Deep down in the bin of discarded scandals and media hoopla, below the Monica thing, dead Jon-Benet and whoever else held the headlines for more than a minute or two in the last few years — among the detritus of the shot-to-fame-and-forgotten — is an FBI Wanted poster showing the various guises of Andrew Cunanan, gay serial killer: the guy who shot Gianni Versace. As he managed to elude a nationwide manhunt, the merest rumor was so inflated and distorted by the media that the public was led to believe that the mild-looking Cunanan was a wily, bloodthirsty chameleon so desperate for the spotlight he might be targeting Tom Cruise or Madonna next; that he was so dangerous and out of control, the entire San Diego gay community was ready for him should he attack the gay-pride parade.
Three Month Fever, Gary Indiana’s purported work of nonfiction — “an alloy in which reality and myth have been inseparably combined,” as the book jacket describes it — takes pains to point up the media hysteria to score and relay information no matter how outlandish it might be. But then, ironically, Indiana goes one step further than stretching a fact — he invents what he doesn‘t know (a lot), getting into Cunanan’s head to weave motivations and create scenarios that might possibly account for Cunanan‘s vicious killings of a rich old man, a groundskeeper and two ex-boyfriends before landing in Florida on Versace’s steps.
“Andrew thought spree killer was a touch too exuberant-sounding for this lousy acid trip, the so-called spree hadn‘t been that much fun, more of a compulsion really and furthermore one that surprised him as much as anybody else.”
Just as we think we’re getting the picture of Cunanan‘s psyche — a fabricated yet plausible picture — we’re stopped short by statements such as “Andrew believed that his letters and phone calls were casting a magic spell over David and binding him closer. He considered himself a mysterious, charismatic figure in David‘s eyes . . .” Indiana, we remember, had no way whatsoever of knowing this, particularly since the only thing that people who knew Cunanan can agree on was that the onetime drug dealer and “rent boy” lied to nearly everyone about everything regarding his entire life, coming up with new stories and discarding old ones as it suited him. At various times he told people he was an Israeli agent, an airline pilot, a graduate student, a factory owner and a prostitute. Indiana’s book, while intimately focused and entertaining, posits a reality that‘s iffy at best. Three Month Fever may be imaginative, admirable for its ambition even, but it’s still guesswork.
Maureen Orth‘s Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History seems a masterpiece of research in comparison. Orth had begun writing Cunanan’s story for Vanity Fair even before Gianni Versace‘s death, and through hundreds of interviews paints a comprehensive picture of what can be gleaned. It’s from Orth‘s mountain of facts (and admitting what she doesn’t know) that the reader is allowed to fill in probable motivations, to enjoy the details of a pathetic, fascinating and ultimately incomprehensible man‘s life as one would enjoy clues in a good mystery. For Cunanan, in his shadowy world, can finally be known only as that: as the shadow cast by a loserposer who wanted desperately to be known, admired and loved; who’d say or spend anything to earn that love; and who took a gory revenge when he didn‘t get it.
Raised in the San Diego area by a demanding, desperate-to-succeed Filipino father, Pete, a stockbroker who abandoned the family after being accused of bilking his clients, and his wife, MaryAnn, Cunanan from a young age cultivated an entirely sham image of wealth and class. Even in grade school he dressed better than the other kids, and he filled his apparently prodigious memory banks with readings on art, history, architecture, fine wines and other signposts of culture. He laid a life-of-the-party persona over that, told those in the San Diego bar scene his name was “Andrew DeSilva” and became, from all accounts, a sort of boy wonder of fun and friends. It didn’t hurt that he always paid the tab for dinners and drinks — sometimes dropping hundreds of dollars in a night — and was lavish in his gift giving as well.
Where the money came from can‘t be wholly verified, but it’s clear that he dealt and consumed drugs — particularly crystal meth, the effects of which likely influenced his gruesome murder fest. He was also likely a prostitute. At the end of 1992, Cunanan found a platonic boyfriend who was just his type — Jeff Trail, “a handsome, authentic American kid,” a Navy man who could fly a plane — whom he would kill five years later. Then, in 1994, Cunanan hit the jackpot: Norman Blachford, a rich, older man who kept him in style with a new Infiniti and a $2,500-a-month allowance. The next year, he fell in love with David Madson, a Minneapolis architect with whom he carried on a long-distance relationship that included S&M sex. Madson would be the second to die.
The sugar-daddy arrangement lasted only a year and a half, buckling under the weight of Cunanan‘s demands for more money and gifts. In April of 1997, after running up $40,000 on two American Express cards, Cunanan gave away his expensive clothes and headed to Minneapolis to spend the weekend with both Madson and Trail, each of whom had a new boyfriend. Though they barely tolerated Cunanan anymore — his moods and his unending lies — each willingly accepted his largess.
Orth carefully details what’s known about the murders — the bludgeoning of Trail, the Jeep ride with Madson that left him shot dead at the edge of a lake. Rejection seems to have been the motive; these old friends were the last hope for Cunanan. The next murder — of wealthy developer Lee Miglin, in Chicago — leaves a volume of provocative questions. The man was bound, mummy style, beaten up, his throat cut. The viciousness of it points to a personal relationship. Did Cunanan know Miglin‘s son, who had visited San Diego? Could he have known Miglin himself through Norman Blachford’s circuit of older gay men? And why the overkill? Orth examines every angle, from the police perspective to the press coverage to the family‘s response. She turns up clues the cops missed, interviews witnesses they overlooked, and details the subsequent investigations (and non-cooperation) by various law-enforcement departments and the FBI.
Though it never establishes positively whether Cunanan ever met Versace, Orth’s look into the famous designer‘s life is fascinating: “. . . the man who dressed women as hookers and urged the world to ’flaunt it,‘ who created his empire by selling sex, had to buy sex for himself furtively and keep his behavior utterly secret.” He also kept his HIV-positive status to himself. Before shooting Versace in South Beach, Florida, Cunanan murdered a groundskeeper in New Jersey for his truck; afterward he holed up in a seedy motel before his final run to the houseboat where he stayed nine days before being discovered by a caretaker and shooting himself as the law closed in.
Vulgar Favors is flawed by repetitions and a nagging sense that Orth, when examining the gay world, is in far over her head, for instance when trying to cite Cunanan’s interest in S&M as an indicator that he was a murderer waiting to happen. But its scope is remarkable, taking in a vast landscape of lives and facts from which the author doesn‘t so much draw conclusions as point the reader in the logical direction. Orth paints a vivid picture of a man with nothing left to lose and nowhere at all to go.