He lived on the edge and died without warning. The family needed a disaster plan to minimize strain in the worst moments and smooth the financial transition afterward. These are teachable moments.
Anthony Bourdain chased gusto all over the planet, occasionally tracking into war and disaster zones along the way. There were moments when he could’ve gotten in over his head and never come home.
A personal disaster plan would have been the responsible way to approach that kind of life. From the way news of his death spread last week, it’s fairly clear that level of forethought just wasn’t his style.
That’s a burden on those he left behind. At a moment when they’re already stunned and vulnerable, it’s up to them to make the hard decisions about managing the press, the authorities and the fans.
Let’s hope that his financial situation was in better shape. While the money will never bring him back, it can at least make life without him easier — provided of course it’s managed properly now.
The personal disaster plan
Enterprises, individual professionals and even well-run restaurants have succession plans. But while Bourdain’s life revolved around his personal participation in every venture, there’s no sign that the work can continue without him.
The TV show is unlikely to ever film again. There won’t be any new expeditions and no new episodes beyond what’s already ready to roll.
There won’t be any new books. There’s no archive of unreleased material waiting for a successor organization to release to bereaved fans.
And the window for him to ever open another restaurant has slammed shut. If he gave much thought to a creative executor to groom the intellectual property he built up in life, again, it would be a surprise.
Otherwise, that person or some other spokesperson he delegated would have stepped up to handle the announcements last week. Instead, everyone looked to Asia Argento, who was understandably shocked and stunned.
The family was quiet. His ex-wife isn’t active on public social media networks and their daughter is only 11. It was up to a colleague to find his body and his network to break the news to the world.
A lawyer, a financial advisor, an agent, a manager: someone could have been authorized to route messaging to the public and make absolutely sure nobody bothered the family.
That didn’t really happen here. There’s no crime in that beyond a missed opportunity to make a tidier transition, whether death comes by surprise or design.
And in the absence of any clear plan on that front, it remains to be seen whether there was a plan to keep his businesses afloat without his personal participation.
Bourdain never really created much of an institution around himself. The copyright on his books was never assigned to any trust, holding company or other entity. While he got production credit on his shows, the actual production company belonged to other people.
There’s no restaurant for his heirs to operate or sell off. He could’ve built a foodie empire to survive him, but evidently wasn’t interested.
His big dream, the Blade Runner themed global food court in New York, stalled last year. Whether that failure to create something lasting preyed on him, we just don’t know.
Again, that level of planning really wasn’t his style. Even if it could’ve made his heirs more comfortable down the road, we would’ve seen the hints years ago.
Healthier, maybe even wealthier
That said, there can be a morbid tinge to building a captive empire of intellectual property and operating businesses. Look at Michael Jackson, who was practically insolvent in life because he’d hoarded other people’s creative output as well as his own.
Jackson’s kids are reportedly billionaires now. He’s the best-selling musical artist in the world. But the cold equations of the estate forced the executors to sell off his songs and back catalog to pay the debts.
Bourdain’s books are seeing a similar posthumous bestseller effect now. Odds are good that ratings of unaired episodes will be the best ever. His daughter will get her piece of that income.
If he left a will — a big hypothetical, all in all — the rights and royalties may well go into a trust for her upkeep now and use when she’s an adult. Otherwise, the money flows into Unified Gifts To Minors Act (UGMA) accounts while the assets themselves sit in Unified Transfers To Minors Act (UGTA) accounts until she turns 18.
Unlike Michael Jackson’s kids, she has an immediate parental guardian to look out for her in the meantime. While mom and dad split up a few years ago, mom is definitely alive and well. As you’ll recall, she’s a professional kickboxer.
Reading between the lines, mom also got the $3 million New York condo as part of the split. She might already have all of the Bourdain cash as it is. Otherwise, sad to say, child support evaporates now.
Whatever Bourdain left behind for his daughter is that support. She can’t touch it for awhile. I hope he made arrangements for someone to monetize his legacy in the here and now.
With the right management, the Bourdain name and likeness stay vibrant and keep generating income. Maybe there actually are book drafts to polish, TV concepts to pitch. There might even be restaurant concepts looking for partners.
The potential here is vast. A creative and savvy executor can turn Bourdain’s name into the empire he never chased in life — maybe even a Michael Jackson scale franchise built on new approaches to food, new grocery models, who knows?
And without the $400 million debt hole Jackson’s heirs started with, right now Bourdain’s survivors are financially ahead of the game. I know it still hurts, but against the inevitability of pain sometimes the only thing we can do is stack the dollar signs.
When his daughter comes of age, she may pick up the family legacy. It belongs to her. That’s the best bequest of all.