If you know who Cookie Mueller is, then you already love her. Her name is a shibboleth for film hags and art fags. But what’s more important than her obscure notoriety is that you get the impression that she was loved in her lifetime — and loved well. She was “above all, a goddess,” according to her friend and fellow Baltimorean, the director John Waters. Another friend, the writer Gary Indiana, described her as “a woman in flames — like I’d never seen before…like a comet going across the sky once in a century.” When Waters says, “Boy, do I miss that girl,” you miss her, too, even if you never knew her.
Cookie Mueller was born Dorothy Karen Mueller, but she says she was called Cookie since before she could walk. She was known for her roles in Waters’s films, including Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, and Female Trouble. (She inspired the title of the latter when she described her hospitalization for pelvic inflammatory disorder as “just a little female trouble, hon.”) She wrote an art column for Details but confessed she didn’t always go to the shows she reviewed. In “Ask Dr. Mueller,” her column for the East Village Eye, she advised concerned citizens about herbal cures for various ailments and fielded questions about drug use, like what to cut your coke with and whether it can kill (“you bet your boots it can”). Nan Goldin took her picture, a lot: laughing with her hand over her heart, alone at the bar, on the toilet in the Mudd Club, in white at her wedding, beside her husband’s casket, and finally, resting in her own.
Thanks to a new Semiotext(e) collection of her journalism, essays, fables, and stories, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, Cookie has a new audience. Her writing conveys a fearlessness that feminism needs now, that our art needs now: our writing, our cool scenes, our Saturday nights. She lived through an epoch — the height of Haight-Ashbury, the “ford to city: drop dead”–era of fiscal crisis NYC — that has been romanticized by the generations who followed. While she never glossed over the grit of those days, she did make it seem enviably livable, breathable. In “Sam’s Party–Lower East Side, 1979,” she recalls reviving the overdosed birthday boy with an ice bath, salt, and a syringe. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Indiana remarked “There has been so much necrophile sentimentality of the ‘80s, as if they were this wonderful period. They really weren’t. In the ‘80s — everybody died…. I don’t want to revisit that in any way whatsoever.” He’s talking about Cookie, among others. She died in 1989, at the age of 40, of AIDS-related pneumonia.
In retrospect, it’s painful to read her warnings about AIDS threaded through a warm-hearted advice column, whether she’s counseling a man with a big dick on how to find the right fit or a drug user on finding the right vein. (Her answer? “You’re still using needles? It’s time to stop…. With veins and airport traffic, it’s difficult to tell what’s moving where and who’s exiting and who’s entering.” Yet she also told her readers, with a combination of naivete and genuine uncertainty that was common at the time, “Don’t worry about AIDS, for God’s sake…. If you don’t have it now, you won’t get it…. If everyone got it that was introduced to it, half the population of New York would be on death’s door by now.”) And then there are her famous last words of counsel: “Fortunately I am not the first person to tell you that you will never die. You simply lose your body.” You won’t have to worry about rent or fashion or obsession or addiction or AIDS or cellulite, she promises. “You will be free.” It’s hard to imagine a woman freer than she was. Maybe the real advice we should take from her comes from her eulogy for Jean-Michel Basquiat, which I didn’t realize was a eulogy until the last couple of paragraphs — it reads like a party report. She writes that he “had a full life. He did everything he could and did all of it well. Don’t feel sorry for him. It’s the rest of us, left behind, we should feel sorry for.”
Many of the works in Walking Through Clear Water appeared in 1997’s Ask Dr. Mueller, now out of print. Unfortunately, the new collection leaves out “The Homeless,” an essay that solidifies her argument against bourgeois living, which she considered ecologically wasteful and morally lazy. “You probably balk at the very idea that you, a good-looking, smartly dressed, well-fed person, are less important to the world than a dirty bum. Surprise! You are unnecessary!” she writes. “Who needs you, if you continue to make all that garbage!” So while you should run, not walk, to get this new volume of Cookie’s work, make your next stop the library or your grimiest used bookstore to check out the deep cuts, and remember that her writing isn’t meant for easy consumption.
“It’s difficult to be remembered,” Cookie writes, recalling a trip she took with friends (her stories are always about times with friends) to do a grave rubbing of the headstone of Jayne Mansfield, which reads, “We live to love you more each day.” Since she foresaw a catastrophic shortage of clean air, water, and space in the future, living forever wasn’t one of her ambitions. Her writing puts to shame whatever our society today has deemed “wellness,” and instead resembles something more like harm reduction and mutual aid, but with more fun and less sanctimony. She had the wisdom to know what she could not change; all over her work, we read, “too bad,” or “learn to adapt,” or “you can cover all of it with black hair dye.” This last tidbit actually comes from her mother, who got out the hair dye bottle after Cookie’s brother died climbing a tree and again after her father was run over by their Plymouth in the driveway. As she concludes her short story about a woman who loses body parts (thighs, toes) along with people, objects, and her virginity, “There is a great art to handling losses with nonchalance.” It’s an echo of the Elizabeth Bishop villanelle “One Art,” which promises, with chagrin, that the “art of losing isn’t hard to master” and that, even as the losses pile up, loss itself is no disaster. You simply lose your body.
In her introduction to the Semiotext(e) edition, Olivia Laing writes that Cookie “careened through terrifying scenes…with languid ease.” The truth is, it feels like Cookie wrote with languid ease, her harrowing stories recollected in tranquility. But how she might have reacted in the moment to the various fires and wrecks she wrote about belongs to those who lived through them with her. Laing reminisces about a cool older cousin who gave her Cookie to read for her “countercultural education.” My own introduction to Cookie’s writing was a secondhand copy of the old Ask Dr. Mueller edition, with an introduction by Waters. Waters knew that “the worst experiences in her life were neutralized by retelling them in print,” and I think this distinction is important to how we remember her and how her writing survives.
Laing sees Cookie’s ability to neutralize as more alchemical than practical; “what comes off these pages,” Laing writes, is “the capacity of language to freeze even the most plainly terrifying or distressing material,” turning them into “a communal pleasure rather than a private humiliation.” She notes that “this is not the dominant style right now.” Cookie did not write about traumatic experiences as if they constituted her identity. She wrote personal essays, but not “personal essays” of the kind we’ve grown accustomed to online, the “get paid $75 to write about the worst thing that happened to you” variety. Even if those who would harm our heroine do appear, Cookie reports from the scene of the crime with immediacy and feeling, and then it’s over. Life goes on, with Cookie, without her. I initially hesitated before reading “Abduction & Rape–Highway 31, Elkton, Maryland, 1969” — I was taking a bubble bath and wasn’t in the mood for a PTSD flare — but I turned the page because I trusted Cookie could get us both out of the essay safe.
To have fun, as Cookie undoubtedly did, is the best rejoinder to the argument that being a woman means to be born with pain, to suffer it inevitably at the hands of men, in menstruation, in childbirth. Pain is not gendered, and it doesn’t belong to anyone as origin or destiny. Cookie Mueller shows us a woman’s life that isn’t defined by fear or hemmed in by threat. Hard drug use is just a choice someone makes (“I’m not wild, I happen to stumble onto wildness. It gets in my path”). Sometimes you hitchhike and get abducted; sometimes you climb into a van with strangers, get weirded out by them and climb out, and later realize they were the Manson family. If you’re really lucky, sometimes you survive a car crash with the performer Divine. “From that day on,” she writes, “I always felt really safe when I was with Divine. He wasn’t afraid of anything.” It’s hard to believe Cookie was ever afraid of anything, either. Reading her feels like carrying Narcan or a rabbit’s foot. Reading her, I feel safer in my own skin, and ready for anything.
Natalie Adler is a writer, teacher, and editor at Lux. She is working on a novel.