Reaching out across the Pacific to Miami, Florida, The Captain gets the lowdown on the wild life and times of legendary Cigarette builder Don Aronow.
Don Aronow was a dead set legend. He designed, built and raced the famous Magnum Marine, Cary, Cigarette, Donzi and Formula speedboats. In his spare time, he built speedboats for the Shah of Iran and American presidents George Bush Sr and Lyndon Johnson, among others and he hung out with the Beatles. Don also rubbed quite a few people up the wrong way — and one of them eventually shot Don dead in Miami in 1987. Everyone who knew him has a story to tell. The Captain tracked down a motley crew prepared to spill the beans.
MEET THE CREW
Michael Aronow is one of Don’s five sons from three wives. (Captain’s note: more about Don’s, er, appetites, later.)
Bob Saccenti is the builder of Chief Powerboats and founder of Apache Performance Boats.
Phil Lipschutz is a Miami Cigarette dealer and a former contractor to the Don.
Allan “Brownie” Brown is a former acquaintance.
Michael Peters was a contracted designer to Aronow from 1981 to 1986, and was then hired full-time.
ONE OF A KIND
They just don’t make ’em like Don Aronow anymore. During his quarter-century reign as the undisputed king of Thunderboat Row, Aronow was a lot of different things to a lot of different people. He was a hero and a genius, a ballbuster and a bully. A world-champion boat racer who enjoyed wild success in business, he was also an unapologetic playboy and fabled bon vivant. (Captain’s note: this means “party animal”.)
But Aronow may have possessed a darker side that even he could not outrun and in the end, he wound up as nothing more than a target for an assassin’s bullet. This is his story in the words of some of the men who knew him best. A tough, athletic, Jewish kid from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, New York, by the age of 21, Aronow was married and about to start a career in his father-in-law’s New Jersey construction company.
Allan Brown “Shirley was his first wife. Her father was extremely wealthy and Don once told me he was going to take Shirley to California if the old man didn’t cut him into the business.”
Michael Aronow “After he was working with the family for a few years, he went off on his own and started building homes, then shopping centres and industrial parks all over northern New Jersey. He eventually became aggravated with the business. The weather was cold and he was getting ulcers. He said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I can retire and let’s go to Florida.’ This was in 1961.”
Allan Brown “Everybody has their own idea about why he was in Miami. Some people say he was hiding from the mob. I can’t imagine that, though, he was pretty easy to find. He thought he was going to semi-retire to Florida and skindive and fish — but he got bored.” Michael Peters “Aronow looked the part. Guys wanted to be him. Six foot three, real good-looking, lots of swagger. He was right out of a Hollywood script. He’s the only person I’ve ever known like that. He was larger than life. And he liked to get the best of people.” Bob Saccenti “When he came to Florida, he got hooked up with the greats and he definitely made his mark. People said whatever Don touched turned to gold.”
Michael Aronow “Forrest Johnson was originally his fishing buddy. They become friends and Johnson told my father about the Miami-Nassau race, which my father became really interested in. He competed in the race in April 1962 and led until the end. But they [blew] a clutch and had nothing left. The boat coasted in fourth. He became hooked on racing and that’s how it all began.” Phil Lipschutz “Once racing’s in your blood, you can never get it out.”
Michael Aronow “After that ’62 race, my father started to work with Jim Wynne and Walt Walters. He went to 188th Street in Miami and decided he wanted to put a plant there. That became the original Formula Marine.”
Allan Brown “He started Formula from scratch and sold it to Thunderbird in about a year. Made quite a lot of money on it in 1964. He did that a few times. He sold Magnum to American Photocopy for a ton. He had plenty of cheese. (Captain’s note: we think he means “money”.) He had a brown Rolls-Royce and [race] horses.” Bob Saccenti “He used to say you’re never gonna make a lot of money building boats — you make a living doing that. You make real money when you sell the company.”
Allan Brown “He was also the best boat salesman in the history of the world. A guy would come looking at a boat with a girl, and the guy would ask ‘How much?’ And Don would go, ‘$70,000.’ The guy would say, ‘That’s too much.’ And Don would say, every time, ‘I think you should go get a Bayliner then, this is way too much boat for you.’ And the guys would be ripping their pockets open trying to give him money!”
Michael Peters “A guy would walk into his shop, all excited to meet [Aronow] and buy a boat. The guy would say, ‘I want a 28.’ And Aronow would say, ‘Oh no, we’re all sold out.’ And the guy would keep pushing, ‘I wanted one all my life.’ And Don would say, ‘We don’t have any 28s, but I’m building a 35 for myself and I could sell that to you.’ That was classic Aronow.” Allan Brown “Every boat he sold was ‘built for himself’. There are about 70 people out there who think they have a boat Don built for himself!”
Michael Aronow “By 1966, my dad had sold Donzi to Teleflex. Then he bought a parcel of land immediately west of them and built the Magnum building. It was a big building and obscured the Donzi plant — you couldn’t see [Donzi] from Highway 1 anymore! That was just his personality.” The secret to happiness is taking risks.
Don Aronow understood that motto as well as anyone who ever lived. Bob Saccenti “The real Don was sitting at a business table negotiating deals. And he never would backpedal later or change things. When you shook his hand, that was the deal. Some people badmouth him, ‘He did this, he robbed that.’ Well, that’s shame on you. You’re a businessman, too. You gotta do your homework. Because he did, that’s for sure.”
THE PANTS MAN
With lots of money and charisma, not to mention NFL starting quarterback good looks, Aronow soon became a ladies’ man of legendary status in Miami circles.
Phil Lipschutz “The saying he had [about Cigarette’s famed Mistress model] was, ‘Every man should have a Mistress.’ And that certainly described Don, too.” Allan Brown “He’d fuck your wife in a second. He was a real successful cocksman — the best I ever saw. I used to work boat shows with him and Holy Christ!” Michael Aronow “I don’t think any of those guys had ever seen anything quite like it, to be honest.”
Allan Brown “At Cigarette, he had an intercom in his office and he used to boff his secretary there. If you needed him, you just hit him on the intercom!” Michael Peters “The upstairs apartment above his office was kind of famous. He would have a succession of ladies that would appear. Just lining up. At his funeral, [eye surgeon and powerboat racer] Doc Magoon gave the eulogy, and at one point he said, ‘Don was a man’s man.’ He paused, and then said, ‘And he was a ladies’ man.’ Everybody looked around the room at all of the known mistresses that were sitting there.”
Michael Aronow “My father broke up more marriages than anybody. You can talk to anybody [about that]… [But] he was home every night. He was a great dad and a great husband. He came to my basketball games, my football games, he was always around.”
Aronow was extremely competitive in most aspects of his life, perhaps even to a fault.
Michael Peters “If you were a coward with him, you were gone. You had to be able to match. And if you had money and you were a coward, he’d take as much as possible. He was about outdoing the other guy, no matter what you were doing.”
Bob Saccenti “He was a great guy and a great businessman. He was the type of guy that if he liked you, he loved you. But if he didn’t like you, watch out.”
Allan Brown “Our friend Stu Jackson worked for Thunderbird and he received a gold Rolex when he retired. We were having lunch one day and Don asked if it was a good watch. Jackson said it was the best in the world. Aronow said, ‘Let me see.’ Then he took the watch by the clasp, banged it on the table and threw it in a glass of beer. I don’t think it ever ran again.”
Michael Peters “He didn’t like guys that came in and tried to go toe-to-toe with him. He’d knock you right down.” Allan Brown “Don was so reckless with shit like that. A kid was going to start a boat company in Florida. He had bought a boat in California and he asked Aronow and me to drive it and see if it was any good. Aronow went down the canal at 65mph (105km/h) and ended up running into the seawall. [He drove it back and] the boat was sinking at the dock. He stepped off and said, ‘The boat’s a piece of shit, kid. I just did you a favour.’”
Michael Peters [upon hearing Brown’s story] “I’m from California, I hope that story’s not about me!”
Bob Saccenti “I think there were over 100 suspects when they finally killed him.”
Michael Peters “It could have been anyone, from drug runners to business partners to jealous husbands.”
CLIENTS & CRIMINALS
Aronow famously kept company with people from all walks of life. He hung out with kings, mobsters and the Beatles, and considered future president George HW Bush a close friend.
Michael Peters “One of the first issues I had to deal with when he hired me [in the early 1980s] was [notorious Haitian dictator] ‘Baby Doc’ [Duvalier, who was a client]. That was on my to-do list: Deal with Baby Doc. That was the cast of characters he was involved with. And I can tell you, the day he was murdered there were phone calls to the King of Jordan, the King of Spain, George Bush.
Phil Lipschutz “I never had any inkling that Don was involved in something illegal. Don built boats for good guys and he built them for bad guys. A guy comes in with the money and you build a boat for them — and you never know. Back in those days, [criminal activity involving speedboats] was very prevalent because there was a lot of smuggling going on. Performance boats attract a lot of characters.” One of those characters was a racing boat driver and drug smuggler called Ben Kramer. Aronow had sold USA Racing Team — a company that built high-speed catamarans for the US Customs Service — to Kramer and his father in 1985. However, when the Customs Service found out about the younger Kramer’s criminal reputation, they put the kibosh on the transaction.
Allan Brown “Ben Kramer bought USA Racing from Aronow and apparently there was some money under the table. [Then vice president] Bush said, ‘We ain’t gonna buy boats from Ben Kramer. The deal’s off.’ I’m guessing Don kept some of the under-thetable money.”
Michael Peters “I had gone through a divorce and it was terrible times. Don was the only person who gave me more than a platitude — he gave me a job. This was December of ’86. I was a little hesitant to move to Miami because my view of it was straight out of [1980s TV series] Miami Vice. Everything there to me was racing and drug trafficking. I was like, do I really want to move down there? Sure enough, I moved there on a Monday and he was murdered that Tuesday.” On the afternoon of February 3, 1987, a man claiming to be “Jerry Jacoby” walked into Aronow’s Thunderboat Row office exhibiting strange behaviour. He was inquiring about a 60ft boat and alluding to a mysterious man he worked for — and who he would kill for, if need be. Shortly after the visit, Aronow left his office and drove down the street to Apache Performance Boats to visit with his former protégé, Bob Saccenti. At the time, Saccenti was recovering from a horrific crash on Lake Erie. (Ironically, in the immediate aftermath of the crash, Saccenti’s life was saved by his race partner, none other than Ben Kramer.) After Aronow’s brief visit with Saccenti, he got back in his white Mercedes and began to pull away. But a dark Lincoln Continental rolled up alongside and then shots rang out.
Bob Saccenti “Don used to come and see me when I was hurt — one of those ‘You need anything, let me know,’ things. That one time, Don said, ‘Alright kid, I’ll see ya,’ and walked out the door. Next thing I know, an employee is banging on my door. He don’t speak too much English, but he’s trying to explain something serious. He’s pointing out the door and there’s Don in his car, the engine screaming and he’s slumped over the steering wheel. I saw it, the blood. And he’s bellowing, trying to say something. I told my secretary to call 911. The EMS [paramedics] showed up and pulled him out. He was pale, he had gone unconscious at some point. We could see all the gunshots.”
Allan Brown “He was murdered right out in front of my office, halfway between Official fitters for The Captain’s 445F project boat… Nub -Tub Saccenti’s building and my building. I didn’t hear shots, with the air-conditioner and sewing machines going on, but somebody came and got me. I went over there and he had holes all over him. I never thought anybody would actually do that, but by God, they did.” Michael Peters “[George] Bush’s reaction was that he wanted [Miami] Dade Homicide on it like it was the most important case on their books. Then the investigation got going and they realised who Aronow was involved with. Bush back-pedalled out of there as fast as he could. He was going to run for president and his friend had 140 people who wanted to kill him!”
Allegations ran wild in the aftermath of Aronow’s death. Speculation about who the killer might be ran from jilted lovers or jealous husbands to [Jewish mobster] Meyer Lansky and the CIA. But in the end, the investigation led to a hired gun. A violent criminal named Bobby Young was fingered as the hitman, whose employer — according to the courts — was Ben Kramer. Young died in prison in 2009 after steadfastly refusing for years to testify against Kramer. Kramer got a 19-year sentence for manslaughter to run concurrently with a life term for marijuana smuggling. To this day, he maintains his innocence. He says the Colombians did it.
Bob Saccenti “[Kramer and Aronow] were both wealthy, and if it was over money, that’s a shame. Money comes and goes. Nobody really knows [what happened], the only thing for sure is that Don’s gone.”
Phil Lipschutz “[Aronow] lived right on the water on Biscayne Bay. And every new [Cigarette] that I do, I drive right by his house with it, just so he can see. I think he’d really be proud of the boats.”