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Kirk Kerkorian (95) is possibly the richest and the most private citizen of  Los Angeles – he almost never gives interviews, he seldom appears in public and his charitable efforts are largely anonymous. However, his achievements and longevity make him a living monument of the 20th century, the self-made man whose career has covered the most exciting decades of the century and helped shape it.

Kirk Kerkorian in Las Vegas in 1977

Kirk Kerkorian in Las Vegas in 1977

Early Years and First Business Ventures

Kirk Kerkorian was born in 1917 in Fresno, California, in an Armenian family. Since he was not interested in formal education, Kirk left school and started a quite successful career as an amateur boxer, eventually winning the Pacific amateur welterweight championship.

In 1939, Kirk became interested in flying and took flying lessons from Pancho Barnes. Since he couldn’t afford to pay for the lessons, he agreed to work on her farm instead. He got his commercial pilot’s licence six months later and spent most of World War II ferrying de Havilland Mosquitos over the north Atlantic to Scotland, using the faster, but riskier “Iceland Wave” route from Canada to Scotland.

After the war, Kerkorian worked as a pilot and spent a lot of time in Las Vegas. In 1947, he quit gambling and purchased a small air-charter company Trans International Airlines for  $60,000. He ran the company successfully until 1968 when he sold it for $104 million to the Transamerica Corporation.

MGM Grand Hotel And Casino in 1994

MGM Grand Hotel And Casino as seen in 1994

Las Vegas and MGM

Although he had spent much of his time in the 1940s and the 1950s in Las Vegas, Kirk Kerkorian’s Las Vegas career began in 1962 when he bought 80 acres (32 ha) in Las Vegas for $960,000. It was on this land that Caesars Palace hotel was built, eventually making Kerkorian $9 million in 1968.

In 1967, Kerkorian and the architect Martin Stern, Jr. built the International Hotel, the largest hotel in the world at the time it was finished. One of the first stars to perform at the newly finished mega hotel was the King himself – a select group of 4,200 people saw Elvis Presley perform for 30 nights.

In 1969, Kirk Kerkorian purchased the struggling MGM movie studio, which led to another mega hotel, the MGM Grand Hotel And Casino completed in 1969, once again by Martin Stern Jr. Just like its predecessor, MGM Grand Hotel And Casino was the largest hotel in the world at the time of its completion, larger even than the Empire State Building.

11 years later, on November 21, 1980, MGM Grand Hotel And Casino burned in a fire in the largest disaster in history of Las Vegas, an event known as MGM Grand fire that claimed 87 lives. The MGM Grand was restored and reopened only 8 months later and subsequently sold to Bally Manufacturing in 1986. It is now called Bally’s.

Recent Years

Kirk Kerkorian is still the CEO of his Tracinda Corporation, plays tennis in his spare time and splits his time between Beverly Hills and Las Vegas. Kerkorian was severely hit by stock market recession in 2011, as his net worth tumbled down to $2.9 billion from the estimated $16.0 billion in 2008. He is listed as the 142nd on the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in America as of September 2012.