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By Will Dunham
June 16 (Reuters) - Kirk Kerkorian, the son of poor Armenian immigrants who used his gambler’s instincts to become a multibillionaire Las Vegas casino tycoon, Hollywood mogul, airline owner and auto industry investor, died at age 98.
Kerkorian, who founded MGM Resorts International and was its largest shareholder, died in Los Angeles on Monday night, the company said in a statement on Tuesday.
He passed away after a brief illness, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.
Kerkorian had little formal education and dropped out of school at age 16. In his youth he was known as “Rifle Right Kerkorian” for his punching power as a small-time boxer. He would become an enduring American business heavyweight with a knack for placing winning bets in the corporate world.
Last month, Forbes magazine estimated Kerkorian’s wealth at $4.2 billion after he took a hit on his investments in 2008, when the magazine said he was worth $16 billion.
Three different times - in 1969, 1973 and 1993 - Kerkorian built the world’s biggest hotel in Las Vegas, the desert gambling capital where he first made his fortune in the 1950s and 1960s.
On his way to becoming a casino magnate, he befriended “Rat Pack” stars Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and other Las Vegas headliners.
Kerkorian owned some of the biggest and best-known Las Vegas hotels and casinos, at one time owning more than half the hotel rooms on the famous Las Vegas Strip. He also was instrumental in turning Las Vegas into a family destination rather than merely a naughty pleasure spot for adults.
Kerkorian bought and sold the venerable MGM film studio three times, acquired the United Artists studio and tried to buy Columbia Pictures.
Yet, even as a studio chief, he would stand in line to buy movie tickets at a theater with everyone else rather than attend private screenings.
Kerkorian mounted high-stakes pursuits of U.S. automakers but never acquired one. He twice tried to buy Chrysler, triggering a massive legal tussle, and made big investments in General Motors and Ford.
He was a skilled aviator who flew dangerous missions delivering warplanes from Canada to Britain during World War Two and later opened a charter flight business serving gamblers wanting to get from Los Angeles to Las Vegas more quickly than a 10-hour drive.
He began buying property in Las Vegas in 1962 after selling his charter airline, which he later repurchased, and was on his way to becoming a Las Vegas power player.
“When you’re a self-made man you start very early in life,” Kerkorian once told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “... You get a drive that’s a little different, maybe a little stronger, than somebody who inherited.”
He later bought and sold airlines including Western Airlines, started the failed luxury airline MGM Grand Air and launched an unsuccessful bid for Trans World Airlines.
In the business world, he was known more for making a deal than for nurturing a company over the long haul, often taking a major risk, reaping the benefits and getting out. For example, MGM under Kerkorian often languished artistically and even sold off such items as its studio lot and movie props including Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz.”
“He’s a born gambler with a sixth sense for sniffing out value,” former auto executive Lee Iacocca, who joined Kerkorian in the unsuccessful Chrysler takeover bid in 1995, told the Los Angeles Times in 2005. “Doing deals is what keeps him alive.”
Kerkorian agreed. “I’m a gambler at heart,” he told the Times. “That’s my life.”
The only other person with a resume like his - an aviator and owner of an airline, film studio and Las Vegas casinos - was fabled billionaire recluse Howard Hughes, who died in 1976.
Kerkorian enjoyed the Las Vegas lifestyle, and his second wife was a Las Vegas showgirl. They had two daughters, Tracy and Linda, whose names he combined to create the name of his holding company, Tracinda, and his charity, the Lincy Foundation.
Kerkorian remained vigorous into old age. He was an avid tennis player despite not starting until age 50, and liked to play lengthy doubles matches with friends in Beverly Hills.
Kerkorian’s third wife was former women’s professional tennis player Lisa Bonder, who was 49 years younger than him. They were married for just 28 days in 1998 and went through a nasty 2002 child support fight.
Court papers showed Bonder falsified a DNA sample in order to claim Kerkorian was the biological father of her daughter. DNA tests later revealed Hollywood producer Steve Bing as the father. A security guard working for Kerkorian nabbed dental floss from Bing’s trash to obtain the crucial DNA sample.
Kerkorian testified in 2008 in the trial of his lawyer, Terry Christensen, who was convicted of conspiring to wiretap Bonder during the dispute. Bonder had sought $320,000 in monthly child support for her then-3-year-old daughter, including $144,000 for travel, $14,000 for parties and play dates, and $436 for care of the girl’s bunny and other pets.
In 2014 the Las Vegas Sun reported that at age 96 Kerkorian had married Una Davis, who was many years younger.
Kerkorian’s charitable work has included hundreds of millions of dollars in support of Armenia. He started providing medical and other supplies following a damaging 1988 earthquake in Armenia and helped build homes and repair infrastructure.
Kerkorian avoided public events, usually shunned publicity and rarely spoke to the media but was not a recluse.
He was born as Kerkor Kerkorian in Fresno, California, on June 6, 1917, the youngest of four children of Armenian immigrant parents. His family lost its farmland amid financial difficulties in the 1920s and he had to work to help out.
Kerkorian was sent to reform school and dropped out at age 16. A friend with whom he worked installing furnaces changed his life by taking him on a flight in a single-engine plane. Kerkorian then paid for flying lessons with famous woman pilot Pancho Barnes by milking cows and shoveling manure at her ranch. His love of flight launched his business career.
Additional reporting by Ben Klayman and Bernard Woodall; Editing by Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis