Those are just the glamourous details of his life. What’s most amazing is his background and how he willed his way to success and wealth again and again.
Kerkorian was born in Fresno, California in 1917. He was the fourth and last child of Armenian immigrant farmers. Kerkorian’s father owned 10 farms and eventually lost them all in the 1920s recession. Struggling to pay their rent, they had to move every few months. “We moved at least 20 times when I was a kid,” Kerkorian told Fortune magazine in 1969.
Kerkorian dropped out of school in the eighth-grade. Taking after his older brother, he became an amateur boxer under the name “Rifle Right Kerkorian” and won the Pacific amateur welterweight championship. Unfortunately, he wasn’t strong enough or fast enough to go pro. Instead, a close friend who was a pilot, took Kerkorian on a ride in a small plane that sparked Kerkorian’s obsession with flight.
Kerkorian learned to fly at the Happy Bottom Riding club adjacent to Edwards Air Force Base in the Antelope Valley. In exchange for flying lessons from famed pilot Pancho Barnes, Kerkorian agreed to milk and look after her cattle. After earning his commercial pilot’s license in just a few months, during WWII, Kerkorian began delivering [flying] Canadian combat planes to the British Royal Air Force over the North Atlantic to Scotland for a fee of $1,000 per flight. The combat planes had a small fuel tank and would require refuel stops to cross the North Atlantic. Kerkorian instead preferred to take a direct route in hopes that the “Iceland Wave” wind would blow in his direction increasing the distance he could travel on one tank of fuel; a risk that could result in having to ditch the aircraft. Kerkorian successfully delivered 33 planes and broke the old crossing record.
Kerkorian made his first visit to Las Vegas in 1944 and spent much of his time in Las Vegas. After WWII, Kerkorian borrowed money to buy war surplus bombers, fuel (especially jet fuel) at the time was so expensive, he was able to sell the fuel that came with the bombers, pay off the loan completely, and keep the bombers. He refurbished the bombers and sold them around the world. Using the profits, in 1947, he paid $60,000 for Trans International Airlines (TIA) which was a small charter service that flew gamblers from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.
As tourism to Las Vegas boomed, so did Kerkorian’s airline TIA. In 1962, Kerkorian used some of his profits to buy an 80 acre piece of land in Las Vegas on the strip for $800,000. In 1967, he then bought 82 acres of land for $5 million and built the International Hotel, the largest hotel in the world at the time. Not only did Kerkorian’s first two performers Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley bring in a record breaking number of customers, the International Hotel was the first successful Las Vegas casino not on the strip.
The 80 acres of land Kerkorian purchased in 1962 for $800,000 became the site of Caesars Palace in 1966. Caesars Palace rented the land and eventually purchased it for a total of $9 million in 1968. Many decades later and many deals later, in a 2011 interview by Bloomberg, Kerkorian said the land deal that houses Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas strip was the best deal he’d ever done.
In 1969, at age 52, Kerkorian told The Times, “I have made enough to retire, but that would be a pretty dull life for me, wouldn’t it?”
After the 1960s, Kerkorian continued to make the HUGE deals he is now most known for.
There are three things I like most about Kerkorian. First, he strived to be the best at whatever he did. Second, he didn't retire because he could retire, he continued to work and do fun and different business deals. Last but not least, he was a fellow land owner buying land in the direct path of development! Rest in peace Kirk.
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