A new, unauthorized biography reveals intimate, often raw, details of the TV star’s life and death. And it’s drawing criticism from many of his friends and family.
A new book about Anthony Bourdain reveals fresh details about his life and last days. Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times
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By Kim Severson
Kim Severson reports on the nation’s food culture. She had interviewed Anthony Bourdain several times and led coverage of his death.
After Anthony Bourdain took his own life in a French hotel room in 2018, his close friends, family and the people who for decades had helped him become an international TV star closed ranks against the swarm of media inquiries and stayed largely silent, especially about his final days.
That silence continued until 2021, when many in his inner circle were interviewed for the documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” and for “Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography.” The two works showed a more complex side of Mr. Bourdain, who had become increasingly conflicted about his success and had in his last two years made his relationship with the Italian actor Asia Argento his primary focus. But neither directly addressed how very messy his life had become in the months that led up to the night he hanged himself at age 61.
On Oct. 11, Simon & Schuster will publish what it calls the first unauthorized biography of the writer and travel documentarian. “Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain” is filled with fresh, intimate details, including raw, anguished texts from the days before Mr. Bourdain’s death, such as his final exchanges with Ms. Argento and Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, his wife of 11 years who by the time they separated in 2016, had become his confidante.
“I hate my fans, too. I hate being famous. I hate my job,” Mr. Bourdain wrote to Ms. Busia-Bourdain in one of their near-daily text exchanges. “I am lonely and living in constant uncertainty.”
Drawing on more than 80 interviews, and files, texts and emails from Mr. Bourdain’s phone and laptop, the journalist Charles Leerhsen traces Mr. Bourdain’s metamorphosis from a sullen teenager in a New Jersey suburb that his family couldn’t afford to a heroin-shooting kitchen swashbuckler who struck gold as a writer and became a uniquely talented interpreter of the world through his travels.
Mr. Leerhsen said in an interview that he wanted to write a book without the dutiful sheen of what he called “an official Bourdain product.” Indeed, he portrays a man who at the end of his life was isolated, injecting steroids, drinking to the point of blackout and visiting prostitutes, and had all but vanished from his 11-year-old daughter’s life.
“We never had that big story, that long piece that said what happened, how the guy with the best job in the world took his own life,” said Mr. Leerhsen, a former executive editor at Sports Illustrated and People who has written books on Ty Cobb, Butch Cassidy and a racehorse named Dan Patch.
The book has already drawn fire from Mr. Bourdain’s family, former co-workers and closest friends. His brother, Christopher Bourdain, sent Simon & Schuster two emails in August calling the book hurtful and defamatory fiction, and demanding that it not be released until Mr. Leehrsen’s many errors were corrected.
“Every single thing he writes about relationships and interactions within our family as kids and as adults he fabricated or got totally wrong,” he said in an interview.
Felice Javit, vice president and senior counsel for the publisher, responded to Christopher Bourdain with an email: “With all due respect, we disagree that the material in the Book contains defamatory information, and we stand by our forthcoming publication.”
Mr. Leerhsen said Mr. Bourdain’s inner circle and even some of his international fixers and former line cooks refused to speak with him for the biography, in part because Mr. Bourdain’s longtime agent, Kim Witherspoon, told them not to. Ms. Witherspoon did not respond to a request for an interview for this article. Laurie Woolever, Mr. Bourdain’s assistant, declined to speak about the book.
Mr. Leerhsen said that such resistance from the Bourdain camp helped open other doors for him. “A lot of people were willing to talk to me because they were left behind by Tony and by the Tony train,” he said, adding that some were moved to speak by their anger over the damage Mr. Bourdain had done to his daughter.
One person close to Mr. Bourdain who hasn’t pushed back against the book is his wife, Ms. Busia-Bourdain, who controls his estate. The book’s most revealing material comes from files and messages pulled from Mr. Bourdain’s phone and laptop, both of which are part of the estate.
Mr. Leerhsen said he got that material from a confidential source, but added that “the estate has not objected, and I don’t anticipate any objections.” He wouldn’t say whether he interviewed Ms. Busia-Bourdain, but she is quoted in parts of the book. She said through a friend that she would not comment for this story.
The chef Eric Ripert, a close friend who found Mr. Bourdain dead in his Alsatian hotel room after a day of shooting for an episode of his CNN show, “Parts Unknown,” said he did not provide information for the book, though he has read it. He said he found many inaccuracies, but was surprised that it contained intimate details from those days in France that he had told only to a few people.
In his research, Mr. Leerhsen traced Mr. Bourdain’s travels with trips to Montreal, Japan and France, where he and his wife talked their way into staying in the same room where Mr. Bourdain died, in the Le Chambard boutique hotel in the tiny village of Kaysersberg.
The book starts with Mr. Bourdain’s early years, analyzing his parents’ marriage, his performance in school and his relationship with his first wife, Nancy Putkoski, who Mr. Leerhsen said was a helpful source.
Mr. Bourdain graduated from high school a year early so he could follow her to Vassar College. His grades there were terrible, and he was happier during the summers he worked in restaurants in Provincetown, Mass. After two years, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, five miles north of Vassar in Hyde Park, N.Y.
The book traces Mr. Bourdain’s career in New York restaurants, and his relationships with the intimidating chefs who molded him. It includes the well-known tale of how his mother, Gladys Bourdain, then an editor at The New York Times, handed an article he had written about the ugly secrets of a Manhattan restaurant to Esther B. Fein, the wife of the New Yorker editor David Remnick, who ran it in the magazine.
The story turbocharged Mr. Bourdain’s writing career, leading to his best-selling book “Kitchen Confidential.” That piqued the interest of the fledgling media company Zero Point Zero, which developed his first show, “A Cook’s Tour,” and subsequent programs.
The book delves deeply into Mr. Bourdain’s relationship with Ms. Argento. The two were involved for about two years in a tumultuous and very public relationship that, Mr. Leerhsen writes, Mr. Bourdain seemed willing to do anything to preserve.
“I find myself being hopelessly in love with this woman,” he wrote to his wife.
Mr. Bourdain spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Ms. Argento, providing financial support for her, her two children and sometimes her friends, according to the book. He insisted to co-workers that she direct and appear in the show, and became a fierce advocate for the #MeToo movement after she told the reporter Ronan Farrow in 2017 that Harvey Weinstein had sexually assaulted her.
At one point, Mr. Leerhsen writes, Mr. Bourdain hired a private detective to investigate Jimmy Bennett, a young musician and actor who was 7 when he was cast as Ms. Argento’s son in “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” a 2004 film she directed.
After Ms. Argento came forward with her account of sexual assault by Mr. Weinstein, Mr. Bennett filed a notice of intent to sue for what his lawyers claimed was sexual battery: He and Ms. Argento had sex when she was 37 and he was 17, still a minor.
Mr. Bennett asked for $3.5 million. Mr. Bourdain quietly arranged to pay him $380,000.
Mr. Leerhsen said he had exchanged a few emails with Ms. Argento, who he said quoted Oscar Wilde to him: “It is always Judas who writes the biography.”
In an email to The New York Times, Ms. Argento said she had not read the book, adding, “I wrote clearly to this man that he could not publish anything I said to him.”
When Mr. Bourdain was on the road, the book says, Ms. Argento became so controlling that she scrutinized the social media accounts of Mr. Bourdain and his wife, blowing up when she saw images of him with his family.
In one text exchange, Ms. Busia-Bourdain pushed back after Mr. Bourdain warned her to not post family photos during an upcoming Father’s Day.
“You didn’t want me to put a pic that had you in it because Asia would freak out and I have the feeling that will not change anytime soon,” Ms. Busia-Bourdain wrote. “I’m tired of pretending I don’t know you. Or that we are never in the same place.”
Mr. Bourdain responded, writing in part: “I feel you. But I was being honest. The pap [arazzi] situation is horrendous. Since I left you guys, though, she’s freaking out.”
Five days before his death, Ms. Argento was photographed dancing with the French reporter Hugo Clément in the lobby of the Hotel de Russie in Rome, where she and Mr. Bourdain had stayed together. Mr. Bourdain was incensed, the book says; over the course of the next few days, he searched her name online hundreds of times, and the two argued over text and phone.
Mr. Leerhsen is not the first person to try to explain the unknowable: why Mr. Bourdain killed himself. His book offers a theory.
Two days before Mr. Bourdain died, he joined Mr. Ripert for a meal at JY’s, a two-Michelin-star restaurant owned by an old friend, the chef Jean-Yves Schillinger. After the meal, the three men headed to Freiburg, a German city 30 miles away, for late-night beers. Mr. Schillinger said Mr. Bourdain was welcomed like the star that he was, and seemed his old self.
Mr. Leerhsen asserts that after that trip, Mr. Bourdain saw the cost of his demanding emotional pursuit of Ms. Argento.
“I think at the very end, in the last days and hours, he realized what he had become,” Mr. Leerhsen said. “I don’t respect him killing himself, but he did realize and he did ultimately know he didn’t want to be that person he had become.”
Mr. Bourdain’s mind-set in his last days and hours will forever be a matter of speculation. But there is no doubt his friends were concerned, and his last texts shed some light on his state of mind.
When the group returned from Freiburg that night, a worried Mr. Ripert, who was staying in the room next door to Mr. Bourdain’s, put his ear to the wall and to his relief heard his friend snoring peacefully.
The next day, the book says, Mr. Bourdain and Ms. Argento fought again.
“I am okay,” he texted her. “I am not spiteful. I am not jealous that you have been with another man. I do not own you. You are free. As I said. As I promised. As I truly meant. But you were careless. You were reckless with my heart. My life.”
The only thing that hurt, he wrote, was that the tryst took place in the Rome hotel they loved. He asked for her mercy. She wrote, “I can’t take this.”
She told him she couldn’t stand his possessiveness, and could no longer stay in the relationship.
After the next day’s filming, Mr. Leerhsen reports, Mr. Bourdain went out by himself, and ate and drank a lot. He and Ms. Argento then had their last text exchange, which Mr. Leerhsen places at the start of his book:
Bourdain: Is there anything I can do?
Argento: Stop busting my balls
That evening, he hanged himself.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
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