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Obituary: Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who moved an embassy

image copyrightAFP
image captionSheldon Adelson was the son of immigrant parents

Sheldon Adelson had a front row seat the day the US moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018.

For the US casino magnate and staunch Israel supporter, it was the culmination of years of campaigning - and his support for Donald Trump and the Republicans.

The man dubbed the Republican party's kingmaker had gone as far as offering to use some of his $36bn (£27bn) fortune to help build the embassy in order to ensure the move went ahead.

It was a remarkable rise for the son of Jewish immigrants born in a one-room tenement in the middle of the Great Depression.


Sheldon Adelson was born in Boston to his taxi-driving Lithuanian father and a Welsh mother, who ran a knitting shop, in 1933.

His talent for spotting a lucrative business idea was clear from a young age. At 12, he got his first loan - $200 from an uncle so he could "buy" a corner on which to sell newspapers.

But the wealth he would amass by the end of his life would not come easily.

Adelson was a college drop-out who joined the US Army before finding work as a court stenographer on Wall Street. That job opened doors to the world of finance and his first real monetary success.

But, as he was about to discover, fortunes could be lost. By the late 1960s, that is exactly what had happened.

image captionSheldon Adelson only got into the casino business later in life

No matter, Adelson had plenty more business ideas - by the end of his life, they would run into the dozens.

It would take until the late 1970s for him to hit on the idea that would lead to the wealth Adelson eventually amassed.

That idea was Comdex, an expo for the relatively new computer trade in Las Vegas first held in 1979. It would grow to become the biggest in the world.

But, according to a New York Times profile back in 2008, Adelson didn't actually have any real interest in computers. One friend suggested - perhaps unfairly - he might not actually know how to use one.

Instead, he saw the business sense in renting a convention centre "for 25 cents a square foot and selling it to vendors for $25 or more", the article noted.

Indeed, it was convention centres and not a love of gambling that prompted his first foray into the world of casinos. Neither was it the iconic history of the Las Vegas' Sands Hotel and Casino - the setting for much of the film Ocean's Eleven - which caught his interest in the late 1980s.

"The Sands had enough land to build a convention centre," Irwin Chafetz, a childhood friend and business partner, explained to the New York Times. "That's why we got into the casino business."

And so the Sands Expo Convention Center was born - with a slightly outdated casino next door.

'The wind beneath my wings'

It was around this time that Adelson was separating from his first wife. He had met Sandra in the 1970s. Together, they had adopted three children - two boys and a girl.

In 1988, they divorced. Three years later, he met Israeli doctor Miriam on a blind date. It was apparently a match made in heaven.

"Sheldon is everything to me," Miriam later told US publication Fortune. "He is my best friend, as I know I am to him, and he is a 'mensch'. He claims that I'm an angel and I say he is the 'wind beneath my wings'."

But Miriam meant more than just a happy home life. The money, she has said, means little to her, and they were soon involving themselves in philanthropic causes.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionAdelson - pictured with Sophia Loren (right) at the opening of The Venetian - met his wife Miriam (left) on a blind date

Not least among them were organisations related to Israel.

Until they met, Adelson had reportedly only visited Israel a handful of times. Afterwards, a love for the country would direct how he spent his millions. That, in turn, would affect the lives of many millions more around the globe.

It was also while on honeymoon with Miriam that Adelson decided what to with his ailing casino in Las Vegas - turn it into a mega-resort.

In 1996 The Sands was demolished and three years later The Venetian opened.

After that, the empire grew quickly. Today, the Las Vegas Sands Corp owns eight other resorts in the US, Macau and Singapore.

Meanwhile, the Adelsons were ploughing their wealth back into causes close to their hearts, including medical research, drug addiction treatment and a number of Jewish causes, including Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial trust.


By now, Adelson's might was starting to be felt outside the business arena. In Israel, he was dabbling in politics - albeit from the sidelines.

Israeli former prime minister Ehud Olmert blamed Adelson for his downfall. Olmert told Israeli television station Keshet in 2018 that the Benjamin Netanyahu-supporting Israel Hayom newspaper, which Adelson owned, was set up "to bring me down".

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionAdelson, pictured with former Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2007, made friends with politicians in the US and Israel

Olmert believes his mistake was trying to make peace with the Palestinians. Adelson's political views are well known. He told The New York Jewish Week that "the two-state solution is a stepping stone for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people".

It would take a little longer for his might to be felt in American politics. A relaxation of campaign donation laws meant he could unleash his wealth in support on his favoured candidates - who were always Republican and pro-Israel - despite his concerns over the practice.

His supporters would counter that his large donations weren't that important because they were small change to the Adelsons. Republican fundraiser Fred Zeidman argued in Fortune that the $10m he gave Republican hopeful Newt Gingrich in 2012 "is a substantial donation, but it's not really substantial for the Adelsons".

Adelson's fortune, by this time, had soared into the billions. In 2013 he was earning $41m a day, Forbes said.

So when Donald Trump began his bid for the presidency in 2015, he knew Adelson's backing would be vitally important. But how to do it?

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionAdelson and his wife backed Donald Trump in 2016 and were pictured together at the inauguration

According to insiders, the key to unlocking Adelson's backing was a promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In total, he gave $82m to Trump and the Republicans.

Whether or not Adelson would have still been sitting at the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem in May 2018 without that assurance will never be known.

But the embassy move must surely have been one of the crowning achievements of his life.

Less than a year later, the company he had built from nothing announced he had non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and he was taking a step back as a result.

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