Maureen Orth’s Vulgar Favors is trash. Not the provocative hilarity-inducing trash of a John Waters film or AbFab, but rather the kind of slimy, mean-spirited, exploitative, contempt-for-the-reader trash that you’d expect more in a supermarket tabloid than in a nonfiction title that purports to tell the true story of a series of puzzling murders.
In fact, though Orth never lets the reader forget she was on the Cunanan beat for Vanity Fair even before Versace was killed, the quality of her prose, the toxic levels of lead in nearly every paragraph, the repetition of catch phrases and clichés all belong to the style of The National Enquirer and not to serious crime journalism, which is where Orth appears to believe her book should place her.
To put it more bluntly: what is true in Vulgar Favors comes largely from newspaper clippings and the public record, and what is false is the other 9/10 of the book.
For those interested in a badly plotted novel starring a character based on Andrew Cunanan, Vulgar Favors may do the trick. But Orth has virtually no independent knowledge about the case (though it must be admitted that she solicited an astonishing amount of gossip), or about Cunanan or Versace, which leaves her to her powers of fantasy. To be sure, sustaining invention, even at the dilute level of Vulgar Favors, is a challenge, and yet Orth is so singularly bad at it.
Given that all but nothing is known about why Cunanan did what he did, his motives and motivation can only be ascribed. Orth, however, demonstrates no detectable ability to enter into the psychology of her main character (or any character, including Versace), leading her to populate her book with cardboard cutouts painted with the deft hand of a Jerry Springer or a Maury Povich.
One of the most spectacularly galling features of Vulgar Favors, however, is Orth’s fulminant, reprehensible homophobia. Or perhaps that is the second most galling aspect of this book, and the first is Orth’s habit, just as she is about to serve up some distasteful, titillating “truth” regarding “homosexual culture,” of announcing that the tidbit in question came from a gay journalist or a gay informant, or a gay friend of Cunanan’s. In other words, Maureen Orth wants you to know that she is an objective reporter of inconvenient truths and has certainly not included such details in her book solely for the pleasure of insinuating something too deliciously filthy to leave out—or because her credentials (such as they are) as a journalist provided the ideal cover for a low-tech gay-bashing.
Her credulousness about gay men’s lives in the United States, and in particular in cities like San Francisco and Miami, would be painful if it reflected naïveté, but this is no act of naïveté.
Rather, it is Orth’s deliberate, malicious, all-engulfing desire to draw every raunchy, seamy detail out to the limits of the fervid homophobic imagination, embellish it, and repeat it at studied intervals as a strategy for reinforcing the idea that there was something insidiously, darkly “queer” about Cunanan’s murder spree—and to imply that all but one of his victims, and especially his most famous victim, were, if not deserving of their fates, at least (amorphously) complicit.
The fact that Orth continuously harps on a supposed seconds-long meeting between Cunanan and Versace in a San Francisco club at some ill-defined moment in the past, which Orth manages to parlay into “met several times,” is an important example. Of course, Orth allows no one to forget it was she who “confirmed” this “fact,” although, in fairness, what she calls confirmation is little more than hearsay. Even if Cunanan and Versace had met, it isn’t clear what relevance that would have to the murders—unless the reader believes, as it is quite clear Orth wishes the reader to believe, that Cunanan was provoked to murderous fury because Versace had infected him with HIV.
Now, Cunanan did not have HIV at his death (though he may have thought he did at one point), and it remains a point of controversy whether or not Versace was HIV-positive, a question that will never be resolved thanks to the legal shenanigans of a flotilla of high-priced lawyers mobilized by Versace’s bloody-minded, image-besotted siblings.
Having introduced the concept, however, it becomes possible for Orth to hint, both subtly and not—that the murder of Versace was a revenge-motivated assassination. (Note the book’s subtitle.) If it wasn’t HIV, then perhaps it was that Versace had involved Cunanan in some sort of circle of boy- or drug-procurement that turned sour, or perhaps it was that Versace had promised Cunanan fame and fortune and then reneged, or maybe it was just that Cunanan was psychopathically jealous of Versace’s success and ostentation and needed to murder the designer as the symbol of everything he desired but could never attain.
Yes, the analysis is just that deep.
Vulgar Favors was written twenty years ago, which still provides no excuse for Orth’s delight in salacious detail and sexual innuendo, nor for her distorted pronouncements regarding gay men’s lives, which she delivers with anthropological, Meadian certainty. Perhaps at this distance, she has developed the strength of character to be ashamed of her book, but one tends to doubt it.
In any event, what becomes clear is that delivering these dispatches from the exotic, repellent—and yet endlessly fascinating—tribes of the sex-mad, fetish-driven, drug-addled homosexual underground, of the depraved and soulless super-rich was Orth’s real purpose in writing Vulgar Favors.
Because this is the space that Orth occupies as a writer—a world in which she deploys words like “lifestyle” and “jet-setting” in blissful ignorance that she is trite, unconscious of her evident envy of those who enjoy great fame and great riches even as she condemns them for moral corruption and shallowness. (For more examples of Orth’s style, look no farther than the breathless, voyeuristic hack job she committed on Michael Jackson in her reportage for Vanity Fair between 1994 and 2005; or her most recent book, The Importance of Being Famous: Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity-Industrial Complex, Orth’s slavering exposé of “the big room where the rules that govern mere mortals don’t matter.”)
Vulgar Favors is, to be sure, offensive and scandal-mongering, vacuous and devoid of insight, smutty and sneering, but what elevates the book to the level of tragicomedy is Orth’s clear belief that, in writing it, she was practicing something akin to genuine journalism.