Boy, did I get off on the wrong foot in the autumn of 2019 when I started researching my biography of Anthony Bourdain.
One of my first calls was to the ritzy little Le Chambard hotel, in Kaysersberg, France, where I asked to book the top-of-the-line Manon suite and said that I was flexible: any night in November would do.
“We can accommodate you,” said the female clerk, without hesitation, “but exactly where in the hotel I cannot promise.”
I didn’t understand. “Really? Is the Manon Suite occupied for the entire month?”
“As I said … ”
“Yes, but … ”
“Monsieur, may I ask why you request this particular room?”
“Yes,” I said with my trademark combination of pride and naïveté, “because I am working on a book about Anthony Bourdain!”
“I will get back to you.”
A day later I received an e-mail advising that I was not welcome anywhere in the hotel, ever.
Some will say I should have known. It was, after all, from a doorknob in the bathroom of Le Chambard’s Manon Suite that the 61-year-old Bourdain, the man with the best job in the world, hanged himself, on June 8, 2018.
But in the torrent of initial news reports, several members of the staff had been quoted in the press or interviewed on TV about the tall American who’d been there working on his CNN show, Parts Unknown, when the tragedy occurred, and I thought that meant the hotel didn’t mind being associated with such a glamorous celebrity, no matter what the circumstances.
In fact, I later learned that the innkeeper had flipped out upon seeing the coverage and ordered his employees to shut the hell up. I understood his position—no luxury hotelier wants copycats or death tourists casting a pall over his property. Yet I also knew that I absolutely had to sleep in that room.
If you’ve ever written a biography, you probably understand why. The stars of the genre all seem to agree that as much as they need the archives, the libraries, the telephone, and, nowadays, the Zoom link, their books always turn out better when they wear out some shoe leather along the way.
“The serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past,” says Richard Holmes, who walked in the footprints of Shelley and Coleridge while researching their esteemed lives. The Pulitzer Prize–winning David Maraniss moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to write his monumental bio of Packers coach Vince Lombardi. “My first rule,” he says, is always “Go there. Wherever there is”—apparently even if it means becoming a cheesehead. I myself traveled to Argentina and Bolivia as well as several Western states and the Brooklyn docks in search of Butch Cassidy.
Exactly how imbibing the same air, and catching the same sunlight, as your subject helps can be hard to quantify. What it does, though, is set the author above the buffs and the hacks and leave an ineffable residue of expertise that lubricates the unspooling of his narrative.
Bourdain, of course, was the man of a thousand places; I’d have tough decisions to make in the months ahead about the locations of his most fruitful “theres.” But if Tony’s ghost resided anywhere on earth, I firmly believed it was in that Alsatian hotel room where the beleaguered and besotted travel-show host had given it up.
Circumventing my lifetime ban took a bit of doing. My wife, Sarah, whose French is much better than mine, had already planned to accompany me on the trip, and so, after waiting a few days, she booked a night at Le Chambard in late November using a credit card that bore her maiden name. She asked for a suite, and they promised to give her one, but again wouldn’t say which. It was worrisome for a writer on a budget—a $480 gamble. But to get inside we had to take our chances, and if we didn’t get what we wanted, improvise.
We didn’t get what we wanted. Instead of the Manon, we were put next door in the Catherine, the suite where Tony’s friend and TV sidekick, the chef Eric Ripert, had stayed on that fateful trip. So near, yet so far: it was lovely, but for me it might as well have been the Springfield, Illinois, Holiday Inn. What to do?
The next morning, at breakfast, we struck upon a plan so convoluted and stupid that we felt it just might work. We would go to another hotel for a night, from which Sarah would call and say we had noticed the Manon Suite sign on the door next to ours, and it had brought on in me a huge rush of emotion, since Manon had been my beloved mother’s name. Could she possibly reserve a night there as an indescribably meaningful gift for me?
Personally, I thought it sounded a tad creepy, and when I told her about it later, so did my mother, Adele. But tourism was slow that time of year, and Sarah did not appear to be writing a book about Anthony Bourdain, so the reservation clerk could say nothing other than “Oui, bien sur!”
We exhaled with relief when the bellman finally opened the door marked manon and ushered us in. The suite was a comfortable, modern duplex, decorated in a black-and-white-and-purple theme. Just outside the main window is the rugged stone Witches’ Tower, believed to have been a part of Kaysersberg’s fortifications in the Middle Ages. Tony took some pictures of it that he used for an Instagram story.
The next day he posted shots of the constellation of tiny, electrically lit stars in the canopy above the bed. He must also have noticed the several large photographs on the walls—black-and-white studies of Manon herself, the innkeeper’s daughter, a girl of about 11 (the age, in 2018, of Tony’s daughter, Ariane).
After we’d looked around a little, I went into the bathroom and knelt where Tony had when he killed himself. I took a picture of the opposite wall—the last thing Tony saw. The whole chamber did feel … a bit charged, somehow. Then while I was unpacking, the sliding closet door suddenly started moving of its own accord and with enough momentum to lurch off its track and stop just short of where I was standing.
Sarah and I exchanged looks. Was that an act of aggression, I wondered, or the semblance of an embrace?
Charles Leerhsen is a former executive editor for Sports Illustrated and the author of several books, including Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw. His new book, Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain, will be published on October 11 by Simon & Schuster