My din­ner with press-shy bil­lion­aire

Los Angeles Times - - COMPANY TOWN - By Charles Flem­ing charles.flem­ing@latimes.com

In late 1995, I was asked to pro­file Kirk Kerko­rian by Van­ity Fair, af­ter I’d given his name in an­swer to the ques­tion “Who is the most in­ter­est­ing man in Hol­ly­wood?”

The bil­lion­aire, then 78, was fa­mously press-shy. I told Van­ity Fair he’d never sit for an in­ter­view. They told me to re­port the story any­way.

I in­ter­viewed ev­ery­one I could find who knew any­thing about the mogul — Hol­ly­wood stu­dio ex­ec­u­tives, Las Ve­gas casino op­er­a­tors, friends from Kerko­rian’s Cen­tral Val­ley child­hood. I met with some of­fi­cials from Tracinda Corp., Kerko­rian’s Ve­gas-based hold­ing com­pany.

I was told re­peat­edly, by whomever I asked, that the man hadn’t been in­ter­viewed in decades and that he would not talk to me in per­son or even on the phone.

Then one morn­ing my home phone rang. Would I be able to meet with Kerko­rian at the MGM Grand, in Las Ve­gas, that night?

The ground rules were clear. Don’t bring a notebook. Don’t ex­pect an in­ter­view. Just come and meet the man.

Kerko­rian ar­rived a lit­tle late. He was wear­ing slacks and a shirt open at the neck. His hair, which he wore long and swept back off his tanned, lined face, was damp.

He’d been play­ing ten­nis, one of his pas­sions, and had hur­ried from the court. He was car­ry­ing car keys, and ad­mit­ted, when his as­so­ci­ates asked him where he’d left the car, that he’d self-parked in the MGM garage. He apol­o­gized for be­ing late. The band on his watch, an in­ex­pen­sive Timex, had bro­ken, and he kept for­get­ting to check the time.

Over din­ner — he ate a sim­ple grilled fish — the leg­endary cor­po­rate raider was soft-spo­ken, af­fa­ble, good­hu­mored and not at all reclu­sive. He talked freely about grow­ing up in Fresno, strug­gling in school, his brief ca­reer as boxer “Ri­fle Right Kerko­rian,” and about be­gin­ning to make his way in the air­line busi­ness just af­ter World War II.

Kerko­rian chat­ted ami­ably with the waiter, whom he knew by name. When the check came, the bil­lion­aire snapped it up. He dug from his pants pocket a wad of cash and credit cards held to­gether by a fat rub­ber band, and peeled off enough cash to pay the bill.

Leav­ing, he apol­o­gized for mak­ing it an early evening. He had an early ten­nis game and didn’t want to be out late.

The story I even­tu­ally wrote was fair, bal­anced and cer­tainly in­flu­enced by the pleas­ant and hu­man­iz­ing evening I’d spent with him.

But I learned later that his han­dlers were so out­raged by the head­line Van­ity Fair had put on the piece — “The Preda­tor” — that they didn’t even show it to him.

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