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

October 18, 2022

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.

Bourdain’s Biographer Stayed in the Room Where It Happened

October 3, 2022

By Karen

In anticipation of Charles Leerhsen’s book coming out October 11, Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain, I’ve contacted him about giving Cats Working an interview once I’ve read the book.

He hasn’t responded to that, but I have pinged his radar because he sent me this link to an article he wrote published Oct. 1, “Anthony Bourdain’s Last Days Revisited.” (It makes you give an email address, but once the site sends you something, unsubscribe, which I did.)

It doesn’t state the article is excerpted from the book, so Leerhsen may be providing additional information here. He discovered that Le Chambard, where Bourdain took his own life, is now squeamish about the whole subject. They refused to let Leerhsen reserve that room (he did get Eric Ripert’s room next door), but the next day, he and his wife actually finagled their way back in and stayed in Bourdain’s room.

Photo: Travelocity

The story ends on a supernatural note that reminds me of some months ago when Roc and I watched a book eject itself from my bedroom bookcase.

The article is definitely worth a read.

In other Bourdain news…

Here’s an interview with Leerhsen by The Guardian that offers some insight, if you ignore the reporting’s factual errors, such as:

  1. In the third paragraph, they mention a show running three seasons. A Cook’s Tour, or even The Layover, were two seasons each. If they’re talking about No Res or Parts, they’re WAY off.
  2. I’ve never seen anywhere that Tony was ever a co-owner of Les Halles. He was broke in his chef days, and he consistently said he never wanted to own a restaurant.
  3. He was 61 when he died, nearly three weeks before his next birthday.
  4. The Hong Kong episode wasn’t posthumous. I believe it first aired in the U.S. the same weekend the skank shacked up with Hugo and cavorted for the Roman paparazzi.

I was luckily able to read the book review published today by Dwight Garner in The New York Times, subtitled “Light on Subtlety, Heavy on Grit.” A few snippets…

“Here are the prostitutes, a lot of prostitutes, and one-night stands, and rumors of affairs with other food-world personalities.”

He compares Leerhsen’s bio to Laurie Woolever’s “authorized” book…

“A previous book, “Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography” (2021), compiled by Laurie Woolever, felt like an official Bourdain-industry product. It was worthy but dull.

“It was heavy on pontificating celebrities, from the food, television and journalism worlds, who tried to puzzle out what made this magnificent, pagan, literate, lantern-jawed beast tick, to put him on the couch.

“Leerhsen’s book, on the other hand, has a lot of people trying to join Bourdain on the couch, ideally without his trousers, and thus has more adrenaline and feels truer to life.”

On brother Chris: Here’s a Leerhsen interview with the L.A. Times where he describes what apparently was going on behind the scenes between the brothers, and how Chris tried to deep-six Leerhsen’s book.

[Fun Fact: Did you know there’s virtually no such thing as defaming the dead? They are considered memories, with no active reputation to “protect.”]

The skank vs. Ottavia: Here’s another article called “Everything We Know So Far,” which gives some info on Ottavia’s role and how the skank wanted to erase Tony’s family — at least on social media.

The skank’s reaction: After her last texts with Tony went public last week, she posted a photo of herself on Instagram — defiantly no-class as always.

A friend on Instagram sent me an Italian post from an interview on kikapressandmedia. Translated, it begins…

“Down and out in paradise, the unauthorized biography focused on the character of Anthony Bourdain, has sparked new controversy: once again in the media meat grinder there is AA.” [Abbreviation mine]

AA is quoted on the text messages…

“Those who made the messages public are vultures, and there are many around a famous person. Those who sold them will see it with their karma.”

[NOTE ADDED 10/5: Just noticed another point. Above, AA predicts bad karma for the “vulture” who “sold” her texts (before she did?). Even more ludicrous than thinking her vulgarity has monetary value is her delusion that Tony’s family sought anything beyond the relief of finally getting the truth in print. Or that Leerhsen paid people for cooperation. That’s not how biographers work.]

AA ends with belated recognition of Tony’s child, so she’s working hard for sympathy…

“His daughter, me, my children have suffered, we must transform this poison, I am turning it into my cure. With Anthony we shared being alcoholics, we supported each other with a sense of dark humor, we were very lonely, but two alcoholics together drown.”

Ottavia today? With the provocative click-bait title, “How Anthony Bourdain’s Estranged Wife’s Life Is Drastically Different Since He Passed,” I thought Ottavia had opened up to someone. Wrong. Writer Tara Dugan cobbled together a so-called profile of Ottavia without speaking to her, since there isn’t a single quote, nor providing any fact that isn’t publicly available and possibly dubious. I’m just sharing it as a glaring example of “lamestream” journalism.

Unauthorized Bourdain Bio Coming Oct. 11

September 29, 2022

By Karen

Since my last post about Max’s winter retreat is picking up Bourdain buzz comments about an upcoming book by Charles Leerhsen called Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain, due out October 11, I’m doing this post to give us somewhere to post any further comments or intel.

I first wrote about this book with some details on Leerhsen back in April.

The New York Times this week published brief excerpts (may require a subscription to access). It must have given Leerhsen such a nice bump that Amazon is already tagging the book a “Best Seller.” In the article, Leerhsen says both Ottavia and Nancy (Tony’s wives) were cooperative.

The Bourdain estate (i.e., Ottavia as executor) apparently has no objections to the book, but Tony’s brother Chris tried a few times without success to stop publication until inaccuracies he cited were corrected. No word on Nancy’s opinion of it.

We shall see how accurate we find it when we read it.

Print and online publications have picked up the Times piece and rehashed their own versions without adding new content.

However, reader feijicha found a story in People magazine that has a bit more.

And here’s an article in Bon Appétit with some fresh information.

If Leerhsen is on the level, this book would answer many questions we’ve hashed out here for over four years. It includes material I’ve always said must have been on Bourdain’s electronics when he died — namely, texts with the girlfriend (whom we don’t name because she probably Googles herself).

Those texts could have only come from Ottavia, since Chris objects to the book.

I’ve hoped someone on Tony’s side would finally expose the girlfriend’s culpability, and if this book credibly does that, great. And, Ottavia, well played.

Eric Ripert, surprisingly, was one of few in Tony’s circle who actually spoke to the Times about the book, which he’s read. He said it contains many inaccuracies, as well as details he told to only a few people.

One ghoulish note: As research, Leerhsen and his wife traveled to France and stayed in the hotel room where Tony died.

I’m going to leave it there for now. I’ve reached out to Leerhsen twice this week (via Instagram and his website) asking for a Cats Working interview after I’ve read the book, but have had no reply so far. Stay tuned…

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