How Cookie Mueller captured life

How Cookie Mueller captured life

On Cookie Mueller's birthday, Aisha Zahira celebrates the lasting legacy of the writer, artist and performer across art of all forms. 

When Cookie Mueller died in 1989, she had acquired many monikers from the people and cities she interacted with: a redneck Janis Joplin, East Village columnist answering to ‘Dear Doctor…’, cultural critic, honourable Italian, mother, dancer, and someone who just happened to stumble onto wildness. Her deft transference across these roles seems now to be overshadowed by her time as a Dreamlander – referring to the group of actors consistent across the films of John Waters, named after his production company, Dreamland Studios. “I’m gonna cut you up after class”, she intones to a bully in 1974’s Female Trouble, the snide turn of her mouth punctuated with narrowed eyes. Mueller stated this was her favourite role.

Her notoriety had been growing already with 1972’s Pink Flamingos, where she may or may not have had sex with a chicken. That’s the beauty – or atrocity – of Waters’ films. Rounding out the Trash Trilogy is 1977’s Desperate Living, aptly subtitled “it isn’t very pretty”, in which Mueller plays a one-armed lesbian named Flipper. While these roles demonstrated her varied acting style, even achieving a somewhat cult status at the time, what best represented Mueller’s was her ‘writer’s’ writing, her theotherapy, her witch-doctor-ness, culminating in her skill as a raconteur and advice columnist. 

Born Dorothy Karen Mueller in Catonsville, Maryland in 1949, Cookie was a nickname acquired as a child from her brother, though Mueller’s later-in-life lover Sharon Niesp states it caught on because Cookie’s sister couldn’t pronounce Karen. Stories of her early life are known by few, and in Chloe Griffin’s biography of Mueller, entitled Edgewise, these years are wedged in the middle – too banal to begin the book, too boring to end it. In comparison to the rest of Mueller’s life, they don’t make for good storytelling.

After she left Baltimore at 18, Mueller began a life away from her much-hated suburbia. On her travels from Provincetown through to New York City, she took LSD pills dropped from a helicopter and waited for the world to end. She argued over which paintings to save when her friend’s house was burning down. She repeatedly emphasised the use of saline injections for people who had overdosed. It was not exactly the life people continuously romanticise, though her retelling of it makes it easy to do so. These tales have been immortalised in her autobiographical work, 1990’s Walking Through a Clear Pool Painted Black, a collection of short stories for people with short attention spans. 

The book was recently republished by Semiotext(e) and includes sections of Mueller’s other writings such as her contributions to Details magazine as an art critic. In one piece, she predicts our current obsession with turning everything into ‘the next big thing’, asking readers, “Suppose, just for the moment, that everything physical and tangible was an art trend. Everything: food, clothing, shelter, water, trees, animals, sex.” Her casual writing style, as if suddenly uncovering the realisation, serves as a façade for the truth and experience she brought to the page. She believed art was being badly mistreated, and remained critical of those chasing fame without talent. Her timeless writing mirrors the questions we ask today: Is art in the hands of businessmen? How can we more closely engage with it? Where even is art, what even is it? 

Another section in the book compiles her columns from her time as Doctor Mueller of the East Village Eye in the 1980s, purporting to be the health version of an agony aunt, answering questions of readers mostly in jest. She yields advice regarding the trustworthiness of psychic surgeons, helps people with impotence, lists foods to help with cellulite (though refrains from suggesting she would be familiar with it).

While she was not a real doctor and most of her advice is not genuine, reading the column, as author Michele Kirsch puts it, is a sort of medicine in itself. At one point, answering a reader whose penis is too big, Mueller states, “Take heart; you’re definitely blessed and well-equipped for life.” The humour is abruptly side-lined in the next sentence: “I’m not going to talk about AIDS. It would be unwise and presumptuous for me to try and shed some light on a subject as serious as this epidemic.” The starkness of the sudden change in tone represents how consequential the subject was. Mueller would herself contract the illness and would die six weeks after her husband Vittorio Scarpati in 1989, both from AIDS complications. 

An important relationship in her life was with artist and photographer Nan Goldin whose famous photo, Cookie at Vittorio’s Casket, was a result of their 13 years of friendship, seen through Goldin’s camera. Goldin has long been praised for her photography style, emulating a family album as opposed to any posed moments. Bolstering this style were her subjects, mainly her close friends, appearing in her work again and again throughout the years. 

Her friendship with Mueller began in Provincetown. Goldin sums up her style whilst talking about Cookie, saying in The New Yorker, “The photographs were intimate and then we were. I was outside of her and taking her picture let me in.” Their friendship grew over the years, progressively captured on film and, when Mueller was diagnosed, the pictures took on a historical meaning: not only was Goldin immortalising her friend, but also her experience of AIDS at a time when those with the disease were ostracised and misunderstood. 15 of these photos (specifically Cibachrome prints) were turned into The Cookie Portfolio, self-published by Goldin in 1990. Spanning their friendship from 1976 to 1989, the collection of photographs memorialises Mueller as a mother, party girl, and best friend.

Cookie wrote, her friends photographed. Through both, her life was recorded. In a repeatedly documented quote, John Waters describes her as “a writer, a mother, an outlaw, an actress, a fashion designer, a go-go dancer, a witch-doctor, an art-hag, and above all, a goddess”. Creating a holistic list of Mueller’s attributes that writers would later come to parrot, Waters joins a convoy of people drawing attention to Mueller’s multi-facedness. But it is his first descriptive choice – writer – that remains most significant. 

Back to blog