Whatever your opinion of the late Anthony Bourdain, it’s hard to imagine a more chilling TV moment than one scene in the final season of his Part Unknown series in which he visits Indonesia and talks about dying.
Eating fresh-caught lobster, drinking beer and sitting on a beach with an old friend, Bourdain asks: “I’ve thought about—as one does—how I wanna go. How do you want to go?”
This moment in his award-winning, food-and-travel series was shot in the spring of 2018, prior to Bourdain’s death by suicide in June. The episode aired on CNN on October 7. In it, we’re watching a celebrity talk about the end of his life…months before he makes it happen.
Discussing Balinese funerals for the cameras, it’s pointed out by Bourdain’s friend, Lawrence, that the end of your life in Bali is supposed to be more of an occasion of joy rather than mourning.
“Because they really believe in an afterlife,” explains Lawrence, a gray-haired, eye-patch-wearing expatriate. “They really believe that you will be coming back and that you will be joining your ancestors in the meantime. Maybe it’s wrong, but it’s wonderful to be able to believe that.”
That’s what prompts Bourdain’s question about dying. Lawrence responds that he’d be comfortable with cremation—as is the tradition in Bali. And some sort of celebration afterward would be just fine.
Then it’s Bourdain’s turn to talk about his demise.
“Leave me in the jungle,” he replies. “I don’t want a party…reported dead.”
He goes on: “What actually happens to my physical remains is of zero interest to me. Unless it could provide entertainment value. Throw me into a wood chipper and spray me into Harrods at the middle of the rush hour. That would be pretty epic. I wouldn’t mind being remembered in that way.”
As Bourdain’s final season of new episodes flickers for the last few times, here are some eternal facts—and speculation—about the man, personal reflections on what he brought to the table (sometimes literally), and a glance in the direction of those who seek answers to the pesky little question about the meaning of life.
The 61-year-old Bourdain was found dead on June 8 in his hotel room in a small village in the Alsace region of France. Police ruled his death a suicide by hanging.
He’d been shooting an episode of Parts Unknown with longtime friend and chef Eric Ripert. When Bourdain missed dinner and then breakfast the next morning, Ripert alerted hotel authorities, who went into the room and found his body.
For the record, Bourdain was not left out in the jungle, nor were his remains sprayed throughout a British department store. He was cremated in France and his ashes were delivered to his brother and family, who held a small private service.
Most people are aware of Bourdain’s career, his high-profile death and/or his relationship with one of the founders of the #MeToo movement. (Anecdotally, it appears that a large percentage of people know who he was but have not watched Parts Unknown. That ought to be remedied.)
He was a chef at several high-profile New York restaurants before he wrote Kitchen Confidential, a best-selling, behind-the-scenes look at professional kitchens. He hosted food-and-travel shows on the Food Network and the Travel Channel before moving to CNN to do Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.
Bourdain’s unvarnished and uncompromising style has been compared to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (who also took his own life). Bourdain’s show took him all over the world and it offered viewers amazing photojournalism as well as in-depth, real and soul-searching conversations with locals.
A 2016 episode of Parts Unknown featured Bourdain dining with former U.S. President Barack Obama in Vietnam.
Bourdain was separated from but never divorced his second wife, Ottavia Busia, with whom he had a daughter. The couple separated in 2016, and the following year Bourdain began dating Italian actress/director Asia Argenta.
Argenta had become a leader of the #MeToo women’s movement after revealing allegations that movie producer Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted her in the 1990s. Bourdain often posted on social media about his pride and admiration for her.
After Argenta delivered a rousing speech against Weinstein and sexual assault earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, she faced accusations that she’d had sex with an underage boy in 2013. She has denied charges of sexual assault. It was reported that when the accuser, Jimmy Bennett, made a request for money to keep the story quiet Bourdain began paying him to avoid negative publicity.
The mind of Anthony Bourdain
He was widely admired for his friendly willingness to chat any time and anywhere with fans. And he was a rock star in his genre—it’s hard to name a better, more prestigious storyteller in in the travel sphere.
Why would someone who seemingly had so much pull the plug on life so abruptly and without apparent reason?
Social media trolls have inappropriately speculated that Argenta bears some fault for Bourdain’s suicide. The pair were a couple, but in an open relationship. Both reportedly saw other people. However, Bourdain would have been the first person to tell you not to believe everything you read on Twitter.
Incidentally, who’s to say that earlier trolling of his life and his girlfriend’s complicated public issues didn’t in and of itself help lead Bourdain to a fresh trove of negative thoughts that put a plan for suicide into action?
Nobody but Anthony Bourdain knows exactly what went through his mind in the minutes, hours or days that led up to him taking his life. He was a complicated individual who years ago, in a printed conversation with rock-and-roller Iggy Pop confessed to having “a real problem being content.”
Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise to go back to that piece in GQ and re-read about Pop and Bourdain discussing how the end might come. In the article, Pop says he doesn’t want to live to be too old.
Bourdain chimes in: “I’m hoping for a mob-style execution…You don’t want to be hit by, like, an ice cream truck. Then caught up in the wheel well and dragged down the street with the ice cream truck playing happy music.”
Lonely may the traveler be
Globe-trotting is glamorous on its surface, and it appears that wherever Bourdain went he made friends quickly and easily. But having conversations with strangers won’t necessarily drown out the voices inside your head.
Personal disclosure: I’ve been a travel writer for two decades and have respectfully enjoyed the privilege of getting to see much of the world. Unlike Bourdain, I was never on the road 265 days out of the year, and nothing along the path caused me to have suicidal thoughts. However, once in Las Vegas I freaked out over a personal relationship and rushed to the airport to catch the earliest flight home. Another time, in beautiful and romantic Bora Bora it became painfully obvious that being there alone (though on assignment) was a subtle torture.
Contemplating Bourdain’s final-exit strategy compelled me to reach out to Casey Lyons. I recently met the lead bartender at Kimpton Shorebreak Hunting Beach Resort while working on a travel story, and wrote about his touching recollection of his ex-fiancé’s suicide.
Lyons, who is a pop culture junkie and a bit of a bad-ass sage in the same vein as Bourdain, says news of the celebrity suicide re-opened his own mental wound.
“I’ve found comfort…in the reality of my life,” he says. “I guess the nagging question that I don’t know how to put into the perfect words is: Why do the coolest people knock themselves off our silly planet? Honestly is there something I don’t know? Is there a killer party on Mars that I don’t know about? Suicide is a disease that cures itself. But it tortures everyone who survives it.”
Lyons says Parts Unknown was often playing in the background on his television set at home while he worked on cocktail recipes and helped created the drink menu at the Kimpton Shorebreak.
“Bourdain is an icon,” Lyons says. “He had that voice that offered bittersweet common sense. I’ll continue to speak of him in the present tense because he is still so prevalent. I’ll re-watch his shows for years and try to make others understand what he did for all of us.”
Indeed. The final season of Parts Unknown is winding down. On October 28, a new, special episode that focuses on how Bourdain interacted with his crew will air on CNN. Skipping over the mid-term election weekend, the last new show will air November 11. It will cover the Lower East Side of New York City and includes Deborah Harry, as well as other bohemian cultural forces from the 1970s and ’80s.
Reruns of the final season are currently airing on CNN, and can be rented on Amazon Prime. Several earlier seasons of Parts Unknown are presently available on Netflix.
For old and new fans, a feature-length documentary by CNN about Bourdain’s life is in the works and is scheduled to hit movie theaters in 2019.
It’s all must-see viewing. Not everyone is lucky enough to see the world. Being able to travel is a gift, and it educates us about other cultures as well as teaches us something about ourselves. In that sense, Bourdain was a professor of world education.
His final lesson was ill-advised, not to be repeated and won’t be on the test. But the enlightenment he left behind in the form of a TV travelogue can be described the same way you’d describe him: honest, well-intentioned, straight-forward, and somewhat mysterious.
Physicist Albert Einstein, who is recognized as one of the smartest people who ever lived, once said: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Not incidentally, Bourdain, who added tattoos to his body as travel mementos, included one inked musing that was the Greek iteration of the phrase: “I am certain of nothing.”
In the closing shot for the Parts Unknown Indonesia episode, a setting sun sends off its last flares above a Balinese beach as Bourdain’s voice-over intones: “All stories should end on a beach.” Then the camera lingers on the same patch of sand for an unusually long period of time.
I’ve DVD-ed the episode; watched it several times. It’s a beautiful, white-sand beach. And like all beaches, its waves wash in, and then over and over and over—inexplicably and seemingly eternally—the waves trickle back out. J&J