True crime drama The Assassination of Gianni Versace continues this Wednesday at 9pm on BBC2.
After last week’s opening episode, the action goes back to examine the events leading up to the killing of Gianni Versace, inspired by the account in Vanity Fair journalist Maureen Orth’s book Vulgar Favours.
The opening of episode two finds the fashion designer (Edgar Ramirez) being treated for an unnamed illness in a hospital in Miami, Florida in 1994. “There are drugs. The therapies are complex, difficult, but we have options,” the doctor tells him.
Later on, his sister Donatella (Penelope Cruz) suggests to D’Amico that their promiscuous lifestyle caused him to become ill. Versace’s illness is never explicitly named in the drama, but the suggestion from the dialogue in the series is that Gianni Versace was HIV positive.
This is a theory that was originally posited by journalist Maureen Orth in her book Vulgar Favours – the basis for much of the drama in The Assassination of Gianni Versace – who suggests that the family kept his illness a secret because of the implications it would have on his business, which was about to go public on the New York Stock Exchange. Drama writer Tom Rob Smith says that he also spoke with sources off the record who claim that Vesace had HIV.
“We weren’t approaching it as a piece of salacious gossip, nor was Maureen Orth, in all honesty,” he told Vanity Fair. “She has no agenda or reason to push any point of view. She was interested in unpacking some of the myths around the murder, such as that Andrew had AIDS and was killing because of it. In fact, Andrew, this destroyer of life, did not have AIDS, and the person who did have H.I.V. was this great creator and celebrator of life.”
In 1994, Versace appeared ill in public, and the family said that he was suffering from a rare, inner ear cancer, and was undergoing chemotherapy. Then, in 1996, he was reportedly suffering from a cancerous bone tumour in his cheek (this seems to have been referenced in the episode by a mark on his face). These stories, author Orth, were a cover up, referencing an account from a Colombian doorman at Miami gay club The Warsaw, who claims to have procured young men for Versace and his partner to sleep with.
The Versace family, however, have remained adamant that this was not the case. In 2006, Donatella Versace reiterated to New York Magazine that the illness he was fighting was cancer, not AIDS.
“He was sick with cancer in his ear before he was murdered,”. The last two years of his life, Gianni was hiding, hiding up in his apartment in Via Gesú, because his ear was so big,” she said. “But then it was declared cured six months before he was murdered. We celebrated; we drink champagne and everything. Six months later, he was killed.”
The assassination of Lee Miglin
Another scene in episode two sees Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) get in the car to drive to Miami. As he does so, he hears a news report on the radio about the murder of a man called Lee Miglin. The reporter goes on to name Cunanan as the only suspect.
What we know to be true
On the morning of 4th May 1997, the body of real estate developer Lee Miglin was discovered in his home in Chicago. He had been repeatedly stabbed according to a report in the Chicago Tribune, and his neck was cut open with a gardening tool or saw. A jeep, owned by Andrew Cunanan’s previous victim, David Madson, was discovered near the scene.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace executive producer Brad Simpson told the Chicago Sun Times, “Our writer, Tom Rob Smith, had to dramatise what we believe happened that weekend starting from the established facts of the crime scene. Based on the evidence, we believe that Lee and Andrew did know each other, and Andrew’s attack, as with all his victims except for William Reese, was targeted and specific. We used Maureen Orth’s book and consultancy, as well as the FBI records and the statements from witnesses inside the records for research and background.”
Who is Ronnie Holston?
In the drama, when Cunanan arrives in Miami he befriends Ronnie (Max Greenfield), an HIV positive crack addict, at his hotel in Miami Beach. The two take a walk to the beach, where Cunanan offers to prostitute himself to an elderly patron on the beach for drug money. The two score some drugs and get high in Ronnie’s hotel room.
Later, as Andrew prepares to leave in pursuit of Versace, he tells Ronnie, prophetically: “When people ask you if we were friends, you’ll say ‘no'”.
What we know to be true:
Andrew did befriend a man called Ronnie Holston, at the Normandy Plaza Hotel in Miami Beach in the two months when he was hiding out there before killing Versace on 15th July 1997.
In Vulgar Favours Orth describes him as a “sky-blue-eyed, forty-three-year-old” with “stringy blond hair, usually barefoot, who is gay, HIV positive, and living on disability”. She reports that they saw each other almost daily during Cunanan’s stay.
According to Holston, Cunanan would frequently prostitute himself and use the money to buy drugs, which he would then share. Holston would have to go out and buy the drugs, as his friend was trying his best to keep out of plain sight.
“Andrew was a hustler,” he told Orth. “I knew that from the moment I saw him. He was on the take. I set him up. He was very, very generous.”
The manhunt continues
The episode also shows the police, led by Detective Lori Wieder (Orange is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco), trying to pin Andrew Cunanan down in the days leading up to the Versace murder. An FBI agent tells a Miami law enforcement officer that “fliers aren’t a priority for us right now”.
As the FBI file on Cunanan indicate, the authorities only really ramped up the flyer policy in the hours following Versace’s murder. When it was discovered that Cunanan had been in Miami for a full two months prior to the killing, this decision came under serious scrutiny.
“In Florida,” TIME reported, “there have been complaints that the FBI did not focus early enough on Miami Beach’s gay community. A number of bars and businesses in the area say they were alerted by agents. But though the FBI promised to send 1,500 flyers to the gay and lesbian centre in Fort Lauderdale, they did not arrive until the day after Versace’s killing. FBI officials blame government printing delays for the foul-up.”
The Assassination of Gianni Versace continues Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC2