A FRENZY OF VERSACE COVERAGE

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Anyone following the story of Gianni Versace's murder eight days ago knows that one of his last acts was to buy magazines. The day after the slaying, amid a blizzard of other tidbits on the crime, The Boston Globe reported that he bought Business Week, Entertainment Weekly, The New Yorker, People, and Vogue. He wanted Time, too, but it wasn't available.

This week, he's selling them.

As one would expect, most of those magazines pushed the story onto their covers, with varying levels of splash, of detail, and of rumor. (Vogue didn't, but only because it is a monthly and wasn't due to publish; surely, its two cents is coming.)

Many weeks in a slack summer, magazines scrape for cover fodder: A week ago, Jewel, Ivana's divorce, cigar smoking, and retirement strategies fronted for them. But this week, there is Versace, putting the publications in a single race, making comparisons easy.

Not surprisingly, the best, most intimate take is in The New Yorker, which published a long, well-illustrated piece by Andrea Lee, who apparently had had access to the designer for about six months. The story is rich with his quotations, including, poignantly, his thoughts on the meaning of life and the certainty of death: "I know that everything passes, that one day I'm going to die." And: "I'd like to live forever. If there's anything I'm afraid of, it's missing what will happen tomorrow. . . . I want to see my nieces and nephews grow up -- see their children."

Lee is almost catty in how she drops evidence of her access, saying she had been to at least two of his four family compounds, describing a dinner eaten with gold cutlery, and "coffee served in priceless Capodimonte cups painted with portraits of the Bonaparte family." Yes, it informs us about him, but it says something about her, too. It would have been helpful if somewhere in the story, or elsewhere in the magazine, we had been told who Lee is and why she rated such closeness, but regardless, she obviously had it. (An editor at The New Yorker said Lee is a longtime contributor to the magazine who lives in Italy.)

Time's coverage, while not as intimate, is quite complete -- possibly even over the top when you consider the essay by Madonna that anchors it. Altogether there are 16 pages, in addition to the cover closeup of Versace. Also on the cover is an inset of Andrew Cunanan, 27, the gay man that almost everyone is convinced did the shooting, although Time says "rumors persisted that the designer had been gunned down by the Mafia."

This is only somewhat absurd, since allegations of organized crime involvement followed Versace throughout his career; in 1994, he won a $150,000 libel-suit settlement and apology from a British newspaper that claimed his company was Mob-funded. People and Business Week also raised the topic on background, but Time was alone in offering any notion contrary to the Cunanan theory.

Time's coverage starts with Cunanan, although it offers only a few details about him that hadn't already been reported. One morsel is that four days before the shooting, police in Florida were summoned by a sandwich-shop worker who recognized Cunanan as a wanted man. But while the counterman was in back, dialing 911, a co-worker took the man's money ($4.12 for a tuna sub), and the man left.

Both Time and People conjecture that Cunanan has AIDS. Time relies on Mike Dudley, an AIDS volunteer in San Diego who counseled Cunanan about six months ago. People turned to "criminologist Robert K. Ressler, a former FBI agent and one of the country's preeminent experts on serial killers," who suggested that an AIDS diagnosis is what triggered Cunanan's alleged killing spree. Though Dudley isn't an exclusive source -- he was also quoted in Sunday's Globe and by who knows who else -- at least he offers the virtue of actually having talked to Cunanan.

In addition to Madonna's paean ("I slept in Gianni Versace's bed," she begins, oh-so-predictably. "Of course, he wasn't in it at the time, but I couldn't help feeling that I was soaking up some of his aura."), Time offers two other sidebars. One is only tangential to the story, but it's the sort of packaging opportunity editors die for: Gavin De Becker, security consultant to the stars, is on a book tour, and, well, Versace's slaying offered the perfect hook. The second sidebar discusses the future of the Versace empire, whose value apparently is $800 million (The New Yorker), or $900 million (Entertainment Weekly), or perhaps $1 billion (Time and Business Week).

What for Time is a sidebar is for Business Week, of course, a cover story. Although it gets the requisite celebrity references in -- Boy George, Princess Di, and Madonna appear in the first two paragraphs -- the story naturally focuses on the business implications of the designer's death. Versace was about to go public: Three US investment houses had been slaving for months to learn who would be allowed to underwrite Versace's imminent IPO, an announcement that had been due just three days after the shooting but now has been postponed, as has the whole idea.

As for the fifth weekly in Versace's bag, you might as well call it Entertainment Weakly, for that mag's wan effort to cover the story. It offered one two-page spread whose original reporting stopped after quoting a Miami club owner who said, "There hasn't been anything like this since John Lennon."

Some points were surprisingly well covered by all, or practically all. For instance, apparently everyone but me knows that Versace practically made Elizabeth Hurley's career by adorning her with "the dress that almost isn't there" (The New Yorker) for theopening of one of her boyfriend Hugh Grant's movies. And that Julian Schnabel designed beds for Versace's New York apartment. Four of the five also identified the News Cafe, the South Beach spot where Versace bought his magazines on the morning he died. But only People listed them, taking the opportunity to tell readers that in his last minutes, Versace had People on his mind.