The world will not be a poorer place because Little, Brown canceled "Undressed: The Life of Gianni Versace," by Christopher Mason. But the decision, word of which leaked out a few days ago, cannot hearten those who believe that the publishers of books (like those of newspapers and magazines) must guard their independence, and it sends yet another warning about publishing's future in an age of entertainment conglomerates.
Plans to publish the book were announced by Little, Brown on July 15, 1997, which happened to be the day Gianni Versace was shot to death outside his Miami palazzo by Andrew Cunanan. Apparently the timing of the announcement was accidental, but the coincidence could hardly have pleased the surviving members of the Versace family, which closed ranks against the book and discouraged others from cooperating with Mason, a freelance writer specializing, according to Cathy Horyn of the New York Times, in "style and architectural articles."
It can surprise no one who knows anything about Versace's flamboyant life or the workings of the international fashion industry in which he made his name and fortune that Mason unearthed some vivid stuff. Versace was openly homosexual, which no longer causes much of a stir in many circles--certainly not those of fashion--but he was known, Mason wrote, "in the gay community as a man with an insatiable appetite for male hustlers," so there were plenty of people with tales to tell to Mason, many of which found their way into "Undressed."
Versace's amatory life was only part of his story. He was fiercely, obsessively ambitious, and in the course of achieving much of what he sought he compiled what Mason called "a long catalogue of calculations and deceptions"; again, this provided much fodder for Mason's word processor. Versace pursued stars of film and pop music with raptorial intensity, casting them aside one after another as he snaked his way from used goods such as Elizabeth Taylor and Bruce Willis to Madonna and "the most sublime trophy," Princess Diana; Willis, according to one of Mason's sources, "was always saying, 'The Versaces use you, then they drop you,' " which is to say there were plenty of other people--in this case, well-known people--with tales to tell.
Then there is the Versace family. Though Mason painted a fairly friendly portrait of Santo, the designer's brother and financial guru, whom one person described as "the rational brain amid all their craziness," he was left by the evidence with little choice save to be rather less kind to Donatella, Gianni's sister and, since his death, the most visible and forceful representative of the family's interests. Then, too, there are all those rumors about Versace connections to the Mafia, hearsay mentioned only in passing by Mason but quite enough to pique the reader's curiosity.
Never mind that, for all the tawdry details of Mason's book, its overall tone was sympathetic to Versace as a difficult but gifted man and laudatory about his accomplishments--if that is the word for them--in what is surely one of the most Byzantine and vicious businesses on the planet. Never mind, too, that Mason was more generous to his subject than Kitty Kelley, a far more renowned practitioner of celebrity biography, was to the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and Nancy Reagan.
The delicacy--some might call it pussyfooting--of Mason's treatment of Versace was not enough for the family or its lawyers and publicists. One of the latter, according to Horyn, "said that his firm sent letters to potential sources asking them not to cooperate" with Mason; late last year, on completion of the manuscript, "attorneys for the Versaces threatened to take legal action if changes were not made." But the publishing operation proceeded in its usual fashion, to the point that bound advance proofs were sent to reviewers earlier this spring; I read a set a couple of weeks ago, just before the book was canceled, in the expectation of reviewing it in July.
The review, had circumstances permitted it to be written, would have been mixed, both as to the book itself and as to the life and character of its subject. Mason is something less than a compelling prose stylist and he spent too much time on endless lists of fashion shows, gay romances, celebrity sightings and other quotidian ephemera of Versace's life, but he also brought Versace to life in a convincing fashion, and did the same for the hermetic Versace family and its "close, complex and ostensibly indissoluble bond." Published (as it was scheduled to be) in midsummer, "Undressed" struck me as a mildly amusing bit of what's commonly called "summer reading."
The Versaces were not amused, and as Mason was at pains to document, the Versaces are accustomed to getting their way. In their lawyers' discussion with Time Warner, of which Little, Brown is a subsidiary, apparently the main subject was not the murdered Gianni but (to quote Horyn again) Mason's "unflattering portrait of the two surviving siblings." It is quite impossible to say whether the lawyers would have had their way with Little, Brown a quarter-century ago, when it was still an independent house, but it does not seem unreasonable to speculate that their arguments hit home with Time Warner, the holdings of which extend into every corner of the mass entertainment world and which surely was mindful of the weight that the Versace name carries in parts of that world. Nor does it seem unreasonable to suggest that, as book publishing becomes ever more a part of that world itself, capitulations such as this will become, if not commonplace, less unusual.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org