JULY 25, 2022
IN AUTUMN 1967, The Doors played a concert at the Berkeley Community Theatre. The crowd was fast and heavy. Among the motley crew of hippies, washouts, and junkies was the visionary artist Cookie Mueller. Having fled the suburbs of Baltimore, Cookie stood in the back, bright-eyed, cradling an empty beer can. Her friends, Kathy and Eve, were trying to get backstage to fuck Jim Morrison, but Cookie wanted to get home to the Haight-Ashbury. She was suffering stomach cramps from detergent-laced LSD. Stumbling into her room after midnight, she slouched over her desk, notebook open. She wanted to write about her insatiable adventures, the summer just gone. But before she could grab a pen, a voice over her shoulder said, “We’re going to have some fun now, Cookie.” She didn’t hesitate to join in.
Years later, after moving to New York, she wrote voraciously. This highly various work — fragments of memoir, cranky vignettes, and often hilarious newspaper columns — was gathered in the 1990 volume Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, which has now been reissued. Although much of it reads like autofiction, Cookie’s life was, at times, too fantastic for this form to encompass. According to her friends, she really did burn down a house in the Canadian Rockies and leave her toddler Max tied to a tree; she did fuck Jimi Hendrix before summoning demons on Mount Tamalpais in San Francisco; she did flee half-naked from a hotel, refusing to pay the bill, and find herself scaling the Berlin Wall to shout at bewildered passersby.
One of the many pleasures of this collection is being introduced to the incredible cast of ne’er-do-wells that populated Cookie’s world. When she was living in a low-rent part of Baltimore known as Lovegrove Alley, her house was full of weirdos. “I still have nightmares about this place,” she writes. Pretty lesbian Babette never wore a shirt indoors, while Nash, the homeless hippie philosopher, sold LSD and spent days on the sofa wrapped in dark fabrics. Cookie had a pet monkey that would chase cockroaches, swing from the exposed pipes, and take swigs from bottles of cheap champagne.
It was at this time that she met the filmmaker John Waters. Although she was working on a novel, she set it aside to act in his 1970 movie, Multiple Maniacs. “I danced around topless in shorts in the film and explained to my Mom, Divine, how great it was to get tear-gassed in antiwar rallies,” she writes. “I was terrible in this film, I couldn’t remember lines.” But she would soon be an underground star. Waters worked her hard, as he did the entire cast. When Cookie appeared in Pink Flamingos (1972), the film for which she is best known, the improvement in her acting was marked. She had observed the techniques of Waters’s veteran actors. One lesson was to shout. Because of the low-budget sound equipment, if you didn’t shout, no one would hear you. “In the world there are many brave people: those who climb Mt. Everest, those who work in Kentucky coal mines, those who go into space as astronauts, those who dive for pearls. Few are as brave as actors who work with John Waters.”
In a piece called “The Pig Farm,” Cookie moves to Pennsylvania with an illiterate farmer named Herb Eickerman. The story encapsulates the best of her writing: it is vivid, immediate, and raw, conjuring a fleeting moment in time that had profound consequences. Cookie traipses through acres of mud, pitches hay, adopts a piglet, and spends days riding a black horse, high on weed. The lovers sing country hits and sleep on the same horsehair mattress where Herb was born. “It was very romantic.” But when Herb goes to jail for growing marijuana, Cookie soon forgets him. “I was the last woman he had seen. He probably jerked off thinking about me every night. I felt guilty about that. I should have sent him some porno magazines, or found him a pen pal.” Her grubby realism takes you not only among the animals on the farm but also into her nonconformist worldview. She shows the immense beauty in having no plans, rejecting what was then called “the straight life.” Cookie wants something different, to live in the extreme present. She wants access to an evanescent emotion or viewpoint that comes from chasing the moon, eschewing the crowd. “The word ‘future’ wasn’t part of my vocabulary.”
In New York in the early 1980s, she collaborated on a play about Edgar Allan Poe and learned hard lessons about the writing craft. With such a popular historical figure, it was ultimately best to ignore authenticity: hewing too close to biography would obscure Poe’s dramatic appeal. He used opiates, married his 13-year-old cousin, and drank himself to death. Cookie wanted to magnify those details, but her co-writer, Matt Beyer, was obsessed with the minutiae of Poe’s life. “I called the producer to tell him that the play was looking retarded. The costumes might save it, but it was basically a snorefest.” She was right. The play never made it out of rehearsals.
In the aftermath of this misfire, Cookie, like many would-be writers in New York, found depression lurking at the door. Her solution: travel. She tried Italy. The food, the pace, the sea air could change your brain chemistry, make you forget that Central Park ever existed. There are no shadowy bums waiting to rob you, only handsome men. They ride motorcycles and buy you red wine. “Having been without male attention for months in New York, I was loving it. Most of them were sweet-looking, fluttering their long Bambi eyelashes at me, talking to me a mile a minute.” After a few months of cavorting in the sun — “the Italian remedy” — Cookie met her future husband, the artist Vittorio Scarpati.
Back in New York, her foray into journalism included a column about art for Details magazine. Being on a deadline made her sweat. “A journalist’s job is second only to air-traffic control as far as stress is concerned.” She wrote about the Wax Museum on Coney Island, the royal embalmers of ancient Egypt, Van Gogh, and the Sistine Chapel. Performance art intrigued her, particularly the work of Piero Manzoni, who produced cans of his own shit, and Chris Burden, who was crucified on the hood of a Volkswagen. Her approach to art was intuitive, and scattershot. She had a streetwise knack for sorting the truly inventive from phony imitations. In the East Village, bad art was everywhere. It all looked the same and was inspired largely by money. She was cynical about art history, too:
Maybe in art schools in 2058 (if they exist), the textbooks for American art history courses will have chapters on East Villagism or the East Villagistic Period. Midterm exams will feature questions like: What was the East Village? When did it happen? Who were the forerunners? Students will memorize painters’ names and even the names of some of their paintings.
According to her friend Susan Lowe, Cookie moved to New York to become famous. From her days working with John Waters, the artist embraced what she saw as her destiny. “Everyone wanted to be a star. Everyone, all over the world. […] It’s modern human nature, a new biological urge.” But her exposure to the art world revealed the cost of fame and its pursuit. She loved Jean-Michel Basquiat, felt that his art was vital and new. She called him a genius. And yet, observing his fate shifted her attitude toward fame, exposed its false promise and inhumanity. She saw that packing for the trip was better than getting there, the climb more rewarding than the summit. In one heartbreaking episode, she writes about watching Basquiat leave his own party, slipping sadly into the night like a cool breeze. She wants to shake him and say, “Don’t you appreciate all this, Jean? Don’t take this success jive so seriously. It’s just a ball, it’s all a party, enjoy it. It’s all a façade.”
In a column for the East Village Eye, she took on the AIDS crisis with humor. “I believe that sick people can still perceive things that may be funny to them, even if it hurts to laugh.” Cookie is asked what happened to a famous person’s asshole. According to a story in the New York Post, it had been removed. She responds that the famous asshole was claimed by adoring fans and the person now looks like a Barbie doll. Her observations about the crisis were not those of an outsider. The full force of its confusion, horror, and cruelty lapped at her knees. When her husband was in the hospital with collapsed lungs, she wrote, simply, “I hope he comes home soon.” He never did. Cookie herself followed him, months later, succumbing to AIDS-related pneumonia at the age of 40. In Nan Goldin’s famous portrait of the artist in her casket, she is finally still. Her friends remarked that it seemed impossible, some kind of performance — how could such boundless energy be arrested?
Cookie’s writing is like hearing American slang echo in the marble halls of a Florentine museum. Every sound is magnified. And there’s no room for squares. Read her for all the drugs you’ll never take, for all the people you’ll never fuck. Read her as a reminder to seek out those beyond the church gate, the artists, alley dwellers, and freaks. She will take you for a ride on her Moto Guzzi and crush you with the will to live.
Nathan Dunne is the author of Lichtenstein and the editor of the essay collection Tarkovsky. He has written for The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Slate, LitHub, and Artforum. His website is: www.nathandunne.com.