The Assassination of Gianni Versace: Fact-checking Episode 8, ‘Creator/Destroyer’

Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX

The second season of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story anthology series, titled The Assassination of Gianni Versace, explores the titular designer’s brutal 1997 murder at the hands of serial killer Andrew Cunanan. We’re walking through all nine episodes in an effort to identify what ACS: Versace handles with care versus when it deviates from documented fact and common perception. The intention here is less to debunk an explicitly dramatized version of true events than to help viewers piece together a holistic picture of the circumstances surrounding Versace’s murder. In other words, these weekly digests are best considered supplements to each episode rather than counterarguments. Below are the results of our dogged research into the veracity and potency of events and characterizations presented in episode eight, “Creator/Destroyer.”

What They Got Right

Andrew’s father
Modesto “Pete” Cunanan was no angel. The Navy vet turned stockbroker and father of four did, according to court records, embezzle a couple hundred thousand dollars, ditch his family, and flee to the Philippines. He even briefly returned to the U.S. after Andrew’s death to seemingly capitalize on his notoriety. There’s less evidence to support the story that he swindled an elderly woman named Vera out of her savings, invoking the ire of her burly grandson, but the FBI was definitely onto him, and by 1988, he was outta there. At least until he returned nine years later for the aforementioned effort to exploit Andrew’s death.

Andrew as the favorite child
We’ve already confirmed that Cunanan lorded over his family’s master bedroom, but what about his father demonstrating outright preferential treatment relative to his three siblings? Look no further than the testimony of his brother Christopher and sister Elena, who both remarked on Andrew’s favored status in a 1997 ABC interview with Diane Sawyer. They even verify that he was gifted with a Nissan 300ZX from dad — though Modesto purchasing it years in advance appears to be a touch of, well, driver’s license.

The high-school yearbook
There’s no way to know if Andrew told off a homophobic jock before unbuttoning his top and loosening his tie, but his yearbook spread did absolutely feature him more or less shirtless and beaming. And his much-dissected senior quote did invoke Louis XV and read, “Après moi, le deluge,” or “After me, the flood.” There is, however, some discrepancy in accounts of his superlative that year. Maureen Orth and the New York Daily News, among others, reported it then as “Least Likely to Be Forgotten,” while most current coverage asserts it was “Most Likely to Be Remembered.” And Newsweek claimed that Andrew was voted “Most Likely Not to Be Forgotten.” Less up for interpretation is his eventual status as one of the FBI’s Most Wanted.

What They Took Liberties With

Gianni’s mother
“Creator/Destroyer” would have it that Gianni’s dressmaker matriarch, Francesca, identified his gift for design while he was still a boy and defied anyone who steered him from his passion for fashion. That’s a bit ideal, even in Gianni’s memory. During a 1994 interview with Charlie Rose, Versace told an anecdote about how, even in his teen years, his main aspiration was to compose music like Burt Bacharach or Gershwin. However, he continues, “My mother say, ‘No, you stay with me.’ Something was in my blood, in my family.” He was certainly not spiteful, but to say he only had one goal all his life and that his mother championed whatever his whims were would be a slight exaggeration.

Andrew and Elizabeth’s meet-cute
Elizabeth Cote was indeed Andrew’s friend, she did anoint him godfather to his kids, and even videotaped a plea for him to cease his killing jag. But by Orth’s own account, the pair met in junior high, not at a high-school kegger. Not to mention, reporting by then–Sun Sentinel journalist and current Miami Herald staffer Luisa Yanez — who has contributed her insights on and off to this column all season — notes that Andrew wore that fabulous red jumpsuit to his prom, as opposed to some local rager. Though interestingly, Yanez and her co-author Sergio Bustos also second what “Creator/Destroyer” puts forth about Cunanan having already had at least one older male benefactor by his senior year.

Andrew’s bedtime reading
We were unable to uncover any evidence that Modesto lullabied Andrew with passages from The Art of Conversation. The most widely read tome with that title wasn’t actually released until 2008, while other publications with the same title, like Peter Burke’s more academic reference, weren’t yet in circulation when Andrew was a youth. Let’s assume Art of Conversation was a stand-in, for whatever reason, for Dale Carnegie’s touchstone How to Win Friends and Influence People. Ultimately, we get it: Art of Conversation is the kind of book his dad would model his personality on and try to instill lessons from in his prized protégé.

Modesto molesting Andrew
First, there’s Modesto gently taking Andrew by the hand and leading him softly up the stairs to his new room while the children are outside pondering their whereabouts and mom looks concerned. Then, far more bluntly, Modesto looms over Andrew in bed, encouraging him to channel the same silence he bravely mustered after burning his foot on a heater (a story relayed to Orth by Modesto) years back. And then the lights go out. Yikes. We have uncovered nothing to support the implication that Andrew was sexually abused by his father, though shortly after his death, the Washington Post did repeat an unconfirmed report that Andrew — using his DeSilva pseudonym — may have called into a hotline for victims of abuse by Catholic priests. Nor were we able to find anything outside of accusations by Mary Ann Cunanan and Andrew’s godfather, Delfin Labao, in Orth’s book corroborating that Modesto was physically abusive with her (ditto recollections from Pete and Delfin that Mary Ann was hospitalized with postpartum depression).

Andrew and Modesto’s Manila showdown
Several sources cited Mary Ann’s divorce filings to confirm that Andrew visited Modesto in the Philippines soon after his father fled the States. Those same sources also quote Mary Ann in the court papers as claiming her boy came back in short order, repulsed by Modesto’s “squalid living conditions.” Their dramatic confrontation, which culminates in the episode with Modesto berating his son as a “sissy boy” and Andrew showing a flash of violent impulse by warding his father away with a kitchen knife, is by all indications pure plotting. Like many of ACS Versace’s more melodramatic asides, this confrontation filled a need, in this case suitably disorienting the character of Andrew to an extent where he’d go adrift in search of love and acceptance, but become triggered by the slightest betrayal.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: Fact-checking Episode 8