The murder of Versace: two decades on the unanswered questions
A creative genius, Gianni Versace’s life ended in a pool of blood outside his home. With a controversial new TV drama about the murder due to air this month, Julia Molony on the fashion designer’s extraordinary life ... and the mystery that still surrounds his death.
To this day, the death of Gianni Versace remains one of the most senseless and perplexing cases in crime history. How did a world-famous designer, the man whose iconic clothes defined the era in which he lived, and who socialised with Madonna, Elton John and Princess Diana, stumble into the path of a serial killer, unwittingly becoming the brutal denouement of a murder spree that spanned three months, four states and claimed five, largely unrelated, victims?
The mystery will be explored on screen in The Assassination of Gianni Versace this month. The second series of FX’s American Crime Stories franchise is getting a lavish, big-budget treatment, directed by the award-winning Ryan Murphy and starring Penelope Cruz, Ricky Martin, Edgar Ramirez and Darren Criss.
In truth, calling the death an assassination is a misnomer. True, Versace was killed execution-style, shot at point blank range in the back of the head as he opened the gates to his luxury, palazzo-style residence just off Miami beach. But to call it an assassination suggests a clear and strategic motive — something that has always eluded investigators assigned to the Versace case.
Over the years, various theories have been mooted; by police, journalists and those who were close to the designer. Soon after the murders made the headlines, speculation centred around whether it was a revenge mission and that Andrew Cunanan, who was gay, was lashing out at his own community in the belief that he had contracted HIV. But only one of his victims was an ex-lover, and an autopsy after his suicide revealed he was HIV negative.
The murderer himself provided little in the way of clues — he was not caught alive, and when he shot himself in the mouth while hiding out on a houseboat three miles from Versace’s home, no suicide note was found. Police discovered precious little among his possessions that gave any insight into his state of mind — just a few tubes of hydrocortisone cream and an extensive collection of the works of CS Lewis.
In 1997, Gianni Versace was a man at the very top of his game. Aged 50, he’d well and truly escaped the limits of his humble Calabrian childhood to climb to the apex of the world of haute couture. Not only that, he was apparently happy in love. He’d been with his partner Antonio D’Amico for 12 years, and was one of only a handful of public figures living as an openly gay man.
Born in 1946, Versace learned his trade at the kitchen table. His mother was a seamstress, his father ran a small store selling electrical goods. Gianni was the middle child, his brother Santo was two years older, and his sister Donatella 10 years younger. Eventually, both siblings would be carried to prominence by their brother’s fame — Donatella as his muse and right-hand woman and Santo as his business manager. “I am a bit like Fellini,” Gianni said in 1986. “I like my family around me ... I am a typical Italian. I love the clan.”
His relationship with Santo was said to be tempestuous. But he adored Donatella. She was, he said, “my perfect woman — a mother, a rock star, a hard worker”.
Their family home in the working-class city of Reggio di Calabria, a Mafia stronghold in south-eastern Italy, also served as his mother’s studio, and it was she who taught him how to make clothes. It was a visually stimulating environment, and he cited his childhood as the inspiration for his later idea to mix the sacred, the profane and the sublime in his designs. “When you are born in a place such as Calabria … you cannot help but be influenced by the classical past,” he once said. But his eye was also turned by baser spectacles, which would eventually inform his arch-vulgarian aesthetic. He once recalled his fascination with the local brothel as a young boy. His mother would insist he cover his eyes every time they passed the girls. “If she hadn’t made such a big deal about it, I wouldn’t have developed such an interest,” he said. Perhaps this also helps explain another early life memory of Versace’s — a time when “my professor called my mother and said, ‘Your son is a sex maniac ...’” To which his mother tartly responded, “Professor, my son is not a maniac. He just loves fashion and clothes”.
In his work, he always aimed for iconoclasm. “I think it’s the responsibility of a designer to try to break rules and barriers,” he once said. “I’m a little like Marco Polo, going around and mixing cultures.”
After a brief stint in architectural college, he moved to Milan to hone his trade, launching his own label in 1978. His attention-seeking designs, coupled with a natural gift for self-promotion, ensured his rapid rise, and by the 1980s, his label had become emblematic of the era’s high capitalism. He dressed the world’s biggest stars, and even persuaded Princess Diana into his clothes. He designed Trudie Styler and Sting’s matching wedding outfits. “He relished media attention and masterminded it, and everybody followed in his footsteps,” Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour once said. Perhaps, as well as his fame, it was his wealth and flamboyant lifestyle which drew Andrew Cunanan’s attention to Versace. The mystery of whether or not the two men had ever met before the day of the murder has never been solved. Some accounts, including the investigative work of Maureen Orth in Vanity Fair, suggest that they’d run into each other on the social scene more than once. But Antonio D’Amico recently told The Observer, “They never knew each other … so much has been fictionalised.”
Certainly, for someone looking to hurt him, Versace would not have been difficult to find. His home, the extravagant Casa Casuarina, was an attention-grabbing monument to materialism. And he kept predictable habits, leaving the house at the same time every day.
Perhaps attention — a currency that Versace possessed in spades — was what Cunanan was looking for.
Born in 1969, Cunanan had grown up as the youngest of four in an affluent, middle-class family. His father was Filipino-American and his mother Italian-American. The baby of the family, he was, according to his sister Elena, spoiled by his parents. “He got everything that he needed,” she told US TV journalist Diane Sawyer in 1997. “My dad gave him a sports car. He had the master bedroom. He had his own bath and everything.” Andrew attended private school, where, despite his parents’ efforts to spare no expense on their son, most of his fellow students were wealthier than he was.
As a child, he was a voracious reader, and was soon identified as having a “genius-level” IQ. “When he was about 10 years old, he had read the whole set of encyclopedias … and memorised them. You could ask him any question. Pick up any edition and ask him any question, and he would tell you,” his brother said.
By the time his father eventually abandoned the family, moving to live in the Philippines, Andrew was 19. The fact that his father’s departure left the family living on food-stamps and welfare, perhaps sheds some light on his obsessive materialism and acquisitiveness.
As he entered his 20s, he’d become a shape-shifting character — a pathological liar fond of adopting aliases. Sometimes he boasted he was from Philippine royalty, or that his father was an Israeli millionaire, or a Fifth Avenue aristocrat. Sometimes he introduced himself by the name of Andre D’Silva.
In order to fund his expensive tastes, he became a prostitute — falling into a pattern of relationships with wealthy older men who bankrolled his pursuit of “a life like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”, according to American broadcaster John Walsh, host of America’s Most Wanted. “He’s living in million dollar homes in La Jolla (San Diego). He’s travelling to Europe, to France, to Italy, to Spain,” Walsh said. “He’s going to these social events that he never would have had a chance to go to otherwise.”
But by the time 1997 rolled around, he was likely to have been undergoing a crisis of confidence. Cashing in on his looks and charisma was a game of diminishing returns. He’d gained weight, and his most recent rich lover, Norman Blachford, had dumped him a year earlier. Perhaps it was frustration about his waning power that prompted the senseless, violent rage that was to follow.
Cunanan’s first two victims were well known to him — his friend Jeffrey Trail, whom he’d met some years prior, and his ex-lover David Madson, who Cunanan once described as the love of his life and whose picture he kept on his fridge door. Leaving his home in California, Cunanan travelled to Minnesota where he met up with Trail and Madson, first battering Trail to death with a claw hammer, then keeping Madson hostage for two days before driving him to a remote area of the countryside on the shores of East Rush Lake and shooting him repeatedly.
Having apparently got a taste for brutality, he then embarked on a sort of deranged, homicidal road trip. He went to Chicago where he beat and stabbed 72-year-old Lee Miglin to death in the garage of his luxury home. He ransacked the house, and made his getaway in Miglin’s car.
Police were eventually able to trace the vehicle many miles away in Philadelphia by triangulating Miglin’s car phone. But news reports alerted Cunanan to the fact that the police were on to him. He tore the phone out of the car and drove to New Jersey. It was there that he came across his fourth victim — William Reese, a caretaker at Finn’s Point National Cemetery, whose pick-up truck he stole.
By the time Cunanan got to Versace’s mansion in Miami, he’d been evading capture by police for at least two months, much of which he had spent as a resident of the Normandy Plaza Hotel, a few miles from where the designer lived.
Even after killing one of the most famous men in the world, Cunanan remained at large for a further eight days. He committed suicide shortly before his body was found on an unoccupied houseboat.
“Suicide is the ultimate act of control and power,” John Kelly, a criminal profiler and serial killer expert, explains. “Ending his own life was the icing on the cake. He accomplished what he wanted to accomplish.
“I think he (Cunanan) was looking for fame. His goal was to kill a famous man. He did, and he became infamous.”
Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, who has published a book, Vulgar Favors, about the murder, agrees with this analysis. “He was willing to kill for fame. He wanted to be everything Versace was, but he wasn’t willing to work for it,” Orth says.
“The world would know two things after the murder of Gianni Versace,” former FBI criminal profiler Candice DeLong told ABC News. “One, they would know who Versace was. And two, they would know his killer was Andrew Cunanan. That’s what Andrew wanted. ‘Look at me. I can get to anyone’.”
Actor Darren Criss, who plays Cunanan in the American Crime Stories show, says: “Stories that bend people’s sense of empathy are what interest me. We’re trying to humanise somebody who is so conventionally vilified.”
The show’s director, Ryan Murphy, adds: “We’re not interested in the killer-of-the-week approach. We’re trying to understand the psychology of someone who would be driven to do those deeds.”
But there is at least one person who wishes that this striving to understand would now cease — Versace’s bereaved partner, Antonio D’Amico. “There has been so much written and said about the murder, and thousands of suppositions, but not a trace of reality,” he told The Observer recently.
And the memories he leaves are more affecting than any fictionalisation could be.
“The house had stained glass windows so we couldn’t see what had happened from inside,” he said, “so we had to open the gate. I saw Gianni lying on the steps, with blood around him. At that point, everything went dark. I was pulled away, I didn’t see any more.
“Unfortunately Gianni died, unfortunately this guy killed him. Unfortunately it happened: but now, let it drop.”