Stylish decadence – the fast and furious life of Cookie Mueller

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Writer, actress and bon viveur Cookie Mueller first came on my radar through her column in New York underground paper The East Village Eye: Ask Dr Mueller, her health advice, was singularly and spectacularly bad, but so well written and funny that reading the column was a sort of medicine itself.

My own low-life connections operated out of the same school building The Eye was housed in, but we never met. I knew, everyone knew Cookie loved, and could generally handle, her drugs, but her advice was so holistic and natural, I liked how she would be snorting instant coffee one day because there wasn’t time to drink it, and then bashing out a column on the benefits of a brown rice only diet. Her body might have been a den of inequity, but she she preached the body as as temple. She was a woman who always cut to the chase, in life and in her too soon death. There were never any in-between bits with her, she just swan dived from  one potentially  insane plan (ie vomiting at will, on a bus, on a guy who was jerking off, to make him stop) to the next (using a sort of Sapphic striptease to distract a German’s custom’s officer from her drug-packed bra).

Up until Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller, this very well-researched warts and more warts book on a woman who lived life “bravely, hilariously and without compromise”, my only second-hand source of information on Cookie’s way too short life (she was one of the early AIDS casualties, I mention this parenthetically because her death at the age of 40 was the least important part of her life) was her friend and photographer Nan Goldin, conspicuous by her absence in this account, not only as Cookie’s best friend and fellow adventurer, but as someone who seemed to have the copyright on Cookie’s life.

Chloé Griffin, the editor of Edgewise, admits she’s never written a biography, but she just throws herself into it, a five-year research project tracking down most of Cookie’s good friends, colleagues, lovers and, most vitally, her initially reticent son Max, the product of a short affair Cookie seems to have conducted just to have a beautiful child.

What really shines through in this book is that Cookie’s hilarious and often disturbing accounts of her own misadventures (hitching with Deliverance-type psychos, drug smuggling in her bra, dealing and topless go go dancing, and most unsettlingly, leaving then toddler Max locked in a small room as a form of cheap baby-sitting) were often underwritten in her own accounts. Her friends, mainly with great affection, recount far worse details she left out of her own stories. All  say otherwise – that in fact she herself left the really crazy bits out.

The reader also wonders would any of this had happened had Cookie not had such a prodigious appetite not only for life but for drugs, or, with great foresight, did she do the crazy thing for the sake of the retold story. Or did she just plunge into the seediest situation she could think of, as an antidote to the Baltimore suburbia she grew up in and despised? For the end product, a book frank to the point of indelicacy (John Waters insisted she was not actually raped by a chicken for one of his earlier films Pink Flamingos, but the chicken was intimately involved), the reader goes willingly along for the rollercoaster ride.

Her friends clearly adored her, but not to the point where they ignored her shortcomings, sometimes as a mother- Max himself seems to bear no ill will, if anything he revels in having such a cool mum) as someone who sometimes made poor career choices (drug dealing out of the flat she shared with Max and her lover Sharon Niesp) sometimes as rather too much of a sexually free spirit. There is never any judgement, only the feeling that if Cookie were there, something fun was going to happen. You might die, get raped or arrested in the process, but Cookie would make it an adventure.

What Griffin does so seamlessly is join up all the bits of Cookie’s seeming reinventions – actress, stripper, mum, drug-dealer, writer (mainly, writer, a brilliant one) – to show you they were not reinventions but all parts of the same adventure-greedy person. As in the style of the definitive biography of Edie Sedgwick, by Jean Stein, Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame beautiful but damned sometimes arm candy, this book’s narrative structure is mostly straight quotes from those who lived those adventures with her. What also stands out  in all the accounts is how much people wanted to be with her, to get that hunger for life she had by osmosis.

The tale, like her life, is not linear. Her early years are whacked into the middle of the book, and are of the least interest. One gets the sense both Cookie and her biographer just wanted to get out of suburbia, but had to put in in somewhere.

Like all the best biographies, reading it is like being there, with those people in those days in those shitty flats , open top cars and more peacefully in the hippy enclaves of Provincetown and Positano, where she met her soon-to-be husband Vittorio Scarpati. To read her stories first hand is to be there. To read this rather brilliant biography is to be with the people who were with her and, in some sense, still are. Rather, more poignantly, she is still with them, and by proxy, with us.

If you like the early works of John Waters, most of whose films she was in, if you are at all interested in 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s American counterculture. if you loved Cookie Mueller the writer,  a woman who grabbed life by the throat and coated it’s face with drag queeny make up, you will read this book in one sitting.

by Michele Kirsch

Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller
Edited by Chloé Griffin. 22 Contributions by John Waters, Mink Stole, Gary Indiana, et al.