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Who was Kirk Kerkorian?

Kirk Kerkorian was an American billionaire businessman who made his fortune in the hospitality industry, under the umbrella of Tracinda Corporation. Kerkorian is viewed as an important figure in transforming Las Vegas into a tourism and resort hub.

Three times, he built the world’s largest hotel in Las Vegas. He is nicknamed the “father of the mega-resort.” Kerkorian, an American of Armenian origin is also known for his generous to charity in Armenia. He contributed more than $1 billion since 1989 through his foundation, the Lincy Foundation.

At the time of his death in 2015, barely a week after his 98th birthday, he was the world’s second oldest billionaire, only behind David Rockefeller who was 100 at the time.

Early Years and Rise to Prominence

Kirkorian was born in Fresno California in June 1917 to immigrant parents from Armenia. The family moved to Los Angeles shortly after the great depression. At the age of 9, he started selling newspapers among other odd jobs and he then dropped out of school in eighth grade. He ventured into amateur boxing, fighting under the pseudo name “Rifle Right Kerkorian.” He won the Pacific amateur welterweight championship under the coaching of his older brother Nish Kerkorian. At the onset of World War II, Kerkorian learned to fly, paying for lessons by looking after the cattle of aviatrix Pancho Barnes.

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He was hired by the British RAF to fly de Havilland Mosquito war planes from their production site in Canada to Scotland, earning $1000 per flight. In total, he made 33 deliveries, and saved most of his wages. When the war was over, he bought a Cessna plane for $5000 and working as a general aviation pilot, he made his first visit to Las Vegas in 1944. In 1947, he purchased the Trans International Airlines, a small plane charter service for $60,000. He bought some war surplus bomber planes using a loan from the Seagram family and paid off the loan by selling gasoline from the planes’ tanks. He kept the airline until 1968 when he sold it for $104 million.

In 1962 he bought 80 acres of land on the Las Vegas Strip, just across the Flamingo for $960,000. He would then sell the land to the builders of the Caesars Palace for $9 million. On another piece of prime land he had purchased on Paradise Road in 1967, he built the International Hotel, which was then the world’s largest hotel. Elvis Presley was among the performers at the hotel’s first performance, bringing in more than 4,000 customers per day for 30 straight days to break the attendance records in the history of the United States. In 1969 Kerkorian purchased the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie studio and then opened the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, again snatching the ‘world’s largest’ title. In November 1980 the MGM would be the scene of one of the worst disasters in Vegas history after it burnt down, killing 87 people. In 1986, Kerkorian sold the MGM Grand Hotels for $594 million and it was renamed to Bally’s.

A spin-off from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, MGM Resorts International was introduced the same year, and would go on to build the current MGM Grand in 1993, again the world’s largest hotel. The company also owns other properties including the Bellagio, The Mirage, The Luxor, The New York-New York, Mandalay Bay, Circus Circus and the City Center in Las Vegas among others. Aside from his huge hospitality fortune, Kerkorian has smaller interests in other industries and has notably tried several times to take over several automakers. He once owns sizeable shares in Ford and at one time owned 9.9% of automaker GM. He subsequently sold all his interests in the two companies.

Kerkorian’s Personal Life

Kerkorian was of the billionaires hardest hit by the 2008 recession, with his net worth plummeting from a high of $18 billion in 2008 to just $3.2 billion in 2011. He was an intensely private and austere person –he reportedly drove a Ford Taurus- but did enjoy a colorful life to some extent, as he married three famous personalities over the years. In 1999, he famously married former tennis pro Lisa Bonder, but their marriage only lasted one month but in 2010, Kerkorian agreed to pay $100,000 to Bonder for a single child named Kira even though it was proven in court that he was not the child’s biological father. The case was further complicated by his attorneys allegedly using the services of controversial private investigator Anthony Pellicano to wiretap between Bonder and a former lover. Kerkorian died in June 2015.

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