In her short story collection Garden of Ashes, trash starlet, Downtown icon and big-haired and even bigger-mouthed writer Cookie Mueller almost perfectly foreshadows her recently published biography Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller, writing, “All of the pieces here fit together the way weeds and flowers do in an overgrown eclectic garden. The thing is this garden is memories that are now sort of like ashes–the past seen after the flames, after it’s made pure.”
Taking Mueller’s own quote as a source of inspiration and a driving force behind this flawlessly messy oral history, first-time author Chloe Griffin uncovers Mueller’s multifaceted wild and weird life, an overgrown eclectic garden itself. At once beautiful, heartbreaking, hilarious and outrageous, Edgewise’s expertly reflects a fully-formed and most importantly, human portrait one of the most iconic hags in queer history.
Inspired by reading Mueller’s book Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, Griffin embarked on a seven-year journey, completing an enormous amount of interviews for Edgewise. As Griffin explains, “I don’t know what part of us falls in love with the voice in another person’s stories, or why I felt something hinge in a mute, broken off part of myself when I read Cookie’s words. But Cookie’s voice opened up my imagination to new ideas, experiences, possibilities. I felt in her writing a fast desire to live bravely, hilariously and without compromise” (9).
As a person who also adores anyone who chooses to live “bravely, hilariously and without compromise,” I have always admired Mueller from her unapologetic D-I-Y aesthetic to her roles in John Waters’ films such as Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos to her advice column “Ask Dr. Mueller.” Any mention of Mueller’s name immediately conjures an image in my mind of her in Female Trouble with a giant beehive, garish white lipstick and a shock of black eyeliner, hissing a threat to the class suck-up in her Baltimore accent–“I’ve got a knife here in my pocket and I’m gonna cut you up after class.”
For Edgewise, Griffin interviewed 80 people who knew and loved Mueller, ranging from Dreamland-ers John Waters, Mink Stole and Sue Lowe to Downtown-ers Richard Hell, Gary Indiana and Amos Poe to Mueller’s longtime lover Sharon Niesp and Mueller’s beloved son Max Mueller. Not only does the book rely on the strength of this cast of characters to illustrate Mueller’s life, but Edgewise also features an array of gorgeous photographs of Mueller from personal family snapshots, film stills and photographs by notable artists such as Peter Hujar, Billy Sullivan and Robert Mapplethorpe.
Often with cult figures like Mueller, their larger than life personae can overshadow and take over the real person underneath. Through its multiple voices, stories and perspectives, Edgewise humanizes Mueller, presenting a wonderfully flawed, talented woman, mother, wife, lover and friend. As Griffin herself writes about the process of finding Cookie, “I began this work because I saw something in Cookie that I desired in myself. As I learned more, my relationship with her changed. She developed flaws and insecurities. At certain times, as the picture changed, I felt ready to abandon the effort of this work. So what kept me on? Perhaps it was precisely that: Cookie became a person, not just an icon” (18).
Beginning with a chapter on her perhaps most famous work with John Waters, Edgewise takes readers from the industrial wasteland of Baltimore to San Francisco where she had a run in with the Manson family to her life at the beach in Provincetown to her clubbing, writing and drug-dealing days in Downtown, Manhattan and ending, sadly with her death due to complications with AIDS in 1989.
As expected Edgewise is filled with hysterical and unquestionably memorable stories about Cookie. Now I don’t want to ruin too much for you, dear readers, but I would be remiss if I didn’t include one of my favorite Mueller stories from Mueller’s Baltimore friend Pat Burgee:
“So we’re on the bus and this really creepy-looking Baltimore guy gets on and sits next to us on the other side of the aisle…yuck. Then he looks over at us and by about the third block, he was beating off, which happened on the buses of Baltimore. There were people on this bus, old women and they’re looking over and you can hear the tisking and it’s like, oh Geez, that’s disgusting! Cookie said, “I’ll fix it.” I’m like, “Well, what are you going to do?” and she says, “You’ll see,” and se takes a couple of seconds to get it together and then she leans over and she vomits on it. She vomits all over the guy–it really spoiled his pleasure. I said, “how the hell did you do that?’ and she said, “I can vomit at will.” She’s the only person I ever met who could vomit when she felt like it. Of course, now we were more disgusting to the old women on the bus than he was after that, but dear God, that was hysterically fucking funny…” (79).
If only we all had such talent!
In addition to her work in our filth elder John Waters’ films, Mueller’s also starred in Downtown films such as Underground U.S.A., The Smithereens and Variety. Aside from her stint as an underground film diva, Mueller was also an incredible writer with a healthy dose of both grit and wit as seen in her books like How To Get Rid of Pimples, her art review column in Details Magazine and my personal favorite, her health column “Ask Dr. Mueller” in the East Village Eye, in which she gave readers crackpot advice like “use a butt plug” to a (let’s be honest, most likely fictional) gay man concerned with his penchant for shitting his pants when he farts.
However, as John Waters states in Edgewise, “It’s a tough story because it has such a sad ending. A really sad ending…” (277). Shortly after meeting her future husband Vittorio Scarpati on a trip to Italy, both Mueller and Scarpati fell ill, sharing a hospital room during some of their last days together. Edgewise presents several bittersweet photographs documenting their duo hospital room with Mueller obviously holding court, still full of life.
As Bruce Fuller recalls, “I always said they were like Lucy and Ricky with AIDS. She was very vocal in the hospital. Those are some of my best memories of her, even though it was very sad. They were so young I had no idea they were even going to die, to tell you the truth” (277).
A moving example of the power of oral history, Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller not only creates a complex and detailed account of Mueller’s life, but it also weaves her personal story amongst the larger narrative of these cultural scenes from Waters’ Baltimore to the height of East Village creativity to its inevitable disappearance during the devastating losses due to HIV/AIDS. As Mueller herself wrote about those who passed away from complications from AIDS, “These were the kind of people who lifted the quality of all our lives, their war against ignorance, the bankruptcy of beauty, and the truancy of culture. They were the people who hated and scorned pettiness, intolerance, bigotry, mediocrity, ugliness and spiritual myopia; the blindness the makes life hollow and insipid was unacceptable” (16).
Undoubtedly, as seen in Edgewise, Mueller was one of those people and we can thank Griffin for making Mueller’s stories “breathe, talk, smoke and come alive” (14).