The psycho next door

Gianni Versace's murderer: Everyman, or marginalized monster? Two new Cunanan biographies battle it out.

Published April 7, 1999 8:04AM (EDT)

As psycho killers go, Andrew Cunanan had a certain je ne sais quoi. Though his homosexuality got a lot of play when he was on the lam in 1997, he had a darker secret: He was ... an art history buff.
Reading Gary Indiana's "Three Month Fever: The Andrew Cunanan Story" (Cliff St. Books, 1999), I got an eerie shock when I flipped to the photograph of the bookshelf in Cunanan's final Miami hotel room -- the place, you'll remember, where he holed up after killing four people in three states and before murdering Gianni Versace. I looked at the picture of Beaumont Newhall's "The History of Photography," which Cunanan had stacked on top of H.W. Janson's undergrad classic "History of Art," and then I looked up from the page and saw the same two books on the same shelf in my own living room.

I couldn't help but feel pangs of empathy, that familial jolt of shared taste. When I told a friend about it -- a friend who's never liked the president -- he told me about seeing Clinton on the news during the 1992 campaign: "He was walking off a plane with a Sara Paretsky novel under his arm, and I have to admit, it made me feel closer to him."

It's one thing to begrudgingly identify with the future leader of the free world; it's another thing entirely to feel for a serial killer.
That implication, of being constantly shoved into the killer's shoes, is one reason why Indiana's Cunanan account is more profound than Maureen Orth's new book "Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History" (Delacorte, 1999). Orth, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, is a journalist. Indiana, a novelist and art critic, calls himself a "journalist" almost in jest. Orth is speaking of being elbowed out by tabloid media when she writes that in getting the story, "A conventional print journalist is at a total disadvantage." But her statement has a more cosmic truth. Unlike Indiana, who as a former art critic for the Village Voice has probably looked up images in Janson and Newhall a thousand million times, Orth only clues into Cunanan's superficial cultural references, like fashion star Versace and blockbuster movies.

Orth devotes a paragraph to Cunanan's love for Quentin Tarantino, turning it into a symbol of evil, like "Catcher in the Rye" is for Hinckley and Chapman watchers. A friend of Cunanan's in San Diego recalls, "Andrew hooted and shouted and clapped in glee at the over-the-top violence in "Pulp Fiction." "He screamed the most when the guy in the back seat got his head blown off." A lot of people liked that movie. I was one of them. What does that make me? How many people from my past or yours could come up with similar incidences: "We saw Andy Warhol's 'Bad' together, and when they threw the baby out the window, I swear to God she giggled."

A shoot'em-up like "Pulp Fiction" is an easy, unsophisticated analogy. Photography historian Beaumont Newhall isn't. And for that reason, Indiana's book is infinitely more trustworthy -- and ultimately, more truthful -- than Orth's. Though Indiana's text is full of conjecture and fictional speculation, Orth's is clean-nosed and neat. Too neat. Orth turns Cunanan into an alien -- a killer, a homosexual. She writes, "Throughout my travels I found that gays as a cohesive group are in dynamic, alternating stages of political formation." Well, so are women, Catholics, environmentalists and, for that matter, the Serbs. In her book, Cunanan isn't one of us. He is other. Compare that to one of Indiana's sage little toss-offs about Cunanan's sexual nomadism: "'I used to know him' was a line people uttered all the time, without any weight or irony, meaning anything from 'I slept with him once' to 'He used to be my whole life.'"

Indiana's book cuts to the quick of Hannah Arendt's classic observation
about the banality of evil, partly because he gets what I like to call
"the refrigerator door" of Cunanan just right -- telltale signs of cultural life, of fandom, of allegiances and tastes. A person's "refrigerator door" is the pastiche of favorite books and songs and movies and pictures taped up on the refrigerator door of the brain. For example, the attachments to my actual refrigerator door come pretty close to the stuff tacked inside my head: quotations from T.S. Eliot and Ralph Ellison ripped out of newspapers; a matchbook with the logo of my favorite band the Fastbacks; old black-and-white Steinbeckian family photos from Oklahoma held together by Elvis Presley magnets; a Hank Williams post card; some Fluxus stamps; a John Waters wisecrack scribbled in ballpoint on the back of an ATM receipt -- "Everyone
looks better under arrest." It's not just that those things are part of me; it's that those little bits and pieces of novelists and country singers can be (and have been) the bricks and mortar of friendships - and of empathy.

I was having lunch with a colleague recently, whom I've known for about a year. We were talking about the last page of "The Great Gatsby" -- my favorite page in all of literature -- and he said, "I always liked the part about wonder." And I said out loud, casually, "Yeah, me, too." But I was thinking, "Buddy, we are friends for life."

It could be that I'm just shallow, that I should be judging this person on something more substantial than his relationship to a paragraph in a novel published in 1925. (Did I mention he picked up the check?) It could be that I am not unlike the people snowed by the conversational charm of art appreciator turned serial killer Cunanan as described by Indiana. He writes that Cunanan "had the shrewd habit of picking friends from among the nominally bright, mentally torpid ranks of the indifferently educated middle class, people who were thrilled to hear bells go off when a name or a date was correctly assigned to some stray bit of cultural overreaching."

Personally, I think it's perfectly respectable to make one's living writing about the moment those bells go off. Still, the person I identify with most in Indiana's book isn't any one of Cunanan's "indifferently educated" friends; I identified with Andrew Cunanan himself. Not the killing parts, mind you, which are horrible, horrible -- but the itineraries and reading lists. We were both born in 1969 ("the year of Helter Skelter," Indiana ominously points out), we've been to the same restaurants in California, the same Polish accordion bar in Minneapolis, and applied to the same temporary secretarial services company in San Francisco (they hired the college dropout, not to mention future psychopath Cunanan, but passed on me -- and I typed 70!).

I can see how some people would read Orth's book and say that she's more respectful to the victims, that because of her refusal to speculate, that because she focuses so intently on Cunanan's place in a sexual underground, she makes him into more of a mystery, more of a monster. In describing the brief moment when police suspected then-missing victim David Madson of being Cunanan's accomplice in killing victim Jeffrey Trail, Orth makes a big show of quoting Madson's family saying they told police that Madson "wasn't capable" of such a murder. But everyone's capable of murder, and everyone's family thinks they're not. Indiana writes, "As Gore Vidal says somewhere, if you want to see the face of a killer, look in any mirror."

Because of the precision with which Indiana sketches Cunanan's refrigerator door (the sad pretension, say, of Andrew the quasi-intellectual writing in a postcard that "Florence is very DeChirico this time of year") makes him into a more real human being. Thus he becomes that much more horrifying, more knowable, more in the air. Isn't that why the Cunanan manhunt mesmerized us anyway? It seemed like everyone I knew saw him everywhere. I know I did. He was spotted so often in so many places precisely because he looked like someone you'd know, looked like someone who read the same books, looked like someone -- well, he looked like a friend. And that is just how he looked to the first two people he killed, David Madson and Jeff Trail. They were the best friends Cunanan ever had, right up until the moment he ended their lives.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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