Written By | Julie Miller
Did the designer and his murderer actually know each other, as American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace indicates?
The first episode of American Crime Story Season 2, titled The Assassination of Gianni Versace, wastes no time in linking spree killer Andrew Cunanan with his final and most famous victim: Gianni Versace. The series opens with a sweeping sequence showing Versace looking out majestically from the balcony of his Miami mansion while Cunanan sifts through a shabby, sand-logged backpack on the beach below—immediately establishing the “have” and “have not” in FX’s grim fable. The premiere, “The Man Who Would Be Vogue,” is front-loaded with two encounters between Cunanan and Versace—one in the V.I.P. room of a nightclub, and one on the stage of the San Francisco Opera following a performance of Capriccio, for which Versace designed costumes.
Given Cunanan’s propensity for pathological lying and the dreamlike quality of these sequences, though, what is the truth about Cunanan and Versace’s relationship—and what are we meant to see as simply Cunanan’s delusion?
In 1997, Vanity Fair contributing editor Maureen Orth—who wrote the book on which The Assassination of Gianni Versace is based—was the first to report that Cunanan and Versace actually had met in San Francisco in 1990. Based on interviews with multiple witnesses to the interaction, Orth described how Cunanan and his friend Eli Gould met the fashion designer in the V.I.P. room of the nightclub Colossus.
The designer walked in with an entourage, including [Versace’s boyfriend] Antonio D’Amico and [Capriccio choreographer] Val Caniparoli, who quickly introduced him to a few people. After about fifteen minutes of chitchat and waves of young men eager to meet him, Versace began to survey the room. He noticed Andrew standing with Eli, cocked his head, and walked in their direction. “I know you,” he said to Andrew. “Lago di Como, no?” Versace was referring to the house he owned on Lake Como near the Swiss border. Reportedly he would often use the Lago di Como line when he wanted to strike up a conversation with someone.
Andrew was thrilled and Eli couldn’t believe it. “That’s right,” Andrew answered. “Thank you for remembering, Signore Versace.” Then Andrew introduced Eli to Versace, who made polite talk about whether they had seen the opera. (They hadn’t.) Eli and Andrew then drifted back down to the dance floor.
Meanwhile, another man—Doug Stubblefield—claimed to have seen Versace with Cunanan on a different occasion in San Francisco that fall. He says a chauffeured car containing the duo, plus socialite Harry de Wildt, pulled up alongside him as he was walking on Market Street one evening. “To show off, Andrew had the car come to the curb, and Andrew and Doug had a conversation,” writes Orth. But Harry de Wildt, “a sixtyish dandy . . . married to a younger, big-boned Hillman heiress,” denied that he ever met Cunanan, let alone traveled in a car with Versace and Cunanan. Tangling this complicated web of alleged interactions even further, another friend of Cunanan’s, Steven Gomer, told Orth that Cunanan had personally introduced him to de Wildt—and that the two seemed to go “back a long way.”
Gomer also told Orth that, on another evening, he ran into Cunanan at a different San Francisco haunt. Cunanan, who was wearing a tuxedo at the time, claimed to have just come from Capriccio, where he “was with Gianni Versace.” This stray remark seems to be the basis for the Versace scene in which Cunanan and Versace, surrounded by candelabras and sipping champagne, get to know each other on the stage of the San Francisco Opera. This moment, at least, has less of a basis in fact; as Versace co-star Ricky Martin tells Vanity Fair’s Still Watching podcast, “We’re not making a photo; we’re making a painting. We add color, etc.”
Though Versace’s family has maintained, in the 20 years following the murder, that Gianni never met his killer, Orth also told Vanity Fair last week, “There is no doubt in my mind that those two met.” During an interview with Vanity Fair’s American Crime Story companion podcast, Orth said, “That all is absolutely fact-based, on-the-record reporting.”
In fact, when news broke in July 1997 that Gianni had been fatally gunned down on the steps of his Miami mansion, Orth was one of the first people to have a correct hunch about who the killer was. She had spent the previous months extensively researching the mind-set and murder spree of 27-year-old Cunanan, an intelligent, half-Filipino college dropout who suffered delusions of grandeur, a drug habit, and a dark sexual history. In a feature that was set to be published in Vanity Fair the following month, Orth reported that Cunanan had only encountered one of the celebrities he claimed to have met in his countless, fabrication-filled monologues: Versace.
Because both Versace and Cunanan are said to have dabbled in sex-for-hire circles in San Francisco and Miami—Versace as procurer, Cunanan as purveyor—there is the slight chance that their orbits also intersected in unreported ways. But even if they did in fact only meet once, Cunanan spoke of his “friendship” with the fashion designer so often that at least three of Cunanan’s friends claimed to have told the F.B.I., after Cunanan went missing following his first four murders, about his alleged relationship with Versace.
The first episode of Versace is filled with details about Cunanan that were first reported by Orth: that Cunanan, coddled from an early age by his parents and taught the importance of brand names by his father, coveted magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair. That Cunanan told people Versace approached him, and he sassily replied, “Honey, if you’re Versace. I’m Coco Chanel!” That Cunanan wove elaborate lies about his childhood involving family pineapple plantation fortunes, Imelda Marcos, his father’s fictional boyfriend, and Rolls Royces. That he lived with his rich debutante friend Liz Coté and her husband, and occasionally went by the pseudonym Andrew DeSilva. That Cunanan’s friends indulged him by listening to his tall tales with an eye roll.
Amidst all of those character-study certainties, though, the fact that Versace and Cunanan did not actually have a deeper relationship than a onetime—possibly two-time—encounter may nag at viewers who are accustomed to tidy television crime procedurals where clear motives are uncovered in 60 minutes or less. In real life, even 20 years later, the world is no closer to knowing precisely why Cunanan murdered five people. (Cunanan’s parents maintain that their son was set up by the mafia.)
While The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story can’t offer a clear motive, it does a hell of a job contrasting the arcs of two gay men of mediocre economic backgrounds and similar obsessions with status who died on opposite ends of the human spectrum. The only possible reason behind Versace’s murder is volunteered by Bill Hagmaier, former chief of the F.B.I.’s child-abuse and serial-killer unit, who reasoned to Orth that “whether or not Versace is ‘personally symbolic,’ he’s ‘the wealthy, high-profile homosexual success story that Andrew Cunanan was never going to be.” Comparing Cunanan to Ronald Reagan’s attempted assassin, Hagmaier reasoned, “The only way he [was] going to get famous is the same way John Hinckley got famous.”