Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain

Image of Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain
Release Date: 
October 11, 2022
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

“Intense, well-researched, and highly readable, this super-candid biography will have wide appeal.”

Anthony Bourdain (1956–2018), the celebrity chef, author, and TV personality (Parts Unknown) who committed suicide at age 61 by hanging himself from a doorknob in a French hotel room, had two great regrets.

  1. He was born too late for Woodstock.
  2. He grew up in “squeaky-clean” 1950s suburban Leonia. N.J.

In the absorbing Down and Out in Paradise, veteran journalist and author (Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty) Charles Leerhsen sets out to show how Bourdain’s regrets (and his responses to them during his wildly erratic life) played roles in his suicidal end as a lonely, embittered alcoholic and long-time drug addict in need of constant validation.

Feel-good books have celebrated the successes of the cool, handsome Tony Bourdain, who has been virtually “canonized” as a secular saint by fans enamored of his TV travels, writes Leerhsen.

“I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the fuck I want,” Bourdain once explained. Viewers enjoyed watching him do just that in some 250 cable broadcasts.

Leerhsen recounts his successes and great appeal—indeed he admires Bourdain—but he has gathered us here to consider the underside of “the not entirely real TV Tony.” It is not pretty.

Haunted by demons throughout his life, he was a perpetual rebel, drawn to outsiders like Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs, and often posing as a bad ass. He “detested” his mother, a New York Times copy editor, and a difficult woman. His father, Pierre, a salesman, died at 57.

At 14, in Leonia, Bourdain was a Boy Scout and comic book collector and “already into drugs.” He soon followed a girlfriend (she would become his first wife) to Vassar, where he proved a D student and spent much of his time striding around campus in a dirty trench coat. Nunchucks—karate weapons—dangled from his belt. Sometimes he carried a sword to boot.

“Underneath the posing, he was a smart, sweet, good-looking boy from suburban New Jersey,” said a childhood friend, one of 85 people interviewed by the author.

Cooking appealed, so Bourdain attended the Culinary Institute of America and embarked on a series of restaurant jobs in Provincetown and New York, notably at the French restaurant Les Halles in Manhattan.

Already a crack addict, he smoked four packs of cigarettes daily and was heavily tatted, says Leerhsen.

“I’m better than this! I’m a writer,” he once told a waitress, throwing pots and pans around. He had published a first novel at 39. Both his culinary and fiction-writing talents were “not terribly good.”

Said a former girlfriend: “You do understand that he never became a full-fledged adult, right?”

The author makes much of Bourdain’s work ethic, humor, and what a friend called his “almost unlimited capacity for empathy.” Intensely shy and physically awkward, Tony would drink to get in the mood for his TV shows.

In his final days, Bourdain’s “burnout and success” had turned him into “the boss from hell” whom the wider world revered as a saint. His supervisors had “more or less given up on managing him.”

Separated from his second wife, Tony was increasingly obsessed by his love for Asia Argento, an Italian actress with whom he had a torrid affair. The daughter of Italian horror-movie king Dario Argento, Asia was a tough, independent woman, highly tatted and known for her “ballsiness.” She had upset Bourdain by appearing in public with another man.

For her part, she was put off by Tony’s “neediness and his suffocating attention.”

“You were reckless with my heart,” Bourdain texted her before he hanged himself. His daughter Ariana was 11 at the time.

Intense, well-researched, and highly readable, this super-candid biography will have wide appeal.