Kirk Kerkorian, a prominent American billionaire financier of Armenian descent who has poured hundreds of millions of dollars in aid into Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, died at the age of 98 on Monday night.
His death was announced the following morning.
Born to Armenian immigrant parents in California, Kerkorian worked as a civilian transport pilot in World War II before building a financial empire that included some of the biggest and best-known Las Vegas casinos and hotels as well as major stakes in leading U.S. carmakers. He is also known for buying and selling the world-famous MGM film studio for three times.
Kerkorian’s benevolent activities in Armenia began after a catastrophic 1988 earthquake that devastated northern regions of what was then a Soviet republic. He provided medical and other suppliers to survivors of the calamity that killed some 25,000 people.
Through his Lincy Foundation charity, Kerkorian went on to cover half of the cost of an 80-kilometer highway connecting Armenia to Karabakh. The mountainous road was completed in 1998 four years after a Russian-mediated truce stopped a bloody Armenian-Azerbaijani war for the disputed territory. It has since served as Karabakh’s main transport link to the outside world.
Kerkorian visited Armenia for the first time later in 1998. Over the next decade Lincy financed more than $200 million worth of infrastructure projects in his ancestral homeland, making Kerkorian its number one Diaspora benefactor.
Roughly $150 million of that money was spent between 2001 and 2004. It was mainly channeled into the repair and construction of 430 kilometers of major highways, bridges, tunnels as well as 3,700 new homes in the Armenian regions still reeling from the 1988 earthquake. Lincy’s funds were also used for the renovation of dozens of Armenian museums, theaters and concert halls.
The lavish aid led then President Robert Kocharian to give Kerkorian Armenia’s highest state award: the Order of Fatherland carrying the title of “national hero.” The media-shy tycoon received it during his second and last visit to the country in May 2005.
Kerkorian used that trip to inspect roads in and outside Yerevan that were refurbished with his money. “I just couldn’t imagine how beautiful this place is,” he told a reporter while sitting in a street café in the Armenian capital.
Two months later, Kerkorian contributed another $60 million to the reconstruction of rundown schools and more highways and streets in Yerevan.
Kerkorian shut down Lincy and transferred its assets to the UCLA university in California in 2011. The university set up a special fund to support Armenian schools and other education programs of the Armenian-American community.
Kerkorian’s last Armenian-related project was his reported decision to fund a film about the 1915 Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey. Showbiz411.com, an American entertainment industry news website, reported details of the upcoming movie on Monday, just hours before the tycoon passed away. “This could be a big epic hit,” it wrote.
Last month, “Forbes” magazine estimated Kerkorian's wealth at $4.2 billion, down from an estimated $16 billion in 2008.