APPROACHING THE CHEERY green awnings of South Beach’s trendy News Cafe Tuesday morning, just as the last sweaty revelers were straggling home from the Miami Beach clubs, Gianni Versace seemed to some observers uncharacteristically preoccupied. The Italian designer walked past the restaurant, then backtracked and stepped inside. But instead of sitting to savor his usual morning cafe, he grabbed a handful of magazines—ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Vogue and PEOPLE—paid and left.
Versace may have felt something was amiss, and indeed it was. Minutes later, as he was opening the ornate wrought-iron gates to Casa Casuarina, the Mediterranean-style palazzo worthy of a Medici where he routinely entertained pals such as Madonna and Sly Stallone, he was approached by a young man wearing a white shirt, gray shorts and a black backpack. One unconfirmed report says the two were seen briefly struggling over a bag Versace was holding, and that the other man then drew a gun. In any case, two shots rang out, and the designer slumped to the ground, blood from his head wounds pooling on the steps. Then the killer walked away.
Within hours, police had identified the prime suspect—27-year-old Andrew Cunanan, already the subject of a nationwide manhunt (PEOPLE, July 7). Cunanan, who for the past month has been on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, is a suspect in four previous murders: those of architect David Madson, 33, and engineer Jeffrey Trail, 28, both of the Minneapolis area; Chicago millionaire Lee Miglin, 72; and cemetery caretaker William Reese, 45, of Upper Deerfield Township, N.J., all killed within a two-week period. Three blocks from Versace’s villa, authorities found the 1995 red pickup truck stolen from the last victim, Reese, inside a city parking garage. Nearby was a pile of bloody clothing the gunman is thought to have worn.
A native of San Diego, Cunanan is the youngest of four children born to Modesto Cunanan, a career Navy officer turned stockbroker, and MaryAnn, his homemaker wife. Educated at the exclusive Bishop’s School in La Jolla and later at the University of California, San Diego, Cunanan was, from his teen years on, an eye-catching presence on the gay scene. Hungry for the high life, he was frequently spotted in the area’s toniest restaurants and would often pick up the tab for his friends. But eventually he started looking for someone to pay his way, becoming a high-priced homosexual prostitute who lived off wealthy older men.
By the mid-’90s, Cunanan had moved into the oceanfront La Jolla condo of millionaire businessman Norman Blachford, who reportedly supported him and took him on trips to Europe. Between his charm and his smarts, he was good company. “He needed to make himself interesting to sugar daddies because he knew that giving interesting conversation was a key to being kept around,” says Nicole Ramirez-Murray, a society columnist for San Diego’s Gay and Lesbian Times. “With the men he was chasing, you had to be more than a pretty face.”
Cunanan was also known as a champion name-dropper—and one of the names he dropped was Versace’s. The two may have crossed paths. “[Cunanan’s] friends recall that Gianni Versace once recognized him backstage at the San Francisco Opera,” journalist Maureen Orth told the Today show. “That means they did meet…. Those were the moments that Andrew Cunanan lived for.”
Even if the designer and his alleged assassin had a nodding acquaintance, there was probably nothing significant between the pair, according to criminologist Robert K. Ressler, a former FBI agent and one of the country’s preeminent experts on serial killers. “I think he looked at Versace as a symbolic victim,” says Ressler. “Versace represented and stood for power, wealth, fame, celebrity, flamboyant lifestyle—everything Cunanan worshipped and aspired to.” Based on his profiling experience, Ressler believes Cunanan’s alleged killing spree might have been triggered by an HIV diagnosis. “I think he probably has AIDS,” Ressler says. “He now looks at the world as his enemy.” Paul Philip, special agent in charge of the Versace case, refused to speculate whether Cunanan had known his latest alleged victim, observing simply, “Everybody’s at risk. Everybody’s got to help us put this guy in jail.”
One of the first on the Versace murder scene was model Jaime Alberto Cardona, a friend of the designer’s for several years. “I come by, and he’s dead,” says Cardona, who had been headed to the beach to look for Versace when he saw a knot of onlookers gathered outside the mansion around 9 a.m. “Someone has destroyed in a second what has taken him 50 years to build, not only in Miami Beach but his family, his empire. How could anyone have done that to this man?”
The question echoed poignantly from Miami to Milan as the fashion world struggled to come to grips with the shocking sudden loss of an artist at the peak of his powers. Only a week earlier, the designer’s show of his daring new couture collection in Paris had won raves from a celebrity-studded crowd including Demi Moore and Leonardo DiCaprio. “He made clothes for women who want to walk into a room and have people say, ‘Wow!’ ” says Suze Yalof, a fashion editor at Glamour. “He created a world and an image that was unsurpassable.”
The circumstances of Versace’s death will do nothing to diminish that aura. During two decades at the epicenter of the design world, the 50-year-old Versace, who liked to style himself as “half royalty and half rock and roll,” became known for a mischievous attitude almost as provocative as his cutting-edge clothes. “Listen, I prefer a happy vulgar person to an unhappy chic person,” he told the South Beach monthly Ocean Drive in 1993, when he was still basking in the notoriety of his “bondage dresses”—shrink-wrap-tight sheaths strapped with black leather—that could have been lifted from a dominatrix’s closet. “If you’re unhappy and you don’t have a positive attitude, what good is being chic?”
After launching himself toward the fashion stratosphere with his first collection under his own name in 1978, Versace walked a tightrope between vulgarity and chic, opulence and camp. Though popularly perceived as the anti-Armani, exuberant and brash where his Milanese rival is cool and classic—or as Versace would put it, so beige—the designer seemed to revel in confounding expectations.
This was strikingly apparent in the phototropic creations for his vast celebrity clientele, who ranged from Princess Di to the late rapper Tupac Shakur. In 1994 he tarted up British beauty Elizabeth Hurley in “that dress,” a revealing black crepe number that appeared held together by little more than safety pins and a prayer. On the other hand, he stunningly remade Courtney Love’s grunge-princess image with the Harlowesque satin column she wore to this year’s Oscars. “Versace had the unique understanding that fashion was not just about clothes, it was about entertainment,” says Fiona Macpherson, editor of the British magazine Harpers & Queen. “His shows were always fun. It was almost like going to the theater.”
But nowhere did Versace strut his showmanship with more panache than on his own private stages, the dazzlingly sumptuous dwellings he maintained in South Beach, Manhattan and Milan and on Italy’s Lake Como. Though his personal style could be endearingly unpretentious—when shot he was wearing typical Miami mufti of tank top, shorts and sandals and, as usual, was unaccompanied by bodyguards or entourage—he lived, in Macpherson’s words, “like a Roman emperor.”
The son of a seamstress and an appliance salesman from dirt-poor Reggio di Calabria in southern Italy, he had amassed a fortune estimated at $800 million with his off-the-rack evening fantasies that could sell for as much as $20,000—and he exulted in spending it. Though he might buy his sister Donatella a 20-carat diamond, or generously foot Cardona’s $40,000 hospital bill when he suffered a ruptured appendix while modeling for him in Milan in 1992, the onetime architecture student’s greatest indulgences were the stately mansions that he lovingly renovated to his exacting standards—the work being documented in five luxe coffee-table books. “I can spend 3 million dollar in two hours,” he told The New Yorker in 1994. “I go shopping one day in Paris buying things for my house in Miami. That night, I come back home, and I see the figure I spent—oh, I start to dance…. I want to kiss myself!”
With so many residences to decorate and redecorate, Versace had little trouble making himself—not to mention an army of art dealers, architects, artisans and housekeepers—very happy indeed. After spending more than $6.7 million in the early ’90s for the two historic art deco hotels that would become his South Beach estate, Versace lavished an estimated $35 million on renovations. (He ended up demolishing the smaller to create space for a neoclassical mosaic pool, a jasmine-filled garden and a 6,100-square-foot guest house with shower for eight.) “I think people live better in big houses and in big clothes,” the designer told PEOPLE in 1986, when his pastel-hued plumage for Miami Vice began to make him a popular brand name.
Veteran fashion journalist Michael Gross vividly recalls a visit to Versace’s 17th-century Milan palazzo for dinner about five years ago. “It was lavish beyond belief. A room full of antique globes, every single one of them beautiful objects,” he remembers. “Waiters everywhere, champagne flowing, and pieces of furniture so deep your legs didn’t reach the edge if you leaned back…. He was playing out a dream of wealth beyond measure. He sold indulgences and indulged himself—in things and in people. It’s like the Sun King. He reflected light onto those around him and they in turn reflected back upon him.”
Like any sovereign worth his scepter, this king craved courtiers. To help ensure a continual house party, all of Versace’s residences contained plush suites for his famiglia, whom he made an integral part of his business. “I am a bit like Fellini—I like my family around me,” the designer told PEOPLE several years ago. Older brother Santo, 52, runs the company. Donatella, 42, designs the hip Versus line and oversees photo shoots, often with her American-born husband, former model Paul Beck. And Antonio D’Amico, 38, who has been Versace’s significant other since the pair met 11 years ago at the celebrated Milan opera house La Scala, designs his Intensive sport line.
All this togetherness, which included Donatella and Beck’s children, Allegra, 11, and Daniel, 6, sparked some decidedly kinky speculation. For years fashion gossips have buzzed about everything from whether the hunky Beck was really Versace’s lover—he and Donatella denied published reports—to what went on in that outsize shower. “Sure, he had boyfriends, but he was always discreet,” says one Miami resident who knew the designer well. “There are other people that it has been said about that there were wild and crazy, drug-soaked parties going on, but you really didn’t hear that kind of thing about him.”
There were darker murmurings as well. Two years ago, Versace “was very ill and nobody knew what was wrong…and so there was this nasty rumor going around about him having contracted HIV,” says Jacquelynn Powers, senior editor of Ocean Drive. “Then it came out that he had ear cancer and had been treated for it.”
Versace apparently managed to overcome the disease. But, despite receiving a $150,000 libel judgment and a public apology in 1994 from a British newspaper, he was never able to stop persistent speculation that his company was laundering Mob money. The gossip flared anew in May, when Santo was convicted of bribing Italian tax inspectors in a case that implicated several of the country’s top designers—including Armani, who copped a plea and paid a fine. (Versace himself was never charged, and Santo is appealing his conviction.) Now, of course, with Versace’s death, it seems clear that the family will have to postpone their plans to take the firm public—a stock offering had been tentatively scheduled for 1998—as Donatella tries to prove she is a capable enough designer to maintain the Versace cachet.
Before his death, Versace had already begun ceding a bigger role to his sister. The cancer scare, friends say, had made the man who designed his first gown at age 9—it was a one-shouldered, black velvet affair—ponder his priorities. “In March he said to me that he was tired. He wanted Donatella to take over the business,” says Elsa Klensch, CNN’s style editor. “He wanted more time to play. One of the things he didn’t have was time, and that’s what he’s lost.”
But neither death nor lurid speculation about Versace’s killer, now being sought in a massive FBI dragnet, can dim the luster of the designer’s achievements. By contrast with Cunanan, who associates say craved only the quick hit of fame and fortune, Versace was possessed by a lifelong dream of beauty—which he shared with anyone who ever coveted the kitten-soft caress of velvet or the exquisite feel of silk against skin. “As a boy I dreamed of exactly what came to pass, of what I am doing now,” Versace told PEOPLE in 1986. “I am happy, and every day I say, thanks, God, life is beautiful.”
DON SIDER, ALISSON BURKE, MARISA SALCINES and FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Miami, BRYAN ALEXANDER and JOANNA BLONSKA in London, ELIZABETH MCNEIL, ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CABRERA and JEREMY HELLIGAR in New York, SCOTT LAFEE in San Diego, MAGGIE HALL in Washington and ANNE-MARIE OTEY in Los Angeles