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 go ahead and 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.
I arrived early, and was escorted to a corner table at one of the many MGM restaurants.
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 great corporate raider was soft-spoken, affable, good-humored 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.