Everyone who knew legendary Cigarette founder Don Aronow has a story to tell about him. We collected some of the best.
Michael Aronow: son
Bob Saccenti: builder of Chief Powerboats and founder of Apache Performance Boats
Phil Lipschutz: former Aronow contractor and current Miami-area Cigarette dealer
Allan “Brownie” Brown: former acquaintance
Michael Peters: contracted designer 1981-1986, hired full-time 1987
They just don’t make ’em like Don Aronow anymore. During his quarter-century-long 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.
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.
Gallery: Don Aronow
[A tough, athletic, Jewish kid from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, by age 21 Aronow found himself married and about to start a career in his father-in-law’s New Jersey construction company.]
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.
Aronow: After he was working with the family for a few years he went off on his own and started building homes, then shopping centers, industrial parks, all over northern New Jersey. And he eventually became aggravated with the business. The weather was cold and he was getting ulcers and he said, “I can’t do this anymore. I can retire and let’s go to Florida.” This was in 1961.
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 skin dive and fish, but he got bored.
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.
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.
Aronow: Forrest Johnson was originally his fishing buddy. They become friends and Mr. Johnson told my father about the Miami-Nassau race and my father became really interested in it. He competed in the race in April ’62 and led until the end, but they [blew] a clutch and had nothing left. The boat coasted in fourth. And he became hooked on racing and that’s how it all began.
Lipschutz: Once racing’s in your blood you can never get it out.
Aronow: After the ’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. And that became the original Formula Marine.
Brown: He started Formula from scratch and sold it to Thunderbird in about a year. Made quite a lot of money on it in spring of 1964. He did that a few times. He sold Magnum to American Photocopy for a ton. He had plenty of cheese. He had a brown Rolls Royce and [raced] horses and stuff.
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.
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, “Seventy grand.” 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!
Peters: A guy would walk into his shop, all excited to meet [Aronow] and buy a boat. And 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, Oh, I wanted one all my life. And Don would say, “Yeah 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.
Brown: Every boat he sold was “built for himself.” There’s about 70 people out there who think they have a boat Don built for himself.
Aronow: By ’66 my dad had sold Donzi to Teleflex. Then he bought a parcel of land immediately west of them, and that’s where he built the Magnum building. It was a big building and obscured the Donzi plant, and you couldn’t see [Donzi] from Highway 1 anymore! That was just his personality.
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 bad-mouth him, “Oh 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.
[With lots of money and charisma, not to mention starting-quarterback good looks, Aronow soon became a ladies man of legendary status in Miami circles.]
Lipschutz: The saying he had about [Cigarette’s famed Mistress model] was “every man should have a Mistress.” And that certainly described him, too.
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!
aronow: I don’t think any of those guys had ever seen anything quite like it to be honest.
Brown: At Cigarette he had an intercom in his office and he used to boff his secretary there and if you needed him you just hit him on the intercom!
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, Doc Magoon gave the eulogy, and at one point he said “Don was a man’s man,” and he paused, and then he said, “and he was a ladies’ man.” And everybody looked around the room at all of the known mistresses that were sitting there.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
Peters: He didn’t like guys that came in and tried to go toe to toe with him. He’d knock you right down.
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 65 mph in it, and ended up running into the seawall. [He drove it back and] the boat was sinking at the dock and he stepped off and said “The boat’s a piece of shit kid. I just did you a favor.”
Peters: [upon hearing Brown’s story] I’m from California, I hope that story’s not about me!
Saccenti: I think there were over 100 suspects when they finally killed him.
Peters: It could have been anyone from drug runners, to business partners, to jealous husbands.
[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 H.W. Bush a close friend.]
Peters: One of the first issues I had to deal with when he hired me [in the early ’80s] was [notorious Haitian dictator] Baby Doc [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 could tell you the day he was murdered there were phone calls to the King of Jordan, the King of Spain, George Bush.
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 race-boat driver and drug smuggler named Ben Kramer. Aronow had sold USA Racing Team—a company that built high-speed catamarans for the U.S. 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.]
Brown: Ben Kramer bought USA Racing from Aronow and apparently there was some money under the table. And when [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-the-table money.
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 Miami Vice. Everything there to me was racing and drug trafficking. And I was like, do I really want to move down there? And 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 behavior; inquiring about a 60-foot boat and alluding to a mysterious man that 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 alongside of him, and then—shots rang out.]
Saccenti: Don used to come and see me when I was hurt, one of those “You need anything let me know,” kinda things. Then one time, Don left, and said “Alright kid, I’ll see ya,” and he walked out the door. Next thing I know an employee comes in and he’s banging on my door. He don’t speak too much English, he’s trying to explain something, something serious. He’s pointing out the door and there was Don in his car, the engine is screaming, he’s slumped over the steering wheel. And I seen it, the blood. And he’s bellowing trying to say something. I told my secretary to call 911. The EMS showed up. They pulled him out, he was pale, he had gone unconscious at some point. We could see all the gunshots.
Brown: He was murdered right out in front of my office halfway between 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’d actually do that, but by God they did.
Peters: Bush’s reaction was that he wanted Dade Homicide on it like the most important case on their books. And then the investigation got going and they realized who Aronow was involved with, and Bush backpedaled 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 to jealous husbands to Meyer Lansky to the CIA. But in the end the investigation led to a hired gun. A violent criminal named Bobby Young was fingered as the hitman, and his 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. For his part, he says the Colombians did it.]
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.
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.