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A new biography about the late chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain has been causing controversy. Photo: HBO GO

‘Hurtful and defamatory’: why Anthony Bourdain biography Down and Out in Paradise is making waves with those who knew him best

  • Down and Out in Paradise by Charles Leerhsen relies on many confidential sources, and quotes people who would not confirm they spoke to him on the record
  • Leerhsen goes into if messages from Bourdain’s girlfriend triggered the chef’s suicide, and examines his drug use from childhood to throughout his career

A new biography about the late chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain, who took his own life while filming CNN’s travel and food show Parts Unknown in 2018, was raising hackles well in advance of its October 11 publication date among those who knew Bourdain best.

Bourdain’s brother, Christopher, has called the book “hurtful and defamatory fiction”. However, author Charles Leerhsen has since said that other Bourdain family and friends with advance copies “have confirmed that my take on the Bourdain family dynamic is accurate”.

But first, a word of warning: Leerhsen relies on many confidential sources, and quotes some people, including Bourdain’s girlfriend, Asia Argento, and separated wife, Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, who would not confirm they spoke to him on the record. It also seeks concrete explanations for suicide.

Here is why Down and Out in Paradise is making waves.

The cover of Charles Leerhsen’s book.

1. Blame for Bourdain’s suicide

Leerhsen suggests that messages from Argento, Bourdain’s girlfriend at the time of his death, triggered his decision to kill himself.

Other people are also brought into the blame game. Leerhsen writes that the qualities that Bourdain’s former boss, the late owner of New York restaurant Formerly Joe’s, Andy Menschel, “brought out in [him] … I believe, figured very strongly in his final decision in that hotel room”.

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2. Texts with Argento

Argento declined to speak on the record with Leerhsen, but that did not keep the author from quoting her. His book shares an excerpt from an email she sent him in which she cited poet Oscar Wilde – “It is always Judas who writes the biography”.

She is listed in the acknowledgements as one of the people Leerhsen spoke with “and did not mind being named”, though the actress told The New York Times that she “wrote clearly to this man that he could not publish anything I said to him”.

A still from Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. Photo: HBO GO

Leerhsen also includes private text messages and emails exchanged between her and Bourdain from a “confidential source”.

According to Leerhsen, Argento asked Bourdain in 2016 for “a good reason not to do Charlie [her nickname for cocaine]”, not long after they met for the first time in May of that year on the Parts Unknown set. Bourdain allegedly responded, “Because you will feel really horrible and neurotic … also because I love you and it makes me frantic with worry and concern when you harm yourself or are unhappy”.

On June 8, 2018, the day of Bourdain’s suicide, images of Argento and French journalist Hugo Clément in the lobby of Rome’s Hotel de Russie surfaced online.

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Bourdain wrote: “I am OK. I am not spiteful. I am not jealous that you have been with another man. I do not own you. You are free … but you were careless. You were reckless with my heart … I meant and mean everything I have ever said to you. But I hope you will have mercy on me for these feelings.”

Argento replied: “I can’t take this.”

Later that day, Bourdain asked: “Is there anything I can do?” Argento replied, “Stop busting my balls.” “OK,” Bourdain responded. According to Leerhsen, Argento continued texting about wanting to break up, apparently unaware Bourdain had already hanged himself.

Seemingly reacting to the biography, Argento recently posted a picture to Instagram. The photo showed Argento wearing a T-shirt that featured former professional bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman with the phrase “Stop busting my balls” written over it.
Asia Argento and Bourdain at the 2017 Creative Arts Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Getty Images

3. Bourdain’s support for Argento during #MeToo scandal

Bourdain allegedly offered to pay for Argento’s personal trainer, “told her to hire a nanny and that he would take care of all childcare expenses”. The book claims he also tried to find her a ghostwriter to support her “activist career” following her sexual assault accusations against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein during the peak of the #MeToo movement.

In November 2017, Argento learned she was being sued by US actor Jimmy Bennett, who claimed the Italian actress sexually assaulted him when he was underage. According to a confidential source cited in the book, Bourdain later paid her legal fees, hired a private investigator “to blackmail [Bennett] or sully his reputation” and gave Bennett US$380,000 “in exchange for his promise not to pursue further legal action”.

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4. Bourdain allegedly pressured a colleague to speak against Mario Batali

Leerhsen claims Bourdain pressured his assistant, who had once worked for Mario Batali, an old friend and television guest of Bourdain’s, to share her own stories about the Batali. This was in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment and abuse that were made against Batali.

When she declined to speak about Batali, Bourdain allegedly texted, “No comment ain’t gonna work. You will need something ready, specifically saying if you saw anything untoward. We have seen this with Weinstein and the people who worked with him. If you are fast and firm and decisive you will be fine.”

Bourdain leaked information about Batali to the media, the biography also claims.

Bourdain and Ottavia Busia-Bourdain in 2009 in New York. Photo: Getty Images

5. Private conversations with separated wife

Leerhsen also shared Ottavia Busia-Bourdain quotes “from a confidential source”. These include an exchange in advance of the birth of their daughter, Ariane. When she became pregnant before they married, Busia-Bourdain allegedly asked if Bourdain wanted to discuss a “plan B”.

When allegations against Weinstein surfaced, Leerhsen writes, Busia-Bourdain told a friend Bourdain “seemed paranoid all the time” and started seeing a therapist in 2018. “He was afraid he would have drunk himself to death otherwise,” she allegedly told the friend.

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Busia-Bourdain is also quoted about Bourdain’s alleged steroid use. When Bourdain was photographed looking particularly muscular, rumours swirled that he was using steroids. Busia-Bourdain allegedly told a friend that Bourdain asked her to deny the rumours under a false name.

“If someone said anything negative about him … it was the end of the world,” Busia-Bourdain told the friend. Leerhsen claims the rumours were true and Bourdain did use steroids.

Busia-Bourdain is not listed in the book’s acknowledgements among the 103 people who spoke with Leerhsen on the record. But Bourdain’s estate, which she controls, “has not objected” to the biography, according to The New York Times. The estate includes files and messages pulled from Bourdain’s phone and laptop.

An image of Bourdain projected on a screen as part of a tribute during the 70th Emmy Awards in 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Getty Images

6. Bourdain’s relationship with prostitutes

Again based on “confidential sources”, Leerhsen reports that Bourdain continued to solicit prostitutes up to the time of his death, and that the last website he visited before committing suicide, “after a few more Asia Argento googles, was a prostitution service”.

7. Bourdain’s continuous drug use

Leerhsen details Bourdain’s drug use from childhood to throughout his professional career, including just weeks before his death, when he allegedly ingested the hallucinogenic peyote plant between takes of Parts Unknown and discussed his interest in an acid trip.

Bourdain had written extensively of his heroin and cocaine usage earlier in his career as a chef, but he allegedly continued to drink, sometimes heavily.

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8. Bourdain’s tension with his daughter

By the time Bourdain’s daughter, Ariane, was nine, he was increasingly absent. When he did come home, a source claims he would go to great lengths to act like he was not in his wife’s company. According to Leerhsen, Argento bristled at him seeing Busia-Bourdain, despite their open relationship.

Busia-Bourdain allegedly told a friend that Bourdain would ask her to have dinner ready when he came home since he did not have much time to be with his family. Later, he would post Instagram stories of himself alone at a bar, “for Asia’s sake”.

“But the problem was that Ariane had Instagram. She was seeing it, too,” Busia-Bourdain said to a friend. “And it confused her and broke her heart.”

If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page