How much more do we need to know about Anthony Bourdain? And what explains our persistent fascination? There’s a Jim Morrison-meets-John Cheever quality to it all, a rock star’s demise tempered with midlife ennui.
Since his 2018 suicide in France, a posthumous Anthony Bourdain cottage industry has grown, a mix of explanation and preservation. There have been writings from steadfast colleagues, documentaries, and essays memorializing his life and struggling to understand his despair. The public has consumed it.
No amount of recounting can totally capture the mystique, but Charles Leerhsen tries in his new and unauthorized biography, “Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain.” The book is unauthorized, he told me, because he didn’t have to show it to anyone — as in, this isn’t an official Bourdain product or a hagiography. And it’s not some pointlessly sleazy book, either. Leerhsen, a longtime Simon & Schuster author, was a former executive editor at Sports Illustrated and has written biographies of other complicated characters: Ty Cobb and Butch Cassidy. This one is thoroughly researched and painstakingly detailed.
It’s out today and has already made headlines. There’s the obvious reason: Bourdain was gifted and incredibly likable. He was a reliable narrator. As a writer, raconteur, and TV host, Bourdain traveled the world eating, drinking, talking, writing, and partying. He was charismatic, fun to read and watch. He exposed philistines to new foods and cultures with a mix of childlike enthusiasm and jaded swagger. He was the human equivalent of a punk rock T-shirt at Newbury Comics: an outlaw, but available to the masses, too.
But, in over-identifying with Bourdain’s story, I think, fans also saw a dangerously familiar piece of themselves. Bourdain did not grow up famous. He was a misfit 1970s New Jersey suburbanite who toiled for years in a ho-hum cook’s job, doing good enough but not amazing work at mediocre restaurants while struggling with drugs until his true talent — writing — gave him a midlife reprieve. He didn’t achieve real success until 43, when “Kitchen Confidential” came out and blew open the seamy side of restaurant cooking. And, even then, this was reportedly thanks in part to his mother, New York Times copy editor Gladys Bourdain, who passed the original manuscript to New Yorker editor David Remnick’s wife, Esther Fein.
And then Bourdain scored the big break that so many of us quietly want. He grew successful, famous even. He wrote more books. He explored the world as the host of “A Cook’s Tour” on the Food Network, “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel, and “Parts Unknown” on CNN. But then the cliches arrived: The divorce from his high school sweetheart. The drinking. The partying. A troubled relationship with a difficult woman. The apparent alienation of longtime friends and family. And, finally, the hanging in an Alsatian hotel room while his best friend, chef Eric Ripert, on location with him to film, listened for signs of snoring next door.
Bourdain’s manner of death made so many people wonder: What happens when you get what you want? For a lot of us, the world traveler Bourdain’s death hit a little too close to home.
“It’s not a matter of solving the mystery of his suicide or solving the mystery of who he was. I just hope I present a detailed picture of Bourdain from birth to death. This is just for people who are curious about him in particular and curious about the human condition,” Leerhsen told me.
There are no cheap shots, but the devil is in the details, and there are a lot of salacious ones here. What has made headlines is the fact that Leerhsen, in the course of his research, gained access to personal and final texts between Bourdain and his girlfriend, Italian actress Asia Argento, as well as correspondence with Bourdain’s estranged second wife, Ottavia Busia-Bourdain.
In his last days, it seems, the 61-year-old Bourdain was torn between family obligations — he and Busia-Bourdain have a teenage daughter, Ariane — and Argento’s needs.
“He would come over to his wife and his daughter’s house. He’d stay a half-hour. Asia would call, and then he would leave and sometimes never come back, you know, to talk to her in private. I think, if you just look at the facts, you could see a man very troubled and roiled and deeply unhappy to put it mildly,” Leerhsen told me.
Not everyone is delighted with the book: namely, Christopher Bourdain, the surviving sibling, a presumably straitlaced finance expert who lives in Westchester County and who has made a few TV cameos alongside his brother.
Leerhsen recounts a tense moment from Bourdain’s September 2018 memorial at a Manhattan restaurant, where his brother gave a speech “tinged with resentment — perhaps because he felt in the last year or two that Tony had ghosted him,” Leerhsen wrote.
There’s a lot of detailed psychographic info here about Bourdain’s early life in Leonia, N.J., but the basic gist is this: His dad, Pierre, was not particularly ambitious; his mom, Gladys, was imperious and, eventually, a slightly intimidating presence on the New York Times copy desk. His parents managed to put him into private school, but they never had much money. He followed his wealthy girlfriend, Nancy Putkoski Bourdain (a source for the book), to Vassar College but transferred to the Culinary Institute of America and became a cook.
“I stand by all my reporting about the family dynamics, and he’s the only one who has spoken out,” Leerhsen told me.
Meanwhile Argento’s reputation took on a sort of Yoko Ono quality after Bourdain’s sudden death. Some criticized her for interfering in his TV work and ultimately breaking his heart.
“Argento and Tony got very serious very fast. Almost from the start it seems she was telling him about her most intimate problems … that she herself was strapped for cash, and that she struggled with a craving for ‘Charlie,’ which was her nickname for cocaine,” Leerhsen wrote. “…His emails from this period show him scurrying between the roles of drug counselor, fitness coach, rich uncle or some might say sugar daddy.”
Argento was one of the first women to publicly accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, and she became a #MeToo icon. Bourdain was vociferous in his support — but Argento was later accused of sexual assault by actor Jimmy Bennett, an actor and musician who said she had assaulted him when he was 17. In the days before Bourdain’s suicide, Argento was also spotted in tabloid photos with French journalist Hugo Clément. The book opens with their last text exchange before Bourdain died:
AB: Is there anything I can do?
AA: Stop busting my balls.
Leerhsen points out that the pattern isn’t new. Bourdain followed his first wife, Nancy, also a dramatic personality, to college. He became a fitness fanatic when he was with Busia-Bourdain, a mixed martial-arts fighter. And, finally, he became so enamored of Argento that he worried friends, coworkers, and apparently Argento herself with his obsession.
“I am okay. I am not spiteful. I am not jealous that you have been with another man. I do not own you … But you were careless. You were reckless with my heart. My life,” he texted.
“I can’t take this,” she replied.
There are more texts, too, between Bourdain and Busia-Bourdain, who morphed into a platonic confidante.
“It’s a terrible thing, love. It certainly hasn’t worked out for me. Nothing but pain and humiliation between rare moments of incredible joy,” Bourdain wrote to her.
These texts will make you wince. It’s like reading someone’s high school diary. Leerhsen said he used these texts as biographers of yore would employ letters and telegrams. Leerhsen corresponded several times with Argento when writing, too.
“I don’t think she’s responsible for his death,” he told me. “I tried to show that all his life, he had a pattern of this romanticism and impulsiveness … Another ex-girlfriend, Paula Froelich, said, ‘You have to understand that he never fully grew up. He was like a big adolescent.’ Several people said that to me, you know, and I think that was maybe the secret of his success, to a degree.”
Bourdain taught us about other cultures. And now, in death, the tables have turned: His fans have treated him as their own socio-anthropological exploration. In democratizing dining around the world — from taking us along with him as he ate cobra heart in Saigon and hot dogs in New Jersey — maybe he made himself overly accessible in the process.
“I hate being famous. I hate my job. I am lonely and living in constant uncertainty,” he texted Busia-Bourdain.
And so what more can be said? We die as we live. Bourdain took risks. Apparently, he became despondent. He made an impulsive and irrevocable choice. He was only human, as we’re all only human everywhere. It’s as simple as that, and didn’t he teach us this lesson all along?
At the end of our conversation, I asked Leerhsen if he thought Bourdain would have met a similar end if none of this had ever happened, if he just continued to cook in obscurity in Midtown Manhattan until his back gave out.
“It’s hard to say what circumstances would have happened in this hypothetical life, but it seems like the road to an early grave for him — that his success and his image and the freedom that his success got him had a lot to do with it,” he told me.
And then this: “It’s very hard to live, I think, when you’re totally free to do whatever you want.”
Was he, though?