Sheldon Adelson, a rags-to-riches casino mogul who built one of the largest fortunes in the United States and spent it aggressively to bolster conservative politicians and causes, has died at the age of 87, his wife Dr. Miriam Adelson said on Tuesday.
Since 2019, Adelson had received treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which limited his travel and hours at the office, but he continued to helm his casino empire, Las Vegas Sands Inc. (LVS). He had struggled to walk since 2001, when he was diagnosed with a neuromuscular disorder.
His wife, Miriam, said on Tuesday that he had died after complications from a long illness.
“Sheldon was the love of my life. He was my partner in romance, philanthropy, political activism and enterprise. He was my soulmate,” she wrote in a press release announcing his death.
Over the past decade, Adelson and Miriam cemented themselves as two of the largest donors to conservative politicians and causes in the U.S. In the 2012 election cycle, Adelson and Miriam reportedly spent about $150 million on Republican candidates and the conservative organizations seeking to elect them.
Four years later, they gave a total of $25 million to President Donald Trump alone, earning Adelson the designation of “Trump’s Patron-in-Chief” from news outlet ProPublica. The couple made an even larger donation near the end of Trump’s re-election bid, contributing a staggering $75 million to a Super PAC affiliated with his candidacy.
Spotting profit to be made in corporate conferences, Adelson launched a lucrative computer industry trade show in Las Vegas in the late 1970s. He parlayed that success into the acquisition a decade later of the Las Vegas Sands casino, which he expanded into a multi-billion dollar hospitality and gambling conglomerate that spans two continents and includes the Venetian, one of the most iconic hotels in the world.
A modest upbringing
Adelson was born in 1933 to a modest Jewish family in Dorchester, a hardscrabble Boston neighborhood. His father, Arthur Adelson, was a taxi driver; and his mother, Sarah Adelson, ran a small knitting shop. Growing up, Sheldon Adelson supported the Democratic Party, which was “typical of the Jews of Boston in the 1930s and '40s,” Adelson later wrote.
Showing a propensity for entrepreneurship before he even attended high school, Adelson bought the right to sell newspapers on a well-trafficked street corner. Later, at age 16, he ran a candy vending machine business. All the while, he endured anti-semitic bullying from Irish kids in his neighborhood.
He enrolled at City College of New York, in Upper Manhattan, but soon dropped out. After attending trade school to become a court reporter, Adelson served as a court stenographer in the U.S. Army. When he left the service, he worked a series of jobs as an ad salesperson and real estate broker, among others.
Adelson made his first major splash in 1979, when he and some business partners launched Computer Dealers Exposition, or COMDEX, an industry trade show in Las Vegas that drew large crowds and generated hundreds of millions in revenue. Sixteen years later, Adelson sold COMDEX and some other trade shows to SoftBank for $862 million.
Equipped with Las Vegas business experience and growing resources, Adelson and his partners purchased the Sands hotel and casino in 1989 for $128 million, setting up Las Vegas Sands Inc., the holding company that would later comprise his casino empire.
Less than a decade later, in 1996, Adelson tore down the Sands and began construction on The Venetian, a themed hotel modeled after its namesake Italian city, offering gondola rides through replica canals. Soon after it opened in 1999, the Venetian became a popular symbol of Las Vegas glamour, featured in movies such as “Rat Race” (2001) and “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (2005).”
When Adelson took Las Vegas Sands Inc. public, in 2004, he became a multi-billionaire overnight. In the years that followed, Adelson expanded the company into the hotel empire that catapulted him into the upper echelons of American wealth. Central to his success: Two hotels in Macau, a semi-autonomous region on the Southern Chinese coast, where newly reduced travel restrictions for Chinese citizens as well as the country’s surging middle class resulted in a boon for Adelson.
He followed his foray into Asia with the Marina Bay Sands, opened in 2010 in Singapore, which cost $8 billion in land and construction costs — the most expensive casino ever built.
Over the 1990s and early 2000s, Adelson underwent a rightward political shift, moving from his roots as a liberal Democrat in the blue state of Massachusetts to Republican activism in purple Nevada. The change of heart coincided with his fight against the Culinary Workers Union, the biggest union in the state, both in court and at his properties. Though unions made some inroads at his hotels, the Venetian remains the only major hotel in Las Vegas that is non-union.
After the turn of the century, as he amassed a net worth in the tens of billions, Adelson spent generously in support of rightwing political causes in the United States and Israel, becoming a close ally of likeminded political leaders such as President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu, both of whom received praise in editorials on the pages of newspapers Adelson owned in their respective countries.
Known as a passionate Zionist, Adelson spent hundreds of millions on Jewish organizations that promote the centrality and protection of Israel. For instance, he has donated nearly half a billion dollars to Taglit-Birthright Israel, which provides free 10-day trips to Israel for thousands of young diaspora Jews each year.
“He was the proudest of Jews, who saw in the State of Israel not only the realization of an historical promise to a unique and deserving people, but also a gift from the Almighty to all of humanity,” his wife noted in the press release announcing his death.
Alongside his direct political spending, Adelson purchased newspapers in the U.S. and Israel that praised his favored politicians on their opinion pages. In 2007, he launched a free newspaper in Israel called Israel Hayom known for flattering coverage of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; in 2015, he spent $140 million to acquire the Las Vegas Review-Journal, one of the few major U.S. newspapers that endorsed Donald Trump in the presidential election the following year.
“Our nation lost a remarkable American with the passing of my friend Sheldon Adelson," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said on Tuesday. "He climbed from sleeping on tenement floors during the Great Depression as a young boy to literally towering over Las Vegas and beyond."
President Donald Trump on Tuesday also expressed praise for Adelson: “Sheldon was true to his family, his country, and all those that knew him. The world has lost a great man.”
In 1988, Adelson divorced his first wife Sandra, whose three children he adopted and helped raise. The next year, he went on a blind date with Miriam Ochshorn, an Israeli doctor. They married in 1991 and raised two children of their own, Adam and Matan.
Adelson retained relationships with his adopted children—Mitchell, Shelley, and Gary—even after a 2001 court ruling found in Adelson’s favor in a lawsuit brought by Mitchell and Gary alleging that he pressured them to sell stock below market value.
His two sons struggled with drug addiction; Mitchell, the younger one, died of a drug overdose in 2005. Five years earlier, Miriam and Sheldon Adelson had co-founded the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Clinic for Drug Abuse Treatment & Research.
It still serves patients in the Las Vegas area.
Max Zahn is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Find him on twitter @MaxZahn_.
Correction: An earlier version of this article falsely stated that Adelson contributed less to the Trump campaign over the 2020 cycle than he did in 2016. He made a large donation late in the 2020 race.