Ron Gonen, AKA a ton of aliases, 1948–2020
Over the weekend I learned that Ron Gonen, the subject of my 2007 book Blood & Volume: Inside New York’s Israeli Mafia, died in October 2020. He had been diagnosed with glioblastoma, a rare but aggressive form of cancer, and the cancer did not respond to treatment. He was 72.
While we had not spoken in two years, the role Ron played in my life cannot be understated. He trusted me with his life story and without that trust, I may have never written a book. Writing a book did not make me rich, but it opened up a lot of other opportunities, from nearly selling the film rights to finding my current agent to being the credential I was able to couple with a master’s degree to teach college writing and journalism classes.
He literally risked his life to give me that trust to tell his story; a few weeks before the book was published and a few weeks after another informant was found and killed as retribution for testifying against the Israeli mafia, Ron was thrown out of the federal witness protection program for talking to me.
Ron downplayed the risk he had taken. After all, his family fled Russia for Israel in the 1950s. He fought in the Six Day War in the 1960s and was an art thief in Europe in the 1970s. In the 1980s, he was a coke dealer in New York City, and, in the early 1990s, he was the informant that helped prosecutors bring down the Israeli mafia.
Beyond that, he was my friend. Ron and I spoke almost daily, usually for two or more hours at a stretch when I was researching and writing the book from January 2004 to its release in March 2007. We continued to talk several times per week for the next few years, first working on the publicity and then seeing if we could take the next step of selling the film or television rights.
You only get so many chances in life to meet and know true characters, and Ron was a true character. He was charming and charismatic with just enough narcissism tossed in to make him the most interesting person in almost every room he walked into. He smoked unapologetically and, when I met him in his late 50s, he refused to date age-appropriate women. He had remorse for his crimes, and he made sure I told his full story, warts and all. But working with him made me realize the “choices” people make in life are often influenced by factors outside their control, and that helped me become a less judgmental person when meeting people who had done things in life I had trouble understanding.
And he was also fiercely loyal to his family. He supported his wife for decades after they separated, doted on his mother and was a proud father.
The book was a hit with critics, but, as these things go, it was not the commercial success either of us had hoped. Our conversations started to become less frequent — he called after the Boston bombing in 2013 to see if I was okay and to talk about the difference in response to bombings he survived in Israel while living there in his formative years. We wouldn’t speak again until 2019 and, as it turns out, it was our last conversation.
During that call, Ron seemed to have found the balance and happiness that had eluded him for most of his life. He was still working in real estate, but, as a lifelong cannabis user, he had started a business distributing CBD products to help older people manage pain. He also worked as a translator for lawyers and doctors who worked with Russian immigrants.
I’ve been wanting to call Ron for about a year. At the start of the pandemic I signed a shopping agreement for Blood & Volume with a producer who has made the best push yet of the five or six we’ve had over the years to turn the book into a film or television series.
The producer assembled a team that includes people you know who have appeared in shows and movies you have seen. The pandemic left Hollywood in flux, and I didn’t want to call Ron until I knew for sure what was going to happen. While this most recent push seems to have come up short, we at least finally got the story to in front of executives from HBO, Netflix, Hulu and others.
But over the past 14 years, we’ve come “this close” so many times, and I didn’t want to get Ron’s hopes up again.
It was a dumb decision.
I had overlooked the fact that the guy who always seemed so full of life was now in his seventies. I have never been good about keeping in touch with the people who have made my life interesting, full and rewarding, and even Ron got that treatment. Today I’m incredibly sad that Ron is gone and wishing I had called more often these past few years. But I am thankful I got to meet him and know him, and I’m incredibly proud of the book we put together, even if only a handful of people ended up reading it.