02.12.09

Viva Versace

In an excerpt from Fool’s Paradise, Steven Gaines considers the enduring influence of Gianni Versace on South Beach.

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“The two great shocks of South Beach,” said Brian Antoni, “was when Versace was killed, and when we found out that Chris Paciello was an accused killer.”

The Italian designer Gianni Versace was killed the morning of July 15, 1997, as he was returning to his mansion on Ocean Drive from the News Café, where he went every day to buy the newspapers. A spree killer from San Diego named Andrew Cunanan, who had spent the night dancing at Liquid trying to pick up men, put two bullets in Versace’s head on the front steps of his house, for no discernible reason other than for the notoriety and thrill of it. This particularly horrible murder cut close to the bone in South Beach; notoriety and thrill was partly what South Beach was selling.

Read Daphne Merkin’s review of Steven Gaines’ Fool’s Paradise.

Versace felt he was in some mystical way connected to South Beach. “Every happiness is a masterpiece, and that is what I think of Miami,” he wrote in a book he published in 1993 called South Beach Stories. He had fallen in love with the city during a stopover at Miami International Airport on his way to Cuba. He had had a few hours to kill, so got into a taxi and said to the driver, “Show me something fancy and fun,” and the driver took him over the causeway to Ocean Drive. Versace sat at a table at the New Café and looked out at the beach and the Art Deco Buildings, and watched tanned young people in their bikinis and Speedos on Rollerblades and bicycles, and before he could finish his Cuban coffee he had sand in his shoes.

In 1992 he paid $2.9 million for the old Amsterdam Palace apartment building on Ocean Drive and 11h Street and another $3.7 million for a ramshackle tenement next door, and lavished $30 million on the properties to create a dazzling 16,000-square-foot palazzo with a leitmotif of Medusa heads—some of them created out of the 5 million pieces of pebble tile used in the mosaics that sheathed the floors, walls, fountains, and courtyards. The house had thirteen bedrooms, a Moorish gang shower for six, and a revolving observatory dome with a telescope from which Versace could watch the Cuban boys on the beach. Versace gave South Beach enormous cache and attention, and his mansion came to embody all the glorious excess and overheated desire that was the pride of South Beach.

Peter Loftin, bought Casa Casuarina from the Versace family and turned it into a venture more in line with Miami Beach—a private club, with membership starting at $30,000 a year, which included the opportunity of sleeping in Gianni Versace’s baronial bedroom for $4,000 a night.

Three years after Versace’s death, forty-two-year-old Peter Loftin, a drop-out from North Carolina State University who made $250 million buying and selling cell phone time, bought Casa Casuarina form the Versace family for $19 million and turned it into a venture more in line with Miami Beach—a private club, with membership starting at $30,000 a year, which included the opportunity of sleeping in Gianni Versace’s baronial bedroom for $4,000 a night. Outside the locked gates of Casa Casuarina on Ocean Drive there is always a knot of people, mostly Japanese tourists, taking photographs of each other on the limestone front steps where Versace died, making it the single most photographed place in Miami Beach.

“Versace was excited about the exact same thing in South Beach that everyone was excited about,” Antoni said. “There were few brief years when all the creativity and beauty and wealth came together. Versace was living off the same energy we all felt, and when he was killed the whole thing changed. It became something else. It was like when Adam ate the apple.”

Excerpted from Fool’s Paradise: Players, Poseurs and the Culture of Excess in South Beach by Steven Gaines . © 2009 by Steven Gaines. With permission from Crown Publishers,an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc, New York.

Steven Gaines is the bestselling author of twelve books including Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons; The Sky's the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan; and the co-author of The Love You Make: An Insider’s Story of the Beatles. His other books include the controversial biographies Obsession: The Lives and Times of Calvin Klein; and Simply Halston: The Untold Story. His journalism has appeared in Vanity Fair, the New York Times, and the New York Observer, as well as in, Los Angeles, and Connoisseur magazine. A former host of Plum TV’s morning show in the Hamptons, he has appeared on 60 Minutes , the Today Show , CBS Morning News , and Good Morning America . In the summer he hosts a round-table talk show on WLIU FM, the National Public Radio affiliate in Southhampton, NY.