We trace the story of the actress, writer, and critic who was one of the inspirations behind Raf Simons’ latest collection
Raf Simons has always been an unlikely emissary of subcultural youth excess. Unlike designers such as John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, whose club-hopping days are legendary, Simons’ interest in self-indulgence and debauchery seem more theoretical. He’s almost like our high priest of clubland, who theorises about our late night mania without ever seeming to throw himself into the fray. Apart from in his clothing, of course.
His new collection, Youth In Motion, paid tribute to actress, critic, writer, New York City it girl and heroin addict, Cookie Mueller by reprinting the book cover of her play Drugs, which she co-wrote with legendary downtown New Yorker Glenn O’Brien. Mueller was much more than just a reference point – she was a coke dealer and speed hound, a mother who served opium at Thanksgiving to every guest except her son, and an outspoken supporter of heroin – which caused her and her close friend John Waters to grow apart. Intravenous drug use also caused her to contract AIDS.
In 2014, Chloé Griffin wrote Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller, a fantastic oral history replete with hundreds of captivating photos of Cookie throughout her life, while in our autumn/winter 2017 issue, longtime friend Linda Yablonsky told the story of her and husband Vittorio Scarpati’s life together, and how, in 1989, the two died of AIDS-related illnesses just weeks apart.
The increasing number of articles published about her, and the reference in the Raf Simons show, indicate that interest in the fabulous Ms. Mueller is no longer restricted to John Waters die-hards and the downtown New York art world cognoscenti. If you’re just hearing about her, and would like to learn more, this is what you need to know.
SHE BEGAN AS ONE OF JOHN WATERS DREAMLANDERS
Cookie Mueller, throughout her life, was perhaps most famous for having had sex with a chicken in Pink Flamingos (1972). No, she didn’t have sex with the chicken. The chicken just scratched her while she starred in one of cinema’s most unsexy, camp sex scenes ever. Let me back up…
Mueller led many artistic lives and her first life, the one that brought her fame, was as an ensemble member of John Waters’ Dreamland players, a boisterous crew of misfits and weirdos. They weren’t cool scenesters, like Warhol’s Factory set, but strange, fun-loving, rockabilly speed-freaks from Baltimore with Kool-Aid coloured hair, beehive hair-dos and leather jackets. This group also included the 300-pound, self-described “transvestite” Divine, who ate dog shit in the film’s final scene, Mink Stole and Edith Massey. Pink Flamingos is a movie about two people’s quest, and competition, to be named the ’Filthiest Person Alive’. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading, close the door, plug in your headphones and stream it now, and make sure your mum won’t bust into your room. It’s obscene. And vulgar. And brilliant.
Mueller also had roles in Waters’s movies Female Trouble (1974) as a “bad” Catholic school girl, and in Desperate Living (1977) as a one-armed lesbian. These movies relish in shocking viewers, and John Waters would take great pride in knowing that they still make us blush 40 years later.
SHE WAS A STAR OF THE LOWER EAST SIDE, SHOT BY NAN GOLDIN AND MAPPLETHORPE
In 1976, Cookie moved to New York City and soon became friends with a new generation of artists, musicians and writers like Richard Hell, Rene Ricard, Amos Poe and Nan Goldin. Stylistically, this is where Mueller came into her own as a dishevelled, glam, junkie starlet, a look that would inspire the Cramps’ Poison Ivy, a young Madonna and Courtney Love. Mueller was a muse to many of the photographers and directors of that scene and was featured prominently in Nan Goldin’s iconic The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. She also had her portrait taken by Robert Mapplethorpe, and appeared in Amos Poe’s Subway Riders, Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown ’81 and Michel Auder’s A Coupla White Faggots Sitting Around Talking.
“Her short stories are sweet, folksy autobiographical tales about hitchhiking on speed and almost getting raped by hillbillies, and climbing the Berlin Wall, drunk, in a blue leather miniskirt”
SHE BECAME A WRITER, BUT HER WORK IS HARD TO FIND
During her time in New York, Mueller came into her own as a writer, too. She gave poetry readings with Allen Ginsberg, became the art critic for Details magazine and a health advice columnist (her journalistic standards were not excellent – she wrote reviews of exhibitions she didn’t go to and taught readers how to cure bad cocaine), and wrote a book of short stories Walking Through Clear Water In a Pool Painted Black that Semiotext(e) published soon after she died. Her short stories are sweet, folksy autobiographical tales about hitchhiking on speed and almost getting raped by hillbillies, and climbing the Berlin Wall, drunk, in a blue leather miniskirt. This led John Waters to write that, “Cookie Mueller wrote like a lunatic Uncle Remus – spinning little stories from Hell that will make any reader laugh out loud.”
Unfortunately, most of Mueller’s writing is out-of-print and expensive. How To Get Rid of Pimples sells for $400. A reissue of her play Drugs recently sold out, although a second edition might be released in the future.
STORIES OF HER LIFE ARE LEGENDARY
Mueller’s crazy life, and charismatic personality, have inspired many great accounts and tributes. None is more thorough than Chloé Griffin’s Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller, a riveting 300-page oral history that pays full tribute to the many dimensions of Mueller’s personality – a sexually promiscuous bisexual who made her lesbian partner Sharon Niesp’s life a living hell, and an epically unorthodox mother who brought her baby son Max to parties and put him to sleep in the host’s dresser and, later, let him sleep atop the coat pile of downtown clubs when he was a young boy. None of the tributes are more touching than Nan Goldin’s, one of Mueller’s best friends, who watched Mueller fall victim to AIDS while she battled her own drug addiction. Richard Boch, the former doorman at the Mudd Club, memorialises her in his recent memoir as “the supergood bad girl and a beautiful distraction.” And Legs McNeil, author of the punk oral history Please Kill Me, recently published a brief account of her time in Provincetown in the mid-70s when she first met Goldin.
HER BATTLE WITH AIDS GAVE US HER MOST BRILLIANT QUOTE
Mueller, like many of the greats from the 80s, died of AIDS. Her battle with AIDS inspired her to write one of her most famous and often-quoted passages.
“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.”
Her illness also inspired a heartbreaking series of whimsical deathbed drawings by her Italian husband Vittorio Scarpati, an artist who was also an HIV-positive heroin addict. Cookie died the day that the famous, “Witness: Against Our Vanishing” exhibition opened at Artists Space in New York, a show that Nan Goldin curated of artists who died or were dying of AIDS.