“WWe can actually learn a lot from celebrities,” Charles Leerhsen’s unauthorized biography of the late Anthony Bourdain, Down and Out in Paradise, gleefully begins. But what this useless book teaches the reader is that unauthorized celebrity biography is an inherently flawed project of which there are always new depths to plumb. In this one, for example, someone who didn’t know him dissects the life and legacy of a dead man, posting intimate text messages sent between him and his lover in the last days of his life – and without his permission.
Recently released in the United States, the book has already drawn strong reviews. Bordain, who died in 2018 by suicide, was a giant of the food world, who came late in life to an unlikely career as an itinerant traveler and storyteller chronicling culinary culture and politics from the far reaches of the planet. For those of us who were fans of his sometimes ribald but always open-hearted take on life, Bourdain left behind hundreds of carefully produced hours of television and a number of books, including his moody and dirty memoirs. on the work of a leader. in New York, Kitchen Confidential, which sent him stratospherically to a level of fame he later said he was not quite prepared for.
But this new book, according to friends and family, actually gets many of its sordid details wrong. The American author and publisher support it; it’s worth noting that, despite the salacious press it promised to generate and the global reach of Simon & Schuster, it has yet to receive a publishing deal in the UK and Australia.
Down and Out is written by a man who was inspired to do so, he says, when he felt the whole story of Bourdain’s suicide had not been told. It is built around the puzzling occurrence of Leerhsen having received information from a source believed to have come from Bourdain’s laptop, including his emails, text messages, search history, social media accounts and unpublished writings. . To have all of this exposed to the world on the occasion of your death would be anyone’s nightmare; the texts are often drafts, and are above all, private. Leerhsen appears not to have considered the impact their publication would have on the people who sent and received them, who are still alive and whose privacy has been invaded.
Since this material was too good a publishing opportunity to give up, Leerhsen then had to fill the rest of the book with the details of Bourdain’s life. Despite his publisher’s claim that Down and Out is full of scoops and insider information, Leerhsen plunders a slew of extant works, although he is keen to point out he has interviewed 80 people in Bourdain’s orbit. .
Leerhsen spends a good chunk of his time chiding a young Bourdain for changing his views on everything from work to relationships to the type of clothes he wears, as if we all have to be calcified versions of ourselves. -same from 21 years old, never changing, learning nothing. He devotes a lot of space to the debate over whether Bourdain was a great chef – but Bourdain repeatedly said he was not, preferring to say he was a moderately decent cook. Amidst all these reworkings of known history, we get occasional glimpses of Bourdain’s unpublished early writings, leaving to the imagination the far better book than it could have been if all it was.
But far more egregious than all that is the irresponsible way in which Leerhsen deals with Bourdain’s suicide. The short final chapter feels like an afterthought, as if all the work up to this point could have led somewhere, but it hasn’t. This was never going to happen, because the reasons why someone committed suicide are known only to them, unless they leave an explicit explanation. Bourdain no. And contrary to widely accepted guidelines for responsibly reporting suicides, Leerhsen details not only Bourdain’s methods, but also what he was wearing, reducing the desperate act of someone ending their life to a list of trivial facts. He also feels justified in second-guessing her motives. This is where the book, which so far has oscillated between uncomfortable and tedious, becomes ethically indefensible. Suicides shatter the lives of those left behind. They are not material for the ill-informed theorizing of journalists.
Despite his squeaky decision to refer to Bourdain as “Tony” throughout, as only his friends did, Leerhsen didn’t know his subject. Interviewing 80 people will not get you closer to that goal; nor pour over their intimate text messages. This perhaps highlights a larger problem with celebrity biographies as a whole: the sum total of a person’s life can never be contained within 300 pages. What an author concludes to be the real, unvarnished story of a person’s existence will always only be filtered through their own experience. No amount of research will ever get us to really know another person.
The ideal world is one in which this book never existed because Anthony Bourdain never committed suicide. But we are not in this world. If his fans want to savor his memory, all he had to say, in his own words, is here, we all survive.
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by email at email@example.com. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the Lifeline crisis helpline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org