Everyone loves Ryan Murphy’s docudramas—except the real people depicted in them. The 101-year-old actress Olivia de Havilland has a lawsuit pending against FX and Murphy over her portrayal in Feud: Bette and Joan; although O.J. Simpson didn’t object to his own depiction in the first season of American Crime Story, his attorney reported that Simpson hated ads that cast Johnnie Cochran in a negative light. And those who loved Gianni Versace, from Donatella to Antonio D’Amico, have been critical of season two since the first set photos appeared in July.
Now we know why. In a recent statement, the Versace family explained that they consider The Assassination of Gianni Versace fiction because it’s based on Vulgar Favors: “The company producing the series claims it is relying on a book by Maureen Orth, but the Orth book itself is full of gossip and speculation,” said a spokesperson. The Versaces take particular issue with what they characterize as her “assertions about Gianni Versace’s medical condition based on a person who claims he reviewed a post-mortem test result,” pointing out that “she admits it would have been illegal for the person to have reviewed the report in the first place (if it existed at all).”
The “medical condition” they’re referring to is HIV, the “person” in question was a detective on the murder case, and the moment the Versace family preemptively disavowed was the cold open to last night’s episode, “Manhunt.” In a scene set in March 1994, Antonio leads a sickly Gianni through a hospital ward. The designer looks disturbed by the sight of two men in adjacent beds. “There are no journalists here,” a doctor assures him, and Versace takes off his sunglasses and hood. As director Nelson Cragg shows us close-ups of vials filled with blood, the doctor explains, “There are drugs. The therapies are complex, difficult.” Back at Casa Casuarina, Donatella berates Antonio for bringing other men into their bed as Gianni convalesces.
What we’re meant to glean from the scene is obvious—but writer Tom Rob Smith is careful not to put the words “HIV” or “AIDS” in any character’s mouth. Perhaps he made that choice out of respect for the Versace family’s protestations, or maybe the show’s creators feared a lawsuit. Orth was not so coy: In a passage from Vulgar Favors recounting the Versace company’s aborted plan to go public, she makes a breathless declaration: “What no one in the fashion or business world was ever supposed to know was that Gianni Versace had contracted HIV.” She cites sources who confirm that Gianni and Antonio paid men for sex, points out that Versace retreated from the public eye between March 1994 and July 1995, and notes that “when he did appear in Europe to take bows on the catwalk, people noticed that he had lost weight and looked weak and emaciated.”
At the time, the family maintained that Gianni had contracted a rare inner-ear cancer; when he got sick again, in 1996, the culprit was supposedly a bone tumor in his cheek. Orth’s confirmation came from local detective Paul Scrimshaw. “I had to know whether Gianni Versace was HIV-positive or not,” he told Orth, “and I was able to find out from autopsy results that he had tested positive for HIV.”
When Vulgar Favors appeared, in 1999, gossip rags as well as mainstream reviews took note of the claim—and the Versace family issued a withering response: “This is an example of an unprincipled individual using rumor and innuendo to capitalize on the memory of Gianni Versace.” Two decades later, Orth stands by her reporting. “I was told on the record by the lead detective on Miami Beach that he had heard from the medical examiner who did the blood work that he was [HIV-positive],” she recently reaffirmed to THR.
For what it’s worth, House of Versace author Deborah Ball’s account of Versace’s final years matches the family’s claims. She reports that, in August 1994, Gianni was diagnosed with inner-ear cancer and underwent chemotherapy until late 1995. Ball only briefly references Orth, whose book had been out for over a decade when House of Versace was published in 2010. “Conspiracy theorists would declare as suspect the family’s rush to cremate Gianni’s body and their successful appeal to have the state of Florida seal Gianni’s autopsy—reviving the question as to whether Gianni had been HIV-positive,” she writes. “When in a book on Cunanan, Orth quoted a Miami Beach police officer as claiming that the autopsy showed Gianni to be HIV-positive, the family released a letter from Gianni’s doctor in Milan denying it.”
It’s an odd passage. Why does Ball conflate “conspiracy theorists” with the reporting of an award-winning journalist, who also mentioned the Versaces’ eagerness to cremate Gianni? Why doesn’t Ball offer her expert opinion on whether Orth or the physician is more trustworthy? It’s possible that her choice not to weigh in has to do with her subjects’ participation in the book. “My greatest debt of gratitude surely goes to Santo and Donatella Versace,” she writes in the acknowledgments. “This is the first book to enjoy the help of the Versace family.”
I tend to believe Orth. Her reporting is more clearly sourced, her book is juicy enough without this scoop, and although Ball supplies an alternate account, she makes no attempt to debunk Orth’s. What’s sad is that this controversy remains so heated two decades later—when HIV isn’t an automatic death sentence (especially for wealthy patients), the stigma around it has decreased, and Versace’s health no longer has any bearing on the company’s finances. By lashing out at this gentle, respectful depiction of Gianni’s illness, the family isn’t defending his legacy so much as implying that an HIV diagnosis should be a source of shame.
A few more questions answered:
Did Versace really have a sister who died? Yes. The oldest of the Versace siblings fell ill with peritonitis in May 1953 and passed away at nine years old. The story about young Gianni running home from a relative’s place to find her in her coffin is true, too. According to Ball, his mother told him, “Gianni, your sister has gone to heaven. You and Santo are all I have now.”
Did Donatella really hate Antonio?
She sure did. The beef dates back to the beginning of Gianni and Antonio’s relationship in the early 80s. Not only did she resent this outsider’s bond with her brother, but she disapproved of his work at the company. “She would say something against me to Gianni, but I always put her in her place,” Antonio told Ball.
Ronnie is just an excuse for Max Greenfield to flex his character-acting muscles, right?
Nope. Cunanan really did pay $29.99 a night to stay at the dingy Normandy Hotel in Miami Beach. There, he met Ronnie, who Orth describes as “a sky-blue-eyed, 43-year-old Normandy Plaza resident with long, stringy blond hair, usually barefoot, who is gay, HIV positive and living on disability.” So he didn’t look much like Greenfield, but it was Andrew’s search for drugs and johns that brought them together.
Did Keith Evans seriously dismiss a lesbian cop’s advice to post Wanted flyers in gay clubs? And did police really miss Andrew at a goddamn sub shop by a matter of minutes?
Hell yes, times two!
Finally, let’s talk about something that probably didn’t happen: that hotel-room scene. While Orth suggests Andrew was hustling in Miami Beach, there’s nothing about him dancing in a Speedo to Philip Bailey and Phil Collins’s “Easy Lover” while an old businessman nearly suffocates.
So what’s going on in this nightmarish set piece? It appears to be an homage to Bret Easton Ellis’s novel—and, especially, Mary Harron’s film adaptation—American Psycho. Protagonist Patrick Bateman is another slick, sociopathic murderer who worships Collins, and the same sexual encounter that begins with Patrick blasting “In Too Deep” ends when the psycho-yuppie butchers two prostitutes. This scene reverses that hierarchy in a way you can imagine Cunanan appreciating: The hustler has the power, and the rich guy is helpless.
There’s another obvious American Psycho callback in the episode’s final scene, when a dance partner asks, “So what do you do?” Andrew replies, “I’m a serial killer,” before assuring the confused man that he’s actually a banker. Asked an identical question by a blonde in a club, Patrick says, “I’m into murders and executions.” Incredibly, Orth and Ball both report that Cunanan really did tell a partier named Brad he was a serial killer, then a banker. Considering that Orth mentions his love of Ellis’s first novel, Less Than Zero, it’s possible Cunanan was intentionally emulating Patrick Bateman.
Also crucial is the moment when Andrew leaves and his john slips on a wedding ring before calling 911, then hangs up. (No one ever said Ryan Murphy shows were subtle.) This season is already building a case that widespread homophobia allowed Cunanan kill so many gay men without being caught. And, like its lying lead, the story takes a different form in each episode. Last week was a newsmagazine. This week, Andrew’s attacks on the gay community are so obvious, he’s an American Psycho and AIDS rolled into one. Next week… well, I won’t spoil it. Just get ready for another extreme shift in tone—and my favorite of the first eight episodes sent to press.
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