The Versace family has called Orth’s book “full of gossip and speculation.”
Before Andrew Cunanan shot designer Gianni Versace on the front steps of his Miami home in July 1997, Vanity Fair contributor Maureen Orth was already steeped in the mind of the serial killer. That murder is portrayed in the upcoming FX series American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which is based on Orth’s book Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History. At the time of the murder, Orth had spent two months reporting for Vanity Fair on Cunanan and the events that might have led to him to kill four other people before finally targeting Versace. Even before law enforcement announced that Cunanan was a suspect, Orth and the fact checkers at Vanity Fair had a hunch they knew exactly who had pulled the trigger at Ocean Drive.
In a new interview for Vanity Fair’s American Crime Story companion podcast, Still Watching: Versace, Orth reveals that once the authorities had released Cunanan’s name, “I think I was the only person in America who understood he had met Versace before. So that’s how that all started.”
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, which premieres on FX January 17, was written by Tom Rob Smith—author of Child 44, who previously combined crime and romance in the compulsively watchable 2015 miniseries London Spy. And while the title name-checks Versace, the show itself—following Orth’s lead—is more focused on the mentality of his assassin: serial killer Andrew Cunanan, played by Glee alum Darren Criss. The Versace family is where FX dishes up a The People v. O.J. Simpson-worthy dose of star power, with Penélope Cruz as Gianni’s devastated sister, Donatella Versace, and Ricky Martin playing Antonio D’Amico, a model, designer, and Gianni’s longtime partner. Thanks to the reverse timeline of the story, Édgar Ramírez, whom Orth described as the “tanned, adored idol” of the late-90s South Beach scene, also gets a chance to shine as Versace himself.
Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson and senior writer Joanna Robinson have launched a 12-episode companion podcast, Still Watching: Versace, filled with exclusive interviews, insights, and a detailed examination of not only the series itself but the cultural impact of the 1997 crime. In Episode 2 of the podcast, Orth details the genesis of her book and the challenges of getting inside the disturbed mind of a killer. The interview was conducted early Wednesday morning, before the Versace family had specifically named Orth in its latest complaint against the FX series and its treatment of Gianni’s legacy. The Versace family has long denied a number of the points covered in Orth’s book, including both the notion that Cunanan and Versace were previously acquainted and that Versace, before he died, was sick with HIV/AIDS. “The Orth book itself is full of gossip and speculation,” the Versace family’s latest statement reads. “Orth never received any information from the Versace family, and she has no basis to make claims about the intimate personal life of Gianni Versace or other family members. Instead, in her effort to create a sensational story, she presents second-hand hearsay that is full of contradictions.”
Although Orth declined to comment directly on the Versace statement, she emphatically covered precisely the same territory when speaking with Still Watching on Wednesday morning. Detailing exactly the who, what, when, and where of how Cunanan and Versace knew each other, Orth said, “There is no doubt in my mind that those two met. That all is absolutely fact-based, on-the-record reporting.” (Meanwhile, Orth’s publisher, Random House, issued a strong statement in support of the book: “First published almost 19 years ago, Vulgar Favors is a carefully reported and extensively-sourced work of investigative journalism by an award-winning journalist with impeccable credentials. The book has stood the test of time and is widely regarded as the definitive account of Andrew Cunanan’s chilling crime spree. Random House stands by the book and its author, Maureen Orth.”)
Orth’s main concern in seeing her book adapted was how the families of Cunanan’s victims, including his former friends Jeff Trail and David Madson, Chicago businessman Lee Miglin, and cemetery caretaker William Reese, might take it. “I didn’t want it to be sleazy and exploitive. I cared very much about the families of the victims, that they not be hurt again.” But Orth said she was “reassured” that titillation wasn’t American Crime Story’s aim.
This isn’t the first time Orth’s book has bumped up against criticism and scrutiny. In 1999 Frank Bruni of the The New York Times reviewed Orth’s book and concluded, among other things, that “the book’s journey into a sybaritic gay demimonde is a risky adventure, guaranteed to flout political correctness and court charges of homophobia, and Orth often loses her footing.” Nearly 20 years later, Orth defends herself, calling Bruni’s characterization “intellectually dishonest.” His reaction and others like it “surprised” her. “I felt, my God, I talked to over 400 people. You see how detailed the book is. I have a reputation for being an accurate reporter. I am reflecting the life Andrew lived.”
During the Still Watching discussion, Orth digs into some of the fake news on the Versace-Cunanan case that emerged at the time and is cropping up again today, including a “bizarre,” “completely false,” and “irresponsible” story involving Cunanan and Tom Cruise recently republished by The National Enquirer. But for all the facts in her book, which come from interviews with hundreds of sources, the FX American Crime Story adaptation is a dramatic series, and it takes creative license with the timeline and some of the more unknowable elements of the Cunanan case. “Yes,” Orth explains, “there are a few places where things didn’t happen at all.”
Orth’s full interview comes at the conclusion of the latest episode of Still Watching: Versace. In the first half of the episode, listen to a discussion between Robinson, Lawson, and Katey Rich, deputy editor of VF.com, on Vulgar Favors, the Versace statement, and what to expect when the FX series launches next week.