No one really knew Anthony Bourdain. And it’s good
Biographies, it is well known, are not entirely reliable as far as truth is concerned. This has been so since the time the art of biography began to be recognized as a distinct branch of literature: James Boswell was accused of manipulating quotations to suit his point of view in The life of Samuel Johnson (1791), while Elizabeth Gaskell was pilloried for trying to eliminate all evidence of her subject’s “immorality” – such as her love for a married man – in The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857). The problem of “truth” – however the word is interpreted – seems to plague all sorts of biographies even today and it could be the same with Bourdain in Stories, the Biography by the late Anthony Bourdain.
Laurie Woolever, however, sought to evade this problem specific to the genre. For, instead of attempting the encyclopedic approach of most biographers, Woolever presented the charismatic chef, writer and television personality through 91 different people – his mother and brother, his ex-wives and girlfriends, his daughter, former cooking and television colleagues, other celebrity chefs. /TV personalities, journalists, employees, friends, editors and agents.
What emerges is not so much a portrait as a puzzle. who was really Tony Bourdain — a writer with burning ambition, a victim of near-crushing impostor syndrome, a celebrity made deeply uncomfortable by his notoriety, a heroin addict and a crack addict, a hedonist, a mentor, a mediocre leader, a child too big? This complexity isn’t a bad thing at all, because what Woolever ends up revealing is the lie at the heart of any endeavor like this: that we can never really get to know someone. In Bourdain’s case, maybe more. As a colleague of Bourdain’s time in the kitchens of New York says: “Tony was always playing with his appearance vis-à-vis other people; he was very aware of it.
It’s a particularly good approach to take when writing about Bourdain, someone many viewers thought they knew well, not just because they’d seen him eat and talk around the world on critically acclaimed shows like No Reservations (2005) and Parts Unknown (2013). TV’s Anthony Bourdain was a carefully crafted character, designed for viewers to think of him as “Tony”, a sleazy, wise but wise figure who, it was suspected, would be as interested in their lives as he was in the lives of everyone he met on his shows. His death by suicide in 2018 was mourned around the world, even as fans wondered why someone so famous, respected and even loved took their own life. The cracks finally showed in the picture.
Woolever, of course, offers no solution to this particular mystery. Instead, she deals with complicating Bourdain’s cleverly marketed public persona, to whose appeal certain carefully selected dark episodes – like his long phase of “bad behavior” detailed in Kitchen Confidential (2000) – were essential. . Despite being his longtime assistant and confidante, Woolever does not insert his own version of Tony into the book. A sensible choice, perhaps, given the wealth of voices the book already contains, as well as the fact that Woolever ends up crafting the narrative, deciding who to interview and which voice to exclude. Filmmaker Asia Argento, who was his girlfriend at the time of his death and who had a sexual assault allegation against her, is a notable exclusion, though other interviewees talk about the volatile and troubled relationship between her and Bourdain. and discuss the impact this has had on his bond with those around him.
In fact, Woolever’s decision to let his interviewees talk about Bourdain as they saw him made for a captivating and moving read. Everyone has stories (most of which don’t sand the edges) about the man they celebrate, whether it’s about the era (pre-world fame) he almost worked for Robert De Niro’s movie company in a movie about a corrupt cop or when he practically kidnapped his second wife (then girlfriend) Ottavia Busia-Bourdain’s cat to spend more time with him. But what the book actually turns out to be is a memorial or wake that everyone who knew him – including his readers and fans – wished he could join.