How it Feels to be on Fire
Reading Cookie Mueller Today
“Cookie Mueller is like oxygen and I need all of her writing,” I wrote to my friend Raymond Foye from the beaches of Miami this summer, “can you help me track down those precious little books?” He was Cookie’s friend and the publisher (with Francesco Clemente) of the gem-like Hanuman books, including her Fan Mail, Frank Letters, and Crank Calls (1988) and Garden of Ashes (1990). In addition to being a generally angelic force, Raymond is a great connector, so when he sent them along he also put me in touch with Chloé Griffin, who has spent the last five years interviewing Cookie’s friends to produce Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller (b_books Verlag, 2014), out this month. Griffin flows together the voices of almost 90 people—including John Waters, Mink Stole, Lynne Tillman, and Max Mueller—into a book-length river of recollection aimed at capturing Cookie, who died in 1989, a major force in the downtown art scene; a phenomenon, as Gary Indiana puts it in Edgewise, “like a woman in flames […] something like I’d never seen before in my life.”
Though she was an actress, nightlife star, lover, and friend of the many people in Edgewise, Cookie Mueller matters to me—as someone who has never met her—foremost as an incredible writer. I don’t feel that emphasis is too far off, considering that John Waters, who made her famous in movies like Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), says something similar in this book: “her writing was the best to me […] when she wrote about herself and her life. It was incredibly moving, incredibly sweet, true, and funny.” There isn’t very much published writing in total: a health advice column, “Ask Dr. Mueller,” for the East Village Eye; an art column, “Art and About,” for Details; and four small books of autobiographic stories, among them How To Get Rid of Pimples (Top Stories, 1984) and Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black (Semiotext(e), 1990), in addition to the two Hanuman volumes. Her writing doesn’t have mass-appeal, and she’s not for “everyone” if by that we imagine some homogeneous mass of suburban Americans or corporate cronies. Commenting on the downtown writing scene, Lynne Tillman wrote: “there was an idea that we were different from, we didn’t have the same values as the mainstream writers or mainstream culture.” Whatever that sense was, it has evaporated from the New York art world which is now defiantly mainstream. Cookie Mueller is an antidote to all that, not only as a model for writing but as an extraordinary example of how to be in the world—as Richard Hell said, “she was kind of the ideal of the attitude and the way of life I was looking to when I came to New York.” He goes on to describe her like a recipe for an ideal human being: “just a sweetheart, just into pleasure and adventure with this really fun, trashy side.”
It tells you something important about her writing that it is so fun to read out loud. One night, as a friend drew Dionysian figures and cartoon eyes in her studio, I read Walking Through Clear Water in A Pool Painted Black to her straight through. (When she went out to the bathroom a punk asked, “You watching a movie?” “No, my friend is just reading me a book.”) Raymond Foye ties this oral quality to early works by William Burroughs: “When Bill would write, he would get up and walk around the room and do the voices and act it out. They were very much routines. I thought Cookie was kind of working in that same style.” Chris Kraus also sees Cookie’s writing as an extension of her performance: “somehow she could translate that presence as an actress and performer into her writing. It was such an effortless segue between life and her presence as a writer. A manifesto for life.”
This “manifesto for life” is the key appeal of Cookie Mueller. She was an intoxicating spirit who was funny, generous, and adventurous—even when retelling her own horrific incidents. Take this account of being abducted by rapists with Susan Lowe and Mink Stole while hitchhiking:
“No,” said Mink, “these guys are assholes. They’re wasting our road time.”
She should not have said that, but Mink has never been afraid of telling people about their personality flaws...
“Round des parts we don’t call nobody assholes,” he said. “That’s kinda impolite. We call ’em heiny holes.” And they laughed and laughed.
“Well at least we’re going north again,” I said and in the very moment I said it I realized it was a ridiculous thing to say.
There comes a time when even the most optimistic people, like myself, realize that life among certain humans cannot be easy, that sometimes it is unmanageable and low down, that all people are quixotic, and haunted, and burdened, and there’s just no way to lift their load for them. With this in mind I wanted to say something to Mink and Susan about not antagonizing these sad slobs, but right then the driver turned to me.
“You ain’t going north, honey, you ain’t going nowhere but where we’re taking you.”
These were those certain humans.
Luckily they escaped those certain humans: while the would-be rapist prayed to Jesus for a hard-on, Cookie ran to spend the night in the woods. Note how sharp her rhythm, how perfect her comic timing—that is how style communicates a metaphysical worldview.
One of her art columns for Details comes closest to articulating her way of looking at things, explaining how you can learn to experience grave events with a sense of humor—the surest way to “free the act of living from being an oppressive job.” Cookie presents the example of getting fired, running into your landlady, who evicts you because you’re behind on rent and then throws lettuce and tomatoes at you. Then she walks through all the steps of “changing your perspective”:
Exaggerate it. Her mouth becomes as big as a watermelon. That’s pretty funny and you actually chuckle. Next you see the lettuce and tomatoes being flung at you. They bounce off you and land on the floor, but not in messy smashed disarray—suddenly they’re a tempting salad and you strut out along a beautiful green and red path, out the door. Now you burst into uproarious laughter. You have definitely changed the perspective. You have done the sublime. You have taken a disturbing situation and caught the paradoxical comedy that lies there. Hidden and waiting in just about every ordinary event is potential humor. Now you know. All you need to do is work on applying it.
The bulk of her writing is memoir, little episodic sketches of her life, which was how she wrote about art, too—as Carlo McCormick said, “dealing with things in a kind of social way. She was writing about her friends in ways that she cared about.” There is an undeniable politics to that as a way of writing about art, one that forms a subterranean history of 20th-century American art criticism—think of the gossipy brilliance of Rene Ricard, or the explosive stream-of-consciousness that was Jill Johnston.
Many of her stories are about traveling—down the Amalfi coast, through Jamaica, to Berlin—because traveling is the easiest way to find yourself on an adventure. It is a profoundly creative way of being in the world because you have to invent it, every second, with no clear sense of where you might end up or with whom. Of course, you can see your everyday life that way too, and her stories show you how. Writing about growing up in Baltimore, she recalled:
I told my friends in the car that I was an alien to my parents. It was better that I didn’t hang around there too much. At this point it would always dawn on me that there was another problem. Not only was I alien to my parents, but I was alien to my friends too.
To be an alien is to be an explorer and acute observer. I think of her describing a childhood trip to Colonial Williamsburg: “the authentic costumes were made out of dacron and poly and the shoes were Naugahyde. I remember exactly how much I detested seeing these fakers in those clothes, as I was very concerned with detail”—even then. “Alien” is the ultimate form of adventurer, and I think a lot of the most interesting young queers in New York are engaging with being “alien” for this reason. But what Cookie did was find other aliens, and that is called making culture.
Near the end of Edgewise, Gary Indiana says:
We didn’t just like Cookie, we loved Cookie. There was no one like her, ever. She galvanized people, she electrified people, she was one of the most amazing people I ever knew, and I know that’s true for many people. I’d like to see that acknowledged. Not just acknowledged, but celebrated.
It’s great that this handsome and thorough book exists because it is the celebration Indiana calls for, and anyone interested in Cookie Mueller or New York in the ’80s will be grateful it exists. Next we need an authoritative and accessible Cookie Mueller: Collected Writings. Even better would be if we could take a break from the financialized muck and try to live with the vitality, playful adventurousness, and care that Cookie Mueller embodied, finding and supporting our fellow aliens. As Eric Michell says near the end of Edgewise, “she is like an emblem of that freedom of being able to do what you want to do; just go here, go there.”
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.