(Spoilers ahead for the premiere of “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”)
Ryan Murphy’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” has finally begun on FX, with its premiere episode starting at the end — with spree killer Andrew Cunanan’s (Darren Criss) murder of famed fashion designer Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez) on the steps of his South Beach, Miami, mansion.
The immediate aftermath of the shooting is treated by the show as kind of a circus. Versace’s boyfriend (Ricky Martin) sitting on the steps holding the body until an ambulance comes. Cunann accidentally shoots a flying bird with one of his shots, its corpse landing next to Versace’s. A guy runs to his car to get his Polaroid camera in order to snap a shot of Versace’s corpse. A model in a bathing suit walks through news camera shots behind the scene. A woman tears a Versace ad out of a magazine and soaks it in Versace’s blood. It’s pure madness.
The question I had after watching this play out was how much of this really happened and how much was creative license on the part of Murphy, who directed the episode, and writer Tom Rob Smith.
It’s a question that’s tough to answer conclusively because the reporting of the immediate aftermath of Versace’s murder didn’t usually stay at the scene — instead, the story of what happened that day usually follows Cunanan as he flees and the police carry out the manhunt. So info about what exactly was happening in front of the mansion tend to lack this sort of detail.
The first and most important thing you need to know before we dive into this fact check is that “The Assassination of Gianni Versacci: American Crime Story” is an adaptation of a non-fiction book by Maureen Orth, called “Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versacci, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History.” That’s a book that has been a bit controversial, because the Versace family has said repeatedly since it was published in 1999 that it wasn’t accurate — taking particular issue with the idea that Versace had ever met Cunanan before the day of the murder, a point that is key to both “Vulgar Favors” and “American Crime Story.” The Versace family issued a statement in early January declaring that the show is “a work of fiction.”
It’s worth noting, though, that Orth had, at the time of the murder, already been covering Cunanan’s murder spree for Vanity Fair and before Versace’s death had spoken with sources who told her that Cunanan and Versace knew each other.
With that in mind, let’s get to it.
One thing we do know to be true is that Cunanan did hit a bird with one of his shots. The presence of the dead bird at the scene sparked the thought that Versace’s murder was a Mob hit. “To us that’s a sign of a Mafia hit,” Miami PD investigator Carlos Noriega told “48 Hours” in a special about the murder that aired in December. Of course, the dead bird turned out to be incidental, rather than left there intentionally.
The Polaroid guy, meanwhile, is a detail that is included in the book that the show is based on — Maureen Orth’s “Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History.” Orth wrote that “Within minutes of the shooting, the first media trucks rolled up to the Versace mansion. The first profiteer had already raced home for his Polaroid camera upon seeing Versace’s body laid out on the Casa Casuarina steps, and was only able to make it back in time to get a shot of the designer’s bare feet sticking out of the ambulance. Nevertheless, within forty-eight hours the huckster was trying to get $30,000 for his Polaroid.” This is slightly different from how it’s depicted on the show, where the man runs to his parked car to get the camera. Also, on the show he tries to sell the picture on the spot, without any delay.
The model walking through the live news shot is an interpretation of an anecdote from Orth’s book. Orth mentioned visiting the crime scene two days after the murder with fellow Vanity Fair reporter Cathy Horyn at about 6:30 in the morning. “Even at that hour, women in skin-tight leotards and shorts were pretending to stroll by the mansion, hoping to be caught by the cameras of at least a dozen TV crews set up on the lawn across the street.”
One of the previously mentioned bits from the scene of the crime as depicted on “American Crime Story” has been directly refuted by the person being depicted: when Versace’s boyfriend, Antonio D’Amico, discovers the body and holds Gianni in his arms until paramedics take him away in an ambulance. “The picture of Ricky Martin holding the body in his arms is ridiculous,” D’Amico said to the Observer last year. “Maybe it’s the director’s poetic licence, but that is not how I reacted.”
D’Amico described the sequence pretty differently: “The house had stained glass windows so we couldn’t see what had happened from inside, so we had to open the gate. I saw Gianni lying on the steps, with blood around him. At that point, everything went dark. I was pulled away, I didn’t see any more.”
Meanwhile, the part with the woman who soaks a Versace magazine ad in Gianni Versace’s blood after his body was removed from the scene is a bit more complicated. It’s not a moment that’s mentioned in “Vulgar Favors” nor is it something mentioned in media reports about the murder that we’ve read. But it is a salacious purported detail that was repeated in various places over the year following the murder.