded MGM Resorts International and was its largest shareholder.
The marquee at MGM Grand Hotel & Casino (above) displays a video tribute to the late Kirk Kerkorian, who founded MGM Resorts International and was its largest shareholder.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
The marquee at MGM Grand Hotel & Casino displays a video tribute (far left) to the late Kirk Kerkorian (left), who founded MGM Resorts International and was its largest shareholder.
The marquee at MGM Grand Hotel & Casino displays a video tribute to the late Kirk Kerkorian (above), who founded MGM Resorts International and was its largest shareholder.

New York - Mr Kirk Kerkorian, son of poor Armenian immigrants who became a multi-billionaire by betting his money on ventures such as Las Vegas casinos and Hollywood studios, died on Monday night at his home in Beverly Hills, California. He was 98.

The death of Mr Kerkorian, who founded MGM Resorts International and was its largest shareholder, was confirmed by the company on Tuesday. He died after a brief illness, the Las Vegas Review-Journal said.

Last month, Forbes estimated his wealth at US$4.2 billion (S$5.7 billion) after he took a hit on his investments. In 2008, the magazine said he was worth US$16 billion.

Born poor, Mr Kerkorian was a brawling amateur boxer, a daredevil pilot and a high-stakes poker player before figuring out safer ways to amass a multi-billion-dollar fortune.

He bought and sold MGM three times. He created a commercial airline, sold it and bought it again before reselling it for good. And in his 80s, he made an unsolicited and successful bid for Mirage Resorts, the casino company controlled by Stephen A. Wynn, the uncrowned king of Las Vegas - and controlled more than half of the hotel rooms on the Strip.

But he always avoided the limelight. "What good does it do being rich?" journalist Dial Torgerson quoted him as saying in the 1974 biography Kerkorian: An American Success Story. "I can't do what I want to do. I don't like to get dressed up and go to see bankers. I hate that kind of thing."

Mr Kerkorian skipped most shareholder meetings at the companies he owned, but he resented being portrayed as a recluse. "I have 30- or 40-year friendships that I prefer to meeting new people," he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 1999 in a rare interview. "Just because I don't go to a lot of events and I'm not out in public all the time doesn't mean I'm anti-social."

His close friends included actor Cary Grant and singer-actor Frank Sinatra, who often joined him at Los Angeles restaurants and Las Vegas gambling tables.

Kerkor Kerkorian - he Americanised his name to Kirk as a boy - was born in Fresno, California, on June 6, 1917, one of four children of Armenian immigrants. His mother, Lily, was a housewife; his father, Ahron, was a fruit merchant whose get-rich-quick schemes often left his family struggling to stay afloat.

Young Kirk dropped out of school at age 16. He became a promising lightweight boxer, but quit the ring in 1939 to take flying lessons with woman pilot Pancho Barnes, which he paid for by milking cows and shovelling manure at her ranch.

In World War II, he ferried bomber planes across the Atlantic for the British Royal Air Force. After the war, he bought surplus military transport planes, refurbished them and sold them around the world, using the profits to buy a small air charter operation, based in Los Angeles, in 1947.

He often flew Hollywood entertainers to Las Vegas, which was becoming a gambling capital, and joined them at the blackjack and dice tables.

In Las Vegas, he met Jean Maree Hardy, a dancer and choreographer. They married in 1954 and had two daughters. That marriage ended in divorce after almost 30 years. (His first marriage to Hilda Schmidt had also ended in divorce, in 1951.) His daughters Tracy Kerkorian and Linda Kemper as well as three grandchildren survive him, a family spokesman said.

Mr Kerkorian bought property in Las Vegas, just off the Strip, in 1962.

He sold his charter airline, repurchased it and sold it in two separate transactions, making more than US$100 million in overall profits and funnelling the proceeds into the three business arenas - airlines, gambling resorts and film studios - that would sustain him as an investor for the rest of his life.

He split MGM into two publicly owned entities: MGM/UA Entertainment, which included film and television production and a large library of films; and MGM Grand Hotels, which owned and managed hotels, casinos and luxury cruise ships.

By 1986, he had agreed to sell MGM/UA, which was struggling, to cable television magnate Ted Turner for US$1.5 billion. Hollywood rivals and Wall Street analysts considered it a good deal for Mr Kerkorian. It became a terrific one a year later, when Mr Turner, crushed by debt, sold all but MGM's film library back to Mr Kerkorian for only US$300 million.

In 1999, he married former tennis pro Lisa Bonder. The marriage lasted only one month and, in 2002, she asked a Los Angeles Superior Court for the largest child-support award in California history, US$320,000 a month.

She was later awarded a much smaller amount. Court papers showed she falsified a DNA sample to claim Mr Kerkorian was the biological father of her daughter. DNA tests later revealed Hollywood producer Steve Bing as the father. A security guard working for Mr Kerkorian nabbed dental floss from Bing's trash to obtain the crucial DNA sample.

Mr Kerkorian once told the Las Vegas Review-Journal: "When you're a self-made man, you start very early in life. In my case it was at nine years old when I started bringing income into the family. You get a drive that's a little different, maybe a little stronger, than somebody who inherited."

New York Times, Bloomberg, Reuters

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2015, with the headline 'Winning bets on casinos and films'. Print Edition | Subscribe