What if you could do anything you wanted for the next two decades of your life? And what if a series of big media companies were willing to write you cheques to let you do it? Would you travel the world, visiting the places that interested you intellectually, sensually, or ideally both? Would you seek out and meet your heroes? Would you invite your friends, or people you didn’t know but admired, along? I would, and I would have got the idea from Anthony Bourdain who did all of this and much more. But then he hanged himself in a five star hotel room in France, and he left his fans like me wondering why and how someone who seemed to be living out his dreams could be so tormented and unhappy.
I am generally not a big fan of mourning celebrity deaths. It seems both absurd and narcissistic to weave the death of a stranger into one’s own life narrative, however familiar they may have seemed through their mediated work. So, I was surprised this week to be doing exactly that, feeling down about it and wondering why he took his life, as if it were something he did to me.
In the CNN tribute to Bourdain, that played last Sunday in the place of his scheduled show, Parts Unknown, the news personality Anderson Cooper says something to the effect that Bourdain’s suicide hit him hard because he saw the writer and broadcaster as a kind of role model of how to live at 61. I am 15 years younger than Bourdain and felt the same way. Look at Bourdain, I thought, over 60 and still living well, with purpose, taking life by the horns and never letting the bastards get him down. That his professional success came later in his life, in his mid-forties, made his example all the more compelling. I may be middle aged and watching every penny, but I am really only one New Yorker article away from fame, fortune and freedom, I could pleasantly reason before the news from Alsace.
There were, I guess, signs that all was not super well in Anthony Bourdain’s world. Last July I wrote, in this GFR post, about a web-only video series I found made by Bourdain and Roads & Kingdoms co-founder Matt Goulding. Sponsored by Land Rover, Return to Catalunya was web-only series that reunited him with Chef Ferran Adria. But the most interesting scenes were the ones that featured Goulding and Bourdain driving around in a Land Rover. In them, Goulding becomes the interviewer Bourdain the subject. Bourdain opens up about the strains of constant travel, as his second marriage has now ended. Still, he seems resilient, and confesses to having the best job in the world and vows never to quit.
In the last week there has been a torrent of writing about Bourdain. I have tried to read most of them, but one has stood out and given me pause to think. I believe it might offer some insight into what happened to Anthony Bourdain. As with celebrity death mourning, I usually find the kind of morbid speculation that I am about to engage in distasteful. But I also kind of can’t help myself, so I am bringing it up with the understanding that its worth exactly what you’ve paid for it.
The article is this Montreal Gazette piece by Bill Brownstein that’s really an interview with Bourdain’s friend, and sometimes televised traveling companion, Chef David McMillan, co-owner of Joe Beef with Chef Fred Morin. Here is the quote from McMillan that (for me) makes the piece:
When you’re away from home 46 weeks a year, when you spend hundreds and hundreds of hours on a plane and when you live in hotels — no matter how beautiful they may be — it can really have an impact. Sure, it all looks so glamorous when you see it as a one-hour TV show. But the one hour we did in Newfoundland took 15 days to shoot. We spent countless hours sitting in cars and planes, or just waiting in a tent in the rain. And we’re drinking every day — which is a constant state of the ingestion of depressants, and you can slowly get yourself into a depressive state.
I have the enjoyed the privilege of being invited on wine trips, and I’ll go on them once, twice, maybe three times a year. As you may deduce they involve tasting and drinking a lot of wine, and driving around wine country in vans, so I recognize the some of the routine that McMillan describes above. After three of four days of 100 wine lab tastings, winery visits and tastings, lunches, and dinners I feel it. I spent five days in Piedmont last month, and on the last day a colleague from Sweden and I met a Barbaresco winemaker for dinner. The two of us could barely lift our glasses to our lips, and had to apologize to our host for being so morose and, frankly, bad company. But 15 days of it? 46 weeks a year? At age 61? However physically fit Bourdain had become from martial arts, that must have had an impact.
Bourdain’s schedule, and his famous insistence of being a gracious guest and accepting hospitality – not least the liquid kind – must have ground him down. He was an intelligent man, and had battled drug addiction, so he must have been aware on a deep level, beyond what he confessed to Goulding in Catalonia, that days and days in a row of vigorous alcohol consumption was not good for his, nor anyone’s, mental health. And yet he soldiered on. He had the best job in the world. How could he stop? In what turned out to be the last quarter or third of his life he could do whatever he wanted to do. He had built a life around doing it – a life that many other people depended on for their livelihoods, too. He owed it, I imagine him thinking, to his former self. What would the young Anthony Bourdain that he wrote about in Kitchen Confidential, who dreamed of travel and meeting his heroes, want the older one to do? What a horrible dilemma to be spiraling downward inside while exhibiting the trappings of success and fulfillment without. And what about all the 46 year olds like me who wanted to grow up to be cool old dudes like him? How could he let us down? Whatever else haunted Anthony Bourdain, living his dream cannot have been as easy as he made it look.