Published the following year by Bloomsbury USA as part of its Urban Historical series, “Typhoid Mary” is the orphan in Bourdain’s literary canon, mostly abandoned by those who argue over his best books. Yet looking back on this slim monograph, you can see that Bourdain was, as a writer and thinker, not just another meathead cook who helped glorify a bro culture that would lead eventually, inevitably, to the #MeToo reckoning in 2017 and beyond. Over the course of its 161 pages, Bourdain casts a sympathetic eye on Mallon, a tough Irish immigrant and domestic cook who was quarantined (twice) for a total of 26 years for being an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever.
History has been kind, or mostly kind, to George Soper, the New York sanitary engineer who determined that Mallon was the constant among the outbreaks in seven homes where she worked as a cook. Soper proposed that she was a healthy carrier of typhoid, a person who could spread the disease without ever having major symptoms of it. This was a relatively novel, and powerful, idea at the turn of the 20th century. Soper identified 22 people, including a young girl, who were infected with typhoid because Mallon did not wash her hands properly before preparing food for the families that employed her.
Yet, in Bourdain’s retelling of events, Soper is no hero. He depicts the municipal engineer as a vainglorious amateur sleuth willing to bend the truth and stir up public fears about “dirty” immigrants, all for a little taste of fame. Bourdain’s sympathies lie squarely with Mallon, an unconventional, often confrontational woman who found a place for herself in a society that couldn’t care less about her. Bourdain admires her anger in the face of health department officials who wanted to lock her away for good, without due process, and he identifies with her protestations of innocence. After all, back then, few could comprehend the concept of someone spreading disease without exhibiting symptoms of it.
He was determined to tell the familiar Typhoid Mary story from the point of view of a cook, a profession they had in common. Wrote Bourdain:
I’m a chef, and what interests me is the story of a proud cook — a reasonably capable one by all accounts — who at the outset, at least, found herself utterly screwed by the forces she neither understood nor had the ability to control. I’m interested in a tormented loner, a woman in a male world, in hostile territory, frequently on the run.
Obviously, “Typhoid Mary” did not enjoy the same success as “Kitchen Confidential,” a book that, while unflinchingly honest and often brilliantly written, also glorified the frat-house culture of the back of the house. Bourdain publicly expressed remorse for his role in nurturing the toxic kitchens where so many folks, especially women and people of color, felt unwelcome, ostracized and/or harassed. But this side of Bourdain is not on display in “Typhoid Mary.” On page after page, Bourdain offers nothing but compassion toward an immigrant cook who was as much a target in her day as Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is now by a sitting U.S. president.
Bourdain’s empathy doesn’t feel like virtue signaling, either, a cynical term that had no resonance in 2001. It just reads like a fundamental part of his nature. Without fanfare, “Typhoid Mary” foreshadows Bourdain’s later efforts to support immigrants in the kitchen and those women who came forward, regardless of the consequences, to share their stories of sexual harassment, including his girlfriend, actress Asia Argento.
I learned about “Typhoid Mary” from Hope Lourie Killcoyne, a writer and editor who served as Bourdain’s researcher for the project. She had sent me an email following my essay on depression for #BourdainDay. In her note, she wrote, “I’m no foodie, and I hardly ever watched him on TV, but at the turn of the . . . century (egads), waaay before he took off on screen, I helped him research a book he authored — one that few people even know about.”
Several weeks later, Killcoyne and I were on the phone, talking about the book and her work with Bourdain. She forwarded the agreement letter between them, dated Oct. 6, 2000. Bourdain agreed to hire Killcoyne for no more than 10 days, at $100 per day. The author got a lot for his money, based on the research notes that Killcoyne found on her computer and forwarded to me. She combed libraries and antiquarian bookstores. She wrote letters to the New-York Historical Society and to a descendant of the superintendent of Riverside Hospital, the facility on North Brother Island where Mallon lived out her last days in quarantine. Killcoyne tracked down turn-of-the-century menus and flagged countless stories and books for Bourdain. She even located Mallon’s original death certificate.
Killcoyne and Bourdain would meet a handful of times at restaurants, where she passed along her research.
“I remember very much enjoying being with him and looking forward to meeting up with him,” Killcoyne recalled. “Also, it was fun. It was fascinating. I was learning. The whole thing, even though it was dark, that stuff was cool.”
Killcoyne said all the empathy expressed toward the subject in “Typhoid Mary” was Bourdain’s doing. In fact, at one point, Killcoyne delicately suggested that Bourdain had already devoted plenty of words to Mallon’s righteous indignation. The researcher wondered whether he might want to probe deeper into Mallon’s state of mind.
“You definitely have the angry Mary down,” Killcoyne wrote in a Nov. 7, 2000, research memo.
“What I’m about to say might be tackled later on in the book, but do you think that at some point later on in her life, in her heart of hearts she did accept the medical findings, and felt herself cursed? And the corollary — however much she may have maintained her blamelessness, might she have ever felt regret for the sickness, and most ESP. loss of life?”
Bourdain seems to have taken Killcoyne’s advice to heart. Near the end of the book, after Mallon is traced to a typhoid outbreak at the Sloane Hospital for Women, a maternity hospital in Manhattan, Bourdain adopts a harder edge toward his subject. He condemns her actions, even if she never did.
“Even taking a small chance that she could infect an infant or nursing mother with typhoid was contemptuous and contemptible,” Bourdain wrote. “That she clearly couldn’t even be bothered to wash her hands carefully after going to the bathroom . . . speaks volumes about how far she had fallen and how little she cared.”
In the acknowledgments for “Typhoid Mary,” Bourdain first thanks Killcoyne “for her dogged and spectacular research.” The two remained friendly long after the project. He wrote job recommendations for her. In one letter to a potential employer, she said, Bourdain wrote, “You better just hire her.” She would share texts and emails with him, too. He never responded to the last few texts, she said.
“It was like three weeks or something later that I heard …,” Killcoyne said, trailing off. She heard the same news that the rest of us heard that day: that Anthony Bourdain was gone from our lives for good.