Don Aronow, powerboat racing champion and founder of Magnum, Cigarette and Donzi, continues to fascinate – as does his mysterious death, discovers Daniel Pembrey.
When Cigarette founder and powerboat racing champion Don Aronow was shot dead on 3 February 1987 in Miami, the boating world was convulsed, but not everybody was surprised.
Emblematic of both the American dream and a particularly magnetic kind of American masculinity, Aronow was a frontiersman, a real-life Marlboro Man and a fearless racer. He was formidably competitive both on and off the water, brutally handsome and adroit at negotiating the line between the legal and the illicit – at least until the very end. A ruthless businessman, he equally relished a challenge in his personal life; “He’d fuck your wife in a second,” said powerboat Hall of Fame racer and boatbuilder Allan “Brownie” Brown, author of Tales from Thunderboat Row. Celebrated yacht designer Michael Peters, who went to work for Aronow the day before he died, said, “He was an asshole, but he was my asshole – a benefactor for whom I’ll always be grateful.”
On 3 February 1987, Peters was aged 34 and among the last people to speak with Aronow at the office of USA Racing Team, the latest of Aronow’s boat firms. “Don and I had had a meeting to discuss my salary. He gave me a spacious office, and I thought, ‘Finally, I’m starting to feel secure in life after a recent divorce.’ I remember taking a call from a guy named Ben Kramer and telling him that Don had already left his office for the day.”
At that time, NE 188th Street was a weed-strewn, low-rise strip. The sun was lowering in the wintery afternoon yet there was still plenty of warmth and light. There was fibreglass dust in the air and the pungent smell of resin and paint. Saws buzzed and machinery hummed at the various boat shops, most of which Aronow had started at one time or another. Radios blared out the hits of the day. Still riding high in the charts was The Bangles’ recent chart-topper Walk Like an Egyptian, originally inspired by the way people struggle to maintain balance aboard boats, apparently.
There was a jumpiness, an electricity in the air, too – not unusual on the street known locally as Thunderboat Row, Performance Street or Gasoline Alley. You never knew who might show up here, from royalty and high-born celebrity clients to drug-dealing low-lifes, by way of government officials, heads of the various boat firms and a diverse population of workers who earned their livings here.
Leaving his office that afternoon, Aronow was making for his North Bay Road residence, a 1929 Spanish-style waterfront mansion undergoing renovations, 30 minutes’ drive away. Members of the Bee Gees were neighbours on both sides. Aronow was now with his second wife, Lillian Crawford – a model, Palm Beach heiress and ex-girlfriend of King Hussein of Jordan. Seemingly he had everything to live for. “Always laughing” and “full of life” were typical depictions of the man. A five-year non-compete agreement with Cigarette Racing, one of the companies he’d sold, dated to 1982 and was about to expire. Nearly 60, he talked of taking up racing again.
His 193cm, still-athletic frame barely fitted inside the sporty white Mercedes-Benz two-seater in which he drove away from USA Racing Team’s office on Thunderboat Row. Peters recalled a sound like firecrackers – “a pop pop pop, eerie and ominous. I knew they were gunshots”. Little could prepare him for the scene two hundred metres up the street. Half out of his car, Aronow lay slumped, crimson blooming across his shirt. Congregating witnesses spoke of a dark Lincoln Continental having pulled up alongside Aronow’s white Mercedes.
“Who is this guy?” asked an arriving first responder. “That’s the king,” came the response, according to The Washington Post. “He built this entire street.” Airlifted to a nearby hospital, Don Aronow was dead within the hour.
The chaotic crime scene confronting police detectives was mysterious, not least because of the geography. The “Row” was island-like, bounded by water on three sides. The narrow street itself dead-ended to the east, requiring visitors to turn around to exit westbound. It would be easy to become blocked in here. The murder fell awkwardly between the sort of extravagant “statement killings” orchestrated by Colombian cocaine kingpins and the kind of professional contract hit carried out by killers keen to hide their tracks, or at least ensure a clean escape. Aronow evidently stopped his car willingly; he was found with his foot pressed fully down on the accelerator, the 5.6-litre Mercedes engine racing wildly – he’d put the car in neutral, almost certainly to engage whoever was inside the Lincoln. Furthermore, there were witnesses – plenty of them, if not always consistent in the details they shared with police. Was it even a planned killing, or some crazed crime of passion?
This was not the first mystery to surround Donald Joel Aronow. He was born in 1927, the son of an affluent taxicab owner whose family had emigrated from Russia and been bankrupted by the Great Depression. Don’s origin story moves around according to who’s telling it. Certainly, young Don became wealthy by building and selling tract houses in New Jersey. By various accounts, he then fled to Florida in 1960 to escape the mob. If true, it was a curious place to hide out from them. More plausibly, he was drawn to the Sunshine State by its warmth, excitement and a different form of escapism, as many tend to be.
In Miami, his head was turned by the nascent offshore powerboating scene and in particular the gruelling Miami-Nassau race that ran for 296 kilometres. Innovations such as fibreglass construction techniques and the drag-reducing deep V hull were taking chunks from the record times, and also from crews in rough seas. Dick Bertram was the man to beat both in terms of boat design and the racing itself. His company, Bertram Yacht, drew worldwide attention.
Aronow set out after Bertram, working with designers on NE 188th Street to create deep V fibreglass Formula boats, notably the seven-metre 233. To finance the development, he sold more civilised versions, with teak decks and sleeping quarters, to the general public. But he knew from Bertram’s experience that the way to promote and build his company was by winning races. Barely had he begun to win before he sold Formula to Thunderbird Boats. “You’re never gonna make a lot of money building boats,” he was quoted as saying. “You make a living doing that. You make real money when you sell the company.”
Next, he started Donzi, named after himself, again on NE 188th Street. He’d retained his key designers. The result was the 8.5-metre 007, named after the gathering cinematic phenomenon. It was in 007 that he beat Bertram in the Miami-Nassau race in 1965. Again, he sold his company and started a new one, Magnum, evidently named after the double-sized bottles of champagne. He raced his 8.2-metre Maltese Magnum all over the world.
These races were filled with tales of derring-do: engine burnouts and explosions, crew members being knocked unconscious or needing airlifting to hospital – some even left marooned and bleeding amid circling sharks, not to forget the high-speed collisions, including one in rough seas under a hovering press helicopter. Audiences grew. Aronow won the World Powerboat Championship in 1967 (he’d go on to win it once more and the US championship three times), and in 1968, he sold Magnum.
Barely into his forties, Aronow was now a famous, feted and very wealthy man. It was the time of the sexual revolution, and his popularity with women was almost as legendary as his boating exploits, although some women were more circumspect. Marchesa Katrin Theodoli and her husband became the owners of Magnum. “I’ve met some extremely charismatic men, including Sean Connery and Roger Moore,” she said. “Those two managed to make you feel like you were the centre of their world. They conveyed a warmth and a feeling of genuinely liking you. Whereas Don Aronow was more brash, assertive – more resolutely a man’s man. He gave the impression that he felt he could take whatever he wanted.”
Like others who bought a boat company from Aronow, the Theodolis had reason to be wary. A pattern emerged whereby Aronow would sell his companies and then seek to eclipse them. He would build larger premises next door, on what was now known as Thunderboat Row, putting his erstwhile companies and new-found competitors in the shade. He might also try to buy the companies back, for cents on the dollar. It was testimony to the Theodolis’ diplomatic instincts that this would not become their fate.
“Don would compete with people his size,” said Michael Peters. “He didn’t pick on the little guy. He was an alpha male, like the male lion you see on safari. Don’t challenge him, and you were fine. But if you decided to take him on, don’t expect him to give ground.”
His next project was considered to be his masterpiece: the long lean Cigarette boats named after a vessel used to hijack rum-runners during Prohibition days. The idea of bad guys outracing other bad guys and seizing their fortunes appealed to Aronow reasoned The Washington Post five days after his murder. “Don was to offshore speed boats what Ben Franklin was to electricity,” an admiring Customs official told the newspaper. “I don’t want to make him out to be the greatest boatbuilder in the world, but in that particular class of boats, he was unequalled.”
Again, Peters gave a qualifying view: “Don perfected things already invented: hull shapes, construction techniques and engine setups. Certainly, he added sex appeal to it all.” In 1977, Cigarette introduced the “super sexy new 35 Mistress” (as the advertisement read). “When I started designing for Cigarette in 1978, Halter Marine had just acquired the company and they perpetuated the ethos,” said Peters. “The boss’s wife would lean over my drafting table with her ample bosom and say, ‘Remember, think sex.’”
Alongside the sexual revolution came the growth in the drugs trade. A certain nostalgia colours memories of the 1970s as a time of the “gentlemanly” marijuana business. A certain Ben Kramer, who came from a seemingly good home on the Intracoastal Waterway between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, started smoking pot at school and began selling it. Soon enough, he had his own yellow Cigarette boat with which to smuggle. He admired Aronow and acquired a corner of the Row, obtaining an interest in Apache, which in turn supplied the vessels he raced offshore (his fabled Warpath, based on a deep V Cigarette mould, won him a world championship). With his father, he also founded Fort Apache Marina on the Row, comprising a boat storage facility, waterfront restaurant and patio bar.
Rumours concerning Fort Apache continue to circulate, including one about the dock area, positing that camouflaged metal doors opened into large storage compartments, accessible at low tide – at night, say.
Whatever the truth of such rumours, the way South Florida’s drug business metastasised from marijuana to cocaine smuggling, to vast profits and lawlessness, would sustain five seasons of Miami Vice. In the real-life offshore racing seasons, a majority of the contestants might well turn out to be drug runners – say, George Morales, Sal Magluta and Willie Falcón, all convicted of cocaine trafficking. Race officials found themselves in invidious positions. “During the day we’re asked to patrol their race course during events for emergency rescues,” a Coast Guard official told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “But at night, we’re chasing many of the same guys for smuggling.”
Events took a turn towards the surreal when Carlos Lehder, the Medellín Cartel kingpin, started buying up Norman’s Cay, an island in the Bahamas some 330 kilometres off the coast of Florida, for his cocaine transport empire. By November 1981, a Time magazine cover feature was declaring that “an epidemic of violent crime, a plague of illicit drugs and a tidal wave of refugees have slammed into South Florida with the destructive power of a hurricane”. Miami claimed the nation’s highest murder rate at 70 per 100,000 residents, “and this year’s pace has been even higher”. An estimated “70 per cent of all marijuana and cocaine imported into the US passes through South Florida”, the feature reported. “Drug smuggling could be the region’s major [largest] industry.”
Much was explained by the state’s southern exposure and geography – its thousands of kilometres of coastline, coves and inlets. Revealingly, the Time feature predicted that Miami would remain, “as the late President Jaime Roldós of Ecuador put it, the ‘capital of Latin America’”. It reported Miami’s Federal Reserve branch to have amassed a currency surplus of $5 billion, “mostly in drug-generated $50 and $100 bills, or more than the nation’s 12 Federal Reserve banks combined.” The associated crime could strike anyone.
Even local residents the Bee Gees were not immune. Their father, Hugh Gibb, was mugged; Barry Gibb’s wife, Linda, had her purse snatched. “No woman should be alone in this city,” Barry Gibb warned Time. “Or man,” his brother Robin added. Around one-third of the region’s murders were believed to be related to drugs.
The drug money was corrupting banking, real estate and law enforcement. It fuelled an uneasy dynamism. “New hotels and office towers are rising in Miami, and once-sleepy towns nearby are growing skylines of their own,” chronicled Time. In these circumstances, it would have been extraordinary if the drug cash hadn’t found its way into Thunderboat Row and its fabled go-fast boats.
Aronow, it seems, would sell anybody a boat, especially for cash, but if you said you were using it to smuggle drugs, “Don wouldn’t have anything to do with you,” asserted Mike Kandrovicz from USA Racing Team.
It was into this volatile, heady mix that vice president George HW Bush – President Reagan’s lieutenant in the White House’s “war on drugs” – unwittingly stepped. Bush had long been an admirer of Aronow’s sleek vessels and had equally been disarmed by the man himself. He’d bought a Formula and a Cigarette from him, describing Aronow as “a joy to be around”. As director of the CIA, he’d also interacted with Aronow, recalling how “Don came and offered to help our country”. It was just one of the unusual clients Aronow had dealings with: oil-rich Arabs, Princess Caroline of Monaco and the Shah of Iran.
At Bush’s instigation, the US Customs Service took the fateful step in 1985 of placing a $1.7 million order for high-speed pursuit boats with Aronow’s USA Racing Team. Still subject to a non-compete agreement with Cigarette – which he’d bought back, then sold again in 1982 – Aronow was forbidden from producing deep V monohulls. So he commissioned a design from Michael Peters that split a V in two to create a catamaran. Given this unpromising start in life, the seven-ton, 11.9-metre Blue Thunder vessels acquitted themselves well. They were fast (more than 112km/h), good for interdiction activities (stable when boarding intercepted boats) and comparatively easy to drive. Yet deep V monohulls were now reaching 160km/h. Also, said Peters, “the Coast Guard drivers were left drowned in the wake of the offshore racers and the cocaine runners, who just had a different mentality come race time.”
The more problematic aspect was that Aronow additionally arranged to sell USA Racing Team, complete with the Blue Thunder contract, to Ben Kramer, who by now had drug smuggling convictions. It did not take the US Customs Service long to learn of this. They could not countenance procuring drug interdiction boats from a firm owned by a convicted smuggler and predictably moved to cancel the procurement contract. Aronow agreed to buy USA Racing Team back from Kramer, equally predictably for less than the consideration he’d received. Accounts of the dealings vary, but perhaps $2 million had been paid under the table in cash by Kramer when he bought the firm, using drug money. This sum, Aronow did not return. Herein lay the alleged motivation for Aronow’s murder.
The official record shows that, via a tip-off, police identified a mercenary street criminal named Bobby Young as the man who’d shot Aronow. Although witnesses failed to identify him in police line-ups, Young pled no contest to the shooting. Meanwhile, Kramer had been convicted of massive marijuana smuggling and money laundering, receiving multiple prison sentences including life without parole. More tips and leads pointed to Kramer as the man who’d ordered and paid for the hit.
The investigating detectives believed that Kramer was seeking to silence Young in jail, paying his legal bills, even possibly seeking to have Young killed. However, this “consciousness of guilt” made for a weak state’s case. Ultimately, Kramer pled no contest to second-degree murder. By this time – the mid 1990s – he was being kept in an isolation cell without, his lawyer claimed, adequate dental or medical care. “They had me in a cage for three years and nine months, with no daylight, no contact with human beings,” Kramer said.
Besides the state’s weak case, there were other, more fundamental doubts over whether Kramer had arranged to have Aronow shot. Kramer was hot tempered, the argument went; had he been sufficiently enraged by the USA Racing Team misfire to kill Aronow, he would have done so in 1985, whereas Kramer reportedly remained respectful towards Aronow until the end.
Separately, there were rumours that Aronow may have been assisting law enforcement, even becoming an informant – or at least that, in early 1987, he was about to be subpoenaed to give evidence about the USA Racing Team transactions. Five days after his murder, The Washington Post reported that a Customs official described Aronow as “co-operative” when Aronow had been approached for information about one of his clients. If the real motive for Aronow’s murder was him turning informant, surely others (on the wrong side of the law) were potential suspects, too?
Over the years, theories have developed to involve the Chicago mob, Colombian drug kingpins, cuckolded husbands or just a random shooter. Back in 1981, Time quoted a legal researcher living in Miami as saying: “I see people walking down the streets openly carrying guns, some in their hands, others in their holsters. You don’t dare honk your horn at anybody; you could end up dead.”
Certainly it is less difficult now to see how, in 1980s Miami, the murder of a man as magnetic as Aronow could garner 140 suspects at the Metro-Dade Police Department, each with the apparent motive, means and opportunity to have the “King of Thunderboat Row” gunned down in broad daylight. Bobby Young, the convicted shooter and the man who might have provided definitive answers, died in jail in 2009. The murder may forever remain a mystery.
Today, Thunderboat Row is a transformed, gentrified enclave. Only Magnum and a marina (not Fort Apache) are still here. The rest of NE 188th Street is covered with blocks of expensive condos promising comfortable waterside living. The boats tend to be smaller, more sedate, more family-oriented. At the east end of the street is now the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center; further east, across Biscayne Bay, on oceanside Sunny Isles Beach, stands the Porsche Design Tower. It lets you transport your luxury car up to the safety of your own unit, even as crime rates have dropped.
Cigarette, Donzi and other Aronow-conceived brands live on, as do the Miami to Key West race and offshore poker runs. But nothing compares with the go-fast scenes of the 1960s, 1970s and climatic 1980s. Those times can only be likened to the Old West: the Marlboro Man; the weed-strewn strip with its pioneers and settlers; the freebooters from south of the border bringing their lawlessness and loot and the law of the gun.
Michael Peters concludes, “If you want to find anything comparable today, you need to look elsewhere, maybe to the ‘final frontier’ – Blue Origin, SpaceX, Bezos and Musk.” He pauses. “In the boating world, we won’t see the likes of Don Aronow again.”
First published in the October 2022 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.shop now