Books

Author responds to family’s unrest over controversial new Anthony Bourdain book

Author Charles Leerhsen has responded to criticism from the family of celebrated chef, writer and world traveler Anthony Bourdain condemning his unauthorized biography of the "No Reservations" star that includes some of the last text messages Bourdain sent before dying by suicide in 2018.

"I set out to write a full biography, from birth to death, of Tony Bourdain and along the way I obtained texts and emails," Leerhsen told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday. "I used these like biographers of a previous era used personal letters. I didn't steal them; they were given to me by a source or sources, the way letters have been given to biographers. I did not have to show my manuscript to anyone in return, hence it is unauthorized even though I received cooperation."

Bourdain, who died at 61 on location in France while filming his CNN travel and food show "Parts Unknown," reportedly texted estranged wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, to whom "he still confided his most intimate thoughts," that he hated his life and his fame, according to an advance copy of "Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain" reviewed by the L.A. Times.

And on the night he died, he got into a heated text exchange with actor Asia Argento, with whom he had a volatile two-year relationship, and apparently called it quits, the book says. He asked, "Is there anything I can do?" She told him to "[s]top busting my balls" and he responded with "OK" before he hanged himself.

The biography also delves into Bourdain's "never-before-reported childhood traumas" that "fueled both his creativity and the insecurities that would lead him to a place of despair." It's the latest project focused on the renegade chef, who was also the subject of the 2021 Morgan Neville documentary "Roadrunner."

Even before its publication, the "Butch Cassidy" author and journalist's new book had already upset Bourdain's family, former co-workers and closest friends, and, at times, casts the TV star — who was best known for his savage honesty and wit — as a beaten, lovesick puppy making off-brand decisions because of Argento.

"It was an especially horrible thing for Tony to learn about himself, that he had lost his integrity in pursuit of a woman who seemed to spend her life performing for the paparazzi and clowning on Instagram, but perhaps there was some consolation and peace in finally seeing things for what they were," the author wrote in the book.

Bourdain's brother, Christopher, called the book "hurtful and defamatory fiction" and refuted the allegations made in it, according to the New York Times. He also said that two emails were sent to the publisher to correct errors.

"Every single thing he writes about relationships and interactions within our family as kids and as adults he fabricated or got totally wrong," Christopher told the newspaper.

But publisher Simon & Schuster stood by Leerhsen's book, which will be released Oct. 11, by saying: "With all due respect, we disagree that the material in the book contains defamatory information, and we stand by our forthcoming publication."

In an email to the Los Angeles Times, Leerhsen said Thursday that Christopher's "objections are at once vague and sweeping."

"He says I got everything wrong about everything. When pressed to get specific he often begins arguing for my side," the author said, noting that the brothers had been estranged and that Bourdain grew to dislike Christopher "intensely, partly because Chris campaigned to replace Tony on TV, when Tony contemplated retirement."

Leerhsen also alleged that Christopher "teased the idea" of writing a book for Simon & Schuster "that would be better than mine."

"Other family and friends who've seen advance copies have confirmed that my take on the Bourdain family dynamic is accurate. [Chef] Eric Ripert [who was with Bourdain just before he died] also said he saw mistakes but offered no specifics and in fact marveled at some of the information I got," Leerhsen added.

Meanwhile, the text messages about Bourdain's fans and fame were cribbed from a text exchange Bourdain had with his estranged wife about Argento, who had apparently been upset over a Father's Day post Ottavia shared of Bourdain and their daughter, Ariane, on Instagram. The chef condemned the paparazzi and the focus on their tumultuous relationship, comparing it to "Brangelina."

"And I hate my fans, too. I hate being famous. I hate my job. I am lonely and living in constant uncertainty. And I'm sorry," Bourdain wrote, according to the book.

The alleged texts also discussed his anguish over Argento's threats to pull out of an episode he had set in Puglia, Italy, three days before they were set to shoot it. From there, the book goes into his and Argento's history, particularly how he backed her when she accused disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein of raping her and, months later, was herself accused of sexual assault by actor Jimmy Bennett in 2013.

"She just constantly asked him to do things for her, to fix her issues, help her with her 'activist career,'" Ottavia said. "And she wasn't even nice about it. She would tell him her life would be over if all of her issues weren't taken care of immediately and he of course would be terrified."

Leerhsen told the New York Times that the biography was based on more than 80 interviews and documents, texts and email exchanges sourced from Bourdain's phone and laptop. He did not confirm whether Ottavia was interviewed for the book, but she is quoted in it, and that his estate, which she controls, "has not objected" to it. (The estate includes files and messages pulled from Bourdain's phone and laptop.) He also said Bourdain's first wife, Nancy Putkoski, was a helpful source.

The book contends that Bourdain paid Argento's legal fees and hired a private investigator to blackmail Bennett "for the sake of a woman who respected him less for each effort he made on her behalf," Leerhsen wrote.

The author told the New York Times that he had exchanged a few emails with Argento, who responded with the Oscar Wilde quote: "It is always Judas who writes the biography."

Argento, 47, told the newspaper that she had not read the book, adding: "I wrote clearly to this man that he could not publish anything I said to him."

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©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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This story was originally published September 29, 2022 3:03 PM.

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