There are a lot of things that never make it into memorials, and maybe they were never important to begin with. Like seeing the director and fugitive Roman Polanski sitting beside a beautiful dark-haired woman at a Gianni Versace show in Milan. This was around 1990 or 1989, and the reviews of Versace's collections were filled with a tone of moral indignation at the idea of supermodels in bondage dresses, when, honestly, everyone in that grim city should have said, "Why not?"
I tapped on Polanski's shoulder. I didn't want to miss an opportunity to speak to the director of Chinatown, but I couldn't think of anything to say. So I made some patently self-evident remark about the show and then, looking at the woman, said something like "you and your girlfriend."
Polanski's face went cold. "She's my wife," he said, and turned away.
So. You can say that it doesn't matter that I didn't recognize the actor Emmanuelle Seigner, or that he shouldn't have been so touchy, but since the memory also involves Gianni Versace, it seems to me that this conclusion may be beside the point. A lot has been lost in the decade since Versace's death in Miami Beach - a great talent, most visibly. Try to imagine your wardrobe without the jolt of a print, the vitality of a stiletto, the glamorous bric-a-brac of chains and doodads. This was Versace's doing. His influence melted and spread far beyond the sexual heat of his runway.
Yet all the minutiae that go into making up an account of a person's life - what if that is lost? Versace introduced us to a personal and vaguely disrespectable world of rock divas and legends, and it is all that ephemera that now floats in my head.
Well, what does matter? If it's the latest brand-building effort or a celebrity with her purchased adoration, then we are in trouble.
Reading accounts of his life and death that appeared on this 10th anniversary - he was murdered July 15, 1997 - I am struck by how much at a remove they are from the subject and the events of that terrible and strange week. The facts are all there, neat as buttons, but the perspectives are those of outsiders. And it's not the fault of the Versaces.
A blaze of diamonds
A year before the murder, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, where I worked at the time, asked me to write a profile of Versace's sister, Donatella. Despite rumors of a sibling rift, I don't think anyone considered Donatella, then 42, a serious rival. The Versaces were spending a fortune - $6-million for a Miami Beach property, Casa Casuarina, $7-million for a New York townhouse filled with Picassos and Rauschenbergs - and Donatella, with her blaze of diamonds and yellow hair, was another way to illuminate their lifestyle.
The article ran in the June 1997 issue, one of several magazines that Versace's killer, Andrew Cunanan, who was obsessed with celebrity, bought around the time he arrived in Miami. On the morning of the murder, Maureen Orth, a senior writer at Vanity Fair, was in the fact-checking stages of a 10,000-word article about Cunanan, who was already suspected in four murders in Minnesota, Illinois and New Jersey. She immediately had a hunch it was Cunanan who shot the designer on the steps of his home as he returned from the nearby News Cafe on Ocean Drive, and said so to Carter.
I was on Nantucket, where the phone was ringing with calls from news organizations - CNN, the BBC - seeking information about possible tensions within the Versace family. The murder had thrown a weird light on a world people knew very little about. By midafternoon, Carter decided that Orth and I should go to Miami. If the killer was Cunanan, the story would be hers.
I first met Donatella in June 1996 in Milan, in the 21-room apartment where she lived with her husband, Paul Beck, and their young children, Allegra and Daniel. That night, though, it was just the two of us for dinner. She took me into her dressing room, throwing open the closet doors. This is for bags, this is for shoes. I thought she seemed as nervous as a cat.
But in August, when we met again at the house in Miami, she was at ease - and fun. I brought my son, Jacob, who is Allegra's age, and they swam in the turquoise pool, where Donatella, for one of Madonna's birthdays, had floated a huge cake. She took me around the Spanish-style house, pointing out Gianni's private rooms, which overlooked Ocean Drive, and the room where Jack Nicholson had once stayed. We had lunch in the marble dining room. Elton John phoned.
Yet, as extravagant as everything was, what impressed me most was how protected Donatella was by the screen of her brother's fame and talent. She was completely free to dazzle, a living Medusa. I won't say she was innocent - the Versaces were never innocent. But she possessed a fragility and a candor that helped to mediate the more implausible parts of her existence.
Later, we all went out to the beach, Donatella in a chartreuse bikini and a big canary diamond. Around 1 p.m., a man from the house wheeled a cooler across the sand. It was loaded with freshly grilled hamburgers and chicken sandwiches.
Personal and private
On the day after the murder, I stood in the throng of news people gathered opposite the house - a surreal experience. The story was Orth's; Cunanan had been identified as the killer and was at large. You felt a kind of lunacy enter those already lunatic streets, clogged with tourists and gym queens and now reporters, all moving toward 1116 Ocean Drive. I remember at 6:30 a.m. on the third day of the manhunt, Orth and I walked from the Raleigh Hotel down to the Versace mansion. A crowd was already gathering in the muggy heat.
Several times I phoned the house, reaching Ed Filipowski, a publicist who worked for the Versaces. But the family wasn't saying anything. Orth and I pursued leads. They were all pretty seedy: a north beach gay hustler bar called the Boardwalk, where Cunanan had been seen before the murder, and the $36-a-day hotel where he had stayed when he got to Miami. This was the side of the strip that Cunanan revealed, before he killed himself on July 23.
The murder exposed the financial vulnerability of the Versace family. Eventually, assets had to be sold: the Miami and New York houses, much of the artwork. Donatella and Beck divorced. The company, after struggling, now appears to be fiscally sound.
Ten years on, I asked Filipowski what stands out in his mind from that week. He and his partner, Julie Mannion, were inside the house the whole time, and Mannion had stayed with Versace's body in the morgue, at his sister's request, until she and her brother Santo could arrive from Italy.
Filipowski thought for a moment and said: "How personal and private they kept everything - that's what I remember. With everything that was going on outside. It was: 'Our brother is dead.' "