As you may know, the remarkable Kirk Kerkorian passed away on June 15 at the age of ninety-eight. His rags-to-riches story is like a movie. As I’ve written about in the past, one of my great regrets is not having made the effort to meet a number of people whom I admired, and Kirk Kerkorian is at the top of that list.
Born to Armenian immigrant parents, he was a grade-school dropout who became king of Las Vegas (sorry about that, Steve Wynn) by swooping past Howard Hughes while Hughes was wasting away on the top floor of the Desert Inn Hotel. Kerkorian’s death was personal to me because he was my last living role model — and the one I most admired.
Preceding Kerkorian on my short list of role models was Howard Hughes himself, as well as two titans of the golden era of the so-called robber barons, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. Even though it’s probably true that Carnegie and Rockefeller, who were bitter rivals, ate little kids for breakfast, I was fascinated by their relentless drive to accumulate vast fortunes. In addition, of course, both were giant philanthropists. (Sorry about that, anti-capitalists.)
Starting in his mid-thirties, Carnegie lived a royal lifestyle that is unimaginable even by today’s multibillionaire standards, and spent a great deal of time building public libraries and funding myriad charities. I was amazed by how he started with nothing at the age of thirteen — as a dirt-poor immigrant from Scotland — and became the richest man in the world long before he retired at age sixty-six.
What titillated me about Howard Hughes — whose life also was like a movie, but for very different reasons than Kerkorian’s — was that he did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, and with whomever he wanted. And, unlike today’s corporate toadys, when he was forced to testify before a Senate committee regarding some of his business dealings, he had an in-your-face attitude toward the meddlesome senators who tried, unsuccessfully, to intimidate him.
Though he came from a wealthy (but depraved) family, there’s no question that Hughes was a tough guy. He once had Frank Sinatra, whom he hated (something, I suspect, that had more than a little to do with their common interest in Ava Gardner), thrown out of the Sands Hotel, which at the time he owned.
And when the manager of the Desert Inn wanted him to vacate the top floor of the hotel to make room for New Year’s Eve high rollers, Hughes simply bought the hotel. He even tried every dirty trick in the book to stop Kerkorian from building the biggest hotel in the world in Las Vegas, but Kerkorian overcame his dastardly plots and succeeded not only in building the world’s biggest hotel — but building it three times.
From a young age, Hughes, like most other members of his family, was eccentric to an extreme. It was not uncommon for him to show up in nightclubs in a suit and sneakers (“tennis shoes,” in those days). And then there’s the story about his making his secretaries wear rubber gloves to protect him from germs.
But perhaps the most bizarre anecdote of all is that Robert Maheu, who for years was chief executive of Hughes’s Nevada operations, never even met Hughes in person. He received all his instructions via telephone. But in Hughes’s waning, drugged-out days, living on the top floor of the Desert Inn Hotel, he abruptly fired Maheu, claiming he was “stealing me blind.”
At the time, I was a young, wannabe acquisitions and merger hotshot, who, quite frankly, didn’t know what he was doing. But I knew how to get publicity, so I thought hooking up with Maheu might be a good PR move.
Having just lost his cushy job with Hughes, I had a hunch he might respond positively if I contacted him. So I wrote him a letter telling him that I’d like to meet with him about the possibility of his joining forces with me, and, sure enough, his response was positive.
Maheu and I met in my office for about an hour, without anything substantive resulting from the meeting. And given that I couldn’t really afford him anyway, I don’t think I ever tried to contact him again, nor did he contact me.
As to Hughes, as his depraved life spun ever more rapidly out of control, I lost respect for him as a person, though I still believe he was a genius and one of the great financiers and industrialists in American history.
Enter Kirk Kerkorian. In the late sixties, Kerkorian, previously unknown by the standards of a Howard Hughes, was starting to seriously challenge Hughes as The Man in Las Vegas. I was totally fascinated by his every move, and he became a new role model for me. Kerkorian was everything Hughes was not — sane, gentlemanly, soft spoken, deadly serious, and a straight shooter. No question about it, Kirk Kerkorian was the anti-Hughes.
Then, I believe it was sometime around 1971, actor Dale Robertson (Tales of Wells Fargo, The Iron Horse) invited me to dinner at his ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Dale was a delightful guy, and we spent much of the evening exchanging stories about people we both knew.
At one point, I happened to mention Kirk Kerkorian (whom I did not know), and he told me that Kerkorian was a longtime friend of his. I was all ears and totally mesmerized listening to him tell tales about his amazing friend.
There were two stories, in particular, that I still remember in vivid detail. The first was about a time when he was playing a friendly game of tennis with Kerkorian. At one point in their match, Dale, who was at the net, asked Kerkorian if he might be interested in partnering up with him and buying the old Bonanza Hotel on the Strip.
He went on to explain that the Bonanza was sitting on forty-three acres of prime land right across from Caesars Palace, and they could tear down the Bonanza and build a new, much larger, much fancier hotel. Whereupon Kerkorian walked up to the net, squinted one eye, and asked Robertson, “How long have we been friends?”
“About twenty-five years,” Robertson answered. To which Kerkorian responded, “Let’s keep it that way. Don’t ever mention business to me again.” Kerkorian then walked to the back line and prepared to serve. It was like a scene right out of Dirty Harry.
For the record, Kerkorian later bought the Bonanza Hotel and the forty-three acres under it, and, for the second time in just a few years, built the biggest hotel in the world — the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino (which he later sold to Bally’s).
The other great story that I remember was when Kerkorian opened his first “biggest hotel in the world,” the International. A genius at promotion, he made a deal with Barbra Streisand to be the hotel’s opening attraction, which resulted in a great deal of nationwide publicity.
According to Robertson, when Streisand got huffy and demanded the presidential suite on the top floor of the hotel, Kerkorian put her in her place by telling her, in his classic calm but firm tone, “That suite is reserved for high rollers who can afford to lose a million bucks in the casino, so even I don’t use it. What you’re going to get is a premier suite, which is more than good enough. Next subject.”
Of course, I got the story secondhand from Robertson, who in turn got it from Kerkorian, so I have no way of knowing if every word was precisely accurate. But I don’t believe Dale would have made it up out of thin air, and it sounded like the same Dirty Harry personality that only Kerkorian could pull off in a completely natural way — because he really was Dirty Harry!
Some years later, my family and I were having dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Matteo’s, and sitting directly across from us, no more than six feet away, was none other than Kirk Kerkorian. Even though I had a pretty high public profile, I felt like a star-struck teenage girl. After all, I was just another bestselling author, but Kerkorian was the most powerful man in Las Vegas.
Throughout my meal, I thought about going over to his table and introducing myself, but I have an aversion to doing tacky things, so I refrained. But I did notice him glancing at me a number of times — or so I thought.
Years later, a friend of mine who knew Kerkorian said he had recently spoken with him, and happened to mention my name in passing. He said Kerkorian knew who I was and asked what I was currently working on. It took me by complete surprise.
The takeaway is that life is short, so it’s always a good idea to make an effort to meet people whom you admire. It’s one of those pearls you can add to the treasure trove of memories you create — memories that are such an important part of a life well lived.
In an effort to console myself, however, maybe it’s a good thing that I didn’t get to know Kirk Kerkorian, because I might not have been able to resist the temptation to talk to him about getting involved with me in some hair-brained deal — perhaps buying a great piece of land twenty-five miles outside of Las Vegas and building the world’s biggest hotel — for the fourth time.
So maybe everything works out for the best. I’m not sure I could have handled the Dirty Harry response that almost certainly would have come back at me — something similar to Keenan Wynn’s harsh admonishment to Frank Sinatra (Tony Manetta) when, in the classic film A Hole in the Head, Sinatra tried to hustle him into a deal: “Never try to promote a promoter.”
R.I.P., Kirk. Sorry I missed out on knowing you, but you’ll always be a role model to me — and one of the coolest billionaires ever to pass this way. Famous people generally don’t impress me — but famous people with character and class do.