True crime

Vanity Fair reporter Maureen Orth blames gay society for the crimes of Andrew Cunanan.

Published April 9, 1999 4:06PM (EDT)

On the night of July 19, 1997, I maneuvered past the East Villagers clogging the bar at my favorite gay hangout in New York, the Boiler Room, and asked the bartender, Marc Anthony, for a Corona. He looked at me with a suspicious scowl and asked me for ID. I was surprised, considering how embarrassingly often I'd been in that bar and ordered drinks from this bartender. I showed him my driver's license, which was a bit faded. He asked for another ID. I gave him my Newsweek ID, which he examined quite carefully. Then he finally gave me a beer. I was dumbfounded. But as I turned around and pushed my way through the crowd, I noticed the flyer taped to the wall above me. It was an FBI wanted poster for Andrew Cunanan, the man who'd just killed Gianni Versace four days before. At the time, I looked an awful lot like Cunanan. I wore round glasses over my Eurasian eyes, I had short dark bangs, and in my khakis and button-down Oxford, I looked preppy enough to stand out, just slightly, on East Fourth Street and Second Avenue.

If Maureen Orth, author of "Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History" had interviewed Marc Anthony, I wouldn't have been surprised to find in her book the following passage:

And at the Boiler Room in New York's seedy East Village, known for its dingy bars with filthy back rooms where drunk and high men grope each other hoping for sex, sex, sex, Cunanan tried to buy a Corona 12 oz. (with a lime). When he was carded by a wary bartender, Cunanan first tried to pass him a fake Ohio driver's license. When that was rejected, Cunanan showed the bartender a stolen employee identification card for Newsweek, which unbeknownst to Cunanan was doing the final editing on a cover story about him and the murder of Versace.

Yes, I exaggerate.

But after reading her tome on Cunanan and his murderous ways, I found that Orth didn't understand Andrew Cunanan, let alone how being homosexual affected his various psychoses. Orth roundly and unfairly sensationalizes, and thus pathologizes, gay culture -- and in the end, blames it for five murders. Many of Orth's key arguments fail when she is unable to prove important connections and instead falls back on shady sourcing and irresponsible implications. And at times, Orth appears to have failed to follow up on some of her more promising leads. "Vulgar Favors" seems unfinished and unedited, a book that is guilty of homophobia by negligence.

When Versace was shot in the head on the steps of his South Beach mansion in Miami Beach, Fla., Orth, a respected Vanity Fair writer, was the only major journalist covering Cunanan, who was wanted in three states for four other murders. When Cunanan was announced as a suspect, Vanity Fair put out a press release stating that Orth had eyewitnesses to Cunanan's association with Versace. "Vulgar Favors" is an expanded version of the long article that appeared in Vanity Fair a few months after Cunanan committed suicide in an abandoned houseboat in Miami Beach.

Orth interviewed hundreds of people, and the book appears to be the vomit produced by pouring syrup of ipecac into her notebook. At times, the information overload works. Orth dug up wonderful, telling stories about Cunanan's childhood and adolescence. She establishes him as a bright, spoiled liar obsessed with status and frequently deluded by his own false grandeur. Orth's sources include his best friends and his parents (both of whom were, and still are, mentally unstable). The chaos of Cunanan's upbringing prevented him from forming an ego; he more or less entered adulthood crazy. It's exactly how well Orth proves this that makes her attempts to pin his murder spree on gay society so bogus.

As Cunanan got older, he became more psychotically narcissistic, which Orth has no trouble demonstrating. Orth describes his drug problems, thievery and probable prostitution. But she believes that several aspects of gay culture -- the importance of drugs and muscles, the interest in pornography, the pervasiveness of S/M -- were central to the development of Cunanan's violent psychoses. This is where Orth's sources and logic get shadier. She quotes at length drug dealers and bathhouse owners, two classes of people not known for their veracity. They may have known Cunanan well, but she has little to corroborate that fact. Orth spends 11 pages on Vance Coukoulis, a pathological liar and convicted kiddie pornographer whom Cunanan may have only barely known. Coukoulis exists in the narrative only to prove Cunanan's guilt by association. It's not unlikely that Cunanan would have had friends who drugged under-age boys and engaged in videotaped sex with them, but Orth does not ever actually prove that he did.

Orth tries many times to connect Cunanan to Lee Miglin, the Chicago billionaire who was Cunanan's third victim. Supposedly, the escort service Cunanan worked for catered to executives in the Home Shopping Network in Florida. Turns out that HSN peddled Miglin's wife's cosmetic line. "Could he possibly have met Lee Miglin?" she speculates. Orth also quotes several anonymous hustlers who claim it was "well-known" in Chicago's gay community that Miglin was gay. It was not, and if Miglin were still alive, Orth would be crushed under the weight of libel actions. While insinuating all these connections in as sordid a way as possible makes the book a bit juicier, it is also unconscionable.

There's also little balance in Orth's scene setting. Her descriptions of the gay centers of the United States are laughably sensationalized: "South Beach is a riot of loose luxe and easy sleazy, where dancing the night away amid hundreds of tanned, undulating bodies is a standard prelude to hot anonymous sex." Orth's exaggeration of the most shocking aspects of South Beach makes it sound like you can't walk down Ocean Drive without tripping on a used condom. I spent a weekend there two months ago and managed to avoid sex with multiple partners and overdosing on crystal meth without even trying!

Orth implies that Cunanan's interest in S/M was a prelude to his less consensual violence, sort of the way marijuana is supposed to lead to harder drugs. But she never offers a convincing psychosexual explanation of how the two might be connected. She quotes associates who claimed he liked to watch bondage porn and left nasty hickeys on his one-night stands. The anecdotes have that wink wink I knew he was trouble sound to them. But anyone with a little sexual experience knows that someone who might be a bit rough in bed can be just as gentle out of it. Orth seems obsessed with the leather scene and S/M (if stubbornly unclear on the fact that the two aren't necessarily connected). At one point, she even fully details the old leather-bar handkerchief code ("red on the left means 'fister,'" she writes). Of course, she has no evidence that Cunanan kept colored hankies in his back pocket. She also doesn't seem to realize a man with Cunanan's social awareness would have known that the practice is practically extinct, especially in the hipper gay areas like San Francisco's Castro district and San Diego's Hillcrest, where Cunanan hung out.

Orth printed the most shocking of her quotes, wrote the most purple of her prose, and didn't think to ask anyone if it jibed with reality. Maybe Cunanan was sick and that drew him to the seedier aspects of gay culture; maybe the dark side of gay America made him even more sick. But Orth's careless reporting allows Cunanan's experience to stand in for all gay culture. Homosexuality and Cunanan are linked as inexorably in both Orth's mind and popular culture as Charles Manson and the hippie lifestyle were 30 years ago. It wasn't fair then, and it's not fair now.

I'm sure a number of people discussed in the book are more concerned with how unfair she is to Cunanan's victims, and I can't help but wonder where Orth's lawyers were. A great number of important people are not quoted, I must assume because they refused to be. They include Cunanan's three siblings, his longtime boyfriend and the families of both Lee Miglin and Gianni Versace. Considering the amount of the book given over to theories about Cunanan's relationships with both Miglin and Versace, not getting these interviews, or at least printing "Donatella Versace refused to be interviewed for this book," hampers Orth's ability to convince the discerning reader of anything.

Just as reckless are Orth's pathetic attempts at explaining how Cunanan ended up on the houseboat where he committed suicide. While she quotes various law enforcement officials as they wax concerned about the houseboat owner's ties to both Cunanan and various shady characters of European persuasion, her attempts to track down the actual connections to Cunanan seem lackluster at best. She asks a few questions, but as one reporter who covered Cunanan for a major news organization told me, "It wasn't any more than what could be done from her desk." While both Cunanan and Versace may well have had connections to organized crime, Orth can't -- or won't -- track those connections down. Instead, she throws around words like "mob" and "Mafia" when writing about Cunanan and the Versace family and hopes it sticks in our brains, because it certainly doesn't stick anywhere else. She has a gestalt theory of argument: Like the cover of the book, a collection of dozens of tiny photographs that create a mosaic image of Cunanan's face, Orth provides hundreds of often tangentially connected facts and hopes they connect as a detailed, accurate picture. They don't.

Part of this is not Orth's fault. In comparison to the lurid, homophobic and poorly reported nonsense printed shortly after Versace's death, Orth's original Vanity Fair article was a tempered, intelligent account of Cunanan's crimes. The problems seem to have come with the book deal. I think Orth made an impossible choice for the subject of her first book: a dead, loopy murderer of five people, two of whom were extraordinarily wealthy, famous and secretive. Under pressure, she threw caution and her journalistic integrity to the wind. Considering how surprised many of Cunanan's friends were at what he became, it would be even more surprising if Orth had been able to unearth his true character and motivations.

The main reason Andrew Cunanan became such an object of fascination was that he was an enigma, as he remains. Like O.J., Diana and JonBenet, Cunanan was a cypher, a mask for our fears, hopes and misunderstandings. But when Orth uses his bizarre story to smear all of gay society, that's a crime that can't be pinned on anyone but her.

By Ted Gideonse

Ted Gideonse writes for Newsweek and the Advocate.

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