He’s regarded as one of the best dealmakers in history, but Kirk Kerkorian was dealt a rotten hand after he was ‘pushed and shoved to the altar’ by a woman who duped him out of millions, a new book claims.
The Armenian-American businessman, who was once estimated to be worth $16 billion before his death in 2015, lived the classic rags to riches tale after scoring a fortune gambling and becoming the man behind Las Vegas’s ‘mega-resorts.’
‘Life is a big craps game,’ he told the Los Angeles Times. ‘It’s all been fun.’
Details of his life as a Vegas gambler, his romances – including a love affair with best friend Cary Grant’s widow and a ‘gold-digging’ wife are revealed in The Gambler: How Penniless Dropout Kirk Kerkorian Became the Greatest Deal Maker in Capitalist History, by author and investigative journalist William C. Rempel, released January 30.
Kerkorian grew up one of four children in an Armenian immigrant family living in Fresno, California.
His father, Ahron, had followed his own father through Ellis Island and headed for California where he launched a fruit distribution business and became the raisin baron of the San Joaquin valley before losing his fortune in the 1921 recession.
A raw deal: Kerkorian’s relationship with pro tennis player Lisa Bonder was one deal that did not pay off after she she extracted staggering sums in the millions from falsely claiming he was the father of her baby
In the two years between their breakup in 1995 and her pregnancy announcement in the fall of 1997, Kerkorian had given her nearly $5.5 million in gifts and loans and the $1 million in cash for her to move to New York
Kerkorian dropped out of school after the eighth grade, learned English on the streets of LA, and made pennies delivering newspapers to help his family before taking up flying.
He became a highly skilled pilot and flew new warplanes across the North Atlantic delivering some 33 planes for the Royal Air Force to four continents in dangerous conditions.
He had learned about dreaming big from his father, his hero, and was a risk-taker who went on to build the largest hotel in Vegas three times.
And it was his early charter flights to Sin City that led him to fall in love with gambling. He’d bet heavily on craps and the dollar slots, staying at the tables and chasing his bets, riding winning streaks into the ground.
Kerkorian made a fortune and bet his money on film studios – buying MGM Studios in 1969 – commercial airlines, automotive deals, and Vegas real estate, pursuing strategies that baffled business rivals and Wall Street analysts.
The Gambler: How Penniless Dropout Kirk Kerkorian Became the Greatest Deal Maker in Capitalist History, by William C. Rempel, was released on Tuesday
But when it came to his relationship with tennis pro Lisa Bonder, that deal went sour after she extracted staggering sums in the millions from falsely claiming he was the father of her baby.
‘Kirk Kerkorian, the legendary deal maker – perhaps the greatest in capitalist history – was being pushed and shoved to an altar against his wishes,’ Rempel writes.
‘The billionaire was being nickel-and-dimed for nearly $10 million by a girlfriend he’d been trying to dump for four years.’
Kerkorian was already twice-divorced and in his 70s when he met five-foot-ten blonde tennis star in 1991.
Bonder, who was ranked in the top ten of women’s pro tennis and had defeated champ Chris Evert when she was a teenager, was 25 at the time and still married to furniture heir Thomas Kreiss.
Kerkorian’s friends took a liking to the athlete and were impressed with her moves on the court, but he was more fond of her humor, Rempel writes.
‘She makes me laugh’, he told his sister after meeting the tennis star when a friend brought her along to one of his weekend tennis marathons.
Kerkorian lavished her with gifts and trips early on and even offered to financially provide for her and her two-year-old son so she could get a hasty divorce. However, he had no intention of tying the knot since he ‘was very happily unmarried’ at that point in his life.
But Bonder’s true intentions were quickly exposed; she had a gained the reputation for having a ‘big mouth’ and she never gave up talking to Kerkorian’s friends about using the billionaire to become the richest woman in the world, Rempel claims.
She confessed to Darrien Iacocca, wife of businessman Lee Iacocca, that ‘her dream was to be the ‘last Mrs. Kerkorian’ so that one day ‘it would be all hers.’
Kirk Kerkorian poses with models during the ground breaking for his International Hotel February 1, 1968, in Las Vegas
Kerkorian standing in front of the International Hotel during construction. The International later became the Las Vegas Hilton
Cary Grant introduced headliner Barbra Streisand at opening night of Kirk’s $60 million International Hotel, the world’s biggest hotel and casino in Vegas in summer of 1969
Streisand opened with the song, ‘I Got Plenty of Nothing’, and was paid a reported weekly fee of more than $100,000 for a four-week run that set records
At the time, Kerkorian’s fortune was growing by tens of millions of dollars a month with Chrysler stock values climbing.
Bonder told her lover she was ready to move across the country but needed some cash to ‘start-over’ in New York City.
To encourage that, Kerkorian gave her $1 million in bank-wrapped stacks of $100 bills at the same time he was writing a check for $870 million to buy back MGM studios.
Kirk hated paper trails and never carried credit cards. Instead, he used petty cash for all his daily personal expenses and kept rolls of $100 bills in his pants pocket which added up to $5,000 to $10,000.
Bonder never did move east, but she continued to pester Kerkorian with her desire to be married, the author says.
After giving her a five-carat diamond ring for her 30th birthday in 1995, he told her to move on two months later.
But Bonder was desperate to make a husband out of one of the country’s richest men. She fretted on the phone with friends and obsessed over how she could win Kerkorian back and even told friends there wasn’t much to live for without him.
By that summer, Elvis arrived and ‘blew the lid off every expectation’ and ‘was selling out every show twice a night seven nights a week. Pictured left is the King of Rock and Roll and Sammy Davis Jr on opening night at the Showroom International Hotel
Elvis Presley and singer Sammy Davis, Jr. backstage in Elvis’ dressing room, opening night at the Showroom International Hotel in 1970
After another final rejection, she started dating playboy Steve Bing, heir to a Southern California real estate fortune. That fling involved a quick lovemaking session at the Hotel Bel-Air.
‘It was around that time that Lisa decided to try a deal-making ploy on one of the greatest deal makers in American business history,’ Rempel writes.
This time, she said she’d move on, but needed a stake. The athlete wanted a house that was for sale on Angelo Drive in Beverly Hills but it needed renovation.
‘If Kirk would give her $4 million, she would use $1.6 million to buy and renovate the place. The rest would be moving on with my life money,’ the book states.
Kerkorian gave her the full $4 million but with a caveat. She was forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement – no talking about his business interests or personal affairs. And then they had one last fling together.
He would finally move on to be with Una Davis, a divorcee, financially independent, and a tennis player. The relationship was soon foiled when Bonder announced she was pregnant and claimed he was the father.
The octogenarian knew his sperm count was too low and had doubts the child was his. Nevertheless, he began sending monthly child support checks to the tune of $20,000.
In those two years between their breakup in 1995 and her pregnancy announcement in the fall of 1997, Kerkorian had given her nearly $5.5 million in gifts and loans and the $1 million in cash for New York.
Kirk Kerkorian is seen with his wife Jean Maree Hardy during the grand opening of Caesars Palace in 1966. They divorced in 1984
Bonder finally convinced Kerkorian to marry her to legitimize their daughter Kira. He agreed to a 30-day contract marriage with a prearranged divorce and increase of child support to $50,000 per month, plus another $1.2 million for additional remodeling costs.
He kept the gifts and cash flowing along with a $250,000 sapphire ring for her 34th birthday. The gravy train finally ‘careened off its rails’ when Lisa asked for a $25 million trust fund.
Kerkorian was finally determined to find out the paternity of this baby – and Bonder threatened to kill herself if he proved he wasn’t the father.
Rumor leaked out that Bing was the biological father of the child and Kirk’s chief of security raided Bing’s garbage in Beverly Hills one night for a DNA sample.
The results confirmed Kerkorian’s early suspicions and proved Bing was the biological father. Bingo – ‘Bing’s Costly Canoodle’ – screamed a London tabloid. The marriage ended in 1999.
He had no children with his first wife of ten years, Hilda Schmidt, ‘a dark-haired beauty with a cinematic smile from Nebraska’ that caught his eye at a Hollywood nightspot and dance club, the Palladium.
At the time he was spending more time flying the North Atlantic than at home with his wife and the marriage was over in 1952 after ten years.
Two years later, at age 37, he married Jean Maree Hardy, a 23-year-old dancer from England, ‘a blonde with Grace Kelly good looks’ and a ‘very British accent.’
‘He was intense but shy; she was an outgoing, confident performer with a touch of blunt-spoken candor.
Kerkorian met Hollywood star Cary Grant in Vegas in the early 60s and the pair soon became best of friends. Above they are pictured with bandleader Ray Anthony
During his time in Vegas, Kerkorian befriended Kennedy supporter Frank Sinatra (pictured in 1988) The billionaire made a campaign donation that scored him and Jean an invitation to Kennedy’s inauguration and parties
‘He was deeply tanned with black hair; she was pale and fair-haired. So of course they fell in love’, writes Rempel.
During his time in Vegas, Kerkorian befriended Kennedy supporter Frank Sinatra. The billionaire made a campaign donation that scored him and Jean an invitation to Kennedy’s inauguration and parties.
However, Kerkorian would later say he was ‘done with politics’ after that complaining that the new president spent too much time ‘keeping his eyes on Jean.’
The couple had two daughters, Tracy and Linda, but was in trouble after 17 years when Kirk was suspected of seeing other women.
He was deep in the Hollywood scene as the owner of MGM film studios and his world became a fishbowl.
Gossip items whispered that Kirk was involved with Andy Williams’ ex-wife, French singer Claudine Longet, who was later convicted of shooting her boyfriend, ski legend Spider Sabich in 1976.
He was also linked to film star Yvette Mimieux and English actress Jacqueline Bisset. He reportedly left Bisset stranded in Paris when she didn’t show up on time to board his private jet back to the U.S.
Kerkorian and Jean called it quits on their marriage in 1984, after 30 years.
But Kerkorian’s business as the godfather of Las Vegas was flourishing.
He met Hollywood actor Cary Grant in Vegas in the early 60s and soon the two became best of friends.
Kerkorian was linked to film star Yvette Mimieux (pictured) and English actress Jacqueline Bisset
Grant introduced headliner Barbra Streisand at opening night of Kirk’s $60 million International Hotel, the world’s biggest hotel and casino in Vegas in summer of 1969.
Streisand opened with the song, ‘I Got Plenty of Nothing’, and was paid a reported weekly fee of more than $100,000 for a four-week run that set records.
The singer also received stock in Kerkorian’s International Leisure Corp, that jumped from $5 a share to $100 after the opening – ‘a sum, by any form of accounting, that added up to plenty of somethin’ for Streisand who remained a good friend of Kirk’s through the years.’
The Howard Hughes Landmark Hotel opening across the street was slapdash and ‘in the public relations contest over who had the biggest whatever, Kerkorian dominated in press coverage, star power and cash flow.’
By that summer, Elvis arrived and ‘blew the lid off every expectation.’
‘He was selling out every show twice a night seven nights a week, including the big showroom’s balcony. He was pulling in gamblers and hotel reservations from around the world,’ writes Rempel.
‘We made a mistake,’ Kirk admitted. ‘Streisand didn’t do quite as well as we thought. And Elvis tore the hotel apart.’
Elvis was performing two shows a night every night for two weeks and being paid $100,000 a week as well as incentives.
Kirk’s president of the hotel, Alex Shoofey, who had free reign to ‘spend five dollars or five million,’ offered Presley’s manager, Colonel Parker a new deal.
‘Five more years. Twice a year. A month each year. Five hundred thousand per engagement. Five million dollars,’ plus unspecified advertising expenses and a $100,000 bonus to sign.
It was the deal that ‘would clinch Las Vegas as the Elvis performance capital of the world.’
Grant and Kerkorian remained close pals and along with his wife Barbara, the couple took extended summer trips together.
He was ‘a true friend’ and ‘a super smart’ businessman whose acumen he valued on the boards of two of his companies, MGM Film and MGM Grand Hotel, ‘Rempel writes.
When the 82-year old movie star died of a massive stroke in November 1986, ‘Kirk had lost a best friend.’
Kerkorian and Cary’s wife, Barbara and daughter Jennifer, scattered Cary’s ashes in Santa Monica Bay.
Kerkorian stayed close with Barbara after Cary’s death and gossip columnist Liz Smith reported that the couple might marry. They were rumored to have been shopping for a villa in the south of France and already were living in together in Beverly Hills.
Barbara Grant and Priscilla Presley were discreet about their romantic relationship with Kerkorian, a requirement that the mogul insisted on and had his partners sign nondisclosure agreement.
The Las Vegas magnate died on June 15, 2015 at the age of 98.
Kerkorian was one of the most generous men in America – not just to Lisa Bonder – but he gave enormous sums to other more worthy causes as well as to his parent’s home country of Armenia after the earthquake in 1988.
He funded the biggest airlift of emergency supplies since the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and insisted on no public recognition.
The one thing he wanted that his billions couldn’t buy was to be the best eighty-something tennis player in the country.
He won tournaments and ranked as high as third nationally in senior doubles in his mid-eighties group.
But macular degeneration had robbed him of his full vision and of achieving that goal despite painful eyeball injections.