Investigator and #1 New York Times bestselling author Ian Halperin pulls back the curtain on America’s notorious Kardashian family’s seemingly meteoric rise to fame, and the dark secrets they’ve struggled to hide in Kardashian Dynasty, now in paperback.
The Kardashians and Jenners have taken the world by storm, collectively rising to superfame after making their reality show debut on E! with Keeping Up with the Kardashians in 2007. Since then, their family life has remained a constant circus of tabloid headlines, red carpet appearances, branding deals, reality shows and their spinoffs, and a slew of media coverage.
And yet, amidst their mega success, the Kardashians have faced a firestorm of negative publicity over the years: particularly over Kris Jenner’s role in the family. As matriarch and momager of the Kardashian clan, Kris has been accused of exploiting her children for fame and money and playing the media like a deck of cards.
Based on extensive research, Ian Halperin delivers the salacious details behind the Kardashians’ rise to fame. With revelations exposing the family’s foundation as unstable at best and scandalous at worst, Halperin scrutinizes their self-made multi-million dollar brand and provides an unparalleled glimpse into the events and scandals that have propelled the Kardashians to worldwide celebrity, for better or worse.
Kardashian Dynasty CHAPTER ONE Shortly after 5:00 p.m. on June 17, 1994, an unknown businessman with bushy eyebrows and salt-and-pepper hair stepped to the microphone before a throng of reporters and a TV audience of millions to read a prepared statement on behalf of his longtime friend and former roommate O. J. Simpson.
As the man read O.J.’s statement—interpreted by most observers as a suicide note—his name flashed on the screen. It was the first time most people had heard the name Kardashian.
Five days earlier, Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and a waiter named Ronald Goldman were found brutally murdered outside her Brentwood condominium. Suspicion immediately focused on former football star Simpson, whose on-again, off-again relationship with Nicole had been tumultuous.
Robert Kardashian first heard about the murders on the morning of June 13 from a friend, who had heard about them from her hairdresser. Stunned, he immediately drove to Simpson’s Rockingham estate. During the ten-minute drive, he placed a call to his ex-wife Kris Jenner.
“Did you hear Nicole was killed?” he asked.
Kris told him she had heard the news from Nicole’s mother.
“I was supposed to have lunch with Nicole today,” she informed him, still reeling from the shock.
In the days to come, O.J. would quietly move into Kardashian’s home to escape the media circus. Together, they put together a legal team and planned a strategy. It was from Kardashian’s Encino home, in fact, that O.J. took off in a white Bronco SUV with his friend Al Cowlings, beginning the most famous police chase in history.
Simpson had been scheduled to surrender himself to authorities that morning at 11:00 a.m. but had failed to appear, prompting Los Angeles police to declare him a fugitive. Shortly after Kardashian read his friend’s statement, law enforcement authorities zeroed in on Simpson’s Bronco on Interstate 5, setting off a worldwide frenzy that ended hours later in O.J.’s arrest for the murders of Nicole and Goldman.
For the duration of the subsequent nine-month trial, Kardashian would sit silently next to O.J. on the defense bench every day as a member of his vaunted Dream Team. In the process, he became a household name. For almost a year, the world was riveted by the trial, while a large segment of the population obsessed over the minute details of the case and the personalities of its many players. After the verdict, the media and the public eventually turned their attention to other matters.
Few could have predicted that two decades later, the case would inadvertently give rise to a celebrity phenomenon that would eventually occupy more column inches and magazine covers than even the Trial of the Century.
When Robert Kardashian was born in 1944, America was still fighting a world war. And while the war heralded an economic recovery from the Great Depression, which had ravaged the economy, most Americans were waiting until the war ended to start families because of lingering economic uncertainties. The Allied victory in 1945 eventually gave rise to the country’s largest ever baby boom. However, unlike most Americans who had suffered through the Depression, Robert’s parents, Helen and Arthur Kardashian, didn’t need to worry about their financial future.
By the time Robert came along, Arthur was one of the wealthiest businessmen in Los Angeles. His vast fortune, however, wasn’t a result of the Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches, immigrant-made-good story that the American public liked to feast on. Arthur hadn’t pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. It was his father, Tatos, who had arrived in America three decades earlier and started a garbage-collection business that would eventually see Robert Kardashian born into the lifestyle that would come to be associated with his family name.
For his part, Tatos Kardashian owed his success as much to superstition as to hard work—and to a mystical prophet that helped his family escape genocide.
In the mid-nineteenth century, a group of Protestant Armenian religious rebels known as the Molokans were given permission by Tsar Nicholas II to escape religious persecution in Armenia and move to the Russian village of Karakale, which is today a part of Turkey. The Molokans—roughly translated as “milk lovers”—earned the title because they often ate and drank milk and other banned foods on religious feast days. Their defiance of Eastern Orthodox customs earned them the scorn of their fellow Armenians, who would often shun them or violently attack them as heretics. A smaller sect of Molokan religious zealots were known as “Jumpers” because of their tendency to leap in the air and raise their fists in worship during church services, in a religious fervor similar to that displayed by Pentecostalists.
One such Jumper family was Sam and Hurom Kardaschoff—the Russian version of Kardashian—who gave birth in Karakale to a boy named Tatos in 1896.
Four decades earlier, another boy from Karakale named Efim Klubiniken—an illiterate twelve-year-old—was said to have issued an apocalyptic prophecy:
Those who believe in this will go on a journey to a far land, while the unbelievers will remain in place. Our people will go on a long journey over the great and deep waters. People from all countries will go there. There will be a great war. All kings will shed blood like great rivers. Two steamships will leave to cross the impassable ocean.
The prophecy was ignored. But in the early years of the twentieth century, Klubiniken—now a respected village elder—called a meeting of church leaders from the region and reminded them of his boyhood prediction. He warned them that the time was coming for them to escape Russia and that soon they would be barred from leaving. He pointed to a map of the West Coast of the United States and declared that his people should settle in America—“the land of the living”—before it was too late.
“He prophesied this was the time for them to leave Russia as there were terrible times coming, especially for the Armenians,” researcher Joyce Keosababian-Bivin later told the London Daily Mail.
Over the next ten years, more than two thousand ethnic Armenians heeded the warning and fled to California, even as their friends and neighbors taunted them for believing such superstitious nonsense.
In 1913, Tatos’s parents made their way to Bremen and boarded the SS Brandenburg to Philadelphia. A month later, seventeen-year-old Tatos followed on the SS Köln. On board the cramped ship, he met another fleeing Jumper, Hamas Shakarian, whom he would later marry.
Four years later, as the First World War raged and Russia became engulfed in revolution, Turkish forces stormed the region, massacring Armenians, including virtually every inhabitant of Karakale. Eventually more than 1.5 million Armenians would perish in a genocide that was said to have inspired Hitler’s Final Solution. Today, Armenians refer to the slaughter as the Great Calamity. If the Kardashians hadn’t heeded the warnings of the prophet Efim Klubiniken, they would almost certainly have been counted among its victims.
Instead, Tatos and many of his fellow Armenians thrived in their new home, Southern California. Los Angeles was still a sleepy desert town full of orange groves and silent-movie studios that would not truly explode into a metropolis for decades. The arrival of the Kardashian family in 1913 coincided with the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which would guarantee the drought-stressed city an ample water supply and pave the way for its eventual exponential growth.
Tatos, now known as Tom, opened a small garbage-collection business that would later grow into a thriving enterprise and make him a small fortune.
In 1917, Hamas gave birth to a boy, Arthur, followed by two more children later. In 1938, Arthur would wed another Armenian émigré, Helen Arkenian. By that time, he had started a thriving meatpacking business. When America entered the Second World War in December 1941, military contracts to keep the troops fed made Arthur Kardashian’s company the most successful meat supplier on the West Coast.
By the time Robert was born in February 1944, the family were multimillionaires and neither Robert nor his older brother, Tommy, wanted for anything. The family lived in a Spanish-colonial mansion in the tony LA suburb of Windsor Hills, where Robert would graduate from Dorsey High in 1962. From there he attended the University of Southern California (USC), where he was the student manager of the football team. He graduated in 1966 and eventually earned a law degree from the University of San Diego in 1969.
Shortly after graduation, Robert joined the small boutique law firm Eamer Bedrosian, which was run by two Armenians. As the firm was too small for its associates to specialize, Robert practiced a combination of corporate and entertainment law but was occasionally called on to represent clients on criminal matters such as DUI. A profile in Los Angeles magazine would later describe Kardashian as “bright but no genius . . . the ‘let’s do lunch guy’ rather than the idea man.” Indeed, the young attorney was known for cultivating a growing circle of friends, many of whom would eventually become clients. His talent for turning three-hour business lunches into new revenue would earn Robert a partnership in the firm in less than three years.
One of those clients was an oil executive named Harry Rothschild, who invited Robert for a gathering and a round of tennis at his Benedict Canyon estate in the summer of 1970. It was on the tennis court that day that Robert Kardashian first met O.J. Simpson.
O.J. had been a star running back at USC shortly after Kardashian graduated and had been drafted by the Buffalo Bills. He had played professionally for a year by the time the two met but had registered unimpressive stats. The two men hit it off almost immediately and became fast friends.
Before long, O.J. would often crash during the off-season at the Beverly Hills house that Robert shared with his older brother, Tommy. O.J. and Robert had something in common—an entrepreneurial spirit that found them sitting around the pool hatching get-rich-quick schemes.
As O.J.’s growing prowess on the football field eventually turned him into a superstar, the two men attempted to cash in on his fame by opening up a clothing store on the USC campus called J-A-G. It didn’t last long. They followed that up with a frozen yogurt shop—one of the first in the nation—in Brentwood called JOY (under the business name Juice Inc.). They sold it two years later at a loss.
Recalling their unsuccessful business ventures, Kardashian would later tell Larry King, “We have been in business deals together and we have lost a lot of money together. And that’s when you tell what a person is like.”
Kardashian’s business mentor, George Mason of Bear Stearns, would later describe Kardashian’s business enterprises to the Los Angeles Times.
“Some click, some don’t,” he said. “I think he’s more entrepreneurial. He’s not the kind who wants to be chained to a desk and take a briefcase full of work home with him every night.”
With Mason’s guidance, one of Kardashian’s ventures without Simpson—a trade magazine he founded with his brother in 1973 called Radio & Records—would eventually make him a very rich man when he sold his shares in 1979 for more than $12 million. With the profits from the sale, Kardashian started another business with Simpson called Concert Cinema, screening music videos in theaters before featured movies, but it too was a bust. Despite their many failed ventures, Kardashian would later describe O.J.’s integrity in business as “excellent,” even if he didn’t feel the same way about his friend’s personal life. By the time Kardashian was named president of MCA’s radio network in the mid-1980s, he had already stopped practicing law and was a full-time businessman. Throughout the ’80s, the two bachelors were often inseparable. At one point, O.J. even stayed at Kardashian’s Deep Canyon home for more than six months.
While his partners attended to the business of the firm, Robert would often disappear for hours at a time on what he would claim were business lunches. More often than not, he could be found at one of the many racetracks in and around Southern California, betting on the horses. One afternoon, he was pondering his next bet at the legendary seaside track known as Del Mar, long frequented by celebrities since its being built in the ’30s by a consortium that included Bing Crosby and Gary Cooper. Looking up from the racing guide, he spotted a stunning eighteen-year-old girl leaning against a pillar, waiting for her friend to bet. Around her neck was a gaudy necklace that belied her otherwise elegant attire. Its letters spelled out OH SHIT.
Undeterred by the crude accessory, he made his move. “Is your name Janet?” he inquired. Recognizing a line when she heard one, the young woman played it coy. But she also found the slick mustachioed stranger attractive and somewhat intriguing, despite the fact that he was eleven years her senior. He reminded her a little of Tony Orlando.
Yet when he asked if he could call her, she demurred. “I’m not giving you my phone number,” she replied, walking off. But when Robert Kardashian set his sights on something, he did not usually give up easily. Around the time that he laid eyes on her necklace, Robert decided this was the woman for him.
Kristen Mary Houghton wasn’t necessarily born with a silver spoon in her mouth. A silver candlestick, perhaps. Growing up in the privileged environs of Point Loma, California, on the outskirts of San Diego, Kris often told people that she came from “the candle family.” When she was eight years old, her maternal grandparents, Louise and Jim, had opened one of California’s first candle emporiums along with her mother, Mary Jo, in La Jolla, not far from the hillside house where Dr. Seuss penned most of his children’s classics.
A year earlier, her mother had divorced her father, Robert—an engineer at the Convair plant—after a stormy marriage. Kris and her younger sister, Karen, were devastated. Divorce still wasn’t that commonplace and parents didn’t yet know how to explain to young children that they weren’t responsible for breaking up a happy home. It weighed heavily on young Kris, who desperately hoped her parents would get back together.
Leaving the palatial white house where she had spent her early, happy years, Kris moved to nearby Clairemont with her mother and sister to be near Mary Jo’s parents. As a single mother, Mary Jo laid down a series of strict rules and chores that she hoped would keep her daughters from becoming spoiled like a lot of their privileged schoolmates. Kris remembers her mother as “the most classy lady who always had the most beautiful outfits on.” She credits Mary Jo’s style for inspiring her own love of fashion.
Despite the divorce, as a child, Kris later recalled, she lived a “real-life Gidget, dream-come-true” story, spending every waking moment at the beach. When she was eight, however, her idyllic routine hit a snag—a scare that would stay with her for many years. One day, on the way home from school, she banged her shin on a post and had to have it x-rayed. The results showed a bone tumor. Fearing cancer, her parents authorized surgery to amputate her leg at the hip if necessary. Terrified by the ordeal, Kris woke in the recovery room with her leg intact and cancer-free.
Kris idolized her grandmother Lou, who had grown up in Arkansas but had come west with Mary Jo after she discovered that her first husband had cheated on her. For a time, she raised her daughters as a single mother, until she met a San Diego naval-base accountant named Jim.
Lou had always dreamed of starting a business. Who’d ever heard of a store devoted solely to candles, one of her lifelong passions? Nobody thought the business stood a chance, but to everybody’s surprise, the Candelabra was a roaring success.
Like her grandmother, Kris loved the beeswax and paraffin candles that glowed from every shelf. But her favorite items were the Gloomchaser holders, fashioned from crushed glass of every color. These housed the votive candles that became the store’s signature merchandise. Every day after school, Kris would rush to the store to help out, wrapping gifts or stocking shelves.
The store proved so successful that the profits helped Mary Jo set up a shop of her own, a children’s clothing boutique not far from the Candelabra. Soon Kris was racing from store to store. All the while, she watched and absorbed as her mother and grandmother strategized over marketing and business. And because the store’s success allowed her to once again live the expensive lifestyle she had enjoyed before her parents’ divorce, she liked it a lot. She never minded that the path to their success was paved with a lot of hard work, long hours, and exhausting attention to detail. She was willing to work hard if it led the way to what she called the “2 die 4” life.
Her mother and grandmother, she later recalled, liked beautiful things, and she inherited those tastes. For her, she wrote in her memoir, the definition of a perfect world was “hard work, beautiful candles and a lot of love.” Years later, as her family became fashion icons, Kris would cite her experience working in the store as formative.
In the late ’60s, her mother met a man named Harry Shannon. Kris liked to compare him to the Rat Pack, who had made cocktail parties and skirt chasing fashionable during that era. Shannon, she recalled, was an alcoholic who loved to party. A successful yacht broker, he flashed wads of cash and reeked of style, like something out of a Ralph Lauren ad, she remembered. But his drinking caused scenes that scared the girls, and eventually Mary Jo gave him an ultimatum: Quit drinking or he was gone from their lives. Sure enough, he hopped on the wagon, and the two were married in Mexico when Kris was thirteen. She rarely saw her own father after the divorce, and she took to her new stepfather almost from the day he quit drinking and became a new man. Soon she was calling him Dad.
Like Kris’s grandmother, Harry possessed the entrepreneurial spirit. One day he announced that he was out of the yacht business. They were moving to Oxnard, California, where he had invested in a company harvesting abalone—an edible sea snail considered a delicacy and an aphrodisiac in many parts of the world.
On Kris’s sixteenth birthday, Harry presented her with a red convertible Mazda RX-2, in which she would cruise the highway and plot her life plan. While other kids were planning what they would wear to the prom, she thought further ahead. “Fuck the prom,” she recalled thinking to herself. “I want to get married and have six kids.” To that end, her mother’s pleas for her to go to college fell on deaf ears. She was eager to escape her sheltered, privileged life and see the world.
She didn’t have long to wait. The mother of her best friend, Debbie Mungle, happened to be the manager of a pro golfer named Phil Rodgers, who had won five PGA tournaments and was considered one of the best in the game during the ’60s, when he was often overshadowed by his peers Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. To celebrate their high school graduation in 1972, Mrs. Mungle bought Kris and Debbie tickets to Hawaii, to accompany Rodgers to the Hawaiian Open.
On that trip, Kris was introduced to one of Rodgers’s friends, a PGA golfer named Cesar Sanudo, who at twenty-nine was twelve years older than she. They hit it off immediately.
“He made all the boys I’d hung out with in high school seem like, well, boys,” she later recalled in her memoir about their courtship, although in the book she refers to him as “Anthony.”
Sanudo had won only one event in his tour career, though he had come close to winning the US Open shortly before he met Kris—leading for two rounds before finishing tied for ninth. Her mother didn’t approve of the age difference but thought that her daughter should make her own decisions. For almost a year, Kris followed Sanudo on the tour, traveling to Japan, Scotland, and Mexico, cheering him on.
Sanudo died in 2011, but his brother Carlos vividly remembers his relationship with Kris, whom he describes as “an absolute knockout” back then. He credits his brother with introducing Kris to the lifestyle that she would come to crave.
“Cesar introduced her to a lot of showbiz big shots, and he’d take her to big parties at mansions and on yachts,” Carlos recalled. “In fact, you could say that Kris would never have made her family as big as it is today without the connections Cesar began making for her years ago.”
He would later tell Radar that even as a seventeen-year-old Kris wasn’t a stickler for monogamy.
“Whenever a bunch of us would be partying over at Cesar’s condo while he was out on the road, Kris would hit on any number of guys,” he recalled. “She even made a move on me! Of course, I would never do anything to hurt my brother. And I never understood how Kris could do something so lousy.”
Kris, along with her friend Debbie, was living with Cesar when the two girls ran into another older man, Robert Kardashian, at the Del Mar racetrack in the summer of 1973.
After Kris snubbed him that day, she received a call a few days later on the private line she and Debbie had installed at Cesar’s house. It was Robert, who claimed to have gotten her unlisted number from a friend who worked at the phone company. He used all his powers of persuasion to get her to agree to a date but Kris resisted, even after he called twice a week for the next six months. During these calls, he would tell her about his tight-knit Armenian family and the fancy Beverly Hills house he shared with his brother, Tommy, but she was involved with another man and it was getting serious.
In February, Cesar was playing in the Los Angeles Open at the Riviera Country Club. Kris would follow him around with a folding chair as he played. Midway through the round, as she was following the gallery down the fairway to the next hole, Kris felt a tap on her shoulder from behind. It was Bob Kardashian. Was he stalking her? she wondered. Indeed, he had come to the Riviera to seek her out after she informed him during one of their frequent phone calls that she would be there. She didn’t tell him that Cesar had recently proposed and that she had said yes. At some point, she recalls, she realized that it wasn’t Cesar whom she loved but the glamorous lifestyle that surrounded him. That’s when she finally relented and agreed to go out on a movie date with Bob.
When the film ended, they headed back to her place. While they were going at it in her bedroom, Kris recalled in her memoir, they heard Cesar arrive home. Bob grabbed his clothes and raced downstairs, where he encountered Kris’s angry fiancé demanding to know what he was doing there.
Carlos Sanudo had heard a similar version from his brother. He recalled, “Cesar was at a tournament in the South, and he had become so suspicious of Kris that he missed the cut because he was such a mess. He hurried back to San Diego, got home around midnight, went upstairs—and found Kris in the bedroom with Kardashian! Cesar yelled, ‘You son of a bitch!’ and Kardashian started to cry. Cesar grabbed him and threw him out of the house.”
Although Kris and Cesar continued seeing each other for a time, Carlos says the incident marked “the beginning of the end of their relationship.”
Not long afterward, news came that Kris’s father, Robert Houghton, had been killed in a collision with a truck in Mexico while vacationing with his girlfriend. He was only forty-two. In recent months, Kris had re-established contact with her father, who had gotten to know Cesar and was looking forward to giving Kris away at the wedding, for which the couple had not yet set a date. The news hit her hard. He had invited her for dinner just a few days earlier, but she’d blown him off, claiming she was tired. When the news came, she remembered thinking that she would have loved for her father to have met Bob. They would have hit it off, she suspected. Yet despite Bob’s increasing persistence, she was still engaged to Cesar and had planned to accompany him to the British Open in July, where he had rented a house adjacent to the course with Tom Watson.
She was determined to end the relationship, but she didn’t have the guts to tell Cesar it was over. Even after she told Bob that she would fly back from the UK to attend a housewarming party at his new place in Beverly Hills, she chickened out at the last minute and was a no-show. Embarrassed because he had planned the party to introduce Kris to his friends and family and kick off their relationship, Bob was furious.
In the end, Cesar made the decision easy for her when Kris discovered that he had been cheating on her with a new girlfriend he had met in Carmel. She called Bob to tell him she and Cesar were finally done. Thrilled with the news, he invited her to spend the weekend in LA.
When she arrived at LAX the next day, Bob was waiting for her out front with somebody in a green Mercedes convertible. He introduced her to his companion.
Ian Halperin is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Unmasked: The Final Years of Michael Jackson, Love & Death: The Murder of Kurt Cobain, and Whitney & Bobbi Kristina, among many other biographies. He is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning filmmaker, having directed and produced several films, including the documentaries Gone Too Soon, Chasing Gaga, and The Cobain Case. Halperin regularly appears on television and radio to share his perspective on celebrity culture.