Rise, fall, rise of Verace

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The first bullet that hit Gianni Versace also fatally wounded a mourning dove.

That is the kind of detail readers get from Wall Street Journal reporter and author Deborah Ball in her riveting “House of Versace: The Untold Story of Genius, Murder and Survival,” a new non-fiction work from Random House/Crown Publishing that must be on some desks in Hollywood.

Ball knows her job well – how to research, interview, report and write. For “House” she conducted 220 interviews with friends, family, former lovers, co-workers, rivals and business partners of the Versaces, as well as reviewed three decades of financial records, historical footage of runway shows, police reports and public records in Milan and Calabria, New York and Miami. Prior to writing the book, she worked in Milan and Rome.

“House of Versace” begins right where a reader wants, with the end of Gianni Versace’s life and the prince’s funeral that sister Donatella demanded and designed.

Versace’s death, the hunt for spree-killer Andrew Cunanan and the funeral, to be followed weeks later by the funeral for Princess Diana, dominated the news in the summer of 1997.

But Ball delivers details that either never made it into newsprint or were buried deep in the stories.

Ball writes, “The house of Versace produced the funeral as if it were the ultimate fashion show – which it was. Staffers sent invitations to the house’s favorite stars, who were then booked at the Four Seasons, the five-star hotel next door to Versace’s headquarters.…

“Around the clock, they churned out sober outfits for the female members of the Versace family, as well as for VIPs such as Princess Diana and Naomi Campbell. Assistants then laid out the outfits – complete with handbags, black lace veils and shoes – in their hotel suites.”

Remember the image of a grieving Elton John at the funeral, with boyfriend David Furnish on his left and Princess Diana on his right? If not, it’s among the collected photos in “The House of Verace.” Ball writes, “Front and center was Elton John, his pudgy frame swathed in a dark Versace jacket with a Chinese-style high collar. With his single earring and pageboy haircut, he resembled an aging schoolboy. … David, fresh-faced in an open-necked white shirt and dark jacket, sat alongside Elton, protectively patting the arm of his lover.”

Hooked?

After the opening chapter, Ball takes up the lesser-known but powerful legend of the humble beginnings of a poor, gay, ambitious young man from Southern Italy in the 1950s. As she weaves the rags-to-riches story and charts the slow construction of the house of Versace, Ball writes of celebrity courtship, fashion feuds, supermodel fits, sibling rivalries and a life of opulent and sometimes sordid extravagance.

Soon enough – because Ball’s book reads fast, as if the author expects readers to be as fickle as fashion critics, and maybe we are – the narrative returns to that hot, clear morning in South Beach when a restless 50-year-old Versace took a stroll to the popular News Cafe for coffee and the latest issues of the New Yorker, People, Vogue, Entertainment Weekly and a Spanish-language Newsweek.

When he returned to his mansion, Versace was unaware that Cunanan, with his .40-caliber Taurus handgun, had climbed the stairs behind him.

Here, “House of Versace” becomes a true-crime tale – one a bedtime reader won’t leave until sleep simply overcomes – the tale of Cunanan’s cross-country crime spree and the national manhunt that involved multiple law enforcement agencies from the federal to state to local level.

The final chapters of the book are the least enthralling – “the survival” chapters referenced in the title that explore the family fight to carry on the Versace business, if not exactly Gianni Versace’s style. With the most charismatic and sympathetic character in the “House” gone, those final chapters come across like a movie that missed its ending.

I guess the same has been said of the house of Versace.