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The Life Of a Trophy Boy
In Andrew Cunanan's World It's the Gigolo Who May End Up Paying a High PriceBy Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 1997; Page D01
The Washington Post
Andrew Phillip Cunanan, the killer who died hunted and alone in a rich man's Miami Beach houseboat, was no hustler selling his body streetside.
Dubbed a high-class gay prostitute by his own mother, Cunanan actually lived a life a step up from what his mom envisioned. He was an opportunist who targeted and landed rich men, a bright young man who modeled himself after Richard Gere in the movie "American Gigolo," even dressing in the character's trademark tight pants and cool shades, according to Nicole Ramirez-Murray, a San Diego columnist who knew him.
The preppy gigolo -- son of a stockbroker, graduate of an elite school -- supported himself by moving among affluent men who had convinced themselves that they were not paying for sex. Rather, they liked to tell themselves, they were passing the time pleasantly with a charming, good-looking young man whom they rewarded with gifts and money.
The sugar daddy and the houseboy, the older gay man and his baby-faced companion, is a gay paradigm that traces back centuries. It is rooted in the long history of homosexual stealth -- English lords who carried on with young kitchen hands, prominent married men who found young underlings at the office.
"Before the 1960s, gay relationships were plagued by radical inequalities of income, education, social class and age," says Daniel Harris, author of "The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture." "Because of the nature of finding gay partners, older, established men often took up with unresponsive, sometimes homicidal proletarian gay youth."
As homosexuality has won wider acceptance in American society, gay relationships have come to mirror most heterosexual relationships: a union of social and economic equals.
But the kept-boy pattern persists in two ways, Harris says. Many still-closeted gay men "are forced to pay for the companionship of boys who prey on them." This is not without danger: a few years ago, a prominent and secretly gay 55-year-old New York real estate lawyer, David Schwartz, was stabbed to death by an 18-year-old street hustler in a seedy Bronx motel room.
And some openly gay men enjoy "daddy-son" relationships as an erotic spoof of the old paradigm, Harris says.
Sugar daddies come in all sexual orientations, of course. "There's always going to be a small segment of the population -- gay or straight -- who are interested in much younger partners," says Kevin Neil, director of Metro Teen AIDS, a Southeast Washington service center for young people suffering from the disease. "Sugar daddies and young boys are no more common among gays than older straight men going after trophy wives. Gay culture, like straight, worships youth. It's the same as Jack Kent Cooke and Marlene."
"This has been going on for years, I mean since the ancient Greeks, honey," says the manager of the Townhouse, a New York City bar where handsome young men meet older gentlemen.
The Selection Process
Cunanan, 27 when he blasted a bullet through his head Wednesday afternoon, had left a trail not only of homicide but of wealthy older patrons. There was one man, Norman Blachford, a 60-something San Diego businessman who paid him $2,500 a month, presented him with a new car, a dark green Infiniti J30, even treated him to vacations in France.
Unlike many of the kept young men who come to big cities with confused sexuality and nothing to sell but their bodies, Cunanan, according to friends and acquaintances, was a multilingual sophisticate who knew exactly which older men he wanted to meet. He seemed addicted to the high life and allergic to real work. He loved his 10-inch Davidoff cigars, but the only job he ever held in a vertical position was a brief stint as a drugstore clerk in San Diego.
Cunanan would prowl the nightspots on Fifth Street, the heart of San Diego's gay enclave of Hillcrest, searching for intelligence about the rich men he would befriend.
"He would not approach customers," says Fred Schnell, manager of one of Cunanan's favorite haunts, the Caliph, a piano bar frequented by rich older gay men. "He paid attention to them, to what they said, to what they were wearing and the cars they were driving."
He also made the rounds of the opera, museums and society events, studying the habits of the men he fancied. Cunanan was "a jewel in the crown of La Jolla's closeted society," says Ramirez-Murray, social columnist for the city's Gay and Lesbian Times, because the young man could hold a conversation on nearly anything -- politics, antiques, wines, Elton John. If an older man was interested in orchids, "Cunanan would go out and buy every book available on orchids and plants and soon he would be talking about the subject as if he had studied it all of his life."
San Diego's high-end gigolos accompany their older mates to "very sophisticated parties where the best food and the best drinks are served," Ramirez-Murray says. "In their minds, these older gentlemen know they can't go to the gay bars, they can't go to the gay restaurants, but they can buy these young men."
Some older men feel unable to go to the gay clubs that attract the youngest crowd because "there's this perception that older gay men are going after young boys and the minute an older man goes near a young man, they're branded as pedophiles," says Neil, the Metro Teen AIDS director. "There's a huge divide between one generation of gay men and the next."
The bartender at the Caliph is in his mid-twenties. He says he makes about $100 a night in tips, mostly from older customers. But not long ago, he says, an older man offered him $50,000 "just to sit around a pool in Palm Springs." The barkeep says he spurned the offer. "I have morals," he says. "Because I want to be in control of my life. Because I have self-respect."
An Urban Education
Despite the revolution in gay relationships, plenty of young men remain willing, even eager, to attach themselves to older men with money. Some of the young men are products of poor rural or urban communities in which homosexuality is still kept under wraps, boys who come to the big city and find both financial support and sexual license from older men who seem to know the ropes.
"How can AIDS keep happening to young gay men when the older gay men have been through this and learned?" Neil wonders. "The sad truth is that these young guys are estranged from their families, often at a young age, before they have a chance to develop other survival skills. A youthful appearance may be the only thing they have to offer. Bars may be the only place they are accepted."
Centuries of kept boys have provided older men with a public sign of their attractiveness and virility, a statement that the old man still has it.
Harris -- whose book is at times nostalgic for the separate and secretive gay culture that arose from rejection and repression -- believes the sugar daddy-gigolo relationship will gradually vanish from the gay scene.
"The end of oppression necessitates the end of the gay sensibility," Harris writes, predicting the decline of camp, drag and homosexual overrepresentation in the arts as gays move openly into the mainstream.
Along the way, gay relationships have come to mirror heterosexual relationships in their language, goals and structure. Sugar daddies and houseboys are on their way to becoming a sideshow or even a novelty, something other gays joke about.
But on the streets of Washington and in gay neighborhoods around the nation, the sugar daddy scene is no joke.
At an upstairs club at 17th and R streets NW, Top 40 music plays softly in the background as men circulate around the bar.
A man in his mid-twenties dressed in jeans and a black shirt arrives with several friends. He has Italian movie star looks. He bumps into an elderly man who looks infirm. They chat, introduce each other to their friends. Within 20 minutes, the young men slip out of the bar -- accompanied by the elderly gent.
Jamie, 22, dressed in a Burberry blazer, sips a vodka and tonic as he watches the intergenerational pickup. "They are going to roll him good," he says. "When these boys see these men, they see dollar signs."
The club is "sugar daddy heaven," says Jamie, an Alexandria schoolteacher who wants his last name kept out of the paper. "You can work those men right out of their jeans. The difference for me is that I went to college, to Columbia. I'm not a stupid guy. I'm not poor. They treat the boys like [dirt]. I have a friend who's with a sugar daddy. He has to stay in his room. He'll do anything for money."
The sugar daddies Jamie knows are "older men waiting to recapture part of their youth. They want to party. It's like a midlife crisis thing for gay men."
Hans Conley, 45, works in the travel industry in New York City and recently ended a relationship with a 25-year-old man who had come to New York to become a model. The two met at a bar and while they were together, they lived at Conley's apartment. "I paid for everything," he says.
The relationship ended when the young man decided that he perhaps was not gay.
"It fulfills a void -- loneliness, I guess," Conley says of hooking up with and supporting a younger man.
But sugar-daddy relationships inevitably falter, Conley believes. "My perception is that the [younger partners] get tired of selling themselves -- and that is exactly what they are doing -- and then it becomes a type of rebellion. They are ashamed of what they do and realize there is no future in it."
In Washington, sugar daddies often find mates at bars in Georgetown or on 17th Street NW rather than in the more competitive and raunchy confines of the gay club strip around Half Street SW.
"You go to places where there is money," says Ron, 40, a formerly kept man who now frequents the city's bars. "This is a political city. They're not stupid. In D.C., there's lots of escort services, and older guys will just call up and work through those."
Ron lives in a Dupont Circle apartment decorated with posters of crouching naked men holding chains.
"Whoever's paying, they're in control," he said. "If I'm paying, you're mine. You have to do whatever I say. When I say jump, you jump. If an older guy meets somebody, and they're what he wants, he's gonna try to take care of them.
"I've been taken care of, but it wasn't really what I wanted," Ron says. Eventually, he quit the scene, in part because a kept man is on the wrong end of a sometimes-predatory power relationship. "I was raised from a good family. I don't have to have someone to take care of me. I knew it wasn't right. And eventually I was the one who had to pay for it."
At New York's Townhouse, the scene is hopping. The East Side bar looks like a Midwestern hotel lounge, decorated in neutral shades and dark woods. It's a place where older men feel comfortable approaching men half their age.
"As long as two people are happy and no one is getting hurt, what's the harm in that?" asks the 38-year-old manager, who asked not to be named. "If you're a gay older male and you have money, there are certainly places where they can buy things. As long as you're making a purchase in that direction, who wouldn't want to sleep with a 24-year-old hardbody? It's a human thing."
"Younger guys are interested in older guys because of intelligence, and a lot of times older guys are more mellow about things," says the Townhouse coat check man, Duane Bousfield, 37. "It's not all looks or sex."
Patrick Suraci, a Manhattan clinical psychologist and author of "Male Sexual Armor," has treated both sugar daddies and "boy toys" and has seen some relationships that actually worked for a time.
"The younger one gets money, cars, clothes, whatever he wants," he says. "The older one is getting sex, attention and prestige. . . . He won the trophy. I can have him and you can't."
But the younger partner "is generally very narcissistic. In the beginning, his pleasure comes from knowing he's so beautiful, so attractive, so charming and has such great sexual skill that someone will pay money for him. But narcissism is usually a wound from childhood. If they do reach a crisis point where they realize their life is a fraud, they rarely seek help. It's one of the hardest-type cases to treat. Money becomes such an aphrodisiac to them."
The crisis typically arises as the gigolo's looks begin to fade. "I've studied a lot of these hustlers, and they always are saying they're going to go to college, they're going to have a profession," Suraci says. "And it never happens, and then it's too late."
Old at 27
Cunanan's heyday as a kept man was long over when he started on his murderous trek. As he headed toward 30, he had begun to lose what he perceived as his primary asset -- his looks. He had put on some pounds. Friends say he was having a tougher time landing the sugar daddies he sought.
Depressed, he told friends at a going-away party in San Diego in April that he would be moving to San Francisco "to pursue a romance." But first, he had some business to take care of in Minneapolis.
He bought a one-way ticket.
Staff writers Alona Wartofsky and Tamara Jones in Washington and special correspondents Devon Spurgeon in New York, Sharon Waxman in Los Angeles and Fernando Romero in San Diego contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company