LAS VEGAS -- Sheldon Adelson, who rose from a modest start as the son of an immigrant taxi driver to become a billionaire Republican powerbroker with a casino empire and influence on international politics, has died. He was 87.
Adelson died from complications related to treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Las Vegas Sands announced Tuesday. The company announced last week that Adelson had stepped away from his role as CEO and chairman to resume treatments for the cancer, which he first announced in 2019.
In business, Adelson transformed a landmark Las Vegas casino that was once a hangout of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack into a towering Italian-inspired complex, trailblazed a trend of turning business conventions into a lucrative industry and left his mark on some of Asia's most cosmopolitan cities.
“If you do things differently, success will follow you like a shadow,” he said during a 2014 talk to the gambling industry in Las Vegas.
Adelson, the son of Jewish immigrants, once said at a gambling conference that he hoped his legacy would not be his glitzy casinos or hotels but his impact in Israel, where he had a deep and lifelong attachment.
In his modest office wedged among the casinos of the Las Vegas Strip, Adelson hosted top Republican Party strategists and candidates and helped ensure that uncritical support of Israel became a pillar of the GOP platform. That was never more visible than when the Trump administration relocated the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018.
The inflammatory move had been adamantly opposed by Palestinians and was long a priority for Adelson, who sat front and center at the ceremony in Jerusalem with his wife, Miriam.
More recently, he reportedly purchased the U.S. ambassador’s official residence near Tel Aviv for $67 million in a maneuver that appeared aimed at preventing the embassy from relocating back to Tel Aviv after Trump leaves office. Just weeks ago, Adelson provided a private plane for Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who spent 30 years in prison for spying for Israel, to move to Israel after his parole ended.
In the U.S., Adelson helped underwrite congressional trips to Israel, helped build a new headquarters for the lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and later was a top supporter of the Israeli-American Council, whose conferences have attracted top politicians. He also sponsored “Birthright” trips to Israel for young Jewish adults that were criticized by some participants as intolerant of opposing views.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that Adelson “will forever be remembered” for his work strengthening ties between the U.S. and Israel.
Adelson was a late bloomer in business and in politics. He didn’t become a casino owner, or a Republican, until well into middle age. Through the 1990s and after his wealth soared, his engagement in politics intensified.
Adelson has donated over $250 million to GOP candidates and groups since 2015. In 2020, he gave $75 million to a super PAC that attacked Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
“I’m against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections,” Adelson told Forbes magazine in 2012. “But as long as it’s doable I’m going to do it.” Forbes ranked him No. 19 in the U.S., worth an estimated $29.8 billion.
Adelson came around slowly to Trump, but after the brash New Yorker's victory, he spoke often with the new president, who embraced his hardline views on the Middle East. Trump cut funding for Palestinian refugees and withdrew from President Barack Obama's nuclear nonproliferation deal with Iran. He also bucked long-held and bipartisan U.S. policy that viewed Jerusalem as key to any peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Adelson, in turn, aided Trump financially, including $5 million for his inauguration, and supported him through his media holdings. Late in 2015, Adelson secretly purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The paper’s own reporters revealed he was the new owner, and some longtime staffers left in protest.
In what was widely seen as a mark of the Adelsons’ influence with Trump, Miriam Adelson was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2018.
“The world has lost a great man,” Trump said in a statement released by the White House. “Sheldon lived the true American dream. His ingenuity, genius, and creativity earned him immense wealth, but his character and philanthropic generosity his great name,” Trump said.
Adelson was married twice. He and his first wife, Sandra, were divorced in 1988. Three years later, he married Miriam Farbstein-Ochshorn, an Israeli-born doctor he met on a blind date and who many believe helped deepen his involvement with Israel. Their honeymoon trip to Venice, Italy, inspired Adelson to raze the historic Sands hotel-casino and replace it with a pair of massive complexes: The Venetian and The Palazzo.
Adelson led efforts to move the NFL Raiders team from Oakland, California, to Las Vegas and was lauded for his decision during the coronavirus pandemic to keep his casino employees paid and insured despite a big slump in business.
Sheldon Adelson adopted his first wife’s three children and had two children with his second wife. Among the numerous philanthropic projects the couple supported, the research and treatment of substance abuse became a top priority. Sheldon Adelson's son Mitchell, from his first marriage, died of an overdose in 2005.
Sheldon Garry Adelson was born in 1933, in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. His father was a taxi driver, his mother the manager of a knitting store. A natural entrepreneur, he was selling newspapers by age 12 and running a vending machine business at 16. After dropping out of City College of New York and serving in the Army, he attempted to start dozens of small businesses.
Adelson began to amass his fortune with a technology trade show, starting computer convention COMDEX in 1979 before selling his stake in 1995 for more than $800 million.
When he bought the Sands Hotel in 1989, he built a convention hall to keep his hotel rooms full on weekdays, a move copied by other resort owners. When he expanded his business to Macao, the only place in China where casino gambling is legal, Adelson directed his company to build land where there wasn’t any, piling sand up to create the Cotai Peninsula. Soon his Macao revenue outstripped that of his Las Vegas holdings. He later expanded his business to Singapore, where his Marina Bay Sands hotel and its infinity pool became a signature of the skyline.
A long-running feud with fellow casino tycoon Steve Wynn turned to friendship when Wynn joined Adelson’s effort to end online gambling. Critics said Adelson was trying to stifle competition. Adelson countered that there was no way to ensure children and teenagers wouldn’t gamble and said he was “not in favor of it exploiting the world’s most vulnerable people.”
The Obama-era Justice Department said that online gambling that doesn't involve sports would violate the 1961 federal Wire Act, but in 2019, the Trump-era department reversed itself.
Wynn, in an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday, called the mogul a “swashbuckling fearless capitalist" who “was not afraid to go all-in and take his position based upon his opinion without looking over his shoulder or second-guessing himself.”
Associated Press writers Ken Ritter in Las Vegas; Zeke Miller and Alan Fram in Washington; Josef Federman in Jerusalem; and Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel, contributed to this report. Former AP writer Kimberly Pierceall contributed to this report.