BEVERLY HILLS—Kirk Kerkorian, once known as Los Angeles’ richest man, died Monday, June 15 at the age of 98 at his Beverly Hills home.
Born Kerkor Kerkorian on June 6, 1917 to Armenian immigrants Ahron and Lily, Kerkorian faced many difficulties growing up. His father, a fruit merchant, often struggled to support the family.
“We moved at least 20 times when I was a kid,” he told Fortune magazine in 1969. “We often could not pay our rent and would get booted out.”
In eighth grade, Kerkorian dropped out of school to work. He later became an amateur lightweight boxer known as “Rifle Right Kerkorian.” Under that title, he won 29 of 33 matches.
In 1939, he quit boxing to become a pilot. This training served him well during World War II, when he flew bombers for the British Royal Air Force.
After the war, Kerkorian turned his aviation experience into the beginnings of his career in business. He bought surplus military transport planes and updated them, selling them internationally. With the profits from this enterprise, in 1947 Kerkorian bought a small, Los Angeles-based air charter service.
As a businessman, he is best remembered for his enduring impact on Las Vegas.
“He literally built the world’s largest resorts three different times,” executive director of the UNLV International Gaming Institute Bo J. Bernhard said to the Los Angeles Times. “The foundation of the enormous adult Disneyland is very much a Kerkorian invention.”
In 1969, Kerkorian built the International (now known as the Westgate Las Vegas)—in direct competition with Howard Hughes’ expansion of his Sands Hotel. In 1973, Kerkorian one-upped himself with the original MGM Grand (now known as Bally’s Las Vegas), which boasted more than 2,000 rooms. In 1993, after spending over $1 billion to complete the project, Kerkorian opened the current MGM Grand, which featured a 33-acre theme park and a 15,000-seat arena in addition to its 5,005 rooms.
Three was the lucky number for Kerkorian’s business dealings: he also bought and sold MGM Studios three times.
While not all of his investments paid off, Kerkorian managed to move on from bad deals. In 2005, at almost 88, he bought a 9.9 percent stake in General Motors, looking to revitalize the troubled company by championing a merger with Nissan and Renault. GM refused, and Kerkorian sold off his stock.
“Sometimes you lose, but that’s the nature of the game,” Time magazine quoted him as saying in 1970. “There’s always another game and another chance to win.”
He is survived by his daughters, Tracy and Linda, and three grandchildren.