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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Inside Gaming: In memory of Kirk Kerkorian, Las Vegas' most reclusive billionaire

17 June 2015

Kirk Kerkorian was never comfortable in the spotlight.

Despite his status as one of America’s most successful billionaires, having owned a Hollywood movie studio and some of the Strip’s glitziest resorts, Kerkorian was reserved, unpretentious and media-shy.

That seems almost foreign today. Twitter, Instagram, Periscope and all other social media vehicles can transform the average nobody into a pseudo-celebrity.

Kerkorian, who died Monday at age 98, rarely granted media interviews. He gave away hundreds of millions of dollars through his philanthropic foundation, but never wanted his name attached to the gifts.

“He was a very private guy who shunned the limelight, both in a business way and from a charitable standpoint,” Patty Glaser, his attorney of four decades told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

In 1990, Kerkorian’s upstart MGM Grand Corp. announced plans to build the $700 million MGM Grand Las Vegas. Kerkorian attended a news conference at the former Marina Hotel, which he was folding into the lavish new resort. His management team did the talking.

Following the briefing, Kerkorian was surrounded by media. He looked frightened, attempting to exit through a locked door rather than answer inane questions such as, “Are you really going to build the largest hotel-casino in the world?”

UPI Las Vegas bureau chief Myram Borders, the dean of the gaming press, having covered the Strip since the 1960s, turned to me and said, “He’ll never do one of these press events again.”

Borders was right.

Over the years, Kerkorian remained out of the limelight.

He orchestrated business deals — buying Mirage Resorts and Mandalay Resort Group — and let CEOs Terry Lanni and Jim Murren handle the public side.

Las Vegas News Bureau photos from the 1960s show a smiling Kerkorian, blueprints in hand, at casino construction sites. In those days, he negotiated the terms and Fred Benninger and Burton Cohen oversaw the operations.

“He was a very private man,” U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “He rarely gave interviews. Even though he is one of the richest men in Los Angeles, he was probably the most private. He simply did not do things in public.”

Kerkorian was profiled by the Los Angeles Times in 2005. He sat for a lengthy discussion with the late K.J. Evans in 1999 for the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s “The First 100,” which chronicled 100 people who had major impacts on Las Vegas over the city’s first century.

His last interview in April 2011 was with Bloomberg News reporters Beth Jinks and Brett Pulley.

“He was most animated when the half-hour conversation touched on boxing, flying and his Lincy Foundation charity,” Jinks said Tuesday.

In February 2005, Kerkorian attended a Nevada State Gaming Control Board hearing for then-MGM Mirage’s $7.9 million buyout of Mandalay. On a break, I approached him and he was gracious and answered a few questions.

He said concerns about Las Vegas being overbuilt had been aired since the 1960s, but the city always prospered.

“I always felt, going way back, that the future of Vegas was unlimited,” Kerkorian told me. “In the last four years, Nevada has grown rapidly and there has been more interest worldwide. I have to believe the same thing will happen again.”

Bloomberg’s 2011 interview broke the news that Kerkorian was stepping away from the board of MGM Resorts International and taking on a new title: director emeritus.

But he always loomed large in the background.

Unassuming was the way Kerkorian wanted his life.

Once I spotted him at the MGM Grand walking alone into the old Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant for dinner. Dressed casually in a white sport coat, he wasn’t flanked by security or aides. Customers had no idea he was the resort’s owner.

In Hollywood, it was well-known that Kerkorian would drive himself to events in a Mercury station wagon, shunning a stretch limousine.

Reid recalled meeting Kerkorian for lunch in Los Angeles three years ago with the billionaire arriving at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel “in a little Jeep” with the top partially down.

“He pulls out of his pocket his watch,” Reid said. “I said Kirk, what is that? He says my watch. It was a Timex with no band on it. He said it keeps perfect time.”

The gaming industry weighed in Tuesday on Kerkorian’s legacy. He was a 1991 inductee into the Gaming Hall of Fame.

American Gaming Association CEO Geoff Freeman said Kerkorian was “a pioneer who set a higher standard for gaming and elevated Las Vegas’ stature with each move he made.”

Ironically, on Tuesday, billionaire sideshow act Donald Trump — the antithesis of Kerkorian — announced he was running for president an hour after news of Kerkorian’s passing hit the financial wires.

Somewhere, Kerkorian was either horrified or laughing. I want to believe it was the latter.
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