Cookie Mueller’s favorite movie was Splendor in the Grass (1961), the cautionary tale of a teenage girl wilting under the weight of her family’s sexual moralism. Nice girl Deanie (Natalie Wood) is frantic with lust for her boyfriend, Bud (Warren Beatty), but reluctantly bows to her parents’ demand that she save herself for marriage. Bud breaks up with Deanie; Deanie loses her mind. Mueller loved the part where a wild-eyed Wood emerges naked from the bathtub and screams her lungs out: “No, Mom! I’m not spoiled…. I’m just as fresh and virginal like the day I was born!… I’ve obeyed every word! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”
The theme of restive youth deranged by suburban propriety was one that Cookie, born Dorothy Karen Mueller in 1949 in Baltimore, Maryland, knew all too well. She once observed that the only things she shared with “the older couple in the living room” were “a few inherited chromosomes, the identical last name, and the same bathroom.”
Mueller made an art of daughterly disobedience, portraying an array of not-so-nice girls in the early underground films of John Waters, Baltimore’s self-styled godfather of filth. Although she did not—contrary to scuttlebutt—have intercourse with a chicken in his militantly provocative Pink Flamingos (1972), her sex scene in that film is one of the most discomfiting in cinema history. Equally memorable roles followed, including a delinquent Catholic schoolgirl with a buoyant beehive in Female Trouble (1974)—“I got a knife here in my pocketbook and I’m gonna cut you up after class!”—and a one-armed lesbian fascist goon in Desperate Living (1977).
In the late 1970s Mueller traded on her midnight-movie stardom to become a leading light of New York’s downtown scene at the height of its polymorphous perversity. A habitué of nightspots like Studio 54, the Pyramid Club, and the Mudd Club, she acted in indie films and off-off-Broadway plays, including Gary Indiana’s The Roman Polanski Story. She played collaborator and muse to artists including Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, and perhaps most memorably Nan Goldin; some will recognize her distinctive face—wide-set leonine eyes, extravagant tangle of hair—from Goldin’s classic photographic book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986), an operatic vision of friendship and addiction.
But Mueller, who died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of forty, was not just another avant-garde It Girl, mascot of a much-romanticized time and place. She happened to be a writer of rare voice and imagination. While she was known during her lifetime for the bantering columns she wrote for magazines like Details and High Times, her more literary work—a lucidly uproarious breed of storytelling, neither fiction nor nonfiction yet both—remained obscure, even to many of her friends and admirers.
Just months after Mueller’s death, Semiotext(e) published a collection of her stories called Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black (1990), one of the inaugural titles in the experimental New York publisher’s Native Agents series—a feminist effort to promote work, mostly by women, that smudged the lines between fiction, memoir, and criticism. (The ranks of Native Agents included Eileen Myles, Kathy Acker, Lynne Tillman, and series editor Chris Kraus, whose own exemplary autofictional novel I Love Dick also appeared in the lineup.) Further publications, notably the anthology Ask Dr. Mueller (1997), cemented her reputation, especially after they went out of print. The 2014 publication of Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller, a remarkable work of oral history by the artist Chloé Griffin, sent new fans scouring eBay for secondhand copies of her books.
Thirty-odd years after its original publication, Semiotext(e) has released a new edition of Walking, nearly three times the length of the original, incorporating all of Ask Doctor Mueller and a handful of previously uncollected or unpublished stories. The most complete collection of her writing yet, it offers a kaleidoscopic view of an idiosyncratic writer whose stories—by turns shocking and disarming, homespun yet wildly entertaining—have the ring of alternative American folktales.
Mueller wrote her first book, a historical novel about the Johnstown Flood of 1889, at age ten, slipping it into the shelves at the local library complete with a cover made from cardboard and Saran wrap. At Catonsville High, the young Cookie cut class, dyed her hair on a whim, wrote poetry for the literary magazine, and was voted “most expressive” by her senior class. She wrote memorably of this period in “Two People—Baltimore, 1964.” “I had two lovers and I wasn’t ashamed,” she began.
The first was Jack. He was seventeen and I was fifteen. The skin of his face was so taut over protruding bones that I feared for his head, the same sympathetic fear one has for the safety of an egg.
He wore his black hair all greased up with pieces spiraling down into his languid eyes….
Once I visited him in the hospital; he had infectious hepatitis and sclerosis of the liver….
He was very sick, quite contagious, and looked ill, but sexy, like pictures of Proust on his deathbed….
This other lover of mine was Gloria. She sat three rows in front of me in algebra class….
Jack and Gloria liked each other and no one ever suspected anything about Gloria and myself. For appearances, we were best girlfriends, both of us with our combustible hairdos, sprayed with lacquer and teased high as possible. We wore the tightest black skirts…and five-inch spike heels.
The prose is oddly delicate, perversely erotic, with a plainspoken, talky quality that recalls Eve Babitz’s Hollywood chronicles.
The story opens the first section of Walking, which is devoted to tales of Mueller’s teen years in Baltimore, several of which involve running away from home. “I was always leaving,” she writes in “Alien—1965,” a short sketch of her family life that concludes, “Not only was I alien to my parents, but I was an alien to my friends.” That Mueller’s “stories” are autobiographical can be confirmed by consulting Edgewise, which serves as a sort of annotated guide to her work—stories about her stories, sometimes conflicting, often more outlandish than what she committed to print.
Mueller’s tallest tale, “Haight-Ashbury—San Francisco, 1967,” draws on her experiences as an eighteen-year-old among the cascade of wayward youth during the so-called Summer of Love. The piece describes a single improbably eventful day in which, among other things, she accompanies the Grateful Dead to San Quentin State Prison for a gig; shares a joint with the Manson girls while narrowly missing Charlie; attends a demon summoning on Mount Tamalpais with Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey; consumes a mind-boggling assortment of mind-altering drugs; and is raped at gunpoint by a purported Black Panther, whom she turns over to a “hippie vigilante group” that proceeds to administer justice, Haight-Ashbury-style: “a big dose of LSD.” Mueller chronicles the events of that day with surreal equanimity and humor; the proceedings, up to and including the sexual violence, are presented as equal parts alarming and entertaining. For the record, she insisted her account was true, so far as she knew: “The facts are exactly as I remember them. Nothing is exaggerated.”
It’s not clear whether Mueller would have overlapped with the author of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” surely the most famous chronicle of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene. We don’t know precisely when Mueller arrived, but it’s notable that Joan Didion had spent the summer on assignment for The Saturday Evening Post, hanging around with drug-using teenage runaways just like Mueller, casting about for her story. It is fascinating to contrast Mueller’s irrepressible participant-observer account with Didion’s apocalyptic set piece. Set alongside Mueller’s picaresque tour d’horizon, Didion’s carefully cultivated distance reads more like an expression of barely suppressed revulsion. (“We had aborted ourselves and butchered the job,” she writes, by way of introduction.) Mueller’s embodied narrative suggests the possibility of a more hands-on New Journalism—wilder, riskier, more generous. (As it happened, the SF scene ended up being too much for Mueller, too; she spent a spell in a mental hospital before returning to Maryland.)
Mueller met John Waters in early 1969 at the premiere of Mondo Trasho, his first feature, in a Baltimore church basement. Among the Dreamlanders, as members of Waters’s hodgepodge entourage were known, Mueller finally found “a family I understood,” as she later described them. She followed a group of them to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where, among the local bohemians, outcasts, and sexual libertines, she worked in a fish factory; moved in with a girlfriend named Sharon Niesp; had a child, a boy named Max, with a man she met dancing at a bar; and ran an impromptu DIY tattoo clinic on a nude beach, which she described as “an arty masochist’s version of a sewing bee” in the story “Tattooed Friends.” It was also during these years that she made her iconic appearances in Waters’s films. In 1976, beaten down by Provincetown’s harsh winters and drawn by the prospect of fame if not fortune, she decamped to New York.
In the city, which was still reeling from its brush with bankruptcy the previous year, Mueller did all manner of work to get by, including go-go dancing, singing at bat mitzvahs, clothes designing, and drug dealing. (Would-be buyers of MDA, a close cousin of MDMA, the drug known as ecstasy, were instructed to call her Bleecker Street apartment and ask for a “Master’s Degree in Art.”) “I received most of my education traveling and working various inane jobs,” she once observed; she never went to college. Those experiences furnished her with material for her writing. Gary Indiana recalls a primal scene: locking her in her apartment one weekend, commanding her to “write the goddamn stories down.” It worked, and soon she was producing copy for a number of downtown publications. By 1982, her byline was everywhere, if you knew where to look.
Mueller once described her stories as “novels for people with short attention spans.” Walking contains nine overtly fictional works, which appear under the heading “Fables.” Her characters are mainly women at odds with the world, Jane Bowles–esque in their peculiarity. “The Truth About the End of the World” opens with this sentence: “Late one night after Joanna put her two kids to bed, she sat down at the kitchen table with a bottle of Remy Martin, the Bible, an ephemeris, an atlas, a calculator and seven grams of cocaine.” In “The Third Twin,” a woman named Ioona leaves her marriage of fifteen years to move in with her sick mother, who spends half her day in an oxygen tent:
She went to the shopping mall every day to escape the sound of breathing. In the mall the music was a cradle and all the mannikins in the windows wore clothes as bland as puree. She found herself, like the rest of the people there, speaking in hushed tones in reverence to the mall, intoxicated by the sheer size and force of the steel and stone and glass and endless displays of things to buy. But she wasn’t very similar to these people at all.
Ioona speeds around in her mother’s Volare, “dreaming about transformation and destruction,” fantasizing about the phoenix, the mythical firebird, rising from “the rubble of the shopping mall, wings spread, casting shadows on all of suburbia.”
The fables occasionally flirt with the grotesque. In “Brenda Losing,” a woman undergoes emergency surgery to have her thighs removed, which saves her life but reduces her height by a sixth. As she adjusts to her truncated state, she makes new friends in the little people community and discovers that she enjoys sex much more sans thighs. In a companion story called “Valerie Losing 2,” the main character wakes up one morning to an alarming discovery: she is missing a toe. A disappointing trip to the doctor offers little in the way of answers. In a passage redolent of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” Valerie decides that it is not, in the end, an important toe:
In the last fifteen years she had lost a lot, beginning with her virginity. She had lost two husbands, countless girlfriends, passports, bankbooks, wallets, one apartment, plants, a car, a dog, valuable jewelry; there were so many things. This was nothing new, only slightly different. She had lost so much it was just something else to mourn over for a bit. She took it in stride. There is a great art to handling losses with nonchalance.
If people in Mueller’s stories are always losing things—toes, jobs, their minds—undergirding all of her writing is an unmistakable politics of empathy. This was a time when decidedly uptown figures like Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley (“Taxes are for little people”) were riding roughshod over New York City zoning laws and other human beings. Unlike the 1980s celebrities who adopted Mueller’s style without her convictions, she always aligned herself with the underdog. In “Manhattan: The First Nine Years, the Dog Years,” she writes:
I know for a fact that the wild people on the street corners who are talking to themselves aren’t crazy and lost, they just don’t get enough carbohydrates to sustain the weight of profound ideas rushing into their cerebral cortices.
In “No Credit, Cash Only—Baltimore, 1967,” an autobiographical story, she recounts her brief career as a debt collector for a men’s clothing shop. Fed up with her greedy, racist boss, she decides to play Robin Hood, spending her last few days on the job ripping up the receipts of the most indebted and calling to give them the good news: “I felt like Santa Claus, or John Beresford Tipton on the old TV show The Millionaire.”
The weakest material in Walking are the selections from the columns Mueller produced for some of New York’s leading countercultural publications, including High Times, a magazine about drugs, politics, and culture. Her mainstay was her column on art for Details, the influential downtown monthly, which published her more or less continuously from 1982 until her death. In her column, Art and About, Mueller jettisoned critical distance altogether, reviewing shows by friends and lovers and charting cultural trends mostly to criticize them. She was predictably withering in her assessment of the yuppies taking over the East Village in the mid-1980s; the “scrubbed, aspiring, New York art climbers” sucking the life out of every opening; the tourists, swarming like locusts. “Maybe in art schools in 2058 (if they exist), the textbooks for American art history courses will have chapters on East Villagism or the East Villagistic Period,” she wrote in 1985, anticipating the beatification of downtown’s dissenters. Art and About had its ardent admirers—Condé Nast chairman Si Newhouse, whose media empire acquired Details in 1988, was said to be “crazy about her writing,” describing Mueller as the best art writer he’d ever read. But the format does not play to her strengths. While even the most lighthearted of her stories feel assembled from hard-won experience, the columns often seem like deadline-driven ephemera.
Mueller’s most improbable perch was the advice column she wrote for the East Village Eye. In Ask Dr. Mueller, she dispensed mostly parodic health and romantic advice to the heartbroken and the hemorrhoidal, alternating between jokes and what we would now call life hacks, often involving nutrition. (“Eat your acidophilus!”) To a reader concerned that he may have acquired syphilis, she observed that it’s easily treated and tells him to relax, invoking a possibly apocryphal quote by Christopher Isherwood on venereal disease: “If you don’t have it, you aren’t trying hard enough.” To another reader troubled by anxiety, she was frank: “When the little dancing dolls in the jewelry boxes peter out you just have to wind them back up again…. There is no cure, I’m afraid. The Germans have a perfect word for it. Schwermoglichkeit.” Very roughly translated: It’s a hard-knock life.
It can be jarring today to read Mueller’s thoughts on the subject of AIDS, the disease that ultimately took her life. In one column, after admitting that “it would be unwise and presumptuous” for her to weigh in on the subject, she bemoans the mounting death toll and reports that “just about everybody I talk to” agrees with William S. Burroughs’s contention that the CIA and the American Medical Association “are creating strange diseases to eliminate certain segments of society.” Mueller advises people with AIDS to be wary of the establishment: “Before you take any medication or therapy, try a nutritionist, a homeopath, a kinesiologist, and a chiropractor…. Go to them all.” Friends of hers have gotten their blood cell counts back to normal by following special diets, she says: “If you have AIDS write to me and I’ll give you a list of some of the people who may perhaps cure you.”
If this advice sounds irresponsible, or worse, it’s important to know—and the new volume does not make this clear, unfortunately—that Ask Dr. Mueller ran between 1982 and 1985, years before there were viable treatments for AIDS. (Indeed, HIV wasn’t identified as the infectious agent until 1984.) While Dr. Mueller’s advice was deeply unscientific, science didn’t have much to offer at that point. What her columns did provide was humanity and humor to populations—“queers, voodooers, drug fiends, hemophiliacs who need transfusions often, and straights who share Sabrett hot dogs with gays,” as she once described them—who had been receiving precious little of either from the government and the media.
What Mueller never quite acknowledged in her published work was that she had reason to believe she herself had been carrying the virus for years. “It doesn’t matter how she got it,” John Waters told Chloé Griffin. “She liked heroin, she liked fucking gay guys. She liked everything! She was a bull’s eye.” Mueller was already infected by the time she fell in love with Vittorio Scarpati, an Italian artist with a Roman nose and his own heroin habit whom she’d met on the Amalfi Coast. He had it, too. They married on an East Village rooftop in 1986. By that time, funerals and memorial services had begun to replace nightclubs as gathering places. Scarpati was the first to get sick—a bout with pneumonia that left him depleted. His condition deteriorated, then Cookie’s, too. In the winter of 1989 they were hospitalized together, sharing a room in the AIDS ward at Cabrini Medical Center, where he convalesced with collapsed lungs and she held court in the next bed, orchestrating readings, music, and champagne as friends streamed in. One of Dr. Mueller’s mottos was “If you’re positive, be positive,” and she kept it up till the end. “Things are never so bleak and threatening as we believe,” she wrote in her August 1989 column in Details, one of her last.
The end of the story can be traced in a pair of photographs by Goldin, taken that fall almost exactly two months apart. In the first, Cookie at Vittorio’s Casket, Mueller’s Cleopatra eyes are obscured, almost eaten up by darkness, a cane clutched in one hand the only sign of her recent stroke. In the second, Cookie in Her Casket, she is horizontal, bejeweled, resplendent in a gold lamé dress, big white flowers in her hair, looking for all the world like a freshly entombed Egyptian queen. At the funeral in November, Mueller’s mother was shocked that half of New York City came to pay their respects to her errant daughter. She’d had no idea she was so well respected, so widely beloved.
The year before, Mueller had contributed to a forum called “AIDS, Cultural Life and the Arts” in Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Nancy Peters’s City Lights Review. Entitled “A Last Letter,” her essay reproduced a missive from her friend the filmmaker Gordon Stevenson—a “high risker” like herself—that had reached her the day he died in 1982. He was the first person she knew to die of the disease. She allowed his bitter, beautiful, courageous words to speak for her, to speak directly to the disease she’d spent the intervening years trying to wish out of existence. In her introduction she spoke movingly of him and every other member of that lost generation, as well as for herself:
Each friend I’ve lost was an extraordinary person, not just to me, but to hundreds of people who knew their work and their fight…. Their war was against ignorance, the bankruptcy of beauty, and the truancy of culture. They were people who hated and scorned pettiness, intolerance, bigotry, mediocrity, ugliness, and spiritual myopia; the blindness that makes life hollow and insipid was unacceptable. They tried to make us see.