Kirk Kerkorian probably has done more while receiving less attention than anyone else in Las Vegas history, partly because he likes it that way. Three times, he has built the world's largest hotel-casino in Las Vegas. His International Hotel and two MGM Grand hotels significantly affected the growth of the Strip. In addition, Kerkorian has been a crucial figure in Las Vegas's evolution into a mecca not only for tourists, but also for corporate ownership of casinos. Yet he has accomplished this without personally fitting the corporate model. He had little formal education and had been in private business and a high roller in Las Vegas casinos before he moved to the ownership side of the table.
Kerkorian was born in 1917 in Fresno, California, the son of a prosperous farmer who lost his land during the Great Depression. Kerkorian and his family moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for his father hauling produce in a truck. His education ended in reform school. Without a high school degree, he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps in Northern California. He graduated to amateur boxing, and received the nickname "Rifle Right Kerkorian" while earning a 29-4 record.
But in 1939, Kerkorian's life changed after he reluctantly agreed to be a passenger in a small plane piloted by a close friend, Ted O'Flaherty. Watching the scenery in Los Angeles below him hooked Kerkorian on flying. He immediately trained to be a pilot, and would become an expert one. By 1941, he was training commercial pilots. During World War II, Kerkorian joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and flew small bombers across the Atlantic Ocean for delivery in Scotland. He was paid a generous $1,000 per trip, but the route was extremely dangerous with aircraft subjected to ice and unpredictable airflows. While one in four pilots crashed, Kerkorian—after two near-crashes—delivered the planes for two and one-half years.
Kerkorian came to Las Vegas at the war's end and began a successful foray in commercial aviation, which he combined with some successful high-stakes gambling. In 1945, he invested $5,000 in a Cessna single-engine plane that he used to train pilots and fly private charter flights for passengers to and from Las Vegas. Two years later, Kerkorian bought the Los Angeles Air Service, consisting of only three planes, and sold a new series of charter flights. He changed the company name in 1959 to Trans International Airlines and entered the passenger airline business. In 1962, he added a DC-8 jet and became the first to provide non-scheduled passenger jet service. In 1968, he sold the air service to Transamerica Corporation for stock worth $104 million.
Along the way, Kerkorian also made investments and bought land in Las Vegas as hotel-casinos were developing there in the 1950s and 1960s. His first investment was modest—$50,000 for a share of the Dunes Hotel in 1955. He lost his investment and resolved never again to invest in someone else's casino operation. In 1962, he bought eighty acres along the south Strip for $960,000, a deal that business magazine Forbes called "one of the most successful land speculations in Las Vegas history."
Starting in the mid-1960s, Kerkorian rented his Strip land for $4 million to Jay Sarno for the Caesars Palace, which opened in 1966. Meanwhile, in 1967, he bought the Flamingo Hotel and paid $5 million to acquire sixty-five acres on Paradise Road, about a half-mile east of the Strip. He got half of his 1967 investments back in 1968 when he sold his Strip land to Sarno for $5 million.
The stage was set for Kerkorian to enter the hotel-resort business himself. With his publicly traded company, International Leisure, he started building the International Hotel on Paradise Road. With its opening in 1969, the International was hailed as the first Las Vegas megaresort.