The Sultan of Schmooze

Michael Aller can smooth-talk with the best of them. His political friends in Miami Beach love him for it. His creditors don't.

He also lived for a while in California, and in the late 1960s, he did something rather unusual for an out-of-the-closet gay man: He married a woman with whom he'd developed a close friendship. But what he admits was an unconsummated marriage ended five years later when "she ran off with Richard Simmons," as Aller puts it. They'd befriended Simmons, he explains, but his wife left him to work on Simmons's burgeoning health-and-exercise business.

Eventually Aller decided to get out of the nursing-home field, and the businesses were sold in 1979. Given his precarious financial situation here, some Miami-based friends of Aller don't believe his claim that he made a fortune in nursing homes, but all signs indicate he's likely telling the truth. The flagship of the family business was the Sherwood Hall Convalescent Home in Royal Oak, Michigan, and Michael Aller was the president and only shareholder, Michigan state records show. That one home was sold for a million dollars, according to Sigmund Speckman, treasurer of the firm that bought the home from Aller's family. Other nursing-home sales brought in sufficient funds that at age 39 Aller had made enough money to retire.

Michael Aller has always enjoyed living well, and when he cashed in on his nursing-home business, supplemented by money from his family, he decided it was time to live out a gay man's fantasy: He headed to where the boys were, Fort Lauderdale. Aller recalls that in 1979, the city was one of the gay meccas of the eastern seaboard. He enjoyed himself, living a life of ease and hedonism. "Then AIDS came in, and I took up golf instead," he says now.

In 1987 he arrived in Miami Beach to begin caring for his ailing mother, who died in 1990. Soon he made a splash on the society scene, establishing his image as a carefree, affluent civic activist. He rose up the ranks of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, co-chaired the local United Way, and served as a board member for many nonprofit organizations, including the Miami Beach Jewish Community Center and the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra. He also expanded his social network by his willingness to sing and tell jokes at socialites' homes; eventually he and some friends rented a 78-foot catamaran to offer a floating piano bar.

But he always volunteered his time to good causes, and at least in the early days, friends say, he was often generous with monetary donations. Aller declines to discuss how much he has given to various groups, but he's been known to brag privately that he casually wrote a $50,000 check to one Jewish organization. In recent years, he has devoted most of his volunteering to various Jewish groups and AIDS organizations. To almost everyone who sees him engaged in so much public-spirited work, it's clear that, as the Concert Association's development director, Lenore Toby, puts it, "He really cares about Miami Beach."

Over the years, it has seemed just as clear to many that Aller is a man of great wealth. He humbly refers to himself as "comfortable," and he managed until recently to devote himself to full-time volunteering and entertaining -- without having a regular job (he gets only a "modest" sum for his radio show). But those who know him well began to realize that his affluent image was, as one former friend puts it, "an illusion": He lived in a small rental apartment, he couldn't pay back small loans, and his friends kept hearing stories about bounced checks and angry merchants who were seeking payment on huge tabs.

The consequences of these problems have been felt most harshly by people like Maria, a demure, Peruvian-born manicurist in a North Beach barbershop who had known Aller only as a friendly customer. "I trusted him," she now says with regret. (Maria is not her real name; she declines to be identified because she fears retaliation; other critics who declined to be quoted by name for this story have been reluctant to do so, in part, because of fear of offending Aller's influential friends. "I don't need the grief," says one. "He's so well-protected.")

Maria is still bitter over what she says happened to her. Back in May of 1992, she was planning to visit her relatives in New York, but couldn't afford the plane fare. She mentioned her situation to Aller during one of his manicure sessions, and he said he had a discount ticket he could sell her. Total cost: $206. In September she went to the airport to take her long-awaited trip, only to discover that the ticket, made out in Aller's name, wasn't transferable. Dejected, she returned home and called Aller, who reassured her he would straighten things out during his next manicure visit later in the week. But all he did was ask her to return his ticket; Maria got no money. She didn't worry about it then, however. He was rich, after all, and a steady customer. She never saw him again.

After repeated inquiries from Maria, Aller eventually responded by giving her the same ticket again, which Maria's husband later used by pretending to be Michael Aller. "No matter whether you're rich or poor," she has concluded, "he hurts you."

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