Caught up in yet another epic binge watching of anything and everything Anthony Bourdain, I find myself grieving over our loss. The world’s loss. His family’s loss. Anthony Bourdain was one-of-a-kind. Perhaps imitated. Never repeated. Then I remember that he took his own life and feel personally cheated.
When I think of writers who inspire me, they are in order C. S. Lewis, Helen Hanff, Anthony Bourdain, M. K. Fisher, G. K. Chesterton and William Shakespeare. Sorry, Willy, but you can’t hold a candle to Tony!
The man was eloquent. Unabashedly profane, urbanely eloquent. He always knew the perfect turn of phrase. He never used a short word when a longer word would do. Loved adjectives. Never passed up a double entendre.
Now, according to every poll, prophesy and Mom’s disapproving scowl, someone like me should’ve never read Kitchen Confidential in the first place. Much too dirty.
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But Anthony is grittilly, wholly honest. And honesty will always charm me much more than fake religiosity and disapproving prudery.
Anthony’s genius was brought home to me last night when, unbeknownst to me, the Travel Channel auto-advanced to a different, non-Anthony travel/food program while I was out of the room making a fish sandwich.
When I returned, plate in hand, something struck me as…wrong. The narrator’s voice had lost its whiskey quality. The script was…too clean. No sarcasm, no bleeps, no perfect turn of phrase. Then the narrator appeared on screen, standing stock still, perfectly groomed eyebrows, robotically reading his lines to the camera with not a swear word in sight.
In other words, it sucked. There was no magic and I instantly turned that wannabe off and went in search of more Anthony.
When people ask me for writing advice, I tell them, “Just write the way you talk. ” Anthony personified that. He wrote exactly as he spoke and he spoke exactly as he thought. His books and shows were the overflow of a mind so brilliant, so deep, so profound, so fast-moving, so well read, so cultured, so intelligent, so sensitive and so witty that despite his intense self-loathing, I find myself hanging on his every word.
When he toured the garbage mounds of Nicaragua being picked over for food by children younger than his own daughter, he hid his eyes behind dark glasses. The next day, he was still talking about it. It shook him to the core. He felt that continuing to shoot footage of him eating was obscene. His feelings do him credit.
When a survivor and whistleblower of the wars of Portugal teared up during an interview, Anthony’s big brown eyes grew warm. He didn’t embarrass the man by pulling away but didn’t embarrass him by hugging him either. He remained, eyes full of sensitivity and empathy, as the man recovered his composure. That was Anthony. People who met him said he was genuinely interested in their lives. He really listened.
He hid his depth and sensitivity behind sarcasm without ever sounding sarcastic. I know because I lived it. When during my Junior year of homeschool my father despaired of “teaching me to write,” (leading to that now infamous episode when he angrily flung all my tearful drafts of A Descriptive Paragraph across the room), he discovered that the only time I could write was when I was sarcastic.
So Dad assigned me to write radio commercials. My favorite was for a fictional anti-aging lotion. I wrote, “I’m sixty, feel fifty, act forty and look thirty!”. Tongue-in-cheek sarcasm like this gave Anthony a way to hide his jaded worldview in a robe of eloquence. And we are the richer for it.
What makes him even more interesting, and his suicide even more upsetting, is that he wore his mental health on his sleeve. He made no bones about his feelings, indeed, he shouted them from the television. The themes of self-loathing, depression, anger, suicide and longing for death run through his shows, especially No Reservations, as obviously as his alcoholism.
He makes me remember my old depressed days. When a laugh was like a quick burst of sunshine stabbing through gray clouds. A stab of joy quickly snuffed out. I’d forgotten just how bad depression can be.
When I feel “naked in the wind” and embarrassed for spewing my own psyche out in this blog, I think of Anthony and feel comforted. We both wear our mental health on our sleeve.
Some have blamed his suicide on a recent break-up with his girlfriend, Asia Argento. I dunno. Anthony had already weathered two break-ups of long marriages. With his celebrity status and that irresistible world-weary, alcoholic charm and whisky voice, all he would’ve had to do is stand still in one of his beloved dive bars and he’d have women swarming all over him.
Maybe it was exhaustion. Maybe his celebrity and constant travel, travel, travel became a trap from which he saw no escape.
But I sense something more. I think he had a shy streak. Was uncomfortable in his own skin. No moans of gastronomic ecstasy for him. If food was good, he said so. If it was bad, he said so. But ask him to partake in a game or, even worse, dance on camera…! You could almost see his skin crawl. He had to be pretty well embalmed with the alcoholic beverage of the moment to engage in physical activity. He didn’t seek the limelight, much more comfortable to watch others show off while he kept his elbows firmly on the bar.
Alcohol was his social lubrication. It allowed him to convincingly say “yes” when his authentic self was screaming “no.” There wasn’t any food he wouldn’t try. No dangerous plane flight he wouldn’t take. With a world weary, resigned que sera sera attitude, he abandoned himself to the tender mercies of the network.
Maybe that’s what killed him. Wearing the suit. Playing the game. Inauthenticity comes at a high, high price I know from experience. Maybe he felt like a fraud with a lifetime of regret and shame for his past drug use.
Interestingly, as I recall, Anthony never blamed anyone for his drug use but himself. He chose that path cognitively. It was what he wanted. Nothing in his background or breeding made him susceptible. He wasn’t a victim and, as far as I can tell, he wasn’t a narcissist either. No yelling in anyone’s face, à la Gordon Ramsay.
Personally, call it denial or whatever, but I’ll never be quite convinced that it was suicide. Everything about it is wrong: the timing, the place, everything. It rings wrong for me.
He’d tangled with some pretty powerful characters in the months before his death. If he had done it, this man of letters wouldn’t have gone silently. He would’ve tipped off his best friend, Eric Ripert. He would’ve left the most eloquent, profane “F- U, World” suicide note like George Sanders wrote for his 1972 suicide:
“Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.
I feel I have lived long enough.
I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool.
And Tony wouldn’t have done it in a girly chateau like the Hotel Chambard. He would’ve done it in an eloquently macabre way…perhaps in one of his beloved “Museums of Brothel History.” That would’ve been so Tony!
What hurts the worst is that he left behind his daughter, Ariane. I love how he always talked about her on the show and bought things for her. You could feel his love for her. Maybe it wasn’t suicide after all. Maybe his daughter had been threatened “unless you off yourself…and make it look convincing.” In that case, I can easily see Tony sacrificing himself for the little girl he had so late in life and loved so very much.
Call me selfish, but I feel personally cheated. Cheated! My favorite celebrity chef, ranking right up there in my affections with Julia Child and Michel Roux Jr, robbed me of himself. There won’t be any more delightful quotes like, “Gentlemen, when cooking duck, always wear pants.”
Maybe one Angie Eaton Norris summed it up best. She tweeted the following:
I’m just a normal homemaker, stuck in nowhere America.
But with Tony, I got to travel the world.
I got to see places that I never would have seen,
learned about food and people that I never would have,
except for No Reservations & Parts Unknown….
I grieve with you, your daughter and
all of Tony’s friends and fans.
So here’s to Tony! The most brilliant, eloquent celebrity chef to ever grace the small screen.
There’ll never be another like him.
We are the poorer for losing him much too soon.