In the summer of 1997, a little more than half a lifetime ago, I got my first proper summer job. The job, with one of the many branches of Canada’s federal government in Ottawa, covered the entire tuition for my sophomore year of college (such things were possible in the late nineties). The gig itself was worlds away from my current occupation as a crime writer. “Inventory asset management” was the vague, jargony title that described the mix of my duties: lifting heavy objects—furniture, office supplies—and computer data entry.
It was meant to be tedious, a spirit confirmed by the office’s gray cubicles, the recycled air, and the lack of ambition among my colleagues. But my mornings were not boring. I began my summer gig the first week of July, and within a week I had developed a lively routine. One of my coworkers—perhaps even my then boss—left a stack of printouts at my desk. They weren’t for my job. They were something else entirely.
“Hey, Sarah!” he’d say. “Here’s the latest on that spree killer you’re obsessed with.”
And every morning, I’d sift through the papers, then search on AltaVista or Lycos for the latest on a twenty-seven-year-old fugitive named Andrew Cunanan. I needed to know more. I needed to know why.
Two decades later, I suppose I still do.
Most people didn’t start to pay attention to Andrew Cunanan until after he murdered Gianni Versace: Just after nine A.M., on July 15, 1997, Cunanan walked up to the front steps of Versace’s Miami Beach villa, shot him twice, and fled. Another week of intense law-enforcement searches and media scrutiny followed, and then both started to wane when Cunanan killed himself on July 23. Now, the new series American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, currently airing on FX, implies, from its title, a singular focus on that murder.
I’d already bought in months before, just after the murder of the Chicago real-estate developer Lee Miglin in his garage on May 4. The FBI added Cunanan to their Most Wanted list after that savage crime. The poster, with several different photos of Cunanan, appeared on broadcast after broadcast. And when it wasn’t airing, I’d log on and look at it on what passed for newspaper websites in the spring of 1997, and then discuss theories and speculate on newsgroups and message boards.
Like so many other bored teens, I was a bored teen with a hobby. The only difference was mine was obsessing about crime. It began when I was young: tallying a list of baseball players who were murdered; reading about the disappearances of Etan Patz and Tania Murrell, the murders of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, Christine Jessop and Sharin’ Morningstar Keenan; following hometown newspaper accounts of two still-unsolved murders of sex workers, Melinda Sheppit and Sophie Filion. My life was order; crime was chaos. Even when those crimes had solutions, new cases re-created the chaos.
From my reading on Cunanan, I decided that it didn’t seem likely that he would cross the border into Canada to continue his spree. Still, I wondered if he might. He had traveled from California to Minnesota, on to Chicago. He’d go east to New York City and New Jersey, then down to South Carolina and Miami, switching cars and swapping license plates, before the killing was over.
It was like chasing O.J. Simpson’s Ford Bronco, but it stretched out over months. It was Charles Starkweather without Caril Fugate (unless David Madson, Cunanan’s former lover, qualified: he was hostage and witness to the murder of victim number one, Jeff Trail, before he became victim number two). The pace was fast and then it was unbearably, excruciatingly slow.
I looked for crumbs in the details, from the barking dog in Madson’s apartment to the screwdriver used to bash in Miglin’s head. So many rumors. So much speculation. None of it seemed real. None of it seemed knowable. “None of you really know who I am,” Cunanan was reported to have told friends in San Francisco before flying north to Minneapolis, where his killing spree began. “None of it is real,” the fictional Madson (Cody Fern) tells Cunanan (Darren Criss) in an early confrontation in the new series. “It’s just one of your stories.”
For the men Cunanan murdered, and their surviving families, it couldn’t be anything but real.
Because I followed the case in real time, it was jarring to watch The Assassination of Gianni Versace unspool in reverse. It opens, of course, with Versace’s murder, as dramatic a scene in a television show as it had to have been on the morning of July 15, 1997. Of course, we then need to step back and understand what drove Andrew Cunanan to transform obsession into murderous action, while also learning how Versace rose from obscure Calabrian designer to become one of the most famous men in fashion.
Tom Rob Smith, who wrote all nine episodes, is an accomplished screenwriter (London Spy) and an excellent thriller writer (Child 44, Agent 6). I sensed the struggle he likely had in twinning these two disparate stories, forging distant connections—Versace and Cunanan apparently met in San Francisco—into something more substantive, if imaginative.
One problem may have been the series’ source material: Maureen Orth’s Vulgar Favors (1999) was based on a Vanity Fair article she was working on before Versace’s death forced her to rewrite it on the most impossible deadline. Orth relayed the facts through the prism of Cunanan’s celebrity obsession, looking for larger meaning where there wasn’t one. Her descriptions of early 1990s gay life clang like an out-of-tune bell; the TV series does a far superior job showing the casual homophobia, the still-prevalent fear of AIDS, and the concepts—like gay marriage—that were unthinkable then.
Gary Indiana’s Three-Month Fever, also published in 1999 and reissued last year, was more imaginative than Orth’s factual account. Indiana includes sections from Cunanan’s point of view, with thoughts the author could never have been privy to. But Three-Month Fever felt the more honest of the two books in its attempt to override a “narrative overripe with tabloid evil” in order to concentrate on “the somewhat poignant and depressing but fairly ordinary thing.”
Cunanan’s and Versace’s stories diverged because their lives operated on different planes. Versace strove and succeeded beyond his earliest ambitions. Cunanan strove and failed, time and time again. Versace was open about his sexuality, other opinions be damned. Cunanan masked his homosexuality when it suited him, and played it up at other opportune moments. Versace was never anyone else than himself. Cunanan, the chameleon, had no self to be.
The only true convergence was that morning of July 15, 1997, when Cunanan forced himself into Versace’s story like the proverbial spider eating the fly.
By design, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is a male-dominated narrative, and its performances are generally strong. (Darren Criss, in particular, inhabits Cunanan’s narcissism with queasy brilliance.) It takes as its subject homosexuality (both its embrace and its condemnation) and ranges from flashy Miami Beach bacchanalia to the despair of being closeted in a military setting. Homophobia, and closeted self-loathing, are casual and catastrophic. Women are not the story here.
But the scene that stuck with me the most, from episode 3, centers on a woman and her emotions. It’s when Marilyn Miglin (Judith Light), who has just come home from a Toronto trip to the news that her husband has been murdered, sits in front of her bathroom mirror. She touches up her makeup. She makes sure her hair is perfectly in place. She’s already, in a clipped voice that brooks no opposition, informed the police captain that the family only cares about the capture of Miglin’s killer, without airing any of the sexual peccadilloes.
“I know what they are saying about me,” says Marilyn Miglin. “Where’s the emotion, where’s the grief … How could a woman who cares so much about appearance appear not to care?” Light, as Marilyn, is all controlled fury in this scene, especially when she utters the line, “You’re weak.” Here, even before the inevitable breakdown, all of the contradictions are plain in her face and in her hands. She loved her husband. She knew him better than anyone.
Hers is the story I’d like to see fully told. But Marilyn Miglin has never again spoken to the press about her late husband, though she kept on with her cosmetics company and regular appearances on the Home Shopping Network. Their son, Duke, broke his own silence last May, to a Chicago television station. “There’s never really closure in a situation like this,” he said.
The spell broke on July 23, 1997. I don’t remember if more printouts showed up at my desk, or if I’d heard the news later on, after I’d gone home for the day. Andrew Cunanan was dead by suicide. No note, no motive. No answers, no solutions. Books and films, more books and then television shows followed.
There were no more stories to print out every morning. My coworkers found other topics to interest them, and I suppose I did as well. The world moved on, most definitively, when Princess Diana died in a paparazzi-induced car crash on August 31. My own interest in true crime waxed and waned before becoming my preeminent occupation. But I’m no closer to knowing why Cunanan killed five men.
Maybe it’s as simple as this: All his life, Cunanan had a core narrative. He believed that he was special, and that people would love him as a result, no matter how outlandish his stories. There were multiple versions of himself, depending on the audience. It was false, a story with an expiration date. But when the expiration date came due, when the core narrative couldn’t sustain him anymore, he was over. No more Andrew Cunanan. The story that enabled him to live no longer worked, so he had to die. To keep the story alive, he killed others, out of rage, opportunity, or obsession with fame.
No wonder the blanks remain so blank, ready to be filled in by eager journalists, novelists, screenwriters. Because it’s a void. Andrew Cunanan was no mythic figure. Even comparing him to Tom Ripley is lazy, though I suppose Patricia Highsmith might have been intrigued by his behavior. Cunanan’s crimes were awful not because of the tangential celebrity but because of their mundane horror. They deserve airing to help us understand not him but ourselves.
Sarah Weinman is editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. Her book on the real-life case that inspired Lolita is forthcoming from Ecco.