Conversation with Tom Vitale, Conclusion

By Karen

Tom Vitale is author of In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain. Days after the interview excerpt with him that follows, I was watching the Roadrunner documentary DVD and had another “Cats Working May be Haunted” moment related to today’s post.

In the same instant the video shifted to Asia the girlfriend, the table lamp blew its bulb. My light bulbs always fail when I first switch lamps on, not after they’ve been burning a few hours. Maybe it was coincidence, but it creeped me out.

Commenters here have discussed Tom’s treatment of Asia in the book, so I had to ask him about…

Anthony Bourdain’s Last Girlfriend

CW: On page 217, you wrote…

“Tony’s ethic of relentlessly pushing the envelope — the very drive responsible for getting us where we were — had reached such a fever pitch, it felt like the pace was becoming unsustainable.”

It seemed you felt this while you were making the 2016 Rome episode with Asia. Why then? Was she trying to direct? What was the dynamic?

TV: A lot of scene ideas, like the boxing and pasta, and the stornellis [Italian street songs] that were so beautiful, were her idea. Those Roman folk songs are dirty and hilariously dark. She made a lot of creative contributions, but she was definitely not directing the episode. But it was very high stakes because Tony wanted to not fuck it up.

I think that period in general was particularly tough. The shoot with President Obama was coming up and completely top-secret. Constant battles with the accounting department were grating. Tony wanted to do fancier, more expensive things just as they were clamping down on the spending.

CW: Were you on the shoot with Tony and Asia in Southern Italy?

TV: I did do that one, yes.

CW: How were they together then? It seemed joyous. He was in love, and they were having fun at the beach, on the boat. Was the vibe good? Putting it in historical perspective, they had come out as a couple, right?

TV: I think we were in Portugal when they became public in February 2017. And Italy was June 2017.

CW: They were in their honeymoon phase.

TV: But it was an incredibly difficult shoot for a host of reasons. Italy is one of the greatest countries to visit, but also the most difficult and stressful from the production standpoint. For example, we set up this whole scene for a big party at a farm, then at the last minute the police shut us down because the location was being used as refugee resettlement area and it didn’t have the right permits. We lost an entire day of shooting due to some stupid bureaucratic miscommunication. Things like that were happening.

On the other side, I don’t think Tony was ever so nice and happy, to me, as he was on that shoot.

CW: Something we’ve debated at Cats Working is how you went to Rome seeking answers and met with Asia. She asked about his will and supposedly missing fortune. In the book, it seems like the first thing out of her mouth, but was it really further into the conversation?

TV: No, she pretty much opened with that.

CW: So, in so many words you conveyed her priority. Some seemed to fault you because they felt you were giving her a pass. Did she ever take any responsibility at all?

TV: I certainly don’t think she wanted Tony to kill himself. That probably screwed up her life in a lot of ways, too. I’m not saying she handled things the right way, by any stretch of imagination. But in my book — I wasn’t in Hong Kong or Florence — I only write about things I saw.

It was really difficult for me in that when Tony got together with her, he became a lot nicer to me. She was always very good to me. I think it’s unquestionable she played some role in his downfall. I guess I was blinded to the fact that something wrong was happening, whether it was her fault or not, because he got nicer to me.

CW: It sounds like she didn’t feel you were any threat, like maybe she did Zach or Helen.

TV: I knew how important pleasing her was to Tony. I moved mountains to make things happen, whatever he wanted, as I always did for Tony.

CW: Maybe she thought you were her ally. Perhaps you can confirm or debunk a rumor that circulated after he died. Did he ever buy her a house in Rome?

TV: No, he didn’t.

CW: In hindsight, that now makes sense. Where your book made my eyes Boing! out like a cartoon was when Tony told you she would be moving to New York in fall 2018.

TV: That was the plan.

CW: We dodged a bullet there, in a twisted way. The mess it would have created for everyone related to both of them. And to promote her “career,” he’d have found ways to get her in our faces every day.

TV: He was in love. He acted like a teenager about it. But he reacted to a lot of things like a teenager. That was part of his magic. He was really a romantic.

CW: He did have a certain boundless child-like enthusiasm. When he found something he really loved, a place a food, a person… That’s what made him inspiring for so many people. He pulled out all the stops.

TV: Back to the topic of giving Asia too much of a pass, in the book I don’t try to judge. It’s up to the reader, in the same way it was to me, to try to derive meaning from those things. It wasn’t always clear.

CW: I think you were even-handed. The Oral Biography seems more damning.

TV: I’m sure everything in the Oral Biography is true. What I include in my book is what I saw directly.

CW: That’s what sets your book apart. The Biography puts several degrees of separation between Tony and the reader. Your book is firsthand. Plus, you’re fair to the point of being too hard on yourself. Tom, the fact that you could go toe-to-toe with Tony for so many years and survive, while creating amazing TV, is proof that you’re much stronger than you probably think you are.

TV: Tony used to talk about how your greatest humiliations are most entertaining or funny for other people to read. I don’t think I 100% consciously set out to do that. But after having been steeped in Tony’s storytelling process for so long, I see the book is definitely a collection of my biggest fuckups and worst moments and failures. He was right, again. Those do make the most interesting stories.

CW: On page 282 you wrote…

“I’ve struggled with persistent questions of whether he actually cared enough about me to give me his best.”

I think if you can’t picture what his best would have looked like — had it been even better than what you got from him — that answers your question. I believe he did give you his best.

TV: He did.

CW: And I think a lot of people would agree.

BONUS: Tom loves cats.

Tom back home after a shoot, sacked out with the late Frida, aka “Mr. Whiskers”

CW: Being Cats Working, I have to ask about the many random shots of cats on your B roll that made it into the shows.

TV: Tony would joke a lot about my cats and my relationship with cats. I adore cats. So, the camera guys knew whenever a cat was around they would film it, and I’d use it in the edit.

CW: Do you have any cats currently?

TV: I do, Lucy and Tabby.

CW: Are they both females?

TV: They are. Both Tabby and Lucy are tabby white, which is half white, half tabby. But I think Lucy, because of her very distinctive meow and incredible elegance, is actually at least half or mostly Siamese. They’re rescue cats.

17 Responses to Conversation with Tom Vitale, Conclusion

  1. Juan says:

    Karen,

    Did Asia have beef with Helen? I know Helen didn’t think highly of her, but was there heat between the two?

    Respectfully,

    Juan

  2. catsworking says:

    Juan, in the Oral Biography, there’s a story of Asia telling Tony that some guy (drat, I can’t remember who it was) did something for a show (music, perhaps) that Helen had actually done, so Helen wouldn’t get credit for it. I think Tony thanked the guy for whatever it was, and the guy didn’t know what he was talking about, but it was inconceivable to Tony that Asia could have misled him.

    That’s my memory of what I read, anyway. My impression was that Asia might have chosen Helen to be picked off next.

  3. GlamourMilk says:

    Cats –

    Thanks a lot for the interview with Vitale. Some of the information was really interesting. I have to say he seems to be a bit too fond of Argento for my liking. If it wasn’t because he’d stated himself that he was gay I would almost have thought Vitale was the one who was in love with her, especially from his over-the-top descriptions of how attractive he thinks she is in his book. But each to their own. And thanks again. Even though I don’t agree with all Vitale says, that doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the interview 🙂 Also happy for you that you also got to talk about cats a bit. I’m looking forward to reading Woolever’s Oral Biography.

    About Argento: I saw that she’s releasing her record with a song called ‘My A’ on it. Assuming the ‘A’ isn’t herself, then we all know she’s planning to make even more money off the dead boyfriend she broke up with and afterwards pretended not knowing why he killed himself. And now she’s making songs about him. Anyway, she’s living her best life and good for her. I just wish she’d leave the memory of Bourdain alone. She did nothing good for him (even though he believed so for a short while). It sucks that she’s in any way associated with him and she’s milking it for all it’s worth. I wonder if she’s ashamed of herself somewhere deep inside – if she’s capable of that emotion.

  4. catsworking says:

    GlamourMilk, it seems every time she fears people might forget, she does something to remind us of her Bourdain connection in the mistaken notion that the attention will be positive. If she had an inch of skin left that wasn’t already smeared with ink, she’d probably have a huge tattoo of his face. I did see her song about her “A” coming out. Guaranteed to be dreadfully composed and badly sung.

    I don’t have the impression that Tom Vitale is fond of her. As he said, he’s only going by what he observed, and she was always nice to him, so he’s refraining from passing judgment. If he had been on the Hong Kong shoot, he might have a different opinion. He might have been the one she got fired.

    As for her looks, I think she’s pretty ordinary, but sure, she was coarsely attractive younger, before she blew up her lips. Now she’s aging into a bony scarecrow who still thinks she looks hot in skimpy underwear. I can’t get past the evil, scheming look in her eyes that’s in every photograph of her with Bourdain. I happened upon another one just today that I’d never seen before, and there it was.

    And living her best life? I think she peaked a good 20 years ago. Whatever fame she enjoys now is purely for her freak value, because there’s no talent there.

  5. Bonnie Wells says:

    Hello Karen, I’m just catching up with the rest of your interview with Tom. I love the picture of him with Mr. Whiskers! You really asked some great questions and Tom’s personality comes across vividly as a very kind and thoughtful human being.

    I’m glad you asked about Tony’s process in writing. I found that very interesting…how hard he worked at it, and the relationship between writing and the film footage…working it from both directions. That rings true to my experience with any creative process.

    The questions you asked about AA were spot on and revealing in a new way, although his responses say worlds about him, and less about her. It’s a wonderful example of how we filter our impressions through a personal narrative when try to describe them.

    But your interview communicated an undercurrent of something towards AA that I did not sense in his book. And that he wanted to clarify his response to your question about “giving her a pass” is telling. It’s clearly important to him to say what he observed and then leave it to the reader to draw conclusions. That’s also great storytelling. What did Tony say to him…something like “show it, don’t tell it”? It’s clear he’s taken that piece of advice to heart.

    Again, I so admire him for writing his book, and I’m very grateful to you for posting this interview. Thank you! Bonnie

  6. catsworking says:

    Bonnie, thank you. Considering the HUGE volume of writing that Bourdain put out in his lifetime, I was always intrigued by the mechanics of how he did it, which he never talked about. (Once I visited Key West and was thrilled to step into Hemingway’s writing room and see his typewriter and stuff — even though I don’t particularly like his work. But his cats are AMAZING.)

    I have the impression by Tom is a bit bothered by anyone thinking he’s giving the skank a pass, because he went to Italy hoping to be able to blame her (he says in his book). But in the end, he concluded she didn’t “pull the trigger.” I think that’s a minority opinion, but he’s entitled to it.

    I myself am not so sure of that. Nobody knows what her last conversation with Tony was like. As someone has said here in comments, if someone commits suicide after being verbally mentally and emotionally battered daily beyond human endurance, does the tormenter get a pass because they didn’t “pull the trigger?”

    In today’s society, yeah. No accountability anywhere you look.

  7. MorganLF says:

    Sorry I’ve been absent…well, well done Karen!
    I’ll have more tho say later. Some things you never even told me about the cell phone thing. The quote somewhere about his writing teacher telling him to (paraphrasing);kill his children i.e., his words I have referred to often…since he used a direct quote he posted here as ”bobsyouruncle,“ in was it ‘Medium Raw’ the one about drugstore cowboys describing he and Nancy’s relationship. Also I carried on about Bill Maher’s treatment of of a fellow Jersey boy …yea little dick syndrome totally, and I like Maher. But I did post a comment after the interview that captured those sentiments.
    No comments on the skank for now.
    Can’t read more for a bit, just a bit tough, for now.

  8. catsworking says:

    Morgan, yeah, the cellphone stalker was bizarre. After she gave me the number, I considered for about five seconds calling it myself to see if it was really Tony’s, and if it was, to tell him what was going on. But then I realized he’d probably think I had been the one calling him all along and he’d hate me forever, so I just kept it to myself.

  9. bassgirl23 says:

    Karen, thanks for putting this all together – the additional comments and insights really round out the book as well as adding to the story as a whole.

    I probably missed it but did he ever comment on why Zach Zamboni wasn’t interviewed about AA anywhere, or was he approached (and refused)? Everyone else now seems eager to comment in the various interviews, but his silence is so unusual, I assume he must have a very specific reason for not telling his side of what happened in Hong Kong.

    I happened to be re-watching the No Reservations Kurdistan episode last weekend which had the crew (including Tom, now that I could pick him out!) at the “Virginistan” training session. It was actually pretty funny to watch after having read Tom’s take on it in the book. Now that I know what he looks like I’ll have to keep an eye out when watching older episodes.

    I’m enjoying going back and re-watching some of the No Reservations shows, there’s a few seasons streaming here and there I’ve found so it’s hit and miss. He was definitely more sarcastic and his humour was much darker (and often juvenile) throughout that period, but he seemed to be having more fun.

  10. catsworking says:

    bassgirl, my DVR picks up an episode of No Res here and there. I don’t know if it’s being shown sporadic, or the DVR is skipping ones it already got.

    As for Zach, all I can say is that Tom is aware of a reason Zach has decided not to speak now and it’s very personal to him, so we need to just respect his privacy. I have no idea if he will ever change his mind.

    I’ve never been aware of Tom’s presence in the shows, either, but now that I know him, I’ll definitely be looking for him on the fringes.

    Once years ago when Tony did a No Res in Hawaii, I picked out Ottavia sitting on a porch in the background from her distinctive hairdo, although I don’t think she was otherwise in the episode.

  11. GlamourMilk says:

    Another book coming out and if the following is true, then ouch (though absolutely not surprised that aa might potentiallyhave tried to cause trouble between tony and his daughter while pretending she herself was mother of the year):

    ‘Bourdain was already running out of steam, physically and emotionally, when he fell hard for an Italian actress who could be even colder to him than he sometimes was to others, and who effectively drove a wedge between him and his young daughter.’

    https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Down-and-Out-in-Paradise/Charles-Leerhsen/9781982140441

  12. catsworking says:

    GlamourMilk, oh, wow. You scooped me on this one. The book comes out June 21, 2022. I knew it was only a matter of time before the unauthorized bios started flowing. There are already several on Amazon that don’t look too legit, but this one is coming from Simon & Schuster. This Charles Leerhsen author is a sports writer, so I’m wondering what his Bourdain connection is.

    But from the brief quote, it sounds like he’s willing to throw a ton of bricks at the skank, so I can’t fault him for that.

  13. GlamourMilk says:

    Cats –

    Yeah, it’s a long wait. There should really be a ‘law’ against knowing about events and releases more than a few months in advance – lol.

    Sportswriter? Hmm! You’re right. That doesn’t seem to be an obvious connection. Maybe he wants to branch into other subject matters??? At least, Simon and Schuster has a good reputation, so it could be a good book.

  14. catsworking says:

    S&S is one of the biggies, so they wouldn’t be publishing something they didn’t think they could defend in court. Leerhsen’s last book was about Butch Cassidy, but the rest were all sports titles. I haven’t checked out his website.

    Knowing how tight Bourdain’s circle has been in what they’re willing to discuss in the several other projects we’ve already seen, and that the book is being touted as “unauthorized,” I’m wondering who this guy could have gotten his material from. And if publishing it four days before Tony’s birthday is supposed to be a tie-in to what’s become “Bourdain Day.”

  15. MorganLF a says:

    I hate this WordPress! I had a long review of ‘roadrunner’ written along with various observations and personal recollections then touched something and pouf, disappeared…so fuk it.
    Not writing it all over. Tom Vitale appears frequently, and lots of footage of Nancy and his daughter Arianne. I recommend it, oh and keep tissues handy for the last part.

  16. catsworking says:

    Morgan, I feel your pain. It’s happened to me many times. Why there’s no undo of an accidental delete in WordPress beats the hell out of me. I guess they’re following the Twitter model of refusing to add an edit feature.

  17. GlamourMilk says:

    MorganLF a –

    That’s so irritating you lost what you wrote. I have experienced that too and it’s so deflating. At this point, I either write my post in another document and then paste it over, or I copy it regularly to try and avoid mishaps like that.

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