“What is the name of your loved one?” asked Norma, the operator who answered the phone when I called the Inglewood Park Cemetery to ask about the gravesite of Kirk Kerkorian. I considered for a moment what an odd question this was.
Kerkorian, a beloved Armenian-American and one of the most instrumental figures who shaped Las Vegas, had never met me in the 98 years of his extraordinary life, did not know who I was and very likely never knew that I even existed. But I felt that I had grown to know him very well. It was not the time to overwhelm poor Norma with information she could not care less about. I jotted down the details—Pacific Slope; Lot 633; Grave E—and promised myself that I’d soon make the one-hour trek to Inglewood from my North Hollywood abode to pay respects to a stranger I’d come to know so much about throughout my life.
Over the holidays, I gifted myself the recently published biography “The Gambler,” a 414-page book that dives deep into the life of Kirk Kerkorian, an eighth-grade dropout who became a respected deal maker and at one point amassed a personal fortune estimated at $18 billion due to shrewd business decisions in the airline, automobile, movie and casino industries. There was a time when I would to comfort myself after losing money at in the Sin City playgrounds that he built. To ease the guilt, my family and I would joke, “It’s OK. We’re ‘donating.’ He’s done so much for Armenians around the world.”
Reading the book, however, masterfully written by Los Angeles Times journalist William Rempel, created a far more genuine connection. It intricately details Kerkorian’s fascinating life as one of the most influential capitalists in American history with anecdotes and stories from previously published materials and information straight from sources closest to Kerkorian—sources I had interviewed myself in the past. The biography was largely the reason why I was compelled to visit his grave. I devoured the book in a handful of days because so much of the material was extraordinary, yet also relatable (save for the fact that Kirk was a casino-building billionaire and I am a journalist—the pay gap between the two is nothing to scoff at). Some highlights include:
—His entire family history dating back to when Kerkorian’s grandfather Kasper immigrated to America in 1890 before the Armenian Genocide;
—How Kerkorian’s father Ahron built, lost and then rebuilt an agricultural empire around The Great Depression;
—Arriving in Los Angeles from Fresno as a farm boy who only spoke Armenian and learning English on the streets before dropping out of school altogether to provide for his family;
—Working for 40 cents an hour as a day laborer at MGM Studios in the 1930s, only to then buy and sell the company three times after he had amassed his fortunes;
—“Rifle Right” Kerkorian’s days as a boxer, as well as a pilot for the Royal Air Force when he faced near-death flying experiences during World War II;
—Flying out Bugsy Siegel last-minute for a quick meeting in Vegas, two days before Siegel was murdered;
—Successfully building his business empires with uncanny ability and cutthroat vision even though he was shy and hated the spotlight;
—Maintaining a simple life by driving cars like a Ford Taurus and Jeep Cherokee, drinking only Folgers coffee, carrying his own bags, never making public appearances or needing handlers or bodyguards, yet, still owning a personal 190-foot yacht and 737 jet;
—Buying a 30-acre compound in Beverly Hills just so he can hand pick his neighbors and choose who he’d sell the other houses to because he valued privacy above everything else;
—Donating hundreds of millions of dollars to charities, as well as Armenia, specifically after the 1988 earthquake by airlifting and financing goods using his own planes; his 1998 visit to Armenia, and solely financing the $100 million, 2016 Armenian Genocide film “The Promise”
—Contributing over one-billion dollars from his Lincy Foundation from 1989 to 2011, split equally between Armenian and non-Armenian charities. When Kerkorian died at age 98, he left his entire $2 billion behind to charity.
—Then there was the time Kerkorian won $1 million on craps with a single roll of the dice even though he wanted to lose… but you really have to read the book to give his inspirational life story the full justice it deserves.
In “The Gambler,” I learned that Kerkorian was buried at the Inglewood Park Cemetery in 2015 during an invitation-only, private funeral. Born and raised as an Armenian in Los Angeles, I immediately told myself, “Manouk, you have to go pay respects and say thanks to the man that has done so much for your people.”
Kerkorian, and many other Armenian heroes like him, were largely the reason why I took a job as an editor with the now-defunct Yerevan Magazine, an international lifestyle publication for and about Armenians. The first issue that I worked on featured him on the cover. It was the winter 2010 edition, and Kerkorian, who rarely did interviews, made an exception to our upstart magazine that was still only 10 issues old. One quote from that interview that truly resonated with me was when he was asked about what he was most proud of in his life. He replied, “I tell you one thing, there’s never been a minute of my life that I wasn’t proud to say ‘I’m Armenian.’” I’ve always felt the same.
Silly as it sounds, I always indulged myself on the off chance that Kerkorian might have known I existed. Who knows, maybe he read one of my stories. In fact, my career seemed to always waltz around him in a way. In the same issue of Yerevan Magazine in which he was featured appeared my interview and story of Jerry Tarkanian, the legendary University of Las Vegas basketball coach from 1973 to 1992. Tarkanian told me Kerkorian was a “really good friend” of his as they both shaped their legacies during the same eras. Tennis star Andre Agassi once told me Kerkorian will always have a special place in his heart. In fact, Agassi’s middle name is “Kirk” because his father Mike was a good friend of his and also the casino captain at the MGM Grand. Kerkorian, who supported the Agassi family in the 1980s before Andre made it big, even donated $18 million to Agassi’s foundation in 2011.
In 2011, I interviewed Kerkorian’s former right hand man Alex Yemenidjian, who ran much of his business empire for 16 years before owning his own Las Vegas casino with the Tropicana. Yemenidjian told me, “If you are a Jewish kid, there are 2,000 of these guys. If you are an Armenian kid, there is only one Kirk Kerkorian. Mr. Kerkorian is a gentleman’s gentleman, and without question he is the smartest person I have ever known. It was like getting private lessons from Michael Jordan for 16 years. I was very fortunate to be in that position.”
Kerkorian was known for touching the lives of millions of people he never even met thanks to his generous donations. He touched me personally with his rags-to-riches story, the epitome of an immigrant family’s dream.
So on a recent Saturday afternoon, I drove to the Inglewood Park Cemetery, exited Florence, entered through the Manchester Boulevard gate, and drove down all the way to the curve, where I was met with “Pacific Slope” on the curb, just as Norma had instructed over the phone.
I got out of my car and started looking for a palatial gravestone that should most likely have been his. But instead I was met with an area of vast grass dotted with headstones. The only thing of significance in the stretch of land was a sad-looking tree. I thought I was in the wrong part of the cemetery.
I quickly realized that finding Lot 633; Grave E was going to be more difficult than I had thought, so I walked over to one of the grounds crew and asked for help. He immediately guided me to Kerkorian’s grave.
A billionaire who could have bought his own cemetery surely could not have been buried in the middle of a random plot of land, right?
Turns out I was in the correct area. What I witnessed was rather humbling. Kerkorian was buried on top of his father and shared a gravestone that simply marked his name and his time on earth—1917 to 2015. Next to them were Kerkorian’s mother Lily and sister Rose. He chose to be buried with his family without any indication or sign to passers-by that one of the most influential people of the 20th century was there amongst them. His private demeanor and shy personality defined his lasting image and legacy.
Since reading his biography was the guiding force that led me to his grave, I placed the book beside it and expressed my gratitude for a few short minutes. I was standing over a stranger I never met, yet whom I felt I knew everything about. And then, a lasting line from a movie I grew up watching suddenly played in my mind. It was the ghost of Babe Ruth from the movie The Sandlot: “Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.”