I was on a train lumbering east when I heard the news that Anthony Bourdain was dead. The sun was peeking through the glass windows of the boxcar and as we bumped along my hangover from red wine and arguing with a train kid from Oregon all night was making the whole trip a bit fuzzy now. We had snuck a joint somewhere outside Cleaveland and later been yelled at by the train car attendant as we spat obscenities at each other over more red wine in the observation deck. In many ways, it was the sort of night that was championed weekly on Mr. Bourdain’s travelogue show. Rugged, unapologetic, twisted. A night of ambling adventure at the end of a merlot bottle.
I was recovering then as my Twitter erupted into a sea of messages. I switched over to CNN and the anchor was crying the sort of tears we have come to expect. There, in black and white, was Anthony Bourdain’s picture and a suicide hotline number to dial. Bourdain had hung himself with a bathrobe belt in the Le Chambard Hotel. Only a week earlier, Kate Spade made a similar exit when the fashion magnate hung herself inside her NYC apartment. The media moved quickly to immortalize both for their contributions to art, culture, and humanity. The nation and the world mourned. There were many questions but few answers. All we knew for sure was what we could remember: the smiling mouth at the end of a long face that Bourdain wore on television nightly.
Why had he done it? His mother was baffled and some wondered if the star-studded chef had succumbed to a bout of depression. His girlfriend, the famous Italian actress Asia Argento, had been spotted only days before, holding hands with Hugo Clement, a strapping young journalist in Rome. Weeks later it would be revealed that Bourdain had a “crazy love for Argento” that made friends worried. Those same friends told People that “He would have done anything for her, and that was a little red flag.“
In life, Bourdain was lauded for his charisma and sharp spirit. The former executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan, Bourdain became an international celebrity with his CNN show “Parts Unknown.” In the comfort of their own homes, Americans got to see interesting countries and exotic food as Bourdain bopped across the globe on the wildly successful travelogue food show. He was great at it. Romantic, engaging, and fun, Bourdain gave us all that feeling that we too, one day, might see such places and taste such foods. Recently, Bourdain had embraced a shining activist role in the #MeToo movement that included steadfast support for his girlfriend Asia Argento.
Bourdain, to me and many others, was the sort of man you wanted to be. He was an enchanting, no bullshit figure on the mostly milquetoast television screen but it was Bourdain’s off the screen activism that had plateaued his image as a defender of women and justice. I don’t think the anchors were crying that day because they couldn’t watch Bourdain motorbike through Thailand eating Goong Ten. They were crying because Bourdain had come to represent their particular envisionment of the modern man. An untypical blend of action and intellect. That is the way Anthony Bourdain will be forever remembered.
When news broke this week that Mr. Bourdain had paid a stunning $380,000 to his girlfriend’s alleged 17-year-old boy lover Jimmy Bennet, the media had little to say. Outside of TMZ’s initial bombshell report and a few other intellectual dark web outlets, the press coverage has been scant and hushed. Most have chosen to simply overlook Mr. Bourdain’s nearly $400,000 pay off to an underage boy and instead focused on Argento’s denial of sexual assault on the teenager Bennett.
More disturbing is this footnote: Jimmy Bennett knew Asia Argento from long before their scantily clad photos in a California Hotel bed were spread across the internet last week. Bennett, in fact, played Argento’s son in a 2004 movie. If Argento was a man, she would likely be attacked in the media as a groomer. Instead, she’s given lip service by the major media outlets who have refused to lift the critical finger in analysis towards a woman who has become the living, breathing embodiment of justice for the sexually abused.
Pictures from the TMZ piece would suggest that their affair was consensual but that does not change the fact that one of the leading figures in the #MeToo movement allegedly had sexual intercourse with an underage boy. In California, where the age of consent is 18, that’s a felony. In the cultural climate crafted by many Hollywood #metoo activists, it’s career suicide. Drew Dixon, a music industry executive who accused Russell Simmons of rape last year, was blunt in her criticism of Argento when she told Buzzfeed:
I would never want a woman who met my son when he was 7 to end up naked in a bed with him 10 years later in a selfie. Period. I don’t care. Nobody asked you to give a speech at Cannes on behalf of the #MeToo movement. Knowing your history, why would you take this on in a way that exposes all of us?
It’s a pity that Bourdain isn’t here to defend himself against the payment accusations from Argento. It is Argento, after all, who was allegedly sleeping with an underage boy while in the midst of accusing shamed producer Harvey Weinstein of rape. How are we to trust the moral judgments of such an ethically ambiguous person? With mounting text and photo evidence, it is clearly Argento’s claims that should be scrutinized but which have been quietly swept under the rug by major media.
Mr. Bourdain was a man capable of making our lives a bit sweeter and more exciting every time we watched. To imagine him, or anyone, at such an emotional low as to commit suicide is terrifying and problematic to consider. He wasn’t perfect but that’s also why we enjoyed his show so much. He spoke to the addict inside all of us. The revelations about Argento, the 17-year-old boy and Bourdain’s alleged payments are still up for debate but they cast a shadow on the chef’s legacy that cannot be ignored.
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