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The Builder

Kirk Kerkorian
Photo Courtesy Associate Press
Photo Courtesy Associate Press

Biography of Kirk Kerkorian adds rich detail to a life of historic scope

As private men in a public business, it’s inevitable Kirk Kerkorian would draw a comparison with Howard Hughes. Both were aviators and gamblers who made a reputation in the movie industry and rose to prominence in Las Vegas in the latter part of the 1960s. They were wealthy beyond most imaginations, and the press commonly called them reclusive.

But as readers of William C. Rempel’s fascinating The Gambler: How Penniless Dropout Kirk Kerkorian Became the Greatest Dealmaker in Capitalist History will soon appreciate, when it came to foundational impact on Las Vegas, there’s really no comparison.

  This isn’t a dismissal of Hughes’ historical importance to Southern Nevada. Certainly his rapid purchase of a string of hotel-casinos helped Las Vegas shake its mobbed-up shadow at a critical time. Although Hughes was no builder, the company that bears his name is a testament to the great potential he had for development — but never fulfilled — during his four-year residency here. In simple truth, his Las Vegas life was too shrouded in strangeness to compare much at all to the real Kerkorian story.

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The two were friends who became rivals. Kerkorian’s understated doggedness brought out the pettiness in Hughes, who imagined himself as the new king of Las Vegas. But Kerkorian was built of sturdier stock.

Born Kerkor Kerkorian in 1917 in Fresno, California, he inherited his gambler’s entrepreneurial spirit from his father, Ahron, an illiterate Armenian immigrant who won and lost a fortune as a farmer and producer of raisins during World War I. Young Kirk dropped out of school after the eighth grade, hawked newspapers, sold watermelons, and boxed in smoky undercard fights as “Rifle Right Kerkorian.”

He flew with the Royal Air Force Ferry Command, bought and sold airplanes and airline stock, and became intimately familiar with post-WW II Las Vegas. He had a winning track record as an investor and was a millionaire several times over by the time he took his architectural plans for the International Hotel and Casino from the drawing board to the construction site next to the Las Vegas Convention Center. It was the biggest gamble of his life, and his finances weren’t secure.

Worse, Hughes was playing with Kerkorian’s mind by announcing an even larger project. Despite his mounting eccentricities, the Hughes machine managed to keep his image sparkling in the media. While Kerkorian was chided as “a ham sandwich Howard Hughes,” Hughes received overhyped headlines and breathless coverage.

But Hughes’s one-time chief cheerleader, Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun, would eventually provide invaluable insight to the up-and-coming Kerkorian. “They had a series of evening conversations,” Rempel writes. “The newspaperman was sure his friend had ‘spent a few sleepless nights worrying about Hughes’ new plans.’ Kirk acknowledged he was pondering whether to fold and walk away from the International, but Greenspun pressed him to call his rival’s bluff. Hughes, he said, ‘doesn’t build — he merely buys.’”

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Kerkorian stayed in the game, got the International financed, and made Las Vegas history by not only opening what was in 1969 the largest hotel in the world, but by polishing the stars of Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley in the process.

Although he had too few skeptics in the press, by 1970 it was clear the Hughes promise to build a new Las Vegas was more hot air than reality. Greenspun was right about him. By the time he left town that year, the only thing Hughes had built in Las Vegas was his reputation as a deeply troubled man. Kerkorian, meanwhile, was just getting started with a new chapter of his amazing American success story.

While the author is clearly intrigued by his subject, The Gambler is no Horatio Alger romance. Rempel brings the remarkable reporting chops he honed as an award-winning investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times to the biographer’s craft. He’s written a lively rags-to-riches story filled with anecdotes of Kerkorian’s many business gambles.

Some losses transcended any spreadsheet. The November 21, 1980, fire at the first MGM Grand killed 85 people and devastated Kerkorian. He rebuilt and spent two years actively attempting to settle with the affected families. Although he eventually sold the resort to Bally, Kerkorian’s effort protected the brand.

The book helps fracture the image of Kerkorian as a Hughes-like recluse. He wasn’t a guy who remained locked in his suite. In addition to building the largest hotel-casino in the world three times, Kerkorian rose from poverty to become a billionaire, served his country, traveled the world, dated impeccably, enjoyed rock-solid friendships, gave generously to charity, maintained a healthy lifestyle, and lived to a remarkable age of 98, dying in 2015.

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“He avoided press interviews most of his life, making him appear reclusive,” Rempel writes. “He hated being compared to hermitlike Howard Hughes, whom he otherwise admired. Kirk had a thriving social life with celebrity friends and business associates — among them Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Tony Curtis.”

While I never questioned Kerkorian at a press conference or landed a one-on-one interview, we had brief but pleasant exchanges at Piero’s and the late, great Nicky Blair’s. He didn’t arrive at those restaurants in an armor-plated Maybach with bulletproof windows and a phalanx of bodyguards, but in a late-model American-made sedan of the kind your parents might have owned.

Kerkorian’s bittersweet late-life relationship with former tennis professional Lisa Bonder, something he came to regret deeply, is also detailed in the book without excessive sensationalism. Frankly, I found Kerkorian’s obsession with tennis — he won senior circuit tournaments well into his 80s — more interesting. It was a reminder that a competitive fire still burned in that formerly poor boy from Fresno.

With The Gambler, Rempel has done Las Vegas and a generation of business entrepreneurs a great service, adding rich detail to the business titan’s deals and controversies. Kerkorian’s life is a reminder of how far Americans can go if they keep punching and learn to go all in at just the right moment.