On Tuesday, July 15, 1997, at approximately 8:40 a.m., Gianni Versace was shot on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion. The first bullet shattered the base of his brain; the second entered the right side of his face near the nose. As the Italian designer lay dying, witnesses observed the shooter, a man soon confirmed to be ”gay serial killer” Andrew Cunanan, walk unmolested into the bright Florida daylight. Nine days later, Cunanan committed suicide in a houseboat, surrounded by SWAT teams and up to his neck in glossy magazines.
Thus ended the final chapter in what was briefly — until the Aug. 31 death of Princess Diana (a Versace funeral attendee) — America’s No. 1 tabloid story, a tawdry interstate killing spree involving celebrity, drugs, money, and sexual exploits of the kind generally referred to as ”rough trade.” The entire NC-17-rated package has now been chronicled in Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History, a 439-page opus from Vanity Fair correspondent Maureen Orth.
Shortly after America’s Most Wanted picked up the serial-killer scent, Orth became the ranking Cunanan expert: She’d tracked him since the May ’97 murder of New Jersey cemetery caretaker William Reese, which helped land Cunanan on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. By the time Versace’s murder elevated him to the serial-killer hall of fame, Orth had interviewed so many of his friends and family that Cunanan himself called her for a chat (he hung up when her husband answered). After all, Vanity Fair was Cunanan’s favorite magazine. More than anything, this killer coveted the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
Like any writer with such a head start, Orth had plenty of time to do her homework. Vulgar Favors is ripe with chilling detail and a sleazy supporting cast; it paints a disturbing picture of law enforcement hobbled by jurisdictional warfare and post-O.J. paralysis. But Orth’s narrative faces one frustrating problem: Unlike true-crime masterpieces such as The Executioner’s Song or In Cold Blood, her central character can’t speak for himself (perversely, we favor serial killers when they explain themselves in cool lucid tones). Orth has the difficult task of hanging her book on the back of a phantom. Instead, she relies on exhaustive, if exhausting, reportage in the interest of turning Cunanan into a sort of psychopathic Gatsby, an American Everyman driven to kill by a homicidal lust for fame. But unfortunately, he seems more like random evil.
So who was Andrew Cunanan? We do know he grew up in a Catholic household in San Diego, the child of a possessive Italian mother and a social-climbing Filipino father. ”I am a fanatical reader,” he wrote in a student questionnaire. ”I also enjoy chess, clothes, Mercedes, and running.” By age 14, he was officially ”out.” In his 20s, Cunanan descended into a seamy world straight out of Cruising, dabbling in hardcore kink and violent porn. Much of Orth’s information comes from Cunanan associates (bartenders, drug dealers, hustlers) who aren’t exactly sterling characters themselves (one friend told the National Enquirer — for $85,000 — that Cunanan fantasized about dressing Tom Cruise in full leather bondage and humiliating him, but later admitted being egged on by the tab to ”spice it up”). Even Cunanan’s best friends hardly knew him. He claimed to be, at various times, a Ph.D. candidate, the father of a little girl, an Army intelligence officer, and a Titanic producer. (Orth does dispel the myth of Cunanan as stylish killer: At the time of his rampage, he’d gotten fat and pasty.)
Meanwhile, unable to defend himself, Versace winds up suffering another fatal blow. Orth’s reporting dwells on the unsavory side of his flamboyant lifestyle. According to Vulgar Favors, the designer procured male prostitutes and used his gay celebrity to pluck beefcakey young men the way Van Halen collected groupies. Orth also reveals Versace’s HIV-positive status and the fact that company sales soared after his death, and she mentions a $20 million ”keyman” insurance policy with Lloyds of London. Most sensationally, she juggles a theory that Cunanan was hired to settle Versace’s alleged Mob ties. But do all these scandalous details change the fact that he was a victim? (Only if Cunanan, as Orth suggests, was one of Versace’s pickups.) Overall, Orth treats Versace with less respect than she does the other victims.
By the end of Vulgar Favors, as Cunanan rambles across the country toward his savage 15 minutes of fame, we’re left with a murder spree that simply doesn’t make sense. Orth offers a few inconclusive theories. Was it an AIDS revenge scenario (though a subsequent autopsy found Cunanan HIV-negative)? A mix of crystal meth and violent porn? We’ll never know. But Vulgar Favors stands as a fascinating, if ultimately unsatisfying, portrait of a serial killer. B