Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller
September 30, 2014
Chloé Griffin’s Edgewise: A Picture of Cooke Mueller does surprising justice to an extraordinary life force and life. Griffin did her work. It is not easy to write a biography. It may be even more difficult to facilitate and edit an oral history of one person’s life, while somehow capturing all the cultural peaks and shifts of the times. But Griffin has done this to amazing effect. She spent seven years of her life examining and respecting Cookie’s 40 years on this earth. No small feat.
Though Edgewise follows Cookie’s life chronologically, from suburban Baltimore, to San Francisco, to Provincetown, to New York, to Positano, and all the detours in between, the “conversation” that creates the “picture” of Cookie is a seemingly non-linear amalgam of various interviews and topics. It is the most beautiful and meaningful cut and paste I’ve read. Like the film documentarian who keeps both image and voice off screen, Griffin does not interject herself in the text (save a brief and lovely introduction); she lets those who knew Cookie do the talking. Given the amount of time Griffin spent with those she interviewed, she herself had a small lifetime of proxy—of being with Cookie’s acquaintances, friends, and loved ones—from which to cull this substantial “narrative.”
The narrative is interspersed with photos, drawings, copies of writings, collages, yearbook pages—all in a very Xerox aesthetic, giving the book a scrapbook/zine feel. And creating an homage to ‘70s and ‘80s counter-culture: the non-corporate, anti-sleek world in which Cookie swam. This, too, was part of her difficulty in “breaking through” into “success.” Though she was of a milieu that also bred Basquiat and Schnabel, and was ripe for the ‘80s art boom that catapulted artists such as these two, Cookie could never quite “sell” herself in this way, could never quite snag onto the wave that would carry her to a more lucrative beach, where her name and writings would garner the recognition they so deserved. Cookie’s friend, art dealer Patrick Fox said,
“Cookie was driven, and it wasn’t about success but accomplishment. I think it was more about the work and accomplishing something for personal or artistic reasons or to see something exist that previously didn’t. It’s different now. Even people who didn’t have that drive to be successful 25 years ago do now. So who’s to say that Cookie may not eventually have been influenced by our environment?” (256)
But that time was different. New York was different. Cookie inhabited a pre-Giuliani New York. Her close friend Gary Indiana told Griffin the following:
“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’s like to see that acknowledged. Not just acknowledged, but celebrated. Because part of New York died when Cookie died.” (295)
And Cookie’s longtime lover, friend, and ultimate caregiver, Sharon Niesp, said, regarding Cookie’s sexuality:
“In the ‘70s it wasn’t so defined. Things are so defined right now. Political and defined. You are this or you are that. In the ‘70s, most of the guys we new were gay, but we hung out with a lot straight couples [sic]…It was just different then; you weren’t determined by whether you were with someone. It was more a bisexual thing, although there were some real staunch lesbians. I hate that word. I fucking hate that word, its’ such a blanket term.” (230)
This astute assessment could just as easily be applied to any aspect of Cookie’s life. The ambiguities that seek disambiguation now, were, in those decades, more normative, less scrutinized.
Just look at Cookie’s own one-paragraph bio, from her brief article “Garden of Ashes” (Ask Dr. Muller: The Writings of Cookie Mueller, High Risk Books, 1997):
“Biography and Education: I received most of my education traveling and work- ing various inane jobs such as: clothing designer, racehorse hot walker, drug dealer, go-go dancer, underground film actress (otherwise known as independent feature actress), theater actress, playwright, theater director, performance artist, house cleaner, fish packer, credit clerk, barmaid, sailor, high seas cook, film script doctor, herbal therapist, unwed welfare mother, film extra, leg model, watercolorist, and briefly as a barmitzvah [sic] entertainer, although I’m not even Jewish.” (199)
Of this list, most people know and recognize Cookie from the cult films of John Waters, such as Multiple Maniacs,Pink Flamingoes, and the later Polyester. She was a part of Waters’ Dreamland crew, and there she forged friendships that would last into her New York days, such as with Mink Stole (a contributor to Edgewise) and Divine, with which it was said she had a mother/daughter relationship. Cookie was attractive to so many disparate personalities, a veritable human magnet, though her charm didn’t come from some chameleon like ability to force a blending in, to insincerely and socio-pathologically ingratiate. Quite the contrary. Actor Udo Kier said of her:
“I liked her attitude. She was always direct. With a lot of people it’s always, ‘Everything is great, everything is fine,’ but Cookie told you her real feelings. I’m sure for some it was hard because she was so direct, but I think it was a wonder- ful thing that she said to people what she meant, sometimes in a very funny way.” (257)
It was her humor that must have gotten her, and those close to her, through so many heartbreaking moments. The most poignant thread of this picture is that of Max Mueller, Cookie’s only child. Hearing stories of how Max endured the bohemian life with a mother who obviously loved him immensely, but wasn’t quite equipped to caretake in the way a parent should. Stories of neglect and invisibility would be gut wrenching but for the fact that Max’s voice is present here, clear, and filled with hope for his own child, Cookie’s granddaughter, Razilee. While he admits his “memories are a little mixed up” (236), mixed up does not appear to be the case when it comes to being a father, “It was something I was always destined to do, like a higher purpose” (296).
Regarding his mother’s dying and death (from AIDS in 1989), Max admits that, “Me and Sharon never really talked much about it. We were both there, so … I never talked about it much. Occasionally” (294). It was a strange time, a time where it was hard to talk about something, AIDS, that was still such an unknown, and then for a mother and son, the hardest words of all often don’t get said. Cookie, and her Italian husband, artist Vittorio Scarpati, were both sick, though Vittorio died first. They were the first couple to be allowed to room together in the AIDS wing of Cabrini Medical Center. Patrick Fox recalls the following:
“I remember rubbing his [Vittorio’s] foot. I just remember sadness in the hospital. I asked Cookie about Beauty, her dog, she said, ‘Oh, you know how dogs are, they always know when to get out of the way…’ It was the last thing Cookie ever said to me.” (273)
This book brought back a memory for me of a moment in summer or fall of 1989, when a friend of mine had just returned from New York. She had flown out with Patrick Fox, who was living in Des Moines at the time (with then-wife Teri Toye). My friend attempted to describe the scene at the hospital when they went to visit Cookie and Vittorio. But my memory can no longer recall details from this conversation, only a sadness.
I read Details magazine (this is pre-mainstream men’s Details) in the ‘80s, and I remember reading Cookie’s columns. But it couldn’t sink in, the magnitude of what was happening in that hospital room at Cabrini Medical Center; nor what was happening throughout the creative class in New York: the death of a whole generation of artists we would never get to know in their evolution, their maturity—of whom we would only get a retrospective, once.
Even in hospital, dying, Vittorio and Cookie were creating. He did the drawings, and she wrote the libretto for what became Putti’s Pudding (Kyoto Shoin International Co., 1989). This is in the final stages of their illness, their lives.
Cookie Mueller: student, rebel, hippie, ECT victim, wit, junkie, dealer, dancer, charmer, loyal friend, actress, girlfriend, wife, critic, traveler, mother, artist and art lover, muse, writer, writer, writer. Long before “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (separation),” in the ‘70s and ‘80s New York scene, there was “Three Degrees of Cookie Mueller.” She was that connected, that ubiquitous, that known, that loved. Three degrees aptly describes how she interrogated life—on her own terms, hard, wanting more, wanting the world to confess its innermost crimes to her. Because honesty is the only way to go. And deep burns mean the heat was cranked up high, that one experienced the fire intimately.
Let me appropriate Cookie’s own words, her epigraph from Ask Dr. Mueller, as my epitaphic contribution to her celebration and memory:
“Fortunately I am not the first person to tell you that you will never die. You simply lose your body. You will be the same except you won’t have to worry about rent or mortgages or fashionable clothes.
You will be released from sexual obsessions.
You will not have drug addictions.
You will not need alcohol.
You will not have to worry about cellulite or cigarettes or cancer or AIDS or venereal disease.
You will be free.”
Mullin resides in Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband, Bill, and her dog, Beatrice (no, not named after Dante’s Beatrice, but the divine French actress Dalle). Mullin is currently a media and communications doctoral candidate at European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland.