Review: Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain

By Karen

I’ve switched to e-books mostly, due to bulging bookcases, but for any book written by/about Anthony Bourdain, I MUST have the real deal. Opening Charles Leerhsen’s Down and Out in Paradise brought Bourdain back to life for hours of good and bad revelations.

But then Tony was gone again.

I’ve written enough words here since 2007 about Anthony Bourdain to fill several books myself. Since his passing, the more I’ve read about him — which often confirms theories I had — the less I’ve felt we knew him.

Leerhsen took the backdoor to his subject because Bourdain’s “authorized” group (exception: his two wives) shut him out. The result fills in many blanks. And I’m not just talking about the circumstances of his death, but how he became who he was.

Despite Tony’s mantra, “What you see is what you get,” and his disdain for pretense, Leerhsen explored how Bourdain carefully revealed only the polite, polished tip of the extremely dark iceberg of his inner workings.

Although prepublication reviews hyped those final, fatal texts between Tony and his girlfriend AA [no longer named here because she lives for attention] right before his suicide, the bulk of Leerhsen’s research dealt with the “nobody” years before Kitchen Confidential changed Bourdain’s life.

Old friends and co-workers we’ve never heard of remembered more about Bourdain’s school and restaurant days than ever seen before.

Because Leerhsen had to rely heavily on unnamed “confidential sources,” at times it could be unclear what was fact and what was Leerhsen trying to connect dots.

And I did get confused about who actually spoke to him because he’d write, “Lydia [Tenaglia]” or “Chris [Collins] said, ‘Blah, blah, blah,’” as if ZPZ had cooperated, only to find out in the endnotes that their quotes were from third-party writings.

Tony’s brother Christopher has complained that Leerhsen muffed everything about early family life, but I’d say he confirms the more tactful version Laurie Woolever presented in her Definitive biography.

No matter how you slice Tony’s mother Gladys, she was monstrous. For example, what kind of mother doesn’t tell her kids for years that they’re half Jewish?

One factual error I did find was about Tony’s paternal grandfather, Pierre Michel, on page 38. According to meticulous genealogical research submitted to Cats Working, Pierre wasn’t immediately deported upon arriving in America as a boy, but adopted by an American.

To use a sports metaphor Leerhsen would appreciate, I think he dropped the ball on page 269, misstating that Bourdain paid Jimmy Bennett $380,000 in a lump sum to keep mum about AA’s raping him at age 17. The New York Times broke the story after Tony’s death in 2018 and Cats Working reported that he paid $200,000 upfront, with 18 monthly installments of $10,000 to follow.

I believe Bennett ultimately collected $250,000 before AA defaulted when Tony’s death permanently closed the Bank of Bourdain.

I mention this as potentially the gorilla in the room with Tony and AA. She may have dumped Tony the night he died, but he was still legally bound to continue paying for Bennett’s silence to save her face.

The burden of having his own duplicity/stupidity/hypocrisy in that mess exposed may have figured hugely in Leerhsen’s hypothesis (which I agree with) that Tony ultimately couldn’t stand who he had become.

Speaking of AA, Leerhsen’s descriptions of her beginning on page 229 are almost worth the price of the book. He begins with the understatement, “Her career had not exactly organized itself around a robust demand for her services,” and the smackdowns just keep on coming.

He writes that even Ottavia had to Google the fellow Italian and told someone, “One of the first things that came up was a picture of a woman making out with a dog.” (True; she did.)

On other fronts, Leerhsen did his homework, finding on page 205 the moment Bourdain’s evil alter-ego Vic Chanko was born (Hint: It goes back to episode 1 of A Cook’s Tour.)

He offers a fuller picture of first wife Nancy than we’ve ever seen, including Zamir’s memories of meeting her when she accompanied Tony to Russia.

But there’s a discrepancy on Bourdain’s current cremated whereabouts. On page 7, Leerhsen says Chris emailed the French authorities to send Tony’s ashes and electronics to Ottavia. But on page 277 he says, “As of this writing, Tony’s brother, Christopher Bourdain, still has Tony’s ashes.” [emphasis mine]

He includes unsubstantiated rumors that Tony had flings with handy fellow TV personalities, such as Nigella Lawson (which I’d applaud if he hadn’t been married to Ottavia at the time), and Padma Lakshmi (no doubt she’d have tried to get in his pants, but EEWWW!).

Much as I hate to believe it, prostitutes seemed to be an ongoing thing with him. Which explains why Tom Vitale went skeevy on me when I asked him about that.

Leerhsen included quite a trove of Tony’s earliest writing, including a poem. (Bourdain’s writing I’ll save for another post because I’m still processing.)

The acknowledgements were a Who’s Who of “Who?” but did include Tony’s old friend Michael Ruhlman and some who have been excluded heretofore, such as Zamir and AA. Absent was the loyal core from the Definitive bio who, as Eric Ripert put it, “want to control the narrative.”

The endnotes seem comprehensive in detailing what Leerhsen found where, but all the juiciest bits whose origins you’d really want to know invariably came from “confidential sources.”

I’m very pleased to add Leerhsen to my bulging bookshelf alongside Bourdain’s books, and hope he’ll give me an opportunity to interview him soon.

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28 Responses to Review: Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain

  1. ST says:

    I’ve been waiting for your review. Since I’m mostly a fan of his written work, I’m interested in his early years, struggles as a writer and his relationship with Nancy. According to you, both wives weren’t interviewed so there won’t be any insight into that. I did read the New Yorker piece a few years ago and that was pretty good.

  2. catsworking says:

    ST, Nancy is quoted in the book, and she gave him at least a photo of their wedding (maybe more, I didn’t pay attention to that). And Ottavia clearly gave him access to the electronics, but she was not quoted directly anywhere. It was all posed as “She said to a friend,…”

    But both wives cooperated with this book. I daresay Nancy gave him a lot of the names of people he tracked down about the early years.

  3. Bob says:

    I did force myself to buy this book, like you it’s required reading it seems.

  4. bassgirl23 says:

    Thanks for the update, I’m still on the fence about whether to read it or not but I think I will, eventually. You’ve intrigued me enough, without spoiling anything!

    Re the ashes, is it possible they were split? I know this is done quite frequently where there are different family groups, and it’s not that unusual (at least in my experience). Maybe there’s 2 sets out there, Chris with one and Ottavia the other.

    I was curious too why Zamir hadn’t been interviewed before now.

  5. GlamourMilk says:

    Thanks for the review. I think I’ll want to read it again I was especially happy to read a bit more about the years in Provincetown and wish there’d been more about that time. I can add a mistake that an editor should have picked up: Leerhsen refers to AA’s son Nicola as her daughter, probably because he isn’t aware that Nicola is a boy’s name in Italian. God knows where Bourdain’s seemingly lifelong sense of ‘misplacement’ came from. Could be as simple as someone being a hopeless romantic having lived one’s childhood years as a big fan of stories and then getting heavily into drugs at a young age which obviously alters your way of thinking over time. A long period of being decidedly professionally unsuccessful and probably scared to death of how things would turn out. Then, relatively late in life, he got incredibly successful and that was probably also a bit of a headfuck. Just thinking about this hammers home exactly why I find him fascinating. He was such an unusual celebrity, yet lived life as a celebrity to the full. Could clearly be an asshole but, unlike AA, he also had great empathy and insight – and not least of all, humour. He could definitely let people down but he was also fiercely loyal. He became one of the most famous cooks in the world, yet it wasn’t his cooking he was famous for. He was quite an enigma in some ways. For better and for worse. But he deserved better than getting involved with a human trashcan at the end.

  6. catsworking says:

    Bassgirl, the ashes definitely aren’t split. In fact Chris wanted to do that for the memorial and got smacked down. How he wanted to was weird. You’ll have to read the book. 😉

  7. catsworking says:

    Bob, with our long history of Bourdain-watching, for you this book IS must reading. Come back and let me know what you think.

  8. catsworking says:

    Glamour, I feel like I need to read it again myself. I was taking notes as I went, but there’s always more to find once the feeling that everything is new wears off.

    What I feel is missing is the perspective that only Nancy could provide about his life from high school through their marriage. They were on again, off again for years before they tied the knot. I just know that she’s the one who saw it all and probably held all his confidences. And maybe that’s why she doesn’t want to tell the story — it might feel to her like a betrayal of his trust.

    I’m fascinated by his development as a writer, and the myth he created about that when he got famous.

    And he certainly became a man of contradictions. He could be the world’s biggest, coldest asshole, but also a life-changing benefactor when he decided to give someone a leg up. Even a stranger like that Marilyn Hagerty who wrote the Olive Garden review in Grand Forks and ended up with a book deal and his personal imprimatur.

    I wish I could remember where he was when I first happened to catch him on “No Res.” I didn’t find him particularly attractive, but whatever it was he was talking about got my attention. And then a short time later when I saw his book “A Cook’s Tour” at a remainder sale, I thought, “Oh, that guy from TV’s a writer, too!” I bought that book, and then I was hooked.

  9. Donna says:

    I’m buying it now

  10. catsworking says:

    Donna, you go way back as well. You’ll like it, I think especially the Nancy parts. She’s always been our mystery woman.

  11. catsworking says:

    Glamour, I forgot to mention: Good catch on the son’s name! I actually found a typo (“mange” instead of “manage”), and one weird semicolon that totally should have been a comma, but missed that name boo-boo.

    For the record, her daughter is Anna Lou.

  12. Thank you Karen for saving us all a lot of time. You to me a part of the core, putting the threads of this narrative together for us all. Great work!

  13. catsworking says:

    Stephanie, thank you. But I am very far from the core in all of this.

  14. Lorraine says:

    I am quite curious as to what Nancy was/is like. His portrayal of her doesn’t seem accurate but I just don’t know.

  15. catsworking says:

    Lorriane, I think his portrayal of her is spot-on, from what we know about her. She was never into the whole fame thing. She accompanied him on a few of his trips during his first show, A Cook’s Tour. She did not want to be on camera, and I only figured out who she was after reading the companion book and connecting the dots with what he said. There’s a very old post here called, I think: “Nancy Bourdain: Found” where you can read about that and see screenshots I got off the TV. Just do a search on Nancy Bourdain and it will probably come up. I don’t have many posts about her.

  16. Gerry says:

    I agree with Lorraine – his portrayal of her seems more like a fantasy than anything real – he makes her out to be such a badass but she couldn’t even leave her house or hold a job most of the time. As for AA, TB presents her as some kind of great artist when the book makes clear she was at best a C list actress whose work came mostly from her father’s fame and whose “acting” consists of basically one facial expression – pouting. I do think the book makes clear that TB’s view of women was very unrealistic – maybe that contributed to his end.

  17. GlamourMilk says:

    Cats –

    (You wrote:)
    ‘What I feel is missing is the perspective that only Nancy could provide about his life from high school through their marriage… I just know that she’s the one who saw it all and probably held all his confidences. And maybe that’s why she doesn’t want to tell the story…’

    Yeah, Nancy would have quite a story to tell about their time together. The side of me that likes writers like Burroughs and who is into the whole New York in the seventies-era, would like to hear more about that time in their lives. But I get some things should remain private and I understand she wouldn’t want to tell too much about that time, partly to protect Tony and partly to protect herself and her family. I seem to remember reading somewhere that either she said or Tony said she’d said that she wasn’t happy with some of the things he’d revealed about their drug taking in his books, because her family didn’t know at the time. But I might remember wrong.

    (You wrote:)
    ‘I wish I could remember where he was when I first happened to catch him on “No Res.” I didn’t find him particularly attractive, but whatever it was he was talking about got my attention…’

    I think it was similar for me but I got interested in him quite late in the game. I don’t think I even knew who Bourdain was until a few years before his death and in the beginning I certainly thought he was a ‘full-of-himself-New-Yorker’-type. But I saw a few more episodes or maybe saw an interview and saw another side to him. I think it was definitely how complex he was and the fact he’d had a whole other life before he became famous which lasted much longer than most other people who get famous that made me interested. I actually find his life before being famous more interesting than when he became famous because it’s relatable. That to me is what makes him a more interesting celebrity than most. He shouldn’t really ever have become famous but he became famous anyway and was much more interesting than most famous people I’m aware of. Obviously a great writer and a good presenter.

    I must admit I find it funny when some fans have said what a great traveller Bourdain was, I always think, well, he got paid for travelling and he had a whole team to help him find the most interesting places and people. Who knows what kind of traveller he would be on his own? The travels we know about are to the Caribbean, lying on a beach and being a typical ‘drinking-too-much’ tourist and then some trips to France with the family or later to the Hamptons with his wife and child – so, all very safe kind of travelling. I bet he never went backpacking the way I did in South-East Asia or went on Greyhound across the USA without knowing where to stay on arrival in each town. With all respect, I might be a ‘better’ traveller than he was. I certainly was never paid for travelling or had a team of people to help me out 🙂 But he was an amazing presenter and he was good at getting good stories out of local people and allowing them to shine instead of taking over.

    From what I’ve read it seems he was desperate to get out of a difficult situation, first of drugs then of worrying about being a cook into retirement. Then when he became famous and made more money he kind of got ‘addicted’ to that lifestyle and enjoyed what it had to offer (why wouldn’t he), but I don’t actually think he was ever supposed to have been famous and it wasn’t good for him to be so. As for him supposedly having a Google Alert on his phone for his name being mentioned. I actually don’t think that’s so unusual for famous people. Some might have an assistent do that for them and others might do it themselves. I recommend the biography about the popstar Robbie Williams, written by Chris Heath. Even if you don’t like his music it’s an excellent book by an excellent biographer about being famous and Heath got full access to the famous person he wrote about (Williams). You get a clear picture of what a headfuck it is to be famous, especially for someone who’s sensitive and perhaps cares too much about both others and what others might think about you. I can totally see why a famous person is torn between wanting to keep track of what is being said about you online and in the press but at the same time hating themselves for paying so much attention to that.

    Anyway. I still feel sad when I think of Bourdain gone. And even more so, the circumstances he died under. Some people are keen to say it’s not AA’s fault. But yes, in so many ways it was. I’m not saying he might otherwise have died under other circumstances – we’ll never know. But I do know, that the way he DID die was because of this horrible woman who polluted the last two years of his life. I think I’m going to start believing in karma just for her sake, because she certainly deserves punishment for how she behaved towards him and Ottavia/Ariane and how she behaved after he died for the whole world to see. She really is evil personified.

  18. catsworking says:

    Welcome, Gerry! Apologies for taking so long to post your comment. I didn’t realize it was here, and then I’ve had no internet for three days and I’m just back online.

    I don’t know anything about Nancy’s phobias, but if the drug use was as pervasive as he described it, it probably killed her motivation to do much of anything.

    As for the skank, I’d rank her D list. You describe her “talent” to a T.

    Bourdain did have a very romanticized ideal of women, it seemed. Which makes it all the more baffling that he didn’t run away screaming after spending that first week with the skank filming the Rome episode. Fuck her and forget her should have been his operating model. In the end, it finished him.

  19. catsworking says:

    Glamour, I’m back after 3 days without internet. Great point you make about Tony the traveler. I guess except for that first trip he made to Japan when he was sent there by Les Halles, he never really did do much traveling that wasn’t curated and accompanied by a team.

    But no, I take that back a little. When he was on the road doing his live appearances, I think he was mostly alone. But those were all domestic trips. Nothing overseas.

    Yes, Bourdain probably was ill-equipped for the level of fame he achieved. I think Tom Vitale said that neither Tony nor the crew ever really grasped how well-known he was. That’s got to mess a person up, especially when their personal life is falling apart and they’ve got nothing else. He was really a man who needed a home base, even if he felt compelled to rebel against it. He was a bundle of contradictions.

    I’m definitely willing to give karma a chance if it brings down the skank once and for all. Like Trump, her existence destroys everything it touches.

  20. Cwyn says:

    I’ve been re-reading the end chapters many times, it sounds right to me that between the traveling and ghosting everyone, he really put way too many eggs in the AA relationship basket as a plan for his life. When it clearly wasn’t going to pan out, he hit a moment of emptiness.

    It occurred to me how much of his life he had spent married, and he was doing the older divorcee man-style dating. He probably hadn’t really been dumped before. With his two wives, he was the one ready to be done with them, even though he kept going back to both of them for emotional reassurance.

    Leehrson used the word “humiliation,” and that’s probably a good insight from a straight male biographer. He has some idea of the underlying fear of an older man dating a self-obsessed younger woman. It really is like the “teenage puppy love” so many of his colleagues noticed. I dated a number of much older men for awhile, and it was all the same. Doing Viagra, cocktails of supplements, dumping everyone from their prior life in favor of the new. The younger woman is their proof it’s all working and they really have a second youth. A Hollywood-connected actress adds even more to the ego. It’s one big high until it crashes. The humiliation is feeling old, tired and “had” when the fantasy bubble bursts.

    I don’t want to take away from the fact that he had a serious mental health emergency because it’s as simple as that. But it’s the fantasy about himself that crashed, far from home, leaving him without a safety net at that point.

  21. catsworking says:

    Cwyn, my reading of the two marriages was that, yes, he “outgrew” Nancy and left the marriage when she didn’t want to do the whole fame thing with him. With Ottavia, I don’t think anybody got dumped, unless you count when the skank ordered him to get his own place and stop living with his wife and child. It seemed more like a mutual parting of the ways, but they still considered themselves a unit for the foreseeable future. Indeed, then weren’t divorced two years later when he died.

    And I don’t think he divorced Nancy until Ariane was on the way and he decided he wanted to be married to his child’s mother.

    There was certainly an element of middle-to-late-age crisis in his obsession with the skank. That in itself was weird because his age difference with Ottavia was a few years greater, but he didn’t seem to feel he needed to “keep up” with her. If anything, she nurtured him just as he was. I thought his taking up MMA was more of a last try to keep the spark alive by having a major common interest. But in the end, nothing could compete with all those months away on the road.

    I have dated a lot of older men myself, and must say that NONE ever turned themselves inside out for me the way he did for her. Not with money, Viagra, friendships, etc. I guess I wasn’t very good at bewitching.

  22. GlamourMilk says:

    I’m not sure, but it’s my understanding that because Tony was away as much as he was, he and Ottavia simply grew apart and I think she met her new boyfriend through Jiu-jitsu – not sure when in the timeline that happened but I think it might have happened before Tony got together with AA or perhaps around the same time.

    And yeah, those addictive tendencies of his can work well when channeled into something or someone good, but when channeled into something or someone bad it will be a disaster. Channeling his energy towards AA was his most disastrous decision. She was clearly never on his side, like he was on hers. And I think that was went wrong. Ottavia was clearly on his side so he could feel safe with her. He probably knew/could sense that AA was never on his side so he grew desperate and clingy/needy. That’s what happens when you try to make something work with someone who’s just stringing you along. Rationally speaking you should just leave that person behind, but when emotions get involved that’s not always easy. So instead you try harder and harder. I don’t think he was more obsessed or in love with Argento than his two wives – I think she just strung him along so badly (for money and influence, it seems) that he grew increasingly desperate and needy. I don’t think that would have happened if she’d treated him with decency and respect. She clearly saw a way to get some easy cash out of someone she didn’t even care about. Look at her now, when she has presumably inherited her mother’s money, she’s no longer looking for an older cash cow and can instead date the men she actually wants to date because she doesn’t need someone to pay for her. Tony was just money and connections to her. That is clear.

  23. GlamourMilk says:

    Cwyn –

    (You wrote):
    ‘I’ve been re-reading the end chapters many times, it sounds right to me that between the traveling and ghosting everyone, he really put way too many eggs in the AA relationship basket as a plan for his life. When it clearly wasn’t going to pan out, he hit a moment of emptiness.’

    That looks/sounds right. It looks like he was just completely overwhelmed in a moment of emptiness, like you say. It’s a shame he couldn’t just make it back to New York and get some therapy and make amends with the people he’d ghosted. I’m sure a lot of them would understand if he apologised and rid himself of the skank. Like heroin, it would be important never to let her into his life again.

  24. catsworking says:

    Glamour, all good points. Bourdain was something of a victim in a reverse abusive relationship, if you think of how it works when the man is the abuser and the woman keeps going back for more, even when given an out. Of course, it was always Tony’s prerogative to walk away and he was an idiot for not doing so when he clearly knew and said she was crazy and it would end badly. He was exhausted by work, probably depressed over another marriage gone bad. AND the high times with her were VERY high, which maybe made it all seem worth it.

    But it was as if the worse she treated him, the more he craved her approval. And maybe on some level he felt her abuse was deserved because of how he’d let other women downt. We’ll never know.

    As for the other thing, I’ve never known the timeline of Ottavia’s relationship with Eddie. I wasn’t following her MMA career closely, but I knew he started out as her grappling partner. Since it’s a male-dominated sport, she posted lots of pics of herself with the guys at the studio (gym? what are those places called?) that weren’t provocative in the least.

    I think she and Tony trusted each other until they mutually agreed it was OK to let each other move on romantically. Then, she was free to let Eddie become something more, and he unfortunately glommed on to the skank. I’ve never gotten that O was jealous of the skank as a rival, nor that Bourdain was bothered by Eddie. Ottavia rightly resented the skank for being a financial leech and driving wedges in O’s family, even though the situation was open enough for Tony to see whomever he wanted.

    As we’ve said many times before, with the skank, it was never about love, but only about reflected glory and money.

  25. MorganLF says:

    Ok guess I’ll get the book…recouping from a big surgery guess I have the time…but I don’t want to get agitated and have put Tony in the rear view mirror ‘cept I can’t forget how sweet he and Ottavia were to me…the times we met. Karen you are the definitive archivist of all things Bourdain. So I defer to you.
    As of now I’m celebrating the NOT RED WAVE…and trumps dragging down the republicans yet again.

  26. catsworking says:

    Morgan, I think you will appreciate the book. Leerhsen is the most unsparing of anyone I seen yet toward the skank, which was refreshing. Tony himself comes off more as I think you’ve always thought of him than he did for me. There were times as I was reading where I wondered, “What did I ever see in this guy?”

    I’ve had the TV on for only a few minutes this morning because I CANNOT STAND all the poll shit and comparisons to previous elections. Just tell me what’s going on NOW, dammit! And someone please stuff a sock in Steve Kornacki’s pie hole. And Joe and Mika’s.

    All I know so far is that Florida totally fucked itself. Pennsylvania was AMAZING. And my vote for the House in Virginia was wasted yet again. I got gerrymandered out of Dem. Abigail Spanberger (who won reelection in her new district), and now my rep is a fucking Republican named Rob Wittman, who also won reelection, curse him to hell.

    I turned off the TV when I saw that JD Vance beat Tim Ryan. WTF, Ohio? I couldn’t take any more.

    We’re watching the rolling death of human decency.

    But since the election is over, I hope to see indictments against Trump and everyone associated with him to start flying any minute now.

  27. Nancy B. says:

    I get Michael Ruhlman’s newsletter every Saturday and he had a few comments about Leerhsen’s book:

    “Leerhsen’s book is a level, thoughtful account of Tony’s life that rings true to every aspect I knew about his life. It was the first time since his death that I was able to watch or read anything about the man, who was enormously generous to me and a helluva lot of fun to be with.”

    He also says that when Leerhsen called him up, he asked why he wanted to write a book about Bourdain:

    “Because he was arguably the most popular person on the planet,” Leerhsen replied to my question. He said he wanted to explore why the most popular man on earth would kill himself.

    This was interesting. I’d never thought of Tony this way but I supposed he was right. Everyone loved him—regardless of gender, race or politics. He probably had been the most popular man on the planet.”

    The whole newsletter is here: https://ruhlman.substack.com/p/happy-holidays-d61?

  28. catsworking says:

    Nancy B., thanks for that. Ruhlman does seem to be one of a few of Tony’s friends who has been willing to talk about him in an more unguarded way than the ones who circled the wagons together.

    I still have Leerhsen’s book and my notes front and center on my desk because I do intend to contact him about an interview. Work has just been crazy and the holidays on top of that. So, it’s on my list for early in the new year, now that the dust seems to have settled on the book.

    I wouldn’t dispute that Bourdain was the most popular man on the planet. Some people who didn’t get him thought he was arrogant and a jerk, but I can’t think of anyone I’d say was an enemy. With the notable exception of the skank.

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