This self-made billionaire began life in 1917 about as far removed as possible from his future place on the Forbes 400 List of richest Americans. He was a 4-year-old when he and his Armenian immigrant parents were evicted from the family’s debt-laden farm near a place called Weed Patch in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
Running out on landlords would become a familiar pattern during lean years that stretched deep into the Great Depression.
He was often the new kid in school, fending off bullies bare fisted and learning English on the streets of Los Angeles. Kirk’s formal education ended with the eighth grade in a school for problem kids.
He helped support his struggling family as a teen by clearing brush in the Sierras with the Civilian Conservation Corps and then as an amateur boxer known as “Rifle Right Kerkorian.” He intended to go pro… but discovered his love for flying. He was a daring aviator during World War II and earned his first fortune after the war operating a small charter air service and flying junkets to Las Vegas. He was in his mid-40s before he broke into the ranks of American millionaires.
He built the world’s biggest hotels three different times, made Elvis Presley a Vegas icon and roiled Wall Street in headline-making business deals with Ted Turner, Lee Iacocca, Steve Wynn and Michael Milken. One of his best friends was actor and business associate Cary Grant.
His is the unlikely tale of a scrappy kid who gambled with pennies and bottle caps as a newsboy and ended up owning the world’s richest casinos… who sneaked into movie theaters with his pals and ended up a movie mogul… who studied car repair in junior high shop class and later tried to buy the “Big Three” U.S. automakers…who grew up hearing tales of suffering and oppression from fellow Armenians only to be proclaimed a national hero and honorary citizen of his ancestral home for helping to restore roads, housing and hope to an earthquake-ravaged Armenia.
At the height of his wealth the intensely private Kerkorian had an estimated net worth of about $20 billion. He gave away hundreds of millions without fanfare or personal credit. He rejected requests to name buildings, boulevards and public squares in his honor. When he died in 2015 at the age of 98, he left an estate of about $2 billion, all but a few million of that he also earmarked for charity.