What Really Killed Anthony Bourdain?

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anthony bourdain
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Anthony Bourdain spent his life looking for something. When he ended that life, not having found it, I was left looking for it, too.

I watched the recent documentary Roadrunner last night hoping for clues as to what it might have been, and to answer other questions: What was “Tony” really like? What led to his horrific, final choice? How could a personal hero have done this not only to his fans, or even himself but to a daughter he clearly loved?

The film, made by Bourdain’s longtime collaborator Morgan Neville, doesn’t offer easy answers. It sheds light, though, on the man The New York Times called a “chef, sensualist, addict, world traveler,” and, above all, “writer.”

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It’s a stretch to say I enjoyed the film, but I did find it satisfying. Like a good wake, it’s a chance to celebrate his life, spend time in the company of his memory, and share in the sadness of his tragic loss. It left me feeling shallow for my prurient focus on something to blame for his death — or more properly, on someone to blame for it other than the man himself.

That road leads to his paramour Asia Argento, whose very public infidelity broke Bourdain’s heart in the days leading up to his death. As neatly as blaming Argento ties up the story in favor of our romantic hero, the film shows it to be unfair. It’s hardly her fault she wasn’t what he’d been searching for. If anything it’s all the more his fault, for believing she was.

That realization was my low point in the film, my only moment of anger. C’mon, Tony. A man in his sixties, falling like a schoolboy for some hot Italian actress, believing she’d finally complete him, rather than just accompany him for some part of the journey?

Yet that’s what I loved about him.

Sensitivity was his storytelling superpower; the deep, romantic well beneath his craggy, leather-clad exterior that made him someone I could relate to, even someone I could love.

There’s a moment in the film where he’s asked how he kicked heroin cold turkey. “I looked in the mirror and saw someone worth saving,” he says, recalling a young man at the start of his adventure.

Maybe that night in France, angry, hurt, isolated by the bubble of his own celebrity, and guilty over his perceived failings as a father, he no longer did. Bourdain was a lonely searcher, his entire life. What does a man like that do when he tires not only of the search but of his own company in the searching?

We’ll never know what happened that night, of course… if it was a choice he’d foreshadowed for years in his cynical reflections on death, or if suicide was, as it so often is, the permanent solution to a temporary problem. The film helped me set those thoughts aside, though, to focus on something worth taking from the search itself.

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Anthony Bourdain was a kid from New Jersey trying to fill whatever hole he’d been born with, first with the escape of drugs, then with the structure of honest work. He stumbled on the pleasures of writing, gave himself to the rich involvement of travel, and found a way to share his personal experience that first connected him to, and then cruelly separated him from, his many fans around the world.

He tried the embrace of family life, tested himself in Jiu-Jitsu, and leaped at the rush of romantic love later than most ever dare. He had the courage to tell the truth of his failed attempts at completion, and the talent to make us see our own humanity in them.

We loved him if not for who he was, then certainly for what he made.

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For me, the closest he got to an answer is in a conversation with his boyhood idol, Iggy Pop, where he asks the septuagenarian Godfather of Punk, “What thrills you now?”

“Being loved,” Pop responded, “and actually appreciating the people who are giving that to me.” Bourdain’s reaction to that response is shown in the documentary, in all its heartbreaking realization. In the original episode, as edited with Bourdain’s approval, the reaction shot is omitted, replaced with sad piano music over contemplative beach scenes.

Bourdain’s brother weighs in toward the end, sharing the text from a note left at the spontaneous memorial created by Tony’s fans in front of the Les Halles restaurant in New York. It’s a quote from a poem called Falling and Flying, by Jack Gilbert.

“Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew… I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph.”

That’s the way I’d like to remember Anthony Bourdain: A man whose triumph came to a sad end, no less triumphant for the fall.

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Mike Troiano is a venture capitalist and writer. He has been featured in Medium, Anchor.FM, Diabetes Magazine, and more. Follow him on Twitter.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.