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Armenians Grieve For Billionaire Favorite Son Kerkorian

U.S.-Armenian billionaire Kirk Kerkorian (left) meets then-Armenian President Robert Kocharian in Yerevan in 1998.
U.S.-Armenian billionaire Kirk Kerkorian (left) meets then-Armenian President Robert Kocharian in Yerevan in 1998.

Though Kirk Kerkorian made billions of dollars in Hollywood and Las Vegas, more people will mourn his death in faraway Armenia than in the United States.

Kerkorian, who died in Beverly Hills on June 15 at the age of 98, was the California-born son of Armenian immigrants who gave some $1 billion to charitable projects in Armenia, a country he is reported to have visited just a few times.

Since his death, the Armenian media has been full of praise for Kerkorian, who is remembered most fondly for the generous support he gave in rebuilding northern Armenia after the devastating 1988 earthquake that killed more than 25,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

He is also well-known for the millions he gave to repave streets and rebuild infrastructure that helped transform Yerevan in the early 2000s.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian called Kerkorian a "great philanthropist" and "national hero" whose death caused him "deep pain."

Sarkisian said Kerkorian's charitable Lincy Foundation "supported the people of Armenia at a difficult time, helping to overcome difficulties" and get it onto the "path of development." He added that Kerkorian's financial support had "seriously changed the picture of our country."

In 2004, then-President Robert Kocharian proclaimed him a National Hero of Armenia, the highest state honor.

The Hraparak newspaper wrote on June 16 that "the world is mourning the loss of a great Armenian, a successful businessman, and a unique citizen."

The daily Zhamanak called Kerkorian "modest" and said "his deeds and behavior should serve as a role model for Armenian society."

The newspaper added in an editorial that Kerkorian never "showcased his charity" or used it for his own "advertisement" even though he did much more than many "benefactors" who give to charities "just for show." "This is what makes Kirk Kerkorian so great; that is why he will occupy a considerable place in the history of the Armenian people."

Renovating Armenia's Cultural Heritage

Kerkorian's money also went toward renovations of theaters, art galleries, and other cultural buildings across the country.

Ruben Babayan, the director of Yerevan's Puppet Theater, one of dozens of cultural establishments that were restored due to Kerkorian's donations in the 2000s, remembers the Armenian-American as a very modest man.

Babayan told RFE/RL that he had an opportunity to meet Kerkorian during one of the billionaire's trips to Armenia and thanked him for contributing to the renovation of cultural sites in the country.

"I should be thankful to you for doing this work," Kerkorian told Babayan.

He said Kerkorian continued: "I'm doing the least difficult part [by providing the money], while it depends on you how effectively you spend this money -- whether you steal or waste the money or put it to a good use so that it can work and provide new good things."

"This was so amazing to me," Babayan told RFE/RL, "because we are so used to being totally and overly thankful to rich people for every small contribution."

A fiercely private man who rarely gave interviews, Kerkorian never sought publicity for his philanthropy and didn't want buildings or centers named after him.

Marquees on the Las Vegas Strip, including the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, show video tributes to billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian on June 16, 2015.
Marquees on the Las Vegas Strip, including the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, show video tributes to billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian on June 16, 2015.

"He was the type of person who would have a $10 meal and give the waiter a $100 tip," Jay Rakow, who used to run Kerkorian's Lincy Foundation, told the Los Angeles Times on June 16.

Although he quietly hobnobbed with friends like Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley, Kerkorian made headlines for his buying and selling of major movie studios MGM and United Artists, the construction of famous mega-resorts such as the MGM Grand and International Hotel in Las Vegas, and for his bold actions as a stakeholder in carmakers GM, Chrysler, and Ford.

Forbes magazine estimated his net worth at $18 billion in 2007, placing him among the world's 50-richest people.

Born into poverty, Kerkorian was the youngest child of immigrants who survived Ottoman Turkey's mass slaughter of ethnic Armenians during the World War I era.

He dropped out of school in eighth grade, fought as an amateur boxer, served in World War II, and became a daredevil pilot, then played poker professionally before he began his successful business career by purchasing a small charter-airline company in Los Angeles.

In a rare interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2005, Kerkorian said he had often been asked by people if he "envisioned" various business deals being successful and making him a fortune.

He said he told them: "I just lucked into things. I used to think that if I made $50,000 I'd be the happiest guy in the world."

Written by Pete Baumgartner with reporting by The New York Times and Los Angeles Times

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