Episode Five of 'The Assassination of Gianni Versace' Is More Brutal Than Real Life

The 'American Crime Story' season continues to play fast and loose with some truths.

by Judy Berman
Feb 15 2018, 3:42pm

Ray Mickshaw/FX

Every episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace poses a different question about Andrew Cunanan’s unlikely murder spree: How did he survive long enough to kill Versace? Why did a rich and powerful man like Lee Miglin invite an unhinged rent boy into his home? Why didn’t David Madson, a successful architect whose friends and family loved him deeply, try harder to escape? The answer is always the same: Homophobia. This week, it explains how Jeffrey Trail—a kind, bright and beloved young Navy officer—came to be friends with a monster.

“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” alternates between the weekend of Trail’s death in 1997 and two years earlier, likely because it was convenient to juxtapose his story with that of Versace’s Advocate interview. In truth, Maureen Orth writes in Vulgar Favors that Jeff met Cunanan and sat for an anonymous interview with 48 Hours somewhere around 1992-93. “Whether people like it or not, there are gays in the military,” Trail told reporter Richard Schlesinger in the heartbreaking conversation. “They’re very top-notch performers. They know what they’re doing. You’re gonna weaken our national defense if you remove gays from the military. And you’ll never be able to do it 100 percent—it’s just whether or not you’re gonna continue to hunt us.” Schlesinger later recalled that Jeff “had absolutely nothing to gain by doing the interview. Yet he took the risk and spoke out. My colleagues and I left San Diego very impressed with Ensign Trail.”

Trail had grown up as the conservative oddball in a close, liberal Midwestern family. Friends and teachers remembered him as clean-cut and warm, with a strong code of ethics. Determined to follow two of his half-siblings into the military, he learned to fly in high school and matriculated at Annapolis; after graduating in 1991, he was assigned to Surface Warfare Officers School in San Diego and worked on the USS Gridley navy cruiser seen in the episode. That same year, he hooked up for the first time with a male student at San Diego State and began acknowledging his sexuality. Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 1994 quickly became notorious, but Trail had enlisted amid the outright ban on gays in the military that preceded it.

It’s true that Trail was drawn to Cunanan in San Diego because he seemed so comfortable in his identity; in turn, Cunanan worshiped Trail’s wholesome good looks and navy pedigree. Trail’s sister Lisa told The New York Times, “When Jeff got a haircut, Andrew had to have the exact same haircut. When Jeff went to San Francisco and got a certain style of baseball cap, Andrew had to go to San Francisco and get the very same cap. When Jeff grew a goatee, Andrew grew a goatee.”

But they never dated, or by all accounts even slept together. Instead, Cunanan made himself indispensable by introducing his newly (somewhat) liberated friend to other gay men and treating him to expensive nights out. Trail hated drugs, and he wasn’t happy to hear that Cunanan was dealing, but his pity outweighed his anger. By 1996, Trail and David Madson—the most important people in Cunanan’s life, even though Madson had broken up with him and Trail had grown tired of his lies—both lived in Minneapolis. Cunanan visited the city often, despite the fact that both men were trying to distance themselves from him.

Is it fair to imply, as screenwriter Tom Rob Smith does, that homophobia killed Jeff Trail? Only in the sense that he might not have become reliant on Cunanan if he’d been free to come out in high school, at Annapolis, or in the military—which is certainly worth considering. But the flashback’s most disturbing moments—the scene where Jeff saves a gay soldier from being beaten to death, the suicide attempt—are nowhere to be found in Orth’s book. Trail did have a tattoo of Marvin the Martian on his left ankle, but neither the scene where he tries to slice it off nor the witch hunt that precipitated that act of desperation is part of the official record.

Trail left the military in 1996 after superior officers stuck him with the blame for an incident in which, unbeknownst to him, cans of lead paint were hidden on his ship before an EPA inspection. Perhaps he became the fall guy because his bosses suspected he was gay, or simply because his secret prevented him from bonding with them. Trail is a hero regardless for having the courage to appear on 48 Hours when he knew it could have ended his career. Surely, the dignified Jeff we meet in American Crime Story, played by Finn Wittrock, is meant to stand in for the many queer soldiers who endured similar physical and psychological ordeals.

Even when they’re fabricated, the flashbacks in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are some of the most affecting scenes in the series. Still, my concerns remain when it comes to fictionalizing a real, non-famous murder victim’s life to the extent that Smith does in these last two episodes. Furthermore, after two focused, immersive episodes I found all the temporal skipping around—from 1995 to 1997, from Jeff’s backstory to the Versace subplot—distracting. This season’s starting to feel rushed, and I wonder how different the show would be if it played out over ten episodes instead of nine.

Fact-Checking Lightning Round

Did Gianni Versace really come out of the closet in a 1995 Advocate profile? Not really. Even as a provincial teen, Gianni ran in gay circles. In the 80s, he installed his partner Antonio d’Amico in a position of power at Versace; they attended gay clubs, together and separately, all over the world and double-dated with Elton John. There were often naked men in Versace ads. In the spring of 1995, he published a photo book called Men Without Ties that might as well have been titled Men Without Shirts. So when Brendan Lemon (the reporter seen in the episode) profiled him for the July issue of The Advocate, he took Versace’s queerness as a given. The piece is still an interesting read, though; Versace introduces Antonio as his “companion,” and there’s an aside about Antonio—who, as we know, didn’t get along with Versace’s sister—calling Donatella the “queen of the gays.” Versace also offers thoughts on male beauty.

What was that about Perry Ellis? Poor Penélope Cruz, forced once again to deliver all the exposition. Considering that Gianni was for all intents and purposes out in the 90s, it’s hard to imagine Donatella begging him to stay closeted for the sake of the business. But the story she told about Perry Ellis is, unfortunately, mostly true. When he came out to greet the audience at the end of his fall 1986 fashion show, the designer had to be supported by two assistants. He tried and failed to walk down the runway. Forty-six-year-old Ellis died weeks later, and although his cause of death was listed as viral encephalitis, it was clear he’d been ill with AIDS. That summer, New York magazine published a sad and fascinating cover story investigating his life and death. Sales slipped after Ellis’s passing, as Donatella mentions, although a 1988 Times article suggests the culprit was “lackluster collections.”

What was supposed to be going on between David Madson and Jeff Trail? Your guess is as good as mine. We heard them arguing over whether Andrew “knew” about them. We heard Andrew accuse them of sneaking around behind his back. We saw a photo of the men together in Jeff’s bedroom. I’m not sure whether Smith wants us to believe they were secretly seeing each other or demonstrate why Andrew might have, in his paranoid state, decided that was the case. Either way, in real life, Madson was dating a few different guys when Cunanan arrived for his final visit, and Trail spent the weekend with a boyfriend, not his pregnant sister.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Judy Berman on Twitter.