February 3, 2018 - 15:29 AMT
The son of Armenian immigrants who became a most influential tycoon: WP

The Washington Post has unveiled an article about Armenian American billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, who played an enormous role in shaping modern-day Las Vegas, along the way also shaking up Hollywood and the auto industry.

"Most of the world knows little else about Kerkorian, who was fiercely private even by billionaire standards. Now, almost three years after his death in 2015 at age 98, William C. Rempel’s “The Gambler: How Penniless Dropout Kirk Kerkorian Became the Greatest Deal Maker in Capitalist History” chronicles Kerkorian’s singular career and his engrossing life story: how the son of Armenian immigrants and an eighth-grade dropout became one of the most influential tycoons of the 20th century," the article says.

"Rempel’s account is expansive and exhaustive, which is all the more impressive given that he had little authorized access. The official Kerkorian camp refused to cooperate (though Rempel, who spent 36 years as an investigative reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times, got many friends and associates to speak with him), and Kerkorian gave almost no interviews during his life.

"And what a life it was. Rempel spends more than half the book chronicling Kerkorian’s early years, but it’s hard to imagine a more cinematic rags-to-riches story. Born Kerkor Kerkorian, the future billionaire was the youngest of four children to Armenian immigrants who had settled in Fresno, Calif. His father, Ahron, saw success as a fruit peddler turned raisin farmer, but he lost the business when the market turned and debt loads came down, prompting a relocation to Los Angeles. Scrappy but strong, young Kerkor showed promise as an amateur prizefighter, earning the nickname “Rifle Right.”

"But a chance opportunity to ride along with a friend in a single-wing plane led him to become besotted with flying — and prompted a stint as a contract pilot for the Royal Air Force Ferry Command, a Montreal-based division that hired civilian pilots, including Americans, to ferry new bombers and fighter planes from their factories in America and Canada across the North Atlantic. The first scene in the book is a treacherous minute-by-minute account of one of these crossings that nearly led to a mid-air evacuation — one of Kerkorian’s several close brushes with death. Back in Los Angeles, he set up a small charter flight service that made enterprising use of surplus military planes, and was soon ferrying the likes of John Wayne and Bugsy Siegel to the then-nascent gaming mecca in the desert, Las Vegas.

"In 1962, Kerkorian began buying up land in Vegas, over time building three resorts that were the largest in the world for their time: the International Hotel, opened in 1969; the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, opened in 1973 and later acquired and renamed by Bally’s; and the new MGM Grand Las Vegas, opened in 1993, with a casino, Rempel says, that was bigger than the playing field in Yankee Stadium. He purchased MGM Studios in 1969 and would sell and buy it back three times, each time for a profit. He bought and sold plenty of other resorts, including the Mirage from younger rival Steve Wynn (now embroiled in allegations of sexual misconduct) in 2000 and Mandalay Resorts in 2004; at his peak, Kerkorian controlled nearly half of the Strip. An attempted takeover of Chrysler in the early 1990s would see him in and out of the auto industry for almost two decades.

"The deals seem innumerable, each recounted in hyper-specific, often suspenseful detail (lay readers may find those dealmaking details dense). There are plenty of historic moments in pop culture, whether it’s the International Hotel’s chief doing a deal on a tablecloth with Elvis Presley’s manager after an early record-setting sellout performance in 1969, or Kerkorian acquiescing to Paramount head Robert Evans’s request to let a young, unknown actor named Al Pacino out of a contract with MGM so Paramount could cast him with Marlon Brando in a movie called “The Godfather.” In the early 1960s, Kerkorian befriended an Armenian waiter and part-time tennis instructor named Manny Agassi at the Tropicana; they became lifelong friends, and when Agassi’s next child came along, he named him Andre Kirk Agassi, who became, of course, a tennis legend.

"Kerkorian’s character is as striking as his business adventures. While many masters of the universe are known for short fuses and big egos, Kerkorian, in Rempel’s telling, was the opposite. He was gentle and gracious, and didn’t assume that the world revolved around him. (“Do you have a minute?” was how he would start phone calls.) He despised displays of wealth. He refused comps at his hotels or anyone else’s, and he was reluctant to let employees know who he was. In one anecdote, a check-in clerk at the MGM Grand was having an argument with her boyfriend on the phone while Kerkorian waited at the counter; when she hung up, apologized and asked for his name, she was mortified. “We all have our days,” he reassured her."