Brideshead: Crime Story, Aesthetes and a Scientist

The second season of the TV series American Crime Story is nearing its end on the FX cable channel in the USA. It has just begun on BBC and has reached Episode 3 this week. It is entitled the Assassination of Gianni Versace and is based on Maureen Orth’s book Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History. (The first series, also successful, was devoted to the O.J.Simpson case.) News reports of Episode 8 (“Creator/Destroyer”) bring Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited into the story. The murderer was a 27-year old homosexual named Andrew Cunanan who had met Versace, a successful fashion designer who was also gay, in the early 1990s. The series, which begins with the 1997 murder of Versace by Andrew (one of several), takes both the victim and the perpetrator back through their life histories, and by Episode 8 has reached Cunanan’s Southern California teen age years in the early 1980s.

Andrew was his father’s favorite and was assigned the master bedroom in their sprawling La Jolla house. He even bought Andrew a sports car before he was old enough to drive. All of this was beyond the family’s means but that’s another strand of the plot. The reviews of Episode 8 explain how Brideshead comes into the story. As described in Entertainment Weekly:

Cunanan gets into a prestigious private school, where he’s voted “most likely to be remembered.” He happily stands out with a flamboyant flair for attention-seeking behavior. … But he wasn’t a liar yet. He wasn’t a child who skinned squirrels or bullied others. Instead, he read Brideshead Revisited (a massive poster on his bedroom makes sure the audience doesn’t miss the symbolism there) and acts like a manic charmer, seducing people around him with his refusal to fit in.

An article in the entertainment newsite and magazine VICE attributes Andrew’s interest as much to the TV series as the novel. At the time of its debut in the USA, it is suggested that:

… he was just a precocious ten- or 11-year-old… (Shout out to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, a classic novel of wealth, war, and homoeroticism that Andrew started obsessing over after he caught the equally beloved 1981 PBS miniseries.)… Although he hid his sexuality from his family, at school he cultivated a gregarious, pretentious, preppy, and extremely effeminate persona inspired by the aristocratic, queer Brideshead character Sebastian Flyte. He dated older men who showered him with gifts—including one named Antoine…

Is it too much to hope that Antoine’s surname is White?

On a lighter note, the academic weblog The Conversation posts an essay about beauty in art by Robert Wellington. In a discussion of 20th century aesthetes, the essay considers the examples of Oscar Wilde and Stephan Tennant:

Stephen was immortalised as the character of Lord Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited. Waugh’s character of the frivolous Oxford Aesthete who carries around his teddy bear, Aloysius, and dotes on his Nanny, borrows these characteristics from Stephen — who kept a plush monkey as a constant companion right up until his death.

Waugh’s book is a powerful meditation on art, beauty and faith. The narrator, Charles Ryder, is thought to have been loosely based on Tennant’s close friend, the painter/illustrator Rex Whistler, the aesthete-artist who tragically died on his first day of engagement in the Second World War.

Through the character of Charles, Waugh grapples with the dilemma of beauty vs erudition. Visiting Brideshead, the magnificent country estate of Sebastian’s family, Charles is keen to learn its history and to train his eye. He asks his host, “Is the dome by Inigo Jones, too? It looks later.” Sebastian replies: “Oh, Charles, don’t be such a tourist. What does it matter when it was built, if it’s pretty?” Sebastian gives the aesthete’s response, that a work of art or architecture should be judged on aesthetic merit alone.

Tennant may well have contributed to the character of Sebastian but there were other donors as well. Those frequently mentioned are Alastair Graham and Hugh Lygon, Waugh’s friends from Oxford. As to whether Rex Whistler was a model for Charles Ryder, there seems to be less of a consensus than is suggested by the article.

Finally, a North India newspaper, The Tribune, contains a memoir by a former student (Shelley Wakia) about Cambridge scientist Stephen Hawking, who died earlier this week. Among his recollections is this:

I had been working on the decline of the aristocracy, especially in the context of Evelyn Waugh, and at one of our meetings, Hawking interestingly drew my attention to Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” enmeshed in the culture and academic atmosphere of Cambridge and Oxford. In our conversation, he mentioned how Hitler had decided not to bomb these two centres of higher learning while the allies in return spared Heidelberg and Gottingen. To my amusement, he told me how Hitler had envisioned Oxford as the capital of his empire.


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