The True Story Behind American Crime Story: Versace

American Crime Story’s critically acclaimed first season centred on the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, which, for most people, was knowledge inherited by cultural commentary. You at least had a working understanding of what happened — the car chase down L.A. freeways, the controversial verdict. But if you weren’t conscious in the year 1997, then you might not be familiar with the subject of this season of American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, another news sensation from the ‘90s.

From the title, you can extrapolate that this season of Ryan Murphy’s show, which premieres Wednesday 17th January, will focus on the murder of the fashion designer Gianni Versace by a 27-year-old man named Andrew Cunanan, who had killed four people earlier that year. The show begins with the titular murder, which took place outside Versace’s Miami mansion. Each episode beyond that swirls into Cunanan’s and Versace’s pasts, and pans out to the larger cultural context behind the murders — namely, the treatment of the gay community in the ‘90s.

The Versace family has expressed qualms with the adaptation of their great tragedy, claiming the show is a "work of fiction." Read on for the basics of what occurred, before going into the premiere episode. The facts, so to speak.

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Photo by David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Gianni Versace was shot at the gates of his Miami mansion in July of 1997.

On the morning of July 15, 1997, Gianni Versace left his opulent mansion to grab a coffee and magazines at News Cafe, where he was a regular customer. After chatting a bit with the manager, Versace returned to Casa Casuarina, his home. He was standing on the marble steps, unlocking the iron gate, when Andrew Cunanan approached Versace and shot him twice. He calmly walked away from the crime scene. Versace’s partner of 15 years, Anthony D’Amico, was the first to find him. Versace was only 50 years old.

The sequence plays out in the first few minutes of American Crime Story: Versace. Versace is played by Edgar Ramirez; Cunanan by Darren Criss, and D’Amico by Ricky Martin.

A week after his death, Versace was given an enormous funeral at the Duomo in Milan. Thousands of people were present at the memorial, including high-profile celebrities like Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld, and his client Princess Diana. Elton John and Sting performed.

Pictured: Versace at home.
REX/Shutterstock
Versace was Cunanan’s fifth murder victim.

By the time Cunanan murdered Versace, he was already wanted for four murders in three states, and had been on the FBI’s Most Wanted List since May of that year. He had been hiding out in Miami for two months.

Cunanan’s murder spree began soon after his wealthy benefactor, with whom he lived, ended their arrangement. His victims included two acquaintances, a famous Chicago architect, and a cemetery worker from New Jersey who Cunanan killed for his truck. Afterwards, Cunanan moved to Florida and very openly socialized within the Miami gay community, despite the massive manhunt occurring on the news and within the FBI.

Eight days after killing Versace, he took his own life in a Miami houseboat using the same Holt .40 caliber gun he used to murder Versace.

American Crime Story creator Ryan Murphy blames faulty police investigations for Versace’s death. "We're trying to talk about a crime within a social idea," screenwriter Murphy said. "Versace...did not have to die. One of the reasons [Cunanan] was able to make his way across the country and pick off these victims, many of whom were gay, was because of homophobia at the time."

Pictured: Andrew Cunanan
Who was Andrew Cunanan?

The youngest of four children, Andrew Cunanan grew up in a middle class suburb of San Diego. Cunanan’s parents were an Italian-American housewife and a Filipino stockbroker who fled the U.S. after being accused of scamming clients. Cunanan was the only openly gay student in his prestigious private high school, Bishop’s School, and was voted “most likely to be remembered.” Cunanan reportedly had a genius IQ of 147.

Staring in high school, Cunanan supported himself by working as a “high class homosexual prostitute,” as his mother put it. Essentially, he had wealthy older benefactors pay for his lifestyle.

Cunanan was a skillful liar. With his clients, Cunanan went by names like Andrew De Silva or Lieutenant Commander Cummings, and claimed he was a Hollywood CEO, or a set designer. As a result of his charming, chameleonic personality and his social associations, Cunanan managed to gain membership to Gamma Mu, a fraternity that consisted of extremely wealthy, typically conservative, and frequently gay men.

Pictured: Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan
Courtesy of FX
Who were Cunanan's other victims?

The motivations behind his spree were never illuminated. After breaking up with his sugar daddy, Norman Blachford, in San Diego, Cunanan traveled to Minneapolis where he visited an ex-lover, architect David Madson, and an old friend, former Navy lieutenant Jeff Trail. Cunanan killed them both. He then traveled to Chicago, and met real-estate mogul Lee Miglin, who likely hired Cunanan for sexual services. He killed Miglin during a bondage exercise. Finally, while traveling to Miami, Cunanan switched out his Lexus for a red pickup truck belonging to cemetery caretaker, William Reese. Cunanan murdered Reese as well.

Pictured: Finn Wittrock as Jeff Trail in ACS: The Assassination of Gianni Versace
Photo by Rose Hartman/Archive Photos/Getty Images
After Gianni Versace’s death, his siblings took control of the company.

Versace left behind a massive legacy on the fashion industry at large. Versace was credited from creating the supermodel, by culling out his favorite models and nurturing them to star status. His shows were populated by A-list celebrity friends. His dresses, like the one Elizabeth Hurley wore to the Four Weddings and a Funeral red carpet, became legendary.

After his murder, Versace’s siblings Santo and Donatella took over control of the brand. Donatella became the house’s primary designer, and Santo remained the CEO. Donatella was initially wary of stepping into her brother’s shoes. "I felt for a long time that I had this job because of a tragedy, not because I deserved it. I wanted to succeed for Gianni, because he cared so much for the company and I knew he would have wanted it to carry on. But I was frightened, and I had no confidence,” Donatella said in 2004. Despite her fear, she carried the brand’s name on, and Versace remains privately owned to this day.

Pictured: Gianni and Donatella Versace in 1996
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