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August 19, 2018

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A biography of ‘a real billionaire’: William Rempel delivers a look into the life of Kirk Kerkorian

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Las Vegas News Bureau

William S. Weinberger, president of Caesars, Jay Sarno and Kirk Kerkorian on Aug. 17, 1968, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In 1962, Kerkorian bought about 80 acres in Las Vegas that became the site of Caesars Palace in 1966. For his land purchase of $960,000, Kerkorian collected $2 million in annual rent until he sold the property to the hotel’s owners for $5 million in 1968. It was one of the best deals he had ever done, he said in 2011.

Kirk Kerkorian never defaulted on a loan, was allergic to taking credit for his accomplishments, hated being the center of attention and didn’t want his name on anything — not even his company parking space.

So imagine William Rempel’s surprise when, while writing a new biography on Kerkorian, he discovered that the Las Vegas business icon’s admirers included Donald Trump, who Rempel describes as Kerkorian’s “polar opposite in style and temperament.”

“What he admired about Kirk was that Kirk was a real billionaire, for one,” Rempel said, alluding to the fact that Kerkorian built his fortune from the ground up. “Kirk was a man who was popular even with the people who were his competitors. He was so gracious. After a tough negotiation, Kirk ended up a social friend with the people he was competing with. And you trusted him, because he always delivered on his promises. When Kirk shook your hand, you had a deal.”

Another irony surrounding Kerkorian and Trump: Kerkorian was the son of poor, itinerant Armenian immigrants, similar to those who have borne the brunt of Trump’s xenophobic, hateful rhetoric today.

“Kirk was a child in the 1920s, which was also a big anti-immigrant time in the U.S.,” Rempel said. “So here’s his family, they talk funny, they don’t speak English at home, the father and mother are illiterate, they don’t have any skills. But from that start came this really brilliant man who changed the course of business, and by the way became the business idol of Donald Trump.”

In “The Gambler: How Penniless Dropout Kirk Kerkorian Became the Greatest Deal Maker in Capitalist History,” (HarperCollins, $28.99) Rempel tells Kerkorian’s quintessentially American success story in rich detail. Rempel, a former investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, recently spoke with Las Vegas Weekly about the project.

How much did you know about Kerkorian when you began your research?

To me, Kirk was just a name in the L.A. Times business pages. I didn’t know him at all, and I didn’t pay much attention to him during his career. I had a brief stay in the business section, but never in any way that crossed paths with him.

But what happened is that when he died, an editor at HarperCollins read his obituary in The New York Times (Kerkorian died at 98 in 2015) and was just struck by what an amazing life story he had for someone she’d never heard of.

Kirk Kerkorian

Billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian is pictured in Las Vegas in this Feb. 24, 2005, file photo. Launch slideshow »

So she called me and asked if I knew him and I was interested in doing a biography of him. So that’s how it started ...

What was it about him or his story that hooked you?

Just about everything. But I was struck immediately by some similarities between his history and mine. I had the impression that we may have had the same father in that they were immigrant sons, farm boys up in the San Joaquin Valley, and had a life that I experienced, which was a lot of moves. I’d been the new kid in school a lot because my dad was an entrepreneurial type who had his ups and downs. So in good times we moved in the daylight, and at other times we moved under cover of darkness.

So Kirk’s experience of being evicted — his family’s experience of just constantly moving — struck me as pretty amusing, because that was kind of my childhood. He went on to to be a billionaire and I went on to be a journalist. I made newspaper income and he owned MGM. (Laughs.)

As you and others have noted, Kerkorian was intensely private and shunned media interviews. Was it difficult for you to find material on him?

That was the challenge from the beginning. Not only did he not give interviews, especially later in his career, but he outlived everybody. By the time I was doing research, his siblings had passed on, as had all of his friends from school. He outlived many of the top executives in his company, and also his closest friends.

So without mental telepathy or something I was going to have to find ways to track him. So there were some really wonderful things we discovered in poking around.

I spent a lot of time in the UNLV library’s special collections section. They have an oral history that Kirk recorded, so I actually got to sit there and listen to his baritone voice talking about his childhood and his business stories, his flying for the Royal Air Force and so forth, so that was huge.

And then there was a family video put together some years while Kirk was still living that had a lot of that background from his youth and early days that has never been released to the public. It was enormously valuable. So we found things in places that we couldn’t have anticipated.

You found a number of people who wanted his story to be told. Would they have done that if he were still alive?

No. The thing is, his estate didn’t cooperate at all. His lawyer, Patty Glaser, made it clear from the get-go that she wasn’t going to cooperate, nor was the estate. She has spent her career keeping him out of the public eye and helping to protect his privacy, and she was so good at it she was going to do it into the grave. But I understand that, and I’m sympathetic. This wasn’t an expose, I was just trying to tell the story of Kirk. So I had to go deeper and find people who were more obscure. But what we found were people who knew him so well from various ways — his business life, his personal life, his professional life. And they all had the same stories to tell in the sense that they found him to be a man of incredible integrity, honesty, of punctuality. And he inspired their loyalty.

Everybody who worked for him seemed to be incredibly loyal. They were loyal to protect his privacy and they were loyal in how they shared his story. And that loyalty was won because as someone told me, Kirk always took the risks and he never took the credit. So that really builds the loyalty of those around you.

How did you get so much rich detail into the book? You open with a story about Kerkorian ferrying a fighter-bomber during World War II from Canada to Scotland, in which he nearly has to bail out. For the reader, it feels like you’re inside the plane.

A big part of that was from Kirk’s voice himself. He cooperated with a PBS documentary about the RAF ferry command that was produced by William Vanderkloot, whose father was also a fellow pilot with Kirk, ferrying airplanes from Canada to the RAF in Scotland. And so Kirk not only is one of the veterans who is interviewed on camera, but Vanderkloot gave me transcripts to the interviews they did so that I had all of the outtakes as well as what was recorded.

Did you uncover myths or untruths?

There was a perception in some circles that Kirk was a corporate raider of the most ruthless kind. And I found that to be completely off-base.

He was an investor and played the role to some degree a corporate raider, but he was far from ruthless. In his dealings with Ted Turner, for instance, he could have put Ted Turner out of business. CNN could be KNN for Kerkorian News Network had he been ruthless. Steve Wynn would not be back in Las Vegas in the form that he is now when Kirk made his bid for Mirage. Kirk could have been ruthless, but he wasn’t. He didn’t insist on a no-competition clause at all. None, zip. And that was over the objection of his legal team. So these are not the steps of a ruthless corporate raider.

And when he was bidding to take over management of Chrysler, The New York Times in so many words called him a ruthless corporate raider, which stung him personally. But that was a misperception, no question about it.

Did Kirk Kerkorian ever explain why he didn’t seek a non-competition clause with Wynn?

The folks who told me about it told me he liked competition. He thought competition made everybody better. He had come into Vegas in a big way at the same time Howard Hughes did. Well, Kirk liked have Howard Hughes there, even though Howard Hughes was secretly at the time trying to run Kirk out of town. But to Kirk, the best thing to do would be for the two of them to have casinos across the street from each other. That was good for business. That was his natural instinct, and he thrived on competition in everything from tennis to business.

And liked Steve Wynn -- a lot. He called him Stevie, for goodness sakes. So he didn’t want to kill him off. He wanted his properties and his company. He admired the company so much that he wanted to own it. He did not want to own Steve Wynn or put him out of business.

Now, Steve Wynn didn’t want to give that (Mirage) up, but Kirk was willing and his lawyers and negotiators were appalled that Kirk didn’t play a little harder on that front. And look what happened: Steve came roaring back and is still a competitor. But Vegas is big enough for both of them, as it turned out.

What will longtime Las Vegas residents and people who knew him find most interesting about your book?

Well, of the insiders who helped me, they’ve all said they read stories they didn’t know. Everybody who knew Kirk knew a part of him — they knew a piece of his life. And he wasn’t a big storyteller, so he wasn’t sharing that much. The man did not like to talk about himself; that’s a fact. And it’s too bad, because I could have used tons more material. As a reporter, I think of all the things I couldn’t find — things I wish I knew a little more about. But the fact is that in style and substance, we found out so many things because so many people wanted to share it.

Some of the littlest details are some of the most fascinating. Kirk’s longtime assistant who was his fitness guru who also was an attendant on his private plane and a steward on his private yacht, he’s a longtime Las Vegas fellow, he was a huge help. And Kirk always encouraged him to write his own book. He was delighted to be part of the book, and he shared so many wonderful personal stories about Kirk that bring him to life. And that was my biggest goal.

Did you come across any surprises, like Kerkorian betraying his principles or acting in an uncharacteristic way?

He did have a spate of frustrations. I think one of the biggest disappointments in his life would have been his dealings late in life with one of the women in his life, who betrayed him in the sense that she claimed her child was his and faked a DNA test to make it appear that way. Then he got dragged into court, where the one thing he valued the most, which was his privacy, was completely shredded in open court.

He was simultaneously negotiating the takeover of Mirage, which was a major triumph, at the same time he was being dragged into court and pummeled in that context in a way that would always be a burden to him. It wasn’t a burden financially. Money wasn’t the issue, but the privacy was.

What do you think was the secret of his success?

Integrity and reliability, and the promises that are kept. That and the fact that he really and genuinely relished risk. This is a man who could bet $1 million on a roll of the dice, but his thing about business was that if you’re going to take a risk take a big one. And that’s what he did. Every one of his deals was a huge deal. And that’s the gambler in him.

He was comfortable with risk, and I think that goes back to the youthful uncertainty that he and I shared — you know, being constantly the new kid in town, the new kid in school, the leaving and uprooting yourself constantly. He’d had essentially a series of family failures, but the thing about failure is that if doesn’t kill you it makes you not afraid of it.

So Kirk’s failures as a kid helped to make him comfortable with risk, and he exploited that risk to the point that he was able to head out on that gangplank and take risks that made him the ultimate gambler.