I know most people remember Anthony Bourdain as a bad ass, world-traveling accidental journalist, but I had a different relationship to his celebrity.
I knew he was a fellow Vassar alum, though he left the school on not-quite-friendly terms. I read this 2017 New Yorker profile of him that landed Kitchen Confidential on my TBR list, but I never got around to it, since I feel like I learned most of what I needed to know about how amazing he was from reading that profile.
I mean, this description alone:
“Bourdain, who is sixty, is imposingly tall — six feet four — and impossibly lean, with a monumental head, a caramel tan, and carefully groomed gray hair. He once described his body as “gristly, tendony,” as if it were an inferior cut of beef, and a recent devotion to Brazilian jujitsu has left his limbs and his torso laced with ropy muscles. With his Sex Pistols T-shirt and his sensualist credo, there is something of the aging rocker about him. But if you spend any time with Bourdain you realize that he is controlled to the point of neurosis: clean, organized, disciplined, courteous, systematic. He is Apollo in drag as Dionysus.”
I’m a sapiosexual, so I have a thing for brilliant people. But I’m also a little above average height, so my weakness is tall brilliant people. I had a GIGANTIC crush on the Anthony Bourdain I thought I knew, the reluctant rock star. As embarrassed as I am to admit this now, I had not seen a single episode of any of the TV he made when, almost a year ago, he died by suicide in the same week as Kate Spade.
Celebrity suicide is a strange vortex for all of us, but to be the survivor of a suicide attempt as well as the survivor of a suicide in the family seems to layer onto news stories about these deaths a pallor or fog that’s difficult to describe.
The journalist in me starts immediately worrying about myths of contagion. The suicide survivor in me immediately remembers the shock I felt learning my father had died in the same way nine years ago. The empathetic fan and inner child who tried to check out from the world at age 12 also senses a loneliness of the soul that nothing in the world can fill, that there are demons and questions that come up when you have survived a lot but not really had many people to share the full journey with.
When I told my partner I understood what happened to Bourdain, I think, that I could see possibly where his head was at, he exclaimed, “What could that guy have been unhappy about?! He got to travel the world and talk about food!” Which is not wrong. But what we see broadcasted to millions can’t be the whole story.
But this is the enduring wound of surviving suicide — there are no answers. It feels impossible to get closure. After I got over the triggering aspects of a world mourning a man who died in the same way as my father, which took longer than I would have preferred, I found myself deeply moved by just how personally everyone took the death of someone that they only knew from a kind of remove.
Last year, the guy I was dating at the time went into a deep depression as a result of Bourdain’s death. We broke up right after. He was weird in other ways, but he seemed to be a kind of representative for the public in others — “That guy got me through some really hard times,” he said. And in the CNN-produced book, Anthony Bourdain Remembered there are hundreds of such quotes and memories.
“His raw wit, frankness, and sense of adventure inspired me to stop censoring myself and start expressing myself,” wrote Rosa T.
“I always loved my country, but I think Tony was able to see a beauty that we can’t see. He was showing the beauty in things that we don’t particularly find beautiful,” writes Pierre Thiam, a chef.
As painful as it was, after inhaling this book in one sitting, I wanted to see just what everyone was responding to. Thankfully, I was able to see an episode from “Parts Unknown” where Bourdain visits Senegal — and the depth of reporting, the elegance of his writing gave me a small glimpse at what he offered. No frills insight and education from every corner of the world you could think of. Small risks in making connections with others that maybe some of us took for granted. Because, as one of his fans in the book writes, “…Typical Jersey cat…Makin’ it look easy, when it’s actually hard.”
Our necrophilic culture makes martyrs of influential people once they’re gone without truly understanding the weight of what they’ve offered us while they were here. I’ve resisted being drawn into this romanticization of Bourdain and others, but that has nothing to do with the impact Bourdain had on so many. I like to think he would have appreciated knowing that his work and the many hidden burdens or sacrifices that may have led to his final act might have been alleviated had he understood the scope of his global connection to others through following his passion where it led.
We’ll never know, of course. But we’re not alone in trying to find a comforting answer, as the book shows. For that reason, it’s as fitting an elegy as one might expect for a complex, giant of a personality.