The Mind of a Klller | Essay | Chicago Reader

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The Mind of a Klller

Two wildly disparate books about Andrew Cunanan attempt to profile the man behind the murders.

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The media coverage of the story of Andrew Cunanan--the 27-year-old gay man whose 1997 cross-country killing spree ended only when he killed himself--became nearly as fascinating and incomprehensible as the crimes themselves. When he first struck, the mainstream press was trumpeting its open-mindedness on gay issues by gleefully participating in the publicity surrounding Ellen DeGeneres's protracted coming-out stunt. But after Cunanan killed his third victim, Chicago real estate developer Lee Miglin, reporters appeared to time-warp back to the 1950s, clumsily issuing ominous warnings about a "homicidal homosexual" on the loose.

The coverage would have been campy if not for the brutality and apparent randomness of the crimes. Cunanan, TV reporters intoned, was "alleged to have ties to the gay community"--as if such ties were to an organized criminal cabal. The media reported, inaccurately, that Cunanan and his first two victims, whom he was visiting in Minneapolis, were initiates in a "homosexual love triangle." The wildest phrase--a triple whammy--came from the killer's mother, who tagged her kid a "high-class homosexual prostitute." Lazy reporters didn't bother to check the accuracy of her words; her son was neither high-class nor a prostitute. And those reporters kept using the "gay gigolo" motif--which had Cunanan "kept" by a series of "wealthy older men" in San Diego--even though he'd had only one such relationship.

Later, after Cunanan gunned down designer Gianni Versace on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion, the cliches and stereotypes became less quaint. Cunanan was said to be able to pass himself off as a woman--a trick many experienced drag queens would envy--and to be acting out of vengeance after testing positive for HIV. His suicide and the subsequent revelation that he was HIV-negative eliminated the media's favorite pulp-fiction motive, and the many unanswered questions suddenly made the finale seem anticlimactic.

Reporters moved on to Princess Diana's death, then to Monica and Bill. Cunanan receded into the mists of public memory. But two new books have pulled him back, ostensibly to examine his case from the broader perspective afforded by time and in-depth research. Due to their almost simultaneous publication, the books will inevitably be pitted against each other. Maureen Orth's Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History is a solid, though flawed, true-crime potboiler. Gary Indiana's Three Month Fever: The Andrew Cunanan Story is another thing altogether--an attempt to put a human face on a killer, a difficult task given how much Cunanan's life has been misrepresented. It's a bravura performance of wit, venom, and mostly empathy for Cunanan.

Vulgar Favors was published a couple of weeks ahead of Three Month Fever, and, not surprisingly, it has received the lion's share of attention. Orth has been associated with the story since the death of Versace; when he was killed she was working on an article about Cunanan for Vanity Fair and instantly became a much-televised authority on the subject. Her Vanity Fair pieces stood head and shoulders above other reports, eschewing sensationalism and daring to doubt the official line that the Miglin killing was a random crime. Vulgar Favors certainly exhibits flashes of the brilliance found in her magazine articles, particularly when it introduces us to Cunanan's parents. Orth catches up with his mother, MaryAnn, in a dilapidated San Diego-area bungalow. Despite the staggering evidence to the contrary, MaryAnn maintains that Andrew wasn't a killer. The account of their visit is masterfully matter-of-fact: "Before her visitors go, MaryAnn wants snapshots taken. She imitates movie stars, posing with her hand on her hip, turning for a three-quarter view, throwing her head back over her shoulder. She demands, 'Who am I? Don't you remember Silvana Mangano? Don't you remember Anna Magnani?' As she recalls these fifties and sixties Italian actresses, MaryAnn suddenly smolders with hostility. 'I'm ugly but I'm the actress, right?' she implores. 'Right?'"

Andrew's father, Modesto "Pete" Cunanan, had abandoned his family for the Philippines in 1988. He returned to the U.S. after his son's crime spree began and told Orth of his intention to make a movie that would reveal Andrew's innocence. (He said he would cast John F. Kennedy Jr. in the lead, once he got the funding.) With the millions he expected to net, he would bankroll a search for buried treasure in the Philippines. Orth cannily locates the roots of Andrew's desperate social climbing in Pete's aspirations and unusual parenting techniques--convinced that he could parlay his modest income into a fortune, Pete made his young son read Amy Vanderbilt's etiquette primer and told him he'd have to comport himself like a prince.

These and other insights into Andrew's early life rank among the smartest things written about him. But Orth retreats from the even tone of her magazine reporting in her approach to anything gay, giving her book the same tone as the media coverage. Descending from her Conde Nast perch into Cunanan's seamy gay underworld, holding her nose all the while, Orth clearly thinks she's got expose material when she discovers lots of drugs and seedy individuals on the gay scene. Stop the presses--please.

Gays do use drugs, probably more than the general population, and Orth might be right when she notes that this facet of gay life goes underreported. But she's wrong to see it as a secret the gay community is desperate to keep under wraps. The real secret--another rather poorly kept one--is that the gay community itself is a bit of a myth, born out of political expediency.

To Orth, all gays are bound together in some sort of club, and every member is accountable for the actions of all the others. When she traces some of the more offensive false reports about Cunanan back to gay informants, she insinuates that their stories somehow discredit the "considerable indignation in the gay press" about the reporting of those stories. His porn-star roommate cooked up the story that Cunanan was homicidally obsessed with Tom Cruise, and an AIDS counselor who claimed he'd had a meeting with Cunanan said Cunanan had indicated he was HIV-positive. Since both men are gay, Orth suggests, other gays didn't have the right to be horrified that the press jumped on such volatile material without substantiating it. In her acknowledgments Orth thanks "people I knew ages ago, such as Armistead Maupin and David Geffen," which lets us know she's met at least two gays in her life. Vulgar Favors seems to have been written for people who haven't met any.

Orth also goes out of her way to exhibit a smug distaste for everyone who's tried to "cash in on the tragedy"--everyone but her, that is. She's disdainful of those who've claimed closer relationships to Cunanan than they really had, yet she begins her book by speculating that two hang-up calls she received might have been from Cunanan, on the basis of the caller's "gay male voice" and the fact that Vanity Fair was Cunanan's favorite magazine.

Three Month Fever isn't so much Vulgar Favors's competitor as its opposite. Gary Indiana researched his book in the manner of a reporter, interviewing many of the people Orth did, but the final product is wildly, vibrantly subjective--to the point that it can't really claim to be journalism. In even more marked contrast to Vulgar Favors, it's intimately familiar with gay life, and consequently treats Cunanan's milieu not as shocking but as a simple fact of life. (Indiana may not be as fazed by killers as the rest of us; he writes that five of his acquaintances were later revealed to be murderers.)

Where Orth writes from her established position as an insider, Indiana writes from the position we all shared, as news consumers. Like others who followed the story closely--and there was a small army of us--Indiana is a collage artist. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll note that we're acquaintances; I sent my own file of Cunanan clippings to him and am thanked for it in his acknowledgments.) The book doesn't exactly cut through the bullshit; Indiana is shrewd enough to know that would be futile. But he writes that the story "is itself a pastiche, and in many respects inextricable from its own hyperbole." Three Month Fever is sweet-smelling bullshit, yet it ends up providing the most believable explanation to date for Cunanan's crimes.

Unconcerned with the burden of proof that plagues more traditional true-crime writers, Indiana unabashedly claims the right to explore the inner workings of the minds of various individuals, particularly Cunanan and his first two victims, Jeffrey Trail and David Madson. Like Milton in Paradise Lost, Indiana finds sympathy for the devil and makes it hard for the reader to do otherwise. Gay readers in particular may find it difficult not to identify with the childhood Indiana gives Cunanan, with "the way familiar gestures of affection were rebuffed beyond a certain age, names lobbed across a schoolyard...taught him he couldn't stare, couldn't touch, couldn't smile a certain way at certain things."

Indiana's Cunanan is a fully human figure, a pathetic social climber and compulsive liar ultimately done in by his own hubris. Night after night in San Diego bars he'd regale new friends with tales of a decadent wealthy family, a south-of-the-border business empire, even a stint in the Israeli secret service--anything but the unbearable truth of his roots in a poor, fractured family. Indiana finds evidence to support a devastating twist on the story of Cunanan's one-way flight to Minneapolis prior to the first killings, seeing it as an attempt to face facts and start a new life. This effort, he suggests, was thwarted by his friends' justified distrust, and the side effects of his steroid use didn't help.

Indiana steps over a significant line in journalism by speaking for his subjects, then goes quite a bit further. He seems to have had little choice in the matter: Trail and Madson had plenty of friends who were willing to talk, but associates of Miglin and Versace were tight-lipped. (The fourth victim, cemetery caretaker William Reese, was apparently killed for his truck and played no other role in Cunanan's life or imagination.) Three Month Fever brazenly speculates that Cunanan and Miglin were acquainted--though his family and associates adamantly deny it--and, in a hypothetical TV-movie-within-the-book, envisions their initial meeting during an amateur performance of South Pacific at a private party for affluent gays: "Gliding into view, on stage, from Chicago, in the role of Bloody Mary, bedecked in a coconut brassiere and citrus green acetate hula skirt, is the imperishably handsome and very fetching Windy City songbird and pioneer real-estate developer....Let's have a nice welcoming round of applause for the musical stylings of Miss...Lee...Miglin!"

"The powers that be protect their own here," warns Miglin friend and Chicago socialite Sugar Rautbord in Vulgar Favors. "Woe to them that mess with the powers that be." When Indiana rolls into town this week on his book tour, he'd be wise to check into his hotel using another assumed name.

For all its liberties, Three Month Fever is a legitimate heir to the crime-related "nonfiction novel"--Capote on peyote. If the book oversteps its bounds, Vulgar Favors serves as a check on its excesses.

Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History by Maureen Orth, Delacorte Press, $24.95

Three Month Fever: The Andrew Cunanan Story by Gary Indiana, Cliff Street Books, $25.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): ilustration by Kim Wilson.

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