The Gambler: How Penniless Dropout Kirk Kerkorian Became the Greatest Deal Maker in Capitalist History
By William C. Rempel
Dey St. – An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; Harcover, $28.99, on sale January 23rd
Kirk Kerkorian was a self-made billionaire who was a daring aviator, movie mogul, risk-taker, and business tycoon who transformed Las Vegas and Hollywood to become one of the leading financiers in American business.
Veteran investigative reporter and storyteller William C. Rempel pieces together revealing parts of Kerkorian’s life, from sources such as war records, business archives, court documents, and the recollections and recorded memories of longtime pals and relatives.
Kerkorian’s friends and associates were some of the biggest names in business, entertainment, and sports, including Howard Hughes, Ted Turner, Steve Wynn, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, Mike Tyson, and Andre Agassi, whose father was close to Kerkorian.
The Kerkorian family came from Armenia and they owned a farm in California until they lost it due to foreclosure when Kirk was four years old. After that, they moved to Los Angeles and were penniless and moved often, staying one step ahead of more evictions.
Rempel writes of Kerkorian’s youth, “The Kerkorian family’s financial collapse and forced relocation to Los Angeles would be among the earliest and most unsettling memories of young Kerkor’s life. It also ushered in prolonged periods of economic uncertainty that would extend more than a decade – deep into the Great Depression. Missed rent payments and evictions, sometimes as often as every three months, repeatedly uprooted the family and made the boy a new kid in a new neighborhood over and over again..
“There were lessons to be learned from adapting and readapting to sudden changes, unfamiliar surroundings, and frequent disappointments. The bond growing from shared struggles and distress – ‘us against the world’ – fostered fierce family loyalty and underscored the value of friendships over possessions.
“But all the moves were chances for Kerkor to reinvent himself. A first step was to Americanize his name. In the big city, Kerkor became Kirk. And the farm boy who arrived in Southern California speaking only Armenian had to learn English on the streets of south-central Los Angeles.
“By age nine Kirk was hawking the Evening Express on street corners, making about fifty cents a day and turning over pocketsful of pennies to help support his family. His earliest experience with gambling was pitching pennies and bottle caps with fellow newsies.”
Kerkorian grew into a courageous World War II pilot, and Rempel provides many vivid accounts of his missions. His heroics as an aviator required flying freshly manufactured bombers and fighter planes from Canada to Scotland over the treacherous Polar route. Weather, disorientation, and mechanical failures claimed about 500 of his fellow RAF ferry pilots.
After the war, he became a scrappy boxer, an inscrutable poker player, and an unmatched genius for making deals.
The city he made his biggest mark on was Las Vegas, and by the time of his death in 2015, Kerkorian owned almost every major hotel and casino in Las Vegas. He envisioned and fostered a new industry, the leisure business. Three times he built the biggest resort hotel in the world. Three times he bought and sold the fabled MGM Studios, forever changing the way Hollywood does business.
Rempel writes of what Kerkorian and Hollywood lawyer Gregson Bautzer envisioned when MGM was up for sale, “What Kirk saw in a tired old MGM with its run of box office losers was something beyond the view of most investors. He saw hidden value. With a market price wallowing around $25 a share, investors were missing hundreds of millions in existing value, not even considering any turnaround potential. Kirk and Bautzer figured the company’s actual value to be closer to $400 million, or about $69 a share. What they saw was MGM’s vast library of classic films – Gone With the Wind, Singin’ in the Rain, Wizard of Oz. The company owned music publishers, a record company, overseas studios, and tens of millions of dollars in real estate.
“And then there was the priceless cache of its legendary name. For many, MGM spelled class – as in old Hollywood glamour, gowns and tuxedos, klieg lights and red carpets. What was Leo the Lion worth? No one had ever imagined putting a price on the MGM logo. Not until Kirk Kerkorian.
“Kirk’s alliance with Bautzer brought together two supremely competitive men with scrappy youths and bold careers. Bautzer was a kid from the tough waterfront town of San Pedro who became a noted Hollywood lawyer and playboy. He represented and romanced such stars as Ingrid Bergman, Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, and Joan Crawford.”
Rempel writes of when it came time to open the MGM in Las Vegas, “In the weeks that followed, the renovated MGM Grand Hotel moved swiftly toward a summer reopening date. Like the original grand opening, it would again feature Dean Martin in the Celebrity Showroom introduced by Cary Grant. Local journalists knew it was coming, but there was virtually no advance publicity. No national media were invited.
“The morning before its doors would open to guests and gamblers for the first time in eight months, Kirk joined the management team for a mass meeting with the entire hotel staff. They gathered in the jai alai fronton, a space big enough to accommodate nearly a thousand employees. Many of them wouldn’t have recognized Kirk if they were stuck in an elevator together.
“According to one story, a young MGM Grand desk clerk once kept Kirk waiting to check in while she had a brief row over the phone with her boyfriend. She was very apologetic and then added him for the name on his reservation. ‘Kirk Kerkorian,’ he said. She gasped in horror, but he smiled and reassured her. ‘We all have our days.’
“At the already unusual staff meeting, Kirk did something no one in the room had ever seen before. He got up and made a little speech.
“‘I told you we’d open the hotel again,’ he said. ‘And we’d be bigger and better than ever. And now I just want you to know that there’s plenty of money in the bank to take care of this place. Nobody needs to worry.’
“The next night, on Wednesday, July 29, 1981, the MGM Grand Hotel was back in business with state-of-the-art fire prevention and protection features everywhere. The reopening, however, was without fanfare. No klieg lights. No banners. No red carpet arrivals. A single sign over the reception desk in the lobby said WELCOME TO THE GRAND EVENT, the only reference in the entire lobby to the grand reopening.”
Kerkorian actually worked for MGM when he was eighteen years old. He and a friend got a job rearranging boulders on a movie set at the MGM Studios in Culver City. Kirk’s share was $2.60 for the day of hard labor. A century later, when he owned MGM, he earned well over $260,000 a day.
There was a quirky side to Kerkorian. He was never late for meetings or social functions and was not forgiving when it came to being late. The irony is he rarely wore a watch, especially later in his life when he preferred carrying a simple Timex watch face in his pants pocket. Morning coffee was a familiar ritual at home and on the road – Folgers brewed in a 1950’s vintage electric percolator that he carried wherever he traveled. Kirk was also a fitness fanatic who watched what he ate, drank in moderation and exercised religiously. He generally are only half the food on his plate, nursed a scotch and water, and worked out with a pair of custom-made dumbbells, each weighing precisely 17.5 pounds.
Kerkorian had quite a history with Donald Trump, another billionaire casino owner and the current President of the United States. Trump called Kirk “the king” and told friends “I love that guy.” Kirk was Trump’s polar opposite in style and temperament. Kerkorian was soft-spoken and had a paralyzing fear of public speaking. Kerkorian never put his name on a hotel or any other of his properties – not even on his own personal parking spot at MGM Studios. Kerkorian never defaulted on a loan. He gave away more than a million dollars to charities. And he always regarded his handshake as a binding contract. However, Kerkorian did admire, even envy, Trump’s glibness and public confidence.
Since Kerkorian died in 2015, it is not known how he would have felt about his friend Trump’s campaign for the White House. Kerkorian was known as an a-political RINO. One associate said that if you put a gun to Kerkorian’s head, he would probably say he was a Republican. He backed presidential candidates from both parties, including Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Bob Dole. Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader from Nevada, was a close friend. His relatively modest political donations of less than half a million dollars over three decades were divided evenly, almost to the dollar, between the parties.
This work is a compelling story of one of America’s greatest businessmen, and well worth reading.