The passing of the ‘Sun King’
The larger-than-life South African icon died on 21 March at his Leeukoppie homestead in Cape Town at the age of 84 following a battle with cancer. Family, friends, and associates spoke to the SA Jewish Report newspaper this week to pay tribute to Kerzner.
“Now, at the end, the blessing for Sol was that every one of his children and grandchildren was there with him,” said Theo Rutstein, Kerzner’s nephew and himself famed for the founding of Teljoy.
He says that growing up, while Kerzner’s family might have started out with little money, Kerzner’s father always declared himself a millionaire. “He would say to me, ‘I’m a multimillionaire.’ And he pointed to all his children and grandchildren, and said, ‘These are my millions.’ This was the sort of love that emanated from him, and Sol grew up with it.”
In 2018, when Kerzner was awarded the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, he paid tribute to his parents. “My father managed to get out of Poland. He came here and then took a few years to bring my mother and sisters out. I was born in South Africa. My parents worked seven days a week, and my elder sister took care of us. In spite of my folks working so hard, we were a close-knit family with good Jewish values.”
Rutstein said this solid family foundation stood Kerzner in good stead his whole life. “As demanding as he was on business people in that environment, so was he accepting from a family perspective. He didn’t try to rule anyone; he let them get on and live their life the way they wanted to.”
Entertainment business guru Hazel Feldman, a long-time associate of Kerzner’s, also recalls that while Kerzner could be tough in business, personally, he was deeply caring. Describing him as a “visionary” and a “game changer”, Feldman said that “for all of his brashness and profanity, if you could crack through in a personal sense, he was mush! He really was!”
She recalls how when working for him, he would have “no qualms about calling you in on a Saturday or Sunday or the middle of the night to do this or come in for a meeting. But one time, when he called me in on a Saturday, I had a sick child and I came in and said, ‘Sol, if we are going to be long then I’ve got to get back because my child isn’t well…”
“So he looked at me and said, ‘What the f*** are you doing here then!’” she remembers wryly. He sent her straight home, and later checked in on how her child was doing.
Ian Douglas, who served as Kerzner’s right hand man for more than 20 years, recalled that when the occasion demanded it, Kerzner wasn’t afraid to cross over his roles as family patriarch and hotel dynamo.
He recalled how at the opening of the Beacon Isle Hotel In Plettenberg Bay, “the workforce decided on opening night to also get involved in the party. They had a few drinks themselves, and they were pretty useless as a consequence.”
At the time, Kerzner’s children were with him, “so he had his whole family washing dishes, making sure the place was functioning exactly as it should”.
Kerzner was always the consummate professional, said Douglas. “He had this amazing ability to grasp the vision, yet grapple with the details.”
The moment that illustrates this best was the opening of Sun City, “where a few hours before the launch, Kerzner was out front with a big broom sweeping”, said Douglas.
He reiterated that while Kerzner was a “tough taskmaster” he was also “always very fair. If he shouted at you one day, it was over the next – and he always shouted at you for some reason”.
Melanie Millin-Moore, who worked in public relations for Kerzner, laughingly concedes that Kerzner was almost infuriatingly always right. “Even though there were rows and rages that at times were really hectic, number one: he was never wrong. He’d say to me, ‘Stop overthinking things. Sometimes simple is better’, and he was right.”
If Kerzner did get angry, she said, “you could challenge him, and if anything was wrong and you screwed up, you could go to him and tell him, but you would have to make sure that you had a solution”.
Millin-Moore spoke of Kerzner’s great sense of humour. “He would get a twinkle in his eye and this little boyish smile, and people would just be captivated by him.”
She recalls how when they were travelling overseas, planning for what would later become the One&Only Resorts, they met a prestigious branding professional in London. “This top guy comes and says, ‘So, I’ve got it all planned out, and I think One&Only is the best name’.”
“And Sol said, What nonsense is this! It’s too terrible. I’m not going to use that. You come up with other ideas.
“Well 50 ideas later, we were all fatigued, and somebody says, ‘Well I think maybe we could go with [a particular idea] now that we’ve gone through everything…’”
“And then Sol gets that twinkle and that smile, and says, ‘Guys, you know what, I’ve decided that One&Only is a great name!’”
She said as funny (and frustrating) as the experience was, it also revealed one of his core strengths, that behind every decision, no matter how seemingly spontaneous, was a precise and careful deliberation process.
Long-time friend, celebrity psychologist Dorianne Weil also noted the wonder of the razzle and dazzle of Kerzner’s life, and the depth beyond it. “The opening of the Beacon Isle, Sun City, and then the entertainment centre, The Palace, the Nedbank Golf Challenge, the Miss Worlds, the week on the Sea Goddess, the Monte Carlo party interspersed with those languid and sometimes raucous lunches at Leeukoppie…” she recalled in a letter directed to Kerzner.
“Hi Frank! How’re you doing Elton? Loved you in Cabaret Liza! Fantastic night Shirley! Oh look – there’s Michael! Ivana and Joan please join us … Yes, there were hot and cold running stars, edge-to-edge celebrities, and amidst the fireworks, caviar, champagne, and more and more jungle juice, there was us, your friends!”
Yet there were also “family times, meaningful times, shared, celebrated, and commiserated”.
Weil mentioned the death of Kerzner’s wife, Shirley, as well as his son, Butch, who died in a helicopter crash at the age of 42, as two particular tragedies with which Kerzner had to contend.
“You have demonstrated resilience and [the ability to] bounce back. You have taught us the true meaning of determination, focus and ‘never give up’ – not ever.”
Rutstein said that while Kerzner enjoyed the glamorous parts of his work, his real strength emerged in more difficult times. “It was absolutely clear that he would roll with the punches and ride with the waves. He stood up to absolutely every challenge resolutely. He never offloaded on anyone, but you would see him contemplative and thinking.
Both Weil and Rutstein said that Kerzner’s loyalty to his loved ones was his ultimate legacy. “Your generosity, not only materially, but of spirit has no bounds. Your actions define friendship with depth and loyalty,” said Weil.
Rutstein said that ultimately, it was “no wonder that Sol was a great hotelier. He dealt with the hotels in the same way as he dealt with his home. When you were a guest in his home, nothing was too much trouble; everything must be provided. He carried that same sense of generosity throughout.”