New unauthorized biography hops aboard the exploitation express
A new, unauthorized biography of Anthony Bourdain comes out next week–heavy emphasis on the “unauthorized” part — and it looks like it will repeat the mistakes of Roadrunner, the 2021 documentary about Bourdain’s life and untimely death in 2018 at the age of 61.
That documentary was much more fascinated with weird speculation about Bourdain’s suicide and the events leading up to it instead of celebrating Bourdain’s life. Granted, as I wrote earlier, it’s impossible to talk about Bourdain without talking about the concept of death in general. But it is possible to talk about it in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative.
Enter Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain, a new, unauthorized biography from journalist Charles Leerhsen. According to a New York Times interview published Sept. 28, it promises “fresh, intimate details, including raw, anguished texts from the days before Mr. Bourdain’s death, such as his final exchanges with Asia Argento and Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, his wife of 11 years who, by the time they separated in 2016, had become his confidante.”
So much of Roadrunner speculated that Bourdain took his own life because of his fractured and tumultuous relationship with Argento. Down and Out seems to delve deeper into that speculation.
“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,” Leerhsen told the NYT.
Who is the “we” that Leerhsen is referring to? According to the NYT, Down and Out draws from more than 80 interviews, files, texts and emails from Bourdain’s phone and laptop — files that Bourdain’s estate released to Leerhsen. So, Bourdain’s family and friends probably have a good idea of his state of mind before he died. His co-workers probably do, too. So who benefits from something like this, which just continues the morbid fascination with Bourdain’s death? So far, it seems only Simon & Schuster, and Leerhsen.
Many of Bourdain’s family, friends and others close to him have already come out against the book. Several refused to be interviewed for the NYT piece, including Busia-Bourdain, although she did let Leerhsen use the files referenced in the book.
While researching Down and Out, Leerhsen told the NYT he and his wife talked their way into staying in the room where Bourdain died. He also said he “doesn’t respect” Bourdain killing himself.” respect him killing himself, but he did realize and he did ultimately know he didn’t want to be that person he had become.” So? If someone close to Bourdain, someone who wanted closure, wrote this book that would be one thing. Instead, the quotes and experiences used to describe Down and Out reek of ghoulish rubbernecking.
Frankly, so does the NYT piece, even though it’s by Kim Severson, a journalist who covered Bourdain extensively. After the article’s final sentence, the line at the end with a number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline comes off as an editorial box to be checked rather than an actual attempt at empathizing with people who may be thinking about taking their own life.
I’m not saying we should canonize Bourdain. Anyone who’s read his own travelogues or seen Parts Unknown know that he was a complicated, combative man who wreslted with his own demons just like anyone else. But the endless, morbid fascination with the way his life ended is alarming.
This is not the first book about Bourdain published after his death. It won’t be the last. But hopefully whatever comes next will celebrate the man’s life and legacy in the food and journalism world, instead of turning his final act into salacious tabloid fodder.