Mystery Cruise

The Lone Ranger gets set for a round-the-world voyage with one of America's last great eccentrics at the helm

Next time you think the American working man has lost his hustle, visit Terminal 12 at the Port of Miami. Day and night for six solid weeks, painters, carpenters, and marine electricians have been working like whirling dervishes turning a giant ocean-going tugboat into a luxury yacht. There aren't any coffee breaks on this construction site, and the work doesn't stop for thunderstorms. A placard near the gangway reads, "July 15th, we're outta here!"

Workers (and a pair of armed Wackenhut guards) say they aren't allowed to talk about the tug, its destination, or the immutable deadline. But secrets on the waterfront are hard to keep. According to a pair of loose-lipped crew members, the five-million-dollar Lone Ranger plans to circumnavigate the globe, and it recently topped off its tanks with a staggering 50,000 gallons of diesel fuel. First stop on the two-year voyage: the Great Lakes. After that, Spain, according to the two sailors.

Why all the secrecy? "The owner is a very private person," says the renovation foreman, who identified himself only as Chris.

That statement would surely lead to chuckles, if not guffaws, were it to be repeated in certain boardrooms and boudoirs, for the mysterious owner of the Lone Ranger is Peter Benjamin Lewis, one of America's most outrageous and outspoken corporate iconoclasts.

As president and CEO of Ohio-based Progressive Insurance, the 63-year-old Lewis has made fortunes for himself and his stockholders by selling auto insurance to high-risk drivers other companies won't touch. In 1980 Progressive was the 48th-largest auto insurer in the nation. Last year it was number six, with revenues of $2.4 billion.

Beyond his genius for empire building, it's Lewis's oddball style and irreverent personality that have been much noted. Consider this anecdote from a 1995 profile published in Fortune magazine:

"Said the investor to the 6-foot-2, fit-looking Lewis: 'I've looked at your stock very carefully. It's clear to me that this is a great company. But I also know that you are terribly important to it. So I have one big question: How's your health?'

"'Well, I really don't know,' answered Lewis in his agreeable, matter-of-fact way, 'because I don't believe in doctors. But No. 1, I feel fine. No. 2, I swim a mile every day. And No. 3, I'm single, so I get laid all the time.'"

Lewis has spent the past seven years noodling with California architect Frank Gehry over the design of a 25,000-square-foot mansion he plans to build in Ohio. Meanwhile he maintains a luxury apartment in Cleveland, as well as residences in Washington, New York, and Aspen, Colorado. He doesn't need a house in Miami because his son lives here. Jonathan Lewis, age 39, is no slouch at business himself: He's part owner of one of Coconut Grove's most popular restaurants, Cafe Tu Tu Tango. In recent weeks Lewis the younger has been a frequent visitor to Terminal 12, helping prepare the Lone Ranger for action.

While endlessly tinkering with his house plans, the Ted Turner of the insurance industry has also been working on his tell-all autobiography, officially unpublished but widely circulated in draft form. In the book, titled Progressive History, Lewis describes his libertarian world view, which includes the belief that people should not be forced by law to buy car insurance, and that intraoffice romances are inevitable and probably a good thing (he details his own).

The Fortune article notes that Progressive History omits any mention of marijuana, a substance some people say Lewis enjoys with some regularity. According to Carol J. Loomis, author of the profile, Lewis would neither confirm nor deny that he's a functioning pothead. This past November, however, voters in Arizona and California eased restrictions on the use of illegal drugs -- especially marijuana -- for the critically ill. In the weeks leading up to the vote, Lewis contributed $500,000 to the pro-pot side.

He is an ardent Democrat -- rare among insurance company execs -- and gave $231,000 to Clinton's 1992 campaign. He's also a collector of flashy contemporary art, and he once signed the annual report to stockholders, "Joy, love, and peace." Ten Andy Warhol images of Mao Zedong adorn the boardroom walls at Progressive, and a collection of gigantic bronze sculptures by artist Larry Bell lurk on the lawn. ("The figures evoke calligraphy, graffiti, and Sumerian myth," says Art in America, pushing the envelope of criticism, or at least credulity.)

Last week New Times reached Lewis at home in Cleveland -- "a palatial penthouse designed to reflect and indulge my hedonism and appreciation of contemporary art," as Lewis says in his autobiography. Why would a man said to be worth at least $400 million put to sea in a tugboat, even a refurbished, 200-foot-long tugboat with twin German diesels, a 21-foot draft, the latest in satellite communications systems, and a hull built to withstand small icebergs? Why not buy a super-yacht?

"Because it provided essentially the same assets and amenities but much greater anonymity," Lewis said. "When you show up somewhere in a big white yacht, people notice. When you show up in the tender from a tugboat, it's different. That's in keeping with the whole spirit of the trip."

Lewis refused to provide any details about his expedition or to answer any further questions. Among those: Wouldn't Progressive stockholders be more than a little alarmed when they learn that the Lone Ranger has ridden into the sunset? After all, Lewis has been inextricably, almost mystically, linked to the company for more than 30 years. Is he retiring? If so, has he chosen a successor?

Lewis hung up the phone.
Jonathan Lewis, the restaurateur, didn't return phone calls to his home or office. But the morning after his father's truncated New Times interview, a new message appeared on the Terminal 12 chalkboard, an apparent warning to workers about nosy reporters: "Watch the Sharks!"

Another sign read simply, "Remaining Days: 22.

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