- - Tuesday, February 13, 2018



By William C. Rempel

Dey St., $28.99, 414 pages

In an era of conspicuous consumption and loud-mouthed overstatement, it’s nice to read about a financial titan who was modest, soft-spoken and whose word was his bond. Such a man was Kirk Kerkorian, the son of an ambitious but illiterate Armenian immigrant who managed to make and then lose a small fortune in California agricultural ventures. By the time his son Kerkor (who early on anglicized his first name to “Kirk“) became an eighth grade dropout, he knew that he would have to make it entirely on his own.

Make it he did, from humble beginnings as a self-taught mechanic and determined amateur boxer to adventures as a wartime flyer and minor airline operator, and then as a groundbreaking deal maker who would shape modern Las Vegas while “dabbling” in the automotive and entertainment industries to the tune of billions of dollars.

Yet, less than three years after his death at 98, he is largely forgotten. While the intensely private Kerkorian probably wouldn’t mind this, it has deprived the world of an incredible success saga, a true Horatio Alger story with an Armenian twist.

Up until now. With publication of veteran Los Angeles Times reporter William C. Rempel’s “The Gambler,” the adventurous business career of a man who deliberately cultivated personal obscurity is now accessible to all. Mr. Rempel has assembled an impressive dossier on a most illusive subject. If he hasn’t been able to fill in all of the blanks in Kirk Kerkorian’s private life — a virtually impossible task — he has given us a fast-moving, dramatic narrative of his larger-than-life business career.

The supporting cast behind this taciturn leading man includes Howard Hughes (whom Mr. Kerkorian actually outperformed as a Vegas hotel and casino developer), Cary Grant (a long-time friend whose own hard-scrabble origins gave the two men something in common), Elvis Presley (whose career comeback in Las Vegas was Mr. Kerkorian’s idea), Ted Turner (who acquired much of his trove of resurrected movie classics from Mr. Kerkorian’s MGM studios), Michael Milken, Frank Sinatra, Lee Iacocca, Barbra Streisand, and Donald Trump (who referred to Mr. Kerkorian as “The King”), just to name a few.

Success is too volatile a compound for easy analysis. But two qualities that Mr. Kerkorian possessed in large measure help explain his journey from penniless dropout to one of the richest people in the world. The man was a born gambler with cold self-control, and he had a gift for spotting hidden assets and opportunities before anyone else did.

His iron nerve helped him face down many a competitor and weather many a reverse; his ability to see what others missed meant recognizing the immense potential of leisure travel and tourism as America’s post-war prosperity created a vast new consumer pool for air travel, holiday resorts and casinos. “Life is a big crap game,” he once observed, and no one played it better than he did.

Unfortunately, the same ability to suppress emotion and keep a cold, poker face that helped him as a tycoon seems to have had a chilling effect on his personal life. It was plagued by marital failures and the strains inevitably felt by people who try to share their lives with demanding perfectionists. Neatness, honesty, loyalty (sometimes spilling over into blind obedience) and, above all, punctuality were qualities Mr. Kerkorian demanded in those around him.

Requiring total self-discipline and integrity of himself, he was unable to forgive their absence in others. By the time he died at the over-ripe old age of 98, failing eyesight, physical frailty and what may have been intermittent bouts of senility or failing memory meant that his last days were darkened by bursts of rage and distrust.

For most of his life it was as if an invisible wall stood between himself and anyone who tried to get too close. Yet his response to those in need had always been warm and giving. And as he grew older, his generosity only increased.

After a catastrophic series of earthquakes devastated his ancestral Armenia in 1989, it was Mr. Kerkorian who organized and largely underwrote a billion-dollar relief effort including an airlift that was “the largest to any single country since the historic U.S. government-backed Berlin Airlift of 1948-49.” In return, Mr. Kerkorian stipulated that “his name would never appear on a monument.” The cold, calculating loner had given gladly and unconditionally, rescuing hundreds of thousands of men, women and children he had never even met.

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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