THE VIOLENT DEATH OF AN AMERICAN DREAM (2024)

MIAMI -- It is known variously as Boatbuilders' Row, Gasoline Alley and Performance Street -- but, from this week on, it will forever be associated with the fast life and violent death of Don Aronow, a prototype of the American dream.

It was along this quiet street in a northern Miami suburb, next to the ocean that made his pulse race, that Aronow built the boats that turned him into a sporting legend. And it was here, at 4:05 p.m. last Tuesday, that he was fatally shot by a gunman who had hailed his white Mercedes car in the middle of the street.

The motive for Aronow's murder remains unclear, according to police. The possibilities seem as varied as his life, which friends portray as a constant quest for excitement in the form of women, money, success and, above all, speed.

A child of the Depression, Aronow, 59, founded several of the world's hottest speed-boat manufacturing companies. His technique was to establish a company's reputation by winning races (the world offshore powerboat championship twice and the U.S. championship three times), then sell the company for enormous profit and open a new one next door.

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Gasoline Alley -- NE 188th Street as it is officially known -- bears the names of the companies the self-made multimillionaire from Brooklyn made famous: Magnum, Apache, Donzi, Cigarette and the U.S.A. racing team.

"It's incredible," said F.M. (Ted) Theodoli, president of Magnum Marine, which he bought from Aronow in 1972. "This is the street that Don created, and he died right here in the middle of it."

Like many boat builders along the street, Theodoli heard the gun shots ring out. He rushed to his window as the gunman was making his getaway in a dark blue Lincoln Continental. Other witnesses described the killer as a middle-aged white male with wavy, medium-length brown hair, a dark complexion and stubble around his chin.

As the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Aronow lay dying, one of the rescue squad members who rushed to the scene asked: "Who is this guy?"

"That's the king," came the response. "He built this entire street."

The incident was recalled at a memorial service for Aronow in Miami Thursday by a racing colleague and Florida eye surgeon, Robert Magoon. Describing his best friend's life as a "mixture of triumph and tragedy," Magoon added: "Don died as he would have wished -- with his boots on and with front-page headlines. Those of us who knew and loved him know that he could never have tolerated growing old and being sickly."

Aronow's customers included Vice President Bush, former Haitian dictator Jean Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, King Hussein of Jordan and King Juan Carlos of Spain. His boats also have ended up in the hands of leading drug syndicates.

After drug smugglers started making use of his 90 mph "Cigarette" boat in the mid-'70s, the Customs Service was forced to fight back. The weapon they chose was a 39-foot catamaran, also designed by Aronow, known as "Blue Thunder."

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In an interview with The Miami News two hours before he was killed, Aronow joked that the Customs Service had bought 13 of the $150,000 catamarans "so they could catch smugglers using boats my other companies have made." But he said he never knowingly sold his boats to drug smugglers.

Aronow's career reads like a rags-to-riches story lived by a character who who was larger than life. His father, a taxicab owner whose family immigrated from Russia, went bankrupt during the Depression. Don Aronow's first job was as an usher working nights and weekends at the old Kingsway theater in Brooklyn.

After working as a gym teacher in the Bronx and serving in the Merchant Marine, he got started in the construction business. By 1956, at the age of 28, he had become a millionaire by building and selling thousands of tract houses in northern New Jersey. He retired to Florida in 1960 and bought himself a speed boat.

Unhappy with the boat's construction, Aronow decided to design one for himself. His first boat was made from wood and broke apart. His second, the Formula, was made of Fiberglas -- and was a winner. Suddenly, its creator found himself in the powerboat business.

The Formula was followed by Donzi (which Aronow, characteristically, named after himself) and the 36-foot Cigarette that most experts consider his masterpiece, named for a boat that used to hijack rum-runners during Prohibition. The idea of bad guys outracing other bad guys and seizing their fortune appealed to Aronow.

"Don was to offshore speed boats what Ben Franklin was to electricity," remarked an admiring Customs official. "I don't want to make him out to be the greatest boat builder in the world, but in that particular class of boats he was unequaled."

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After the memorial service, friends and rivals recalled Aronow's dynamism and intense competitiveness. But they also mentioned his macho personality, rough manners and occasionally explosive temperament.

"Every day was an adventure for Don," said Bill Wishnick, the chairman of the Whitco Chemical Co. who was world offshore champion in 1971. "He was a fierce friend . . . but very outspoken. He would behave as if he didn't given a damn about anybody."

"He was a great bon vivant, a diamond in the rough," said Jim Wynne, Aronow's chief design engineer and creator of the popular marine outdrive, a device that combines advantages of inboard and outboard engines. "His language could be crude occasionally, but it fitted his personality."

Added Theodoli, the present owner of Magnum: "He was a hard-nosed guy. Some people loved and adored him. Others did not . . . . If he didn't like you, he could find a way to abuse you."

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And then there were the women. Lean, handsome and rugged, Aronow was described by Magoon as a charismatic person who was both "a man's man" and a "woman's man."

After divorcing his first wife, Shirley, with whom he had three children, Aronow married Lillian Crawford, a Wilhelmina fashion model and socialite. He regarded this marriage as a part of his success story, boasting: "I'd never be married to a beautiful woman like Lillian if I hauled garbage for a living." She gave birth to their second child four months ago.

Aronow's boats -- sleek, powerful and built for high performance -- were another extension of his personality. Asked by a Miami Herald reporter for a one-word description of the boats he liked to build, he suggested, "Erotic." "Winning is a natural aphrodisiac," Lillian Aronow added.

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Aronow quit boat racing in 1970. After two motorcycle crashes, six automobile wrecks and a dozen boating accidents, he was in considerable pain. That year, his eldest son, Mike, began using a wheelchair after nearly dying in an automobile crash. Father and son decided to branch out into horse racing and breeding.

One of their horses -- named Don Aronow -- won more than $200,000 in prize money. Others raced in the Kentucky Derby. The Aronow stables at Ocala, Fla., house some 40 two-year-olds at various stages of training.

In recent months, Aronow had spoken wistfully about returning to powerboat racing. According to his longtime friend and public relations man, John Crouse, he was planning to take part in the grueling 362-mile Miami-Nassau-Miami race this summer with a new 45-foot deep-V shaped boat. A five-year "no compete" contract that Aronow signed with the new owners of the Cigarette was about to expire.

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The circ*mstances of Aronow's death mystified his friends and associates, who acknowledge that he made enemies with his business tactics but doubt that a competitor would have gone so far as to kill him.

Another line of speculation was that Aronow had run afoul of drug smugglers. Detectives estimate that of Dade County's 235 murders last year (one of the highest homicide rates in the nation), at least one-quarter were "drug-related." Customs officials described the boat builder as "cooperative" when approached for information about a client.

The problem with this theory is that Aronow's murder does not resemble a professional hit job. The gunman drove his own getaway car. He had attracted the attention of passers-by by hanging around in Gasoline Alley for some time before the murder. His escape could easily have been foiled if someone had managed to block the street's only exit.

"It looks to me like a crime of passion," said Crouse, who knew Aronow for over 20 years. "Here in Miami, you can get into a killing fight in a restaurant or at a stop light. It's quite possible that someone had a personal grudge against Don. He was an opinionated guy. If you got him riled, he would come at you."

Theodoli, explaining why he was convinced that the killing was unrelated to Aronow's boating business, said: "The symbolism of Don getting killed in this street is so obvious that it's stupid . . . . You have to look elsewhere. If I had wanted to kill him, I would have done it in New York."

THE VIOLENT DEATH OF AN AMERICAN DREAM (2024)
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