Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History, by Maureen Orth

Nine stars

Seeking to begin the year with some learning opportunities tied into my reading, I turned to my iPod to find a decent audiobook. Maureen Orth’s book about the manhunt to find the killer of Gianni Versace caught my attention, as I do remember when everything appeared in the press over two decades ago. Orth opens her piece giving the reader a long and drawn-out depicting of the life Andrew Cunanan lived, including parents who could not process the uniqueness their son possessed. Born into a mixed-race family, Cunanan’s Filipino father was as straight laced as they came, while his Italian mother professed a strong connection to the Church, but found ways to accept her son’s obvious flair for the dramatic. Andrew grew up with little, though always wanted to up his social status, forcing him to create falsehoods on which others would be expected to build their image of the lanky Cunanan. Concocting quite the story, Cunanan convinced his friends that his father had money and power, which led him to gain entry into some preparatory schools well above his family’s financial abilities. Not scoring high enough to earn him top honours, Cunanan relied on his wit and ability to spin tales in order to create a strong social circle. He sought to define himself, feeling a turn towards homosexuality, something neither parent would have condoned or permitted at the time. When Cunanan left home, he established himself in the San Diego scene, finding solace in a gay community that chose to live under the radar. There, Cunanan’s tales took on a new level of intensity, as he not only dropped names, but also constructed a lavish lifestyle full of celebrity encounters and connections. Cunanan not only embraced life in gay bars and attending swanky weekends, he wanted to find a ‘sugar daddy’ to fuel his ever-growing expensive way of life. Cunanan turned to hard drugs, including crystal meth, which he would sell with abandon while climbing his social ladder. Little did he know—or perhaps care—but those around him found his antics odd and very off-putting. While he could party well into the night and fuel his life with hard drugs, he would also made comments and inject himself into situations where his ideas gave everyone chills. Pushing for more drug-filled parties and harsher sexual experimentation, Cunanan was no longer the happy-go-lucky person he had once been. Now, people on all sides steered clear of him and tried to find reasons not to hang around. As things intensified, Cunanan appeared to snap and ended up murdering Jeff Trail, after a trip to Minnesota, during a heated argument. While he used the home of his former lover, things appeared to spiral out of control. Cunanan realised his error and began a set of spree killings as he evaded authorities for months. Each step saw him take another victim of chance, all in an effort to evade arrest. Orth depicts a bumbling FBI and state officials as they fought over jurisdiction and how they could corner Cunanan, who continued to dodge the authorities, leaving more bodies in his wake. Towards the latter chapters, Cunanan was living right under the noses of the FBI, his face plastered across their Ten Most Wanted, but was not fingered or captured for months. Things culminated for Andrew Cunanan when he murdered Gianni Versace, famous fashion designer, by shooting him in the head. Orth remembers reporting on their first meeting back in 1990, though the authorities could not find any long-term connection the two men shared. It would appear that Cunanan knew his days were up and the bumbling manhunt might eventually catch him, so he turned a gun on himself, committing suicide after a bloody trail of victims lay at the feet of authorities. Without a strong motive, other than to stay one step ahead of the law, Andrew Cunanan etched his way into the history books as a horrific spree killer whose final victim likely catapulted him to infamy. An interesting read that helped lay the groundwork for a detailed analysis of the Versace murder, Orth uses her great investigative techniques to portray a man who wanted it all but ended up with nothing. Recommenced to those who like true crime, particularly when it has been turned into a television sensation.

Maureen Orth was a senior writer for Vanity Fair and has a long history of investigative journalism, which she ensures is known early in the story she presents. The detail she injects into this piece is truly fascinating and disturbing, most of all because the reader is left to feel they are living the life and can almost sense Andrew Cunanan’s presence. Orth offers up long narratives about the life and times of Cunanan, from an early age until he became the obsessed young man who wanted nothing more than to be seen as a celebrity. However, as Orth persuasively argues, his ability to alienate those around him is a major red flag in a short life of racing to be at the top of society’s ever-changing mountaintop. Orth goes into great detail about Cunanan’s immersion in the homosexual lifestyle, particularly in San Diego and Minnesota, while also exploring how drug use fuelled the life. There will be some readers who may shy away from this, as it can get quite intense, but Orth’s detail drives home the argument that Cunanan was deeply involved and would not be able to extricate himself with any ease. Orth also uses many interviews to develop her fine-tuned narrative, following the discussion where things took her and leaves the reader wanting to know more about this man who never seemed to fit into where he found himself. The spree killings are handled with as much depth as possible, though I was left wondering if Orth was as baffled as the authrorities, trying to piece together the details as Cunanan bounced across the country, fleeing those who sought to lock him into their crosshairs. As the title suggests, it was a bungled affair and one that Orth could not have crafted in her mind. How the chase to locate and arrest Cunanan could have gone so wrong will baffle the reader though, in an odd twist, Andrew Cunanan got the notoriety he sought when media caught up to the story and Versace was eventually found dead. What a mess in this intense story of life, sex, drugs, and the search for stardom.

Kudos, Madam Orth, for such an intense read. I knew little about anything you had to tell, so I was fully enthralled and will likely check out the television interpretation of this book in short order.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: