A couple of Augusts ago, I wrote a column on who the people are that I’ve envied and how they have shifted over time. From my youthful fascination with Mickey Mantle, which led to a lifetime passion for all things Yankees, to my envy of Mark Twain posthumously once I fell in love with the printed word some years later, to the globe trots of Charles Kuralt and his “On the Road” CBS segments in my middle-aged years and on to more recent times with Anthony Bourdain, who took me along with him to faraway places and cultures to tell his stories.
Well, on the eighth day of last month, just one day after my 67th birthday, my bromance came to an abrupt halt. The grimmest of life’s realities intervened when Bourdain, a half dozen years younger than I, took his own life and became just the latest of a list of self-terminating celebrities that have included actors Peter Duel and Freddy Prinze and, more recently, Robin Williams and famous designer Kate Spade, who along with Bourdain, seemed to have so much for which to live.
In life, Bourdain’s personal demons manifested themselves often enough for him to have earned his bad-boy image. He transitioned from chef to accomplished author to television personality in shows centering on both cuisine and travel as he reported on how all those cultures that comprise “the other half” were living in his shows that aired on Food Network, Travel Channel and CNN.
And, for me, I suppose the unfettered and unapologetic way in which he lived his life was part of my fascination. He was my modern-day Kuralt with a penchant for bad behavior that the reserved “On the Road” host surely didn’t represent when he sought his adventures from the late 1960s to the late 1980s.
For most of us, there are governors that regulate our own excesses. And, while we know that all those verboten vices are dangerous, there’s a certain vicarious satisfaction from knowing there are others like Bourdain who live lives refusing to acknowledge many limitations.
Of all his TV work, it was his last and most enduring series, “Parts Unknown,” that I found most compelling because viewers traveling with Bourdain gained such insight into faraway cultures. The show allowed him to do what I want to do for you each week, which is to tell you a good story. And, in the television genre, for my money, few told a better story than Bourdain.
Some of those stories came from locations so remote that I often wondered why he would have accepted the challenge, but he did so with so much self-assuredness that made me believe that there was nothing he wouldn’t try. He demonstrated an appetite for food and libation while at the same time sating his appetite for getting to know more about lives so very different from any he’d known growing up in New Jersey. To me, his overriding passion was to understand what it truly meant to walk in another man’s shoes or sandals.
While I did have certain envy for Bourdain’s life, frankly, I didn’t want to take his place in some episodes, such as the one when he ate roasted sheep’s testicles in Morocco or another when he ate the just-harvested and still-pulsating heart of a cobra in Vietnam.
But, in the end, as it was with Williams and Spade, Bourdain — who seemed to have an envied life of experiential and monetary wealth, who seemed to have so much for which to live — committed the ultimate inexplicable act.
In suicide cases involving celebrities who seem to have so much, I’m always reminded of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Richard Cory,” in which the poet who bridged the 19th and 20th centuries wrote of an apparently perfect life of Cory:
“And he was rich — yes richer than a king —
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.”
However, the fourth and final stanza ends classically juxtapostional:
“And, Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.”
So it was with Bourdain on his final calm summer night in the Le Chambard Hotel in Kayserberg, France, with the only difference being his having used a different method of mortal exit, hanging himself. And by doing so, the man who demystified so much with his forays into different sectors and cultures of the globe, the man envied by this travel lover and so many others, became yet another Richard Cory and left only his own muted mysteries behind.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.