The conflict at the heart of Pink Flamingos, one of director John Waters’ most famous films, is a battle over which person in a seedy Baltimore scene is the rightful heir to the title of “filthiest person alive.” The key contenders are Babs Johnson, played by drag queen Divine—a star of many Waters films—and the Marbles, a criminally-minded couple played by David Lochary and Mink Stole. Johnson has been crowned the filthiest person alive by local newspapers, but the Marbles believe the title—due to their baby-selling operation, kidnapping, public exhibitionism, porn shops, and heroin pushing—should be theirs.
To reclaim their high-filth status, the Marbles decide to hire a young woman, Cookie, to infiltrate the Johnson household and bring back all of the information she can. Cookie lines up a date with Johnson’s son, Crackers, who’s known to be into “a very strange sex scene.” She says she may have to “degrade [herself]” in front of him to get the necessary information, but she’s willing to do it for the money. This setup leads to one of Waters’ most notoriously revolting scenes—bested in the film only by Divine’s infamous dog-poop-eating scene—in which Cookie has sex with Crackers while he forces his pet chickens between them. Cookie screams while they scratch at her stomach and thighs, matting their white feathers and smearing her skin in blood.
Cookie is played by Cookie Mueller, whose name Waters kept for the part. It wasn’t until years after I first saw Pink Flamingos, when a friend lent me Mueller’s collection of memoir-as-stories, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, that I learned about the breadth and depth of the life of the woman who played this radically transgressive role, and the greater cultural impact she had as a writer, critic, muse, and advice columnist in the ‘80s New York downtown social scene. In the collection, which was recently released by Semiotext(e) in a much-extended version—including a selection of her weekly advice columns for the East Village Eye and art criticism for Details—Mueller tells her (perhaps slightly hyperbolized) first-person stories in an off-handed, intimate tone.
Her stories include the kind of characters one might see in a Waters film—cult members, drug dealers, sex workers, movie stars—and often take place on the road, hitchhiking between destinations or in the various places that Mueller sporadically called home, including Provincetown, Baltimore, New York, and abroad in Jamaica and Italy. They include a botched sailing trip to Colombia that ends in her heaving a burning stove overboard; the time she unknowingly met the Manson Family; a barely-escaped rape attempt after hitchhiking with friends, which she flees by hiding in the forest under the lining of her velvet jacket and flagging down a schoolbus the next day. Everything is recalled as if it’s no big deal, especially the things that are a big deal, which are broken down and reframed for comic relief, as if to say that the world is only as frightening and brutal as one makes it.
Unlike the Cookie in Pink Flamingos, Mueller is entirely uninterested in glorifying filth. Perhaps this is what drew Waters to her. Mueller’s stories follow in the vein of classic American road novels such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, reveling in unexpected encounters and uncertain characters, yet she steers clear of extolling the male-dominated narrative of freedom in wide-open places. As a queer woman, Mueller undoubtably faced misogyny and increased risk of violence, but her “good witch on bad drugs” attitude, as the writer Olivia Laing writes in her introduction to the Semiotext(e) reissue, seemed to act as a barrier to the world’s cruelty. Laing deftly observes that Mueller’s “style was neither macho nor touristy. She was merely reporting, hilariously, on the world as she saw it.” In many American road novels, it’s the male characters who are able to break free of their claustrophobic suburban lives at the expense of women, who are left behind to care for children. Mueller offers an alternative to this depiction, as the real embodiment of a woman who lived openly and unapologetically as a bisexual single mother, after having her son Max in 1971. “She possessed a fierce freedom about herself,” said Chloé Griffin, author of Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Muller, in a 2014 interview with T Magazine, “and at the same time was a loving mother and friend. These qualities are a fascinating combination.” Using humor and goodwill, Mueller drafted her own terms for navigating life within a misogynistic society. Thanks to the legacy she left behind, in both texts and onscreen, we can still play witness to her one-of-a-kind manner of living life on the edge, and her effortless glamor while doing it.
Mueller and Waters first met in 1969 after she won a raffle at a screening of his film Mondo Trasho. Her prize included a dinner with Waters and a screen test. As Mueller recalls in Walking Through Clear Water, they hit it off splendidly. “Over dinner I discovered John Waters and he discovered me,” Mueller later wrote. “We got along.” This seems to be a muted understatement, as Waters would later wax poetic about his estimation of Mueller, describing 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.”
Mueller’s sensibilities seemed destined to align her with Waters’ Dreamlanders. Throughout her adult life, she wore her wavy blond hair wild, usually with her iconic thick-lidded black eyeliner, flashing finger tattoos and a wide red smile. She slipped seamlessly into the crass band of underground Baltimore film stars, who she describes as “the anomalous nobility, the only underground superstars Balitmore could call its own. They were a close-knit, clannish group, but I was ushered in, and they became like family, finally a family I understood.”
Growing up in the suburbs of Baltimore, Mueller wasn’t understood. Born in 1949 as Dorothy Karen Mueller, she was given the name Cookie by her family when she couldn’t yet walk. “It didn’t matter to me,” she writes, “they could call me whatever they wanted.” She began writing at age 10, producing a 321-page book the day before her 11th birthday, because she’d heard that the girl who wrote Black Beauty was 11 and she wanted to be the youngest novelist in the world.
By 18, she’d left her family’s home, which, as she writes, “I was always leaving. Every time I left I had a different hair color and I would be standing on the porch saying goodbye to the older couple in the living room. I didn’t have anything in common with them except that we shared a few inherited chromosomes, the identical last name, and the same bathroom.” She went to live in a house of hippies who were in various stages of leaving for Haight-Ashbury, where she eventually followed, at one point living in a house with 11 roommates that shared a courtyard with Janis Joplin’s apartment.
She bounced around before meeting Waters and settling back on the East Coast. Her first role in a Waters film was in Multiple Maniacs (1970), where she plays the daughter of the notoriously filthy queen of trash, Divine. In Female Trouble (1974), Mueller plays the role of a delinquent high schooler and friend of Divine. Together, they skip school to make money through sex work and small-time burglary. She also appeared in Desperate Living (1977) and Polyester (1981).
While living in Provincetown in the summer of 1976, Mueller held a yard sale that the photographer Nan Goldin happened to attend. Goldin has said that she was immediately intrigued by Mueller’s look: “a cross between a Tobacco Road outlaw and a Hollywood B-Girl, the most fabulous woman I’d ever seen.” Goldin began to photograph Mueller, and they became close friends through increasingly intimate, well-documented moments. Mueller can be seen dancing—often with her longtime lover, Sharon Niesp—through the drug-fueled nights that lend shape to Goldin’s confessional-style photobook, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, shot from 1979 to 1986. In New York, she also modeled for Robert Mapplethorpe, worked with Richard Hell, Rene Ricard, and Amos Poe, and became close friends with writer Gary Indiana, starring in a series of his plays.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Mueller was, according to Goldin, “the queen of the whole downtown social scene.” Her disheveled-yet-glam look is even rumored to have influenced the aesthetics of music icons such as the Cramps’ Poison Ivy, Madonna, and Courtney Love. In New York, she began to write periodic art criticism for Details, and her weekly advice column, Ask Dr. Mueller, for the East Village Eye. People would write in asking questions about how to deal with pregnancy cramping (she recommended stepping up the calcium-rich foods), how to save a friend OD’ing on heroin (a cold ice bath, and if that doesn’t work, an intravenous saline solution), and whether people can truly die of a broken heart (yes!).
Part of Mueller’s charisma is that she not only lived the freewheeling lifestyle, she supported others in pursuing it. She promoted self-sufficiency, knowledge of oneself, and alternative choices to the increasingly oppressive capitalist and consumerist systems that we’re all forced to live in. She was the kind of minor celebrity who was an active part of her community, dishing out wisdom she’d learned through her intimate, long-term relationships with both men and women, as well as her drug use—she used heroin regularly for years, as did artist Vittorio Scarpati, whom she married in 1986. Her advice touched on everything from beating addiction and navigating spirituality; to herbalism and home remedies (these are, however, often medically unproven); to verifying psychics and personal nutrition, breakups, and motherhood. Mueller’s responses are often humorous and supportive, and she takes her correspondents’ questions seriously, no matter how far-out. In response to one person’s question about whether the soul could be seen upon leaving a body, Mueller begins, “Firstly, you’re right about my mind being open, in fact it’s so open that at times I can hear the wind whistling through it.” Mueller’s open attitude made her a perhaps even more coveted resource than a certified doctor for those whose quandaries fell outside the norms of white-picket-fence America.
It was in 1981 that Goldin remembers their group learned about a new illness, which at the time was still being called ARC, but soon became known as AIDS. Mueller read out loud to a small group of friends an article from The New York Times about a new “gay cancer.” At first they brushed it off, but by 1982 one of Mueller’s closest friends, Gordon Stevenson, died of complications related to AIDS. In her story “A Last Letter,” Mueller writes that after Stevenson’s death, friends of theirs began to show signs of illness and then pass on, sometimes after months or years of dealing with worsening physical conditions. Mueller notes that many of these friends were brilliant artists; in “A Last Letter,” she writes of the dearth of creativity that this unknown disease will leave in its wake, an impact much greater than any of them had anticipated.
“To see it we have to watch closely who is being stolen from us. Perhaps there is no hope left for the whole of humankind, not because of the nature of the epidemic, but the nature of those it strikes.
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. These were the kind of people who lifted the quality of all our lives, 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.”
Mueller herself was one of these people. By the late ‘80s, Mueller and Scarpati were both living with complications from AIDS. They died within months of one another, Scarpati in September 1989 and Mueller that November. They spent their last months together in a shared room at the Cabrini Medical Center in New York. Goldin was there, too, documenting her friend at Scarpati’s funeral, and finally at her own, producing one of Goldin’s most iconic yet tragic portraits, Cookie in Her Casket. Goldin later published a collection of 15 intimately striking photographs, the “Cookie Portfolio,” taken over their 13 years of friendship. Goldin says that Mueller’s death changed her photographic practice. With friends falling ill of AIDS all around her, Goldin’s artistic goal became to “make a REAL record…of what I had actually seen and done.” She threw her feelings of rage and impotence into documenting others who’d fallen ill, using the images that came out of her and Mueller’s tender friendship as a roadmap.
Shortly before she died, Mueller penned an elegy that’s often quoted in remembrance of those lost to AIDS. As if writing for her advice column, Mueller optimistically declared:
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.
Freedom from this trap we live in called a body. Freedom from vice, from addiction, from disease. Freedom from the expectations of living in a society, from the boxes we’re shoved into and spend our lives trying to escape.
If she believed that freedom in this life is truly a sham, Mueller never let on. She lived in constant collision with the supposed limits of what a woman in the United States could be or do. As Laing writes, “Everyone does things now with safety in mind, but that wasn’t how Cookie lived.” Waters wholeheartedly agrees, stating that Mueller “never led a safe life, unsafe was her middle name. She lived on the edge, always.” At the core of Mueller’s philosophy, however, was care; as a mother, lover, writer, and friend, Mueller’s desire to live at the margins never overshadowed her love.
In the images she left behind, Mueller radiates warmth, her arms flung around friends or crossed in front of her heart, red lips wide, her hair flowing and bangles jangling in the harsh click of Goldin’s flash. Her stories, rather than eliciting woe, are a testament to the life she so wholeheartedly lived. Mueller’s legacy is one of a person who lived unapologetically yet fully, burning her own path of resistance through a world that could only hope to hold her.