Kirk Kerkorian, a self-made billionaire and famously cunning dealmaker who bought and sold some of the largest companies in the airline, hospitality and entertainment industries, died June 15 at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 98.
The death was confirmed by Clark Dumont, senior vice president for corporate communications at MGM Resorts International. Mr. Kerkorian’s investment company, Tracinda, is the casino company’s biggest shareholder. No cause of death was announced.
Tracinda, named for Mr. Kerkorian’s two daughters, was once among the largest shareholders of automakers Chrysler and General Motors.
Over the years, Mr. Kerkorian’s holdings included majority stakes in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and MGM Grand, a publicly traded company that at one time owned nearly half the slot machines, table games and hotel rooms on the Las Vegas Strip. Only Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire developer, was said to have exceeded Mr. Kerkorian’s influence in shaping the gambling mecca.
Mr. Kerkorian, whose fortune Forbes magazine estimated this month at $4 billion, liked to call himself “a small-town boy who got lucky.” But in a career spanning seven decades, he displayed an uncanny ability to invite good luck.
He built a modest fortune by buying and selling surplus aircraft after World War II. He then started a charter plane service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, a desert city that boomed in the postwar years and lured celebrities, businessmen, lovebirds wishing to elope and the occasional mobster.
Mr. Kerkorian later pulled off astonishingly profitable land deals in Las Vegas. In the 1960s, he invested $900,000 in 40 acres on the Strip, and he reaped $5 million six years later when Caesars Palace was built there. Fortune magazine dubbed it “one of the most successful land speculations in Las Vegas’ history.”
Mr. Kerkorian also was credited with fueling the phenomenon of the Las Vegas mega-resort through his construction in the late 1960s and early 1970s of properties such as the International Hotel and the MGM Grand.
“Wages are going higher, and hours are getting shorter,” he said at the time. “People have got to have a place to spend it.”
In 1993, he christened the 5,000-room MGM Grand Hotel and Theme Park, a Vegas behemoth that was served by its own power plant.
Mr. Kerkorian had a reputation for extreme secrecy in his business dealings and personal life. He expressed discomfort about settings where his lack of a formal education could expose him to ridicule. He was the son of illiterate Armenian immigrant farmers, and he was expelled — for truancy and fighting — from the eighth-grade class of a school for delinquent boys.
“I wish I could talk like Donald Trump or Steve Wynn,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2005, referring to the flamboyant real estate moguls.
What Mr. Kerkorian lacked in academic discipline he more than made up in grit, ambition and stomach for risk. To much derision, he began plowing money into Chrysler during an auto-industry downturn in 1990. But he saw his investment nearly triple over several years.
He managed a series of daring, labyrinthine deals that inspired respect and fear in the corporate boardrooms of Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Detroit. His method often was to buy a company such as MGM Studios, dismantle it, and then sell off and buy back portions as their performance and market conditions dictated. He bought and sold MGM three times over 35 years, selling it the last time in 2004 to Sony for $5 billion.
Not all his bets paid off. Mr. Kerkorian made unsuccessful attempts to take over Chrysler, GM and Columbia Pictures and to buy companies such as 20th Century Fox studios, Walt Disney Productions and Trans World Airlines.
He was accused at times of “greenmail,” a practice in which an investor buys a large amount of a company’s stock in the expectation that management, to retain control of the company, will pay a premium to buy it back.
“He was one of those early titan types — the swashbuckling businessman who rolled up his sleeves and started buying companies. Everything he did, he wanted to do really big,” said Christina Binkley, a Wall Street Journal reporter and author of “Winner Takes All: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman and the Race to Own Las Vegas.”
“It was,” she added, “a ‘no holds barred,’ ‘this is war,’ ‘may the best man win’ kind of behavior.”
The youngest of four children, Kerkor Kerkorian was born in Fresno, Calif., on June 6, 1917. He would attribute his entrepreneurial spirit to his father, Ahron, who borrowed money to start a fruit farm that profited from the huge demand for raisins during World War I.
During a recession in the early 1920s, Ahron Kerkorian arrived by horseback at his farm one day to find it being auctioned off because he could not keep up with the payments to the bank. He reportedly stopped the auction by hacking off a man’s ear with a hoe.
The Kerkorians were living in Los Angeles when Kirk left school. He worked odd jobs and ran with a street gang called the League of Nations because its members were children of immigrants. A sinewy six-footer, he followed an older brother into the ring and became a skilled amateur welterweight, fighting under the name “Rifle Right” Kerkorian.
After a brief period as a logger in the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, Mr. Kerkorian began installing furnaces at 45 cents an hour. One day, he tagged along with a colleague who was taking flight lessons and rode in a single-engine aircraft. He was dazzled.
Mr. Kerkorian could not afford such luxuries. So he proposed a barter exchange with celebrated aviatrix Florence “Pancho” Barnes: He would milk cows and shovel manure on her ranch, and she would give him flying lessons. Barnes agreed.
During World War II, Mr. Kerkorian offered his services to the Royal Air Force as a civilian ferrying Canadian-built Mosquito fighter-bombers from Labrador to Scotland. Fierce wind and ice buildup were constant threats, and the planes barely carried enough fuel to make the trip. But Mr. Kerkorian was paid $1,000 a trip and made 33 trips.
After the war, he used his savings to buy surplus planes and personally delivered them to the highest bidders. For himself, he spent $5,000 on a Cessna and began using it for charter service, initially for a Los Angeles scrap-iron dealer who wanted to gamble in Las Vegas.
Military contract work during the Korean War proved especially profitable to Mr. Kerkorian’s company, Los Angeles Air Service. He renamed the operation Trans International Airlines in 1959.
The car company Studebaker bought the airline on a diversification binge in 1962 and retained Mr. Kerkorian as president. Two years later, Mr. Kerkorian bought back the airline and took it public. In 1968, he pocketed an estimated $108 million after he sold the airline to the insurance conglomerate Transamerica and unloaded his Transamerica stock.
With the profits, he acquired a 30 percent stake in Western Airlines, a Los Angeles-based carrier that had a hub in Las Vegas, and he formed the International Leisure Corp. to operate his hotels and resorts in Las Vegas.
In a particularly bold venture, he bought the venerable but struggling Flamingo hotel and casino and built the $52 million International Hotel, which at 1,519 rooms dwarfed Hughes’s then-new 476-room Landmark Hotel.
Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley were among the first entertainers to perform at the International, a family-friendly resort featuring pools, lagoons and a kiddie camp.
The Flamingo and the International had become major tourist destinations by the time Mr. Kerkorian reluctantly sold both hotels — to finance his burgeoning movie-studio investments — to the Hilton chain in the early 1970s.
He remained engaged in the Las Vegas hospitality business until his death. Mr. Kerkorian’s MGM Grand acquired Mirage Resorts in 2000, and the subsequently renamed MGM Mirage, of which he was the majority shareholder, went on to purchase another big hotel and casino group. In all, MGM Mirage’s properties included tens of thousands of rooms at the Mirage, Bellagio, Luxor, Excalibur and other Vegas resorts.
Mr. Kerkorian had named the MGM Grand Hotel, built in the early 1970s, after the Hollywood studio he bought in 1969. He paid $82 million for the legendary movie company, which was saddled with debt and suffering from a run of expensive long-term movie projects.
He tapped James Aubrey, a television executive nicknamed “the Smiling Cobra,” to downsize the company so drastically that Mr. Kerkorian declared that MGM was mostly a hotel company.
Mr. Kerkorian’s movie company struggled creatively in the 1980s, with only a handful of hits. The financier relinquished the MGM/UA studio (he had bought United Artists in 1981) in 1990 to Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti for $1.3 billion.
Meanwhile, the first incarnation of his MGM Grand hotel had a notorious role in Las Vegas history as the site of one of the worst hotel fires of modern times.
On Nov. 21, 1980, flames swept through the first two floors, killing 84 people and injuring hundreds more as smoke made its way through the high-rise resort. The fire was traced to an electrical problem in the first-floor deli.
Litigation produced a $138 million settlement in 1983, with MGM Grand paying $75 million and other defendants paying the rest. Mr. Kerkorian sold the MGM Grand hotel to Bally Manufacturing in 1985, and the building was rechristened Bally’s Grand.
In 1990, Mr. Kerkorian put down $272 million to buy about 10 percent of Detroit’s No. 3 automaker, Chrysler.
With the backing of former Chrysler chief executive Lee Iacocca, Mr. Kerkorian offered $20 billion in a hostile takeover bid in 1995. The deal was scuttled because the financier could not find enough outside financing, among other reasons.
Mr. Kerkorian owned nearly 14 percent of Chrysler when it was acquired by the German automaker Daimler-Benz in 1998. He said he would have sold his stock for $1.2 billion had he known that the outright purchase was not, in fact, a “merger of equals,” as it had been described in a newspaper interview by DaimlerChrysler’s chairman.
Mr. Kerkorian lost a federal lawsuit seeking that amount in damages. In 2005, the judge ruled that Tracinda executives had not adequately studied the plan and that they had not been deceived. Two years later, Mr. Kerkorian made an unsuccessful $4.5 billion cash offer for the U.S. auto division of DaimlerChrysler.
Mr. Kerkorian’s first two marriages, to Hilda Schmidt and Las Vegas dancer Jean Maree Hardy, ended in divorce. In 1999, he was married for 28 days to former tennis pro Lisa Bonder.
In 2010, he agreed to pay $10 million in back child support and $100,000 a month for Bonder’s then-12-year-old daughter, who took the Kerkorian name but was fathered by another man. Bonder had admitted to faking a DNA paternity test to prove that Mr. Kerkorian was the father.
The Las Vegas Sun reported last year that Mr. Kerkorian married a longtime girlfriend, Una Davis, but they divorced. Survivors include two daughters from his second marriage, Tracy and Linda; and three grandchildren.
Mr. Kerkorian owned a plane and a yacht, but he drove a Ford Taurus and a Jeep Grand Cherokee. His main passions outside of business were playing tennis and giving money to Armenian causes.
As a young man, he had been enthralled with gambling. “I was just overwhelmed at the level of excitement in this little town,” Mr. Kerkorian once said of his first years in Las Vegas, adding that he was able to parlay $5 into several hundred dollars in one early craps game.
He was known for keeping an eerie calm throughout the highs and lows of games of chance. His nickname was the “Perry Como of the craps table,” a reference to the unflappable pop singer.