John Waters and Cookie Mueller

John Waters and Cookie Mueller in 1979

Reviewing Chloé Griffen’s oral history Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller for the Rumpus in 2015, Matt Kessler called Mueller a “junkie, go-go dancer, B-list movie star, art critic, socialite, and John Waters muse. If this isn’t your idea of a hero, well, go fuck yourself. You probably won’t like Cookie.” Seven weeks after AIDS killed her husband, the Italian artist Vittorio Scarpati, Muller died from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1989 at the age of forty. Waters, still very much alive at seventy-six, has just written his first novel, Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance.

“I think it’s the most insane thing I’ve ever written,” Waters tells Time’s Judy Berman. That’s a considerable claim, coming from the author of a good handful of nonfiction collections ranging from Shock Value (1981) to Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder (2019)—never mind the screenplays for such midnight shockers as Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Pink Flamingos (1972). In Liarmouth, Poppy, who runs a trampoline park on the outer edge of Baltimore, decides to kill her mother, Marsha, a misanthrope who lives from one stolen suitcase to the next. “A vibration of glee will twerk its way up and down a reader’s spine if she dares to imagine a team of publicists sweating to sell Waters’s filthy creation as a manual of insight into the female condition,” writes Molly Young in the New York Times. “When you read a book like this, you’re wandering into a maze of anarchy that is fully legible only to its creator.”

“I just wanted to try something I hadn’t done,” says Waters, talking to NPR’s Andrew Limbong. “Same reason I took LSD when I was seventy. The same reason I hitchhiked across America when I was sixty-six. Why not try to write your first novel in your mid-seventies? I want to keep trying new things. Dare yourself.

Waters and Cookie Mueller hit it off immediately when they first met at the premiere of his first feature, Mondo Trasho (1969). He cast her in his next film, Multiple Maniacs, and in Pink Flamingos as a spy raped by a delinquent with a thing for involving live chickens in the act. In Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, a newly reissued collection of stories, vignettes, and reviews, Mueller recalled the day that her mother got hold of the screenplay.

Jessica Ferri recounts the scene in the Los Angeles Times: “‘ART?!?!?! ART!?!?! THIS ISN’T ART!!’ . . . ‘Mom, hold on. Sit down.’ Waters pulls up in the driveway. ‘IS THAT MANIAC OUT THERE?!? I’M GOING TO GIVE HIM A PIECE OF MY MIND.’ ‘Did she read the script or something?’ Waters asks. ‘She was brought up in the Deep South as a Southern Baptist. That was high drama,’ Mueller says. ‘She’s an actress.’ Waters responds with a laugh: ‘Maybe I ought to give her a part in the film.’”

According to Waters, when he and another of his regular cast members, Mink Stole, visited Mueller in the hospital, he asked, “What happened, Cook?” And she replied, “Just a little female trouble, hon.” She recovered to appear in his next film—Female Trouble (1974), naturally—as well as in Desperate Living (1977) and Polyester (1981). “I love Mueller the actress,” writes Sasha Frere-Jones at 4Columns, “but I return to Mueller the writer. Her writing makes me feel the way many of her contemporaries did about her: hypnotized by the generosity she afforded others and how quickly she found humanity in mayhem.”

Mueller started writing as a young child and never stopped. She excelled at short pieces, whether fiction or nonfiction, and wrote a novella, a health column for the East Village Eye, and art reviews for Details. “Mueller’s version of ‘another boring day’ includes apprehending a burglar, signing an autograph for her cab driver, finding a fat (yet fruitless) wallet in another cab, and getting locked in a Chinese restaurant,” writes Greta Rainbow in W Magazine. “Today’s notable examples of auto-fiction, like Tao Lin’s Leave Society or Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, comfort me but do not inspire me to do anything different.”

New York’s Metrograph is currently presenting Stumbling onto Madness: Cookie Mueller on Film, a series running through May 19. “Even if the roles were small, her libidinal fury and unpretentious intellect still left an impression on a series of independent and No Wave titles made in New York, some of which have been remembered, and others that only exist now as degraded VHS rips, if at all,” writes Isabella Trimboli for Metrograph’s Journal. “But Cookie has been deified . . . Visible in her acting was a credo that inflamed her writing: to be open and free while remaining staunch, to be wise to the world without being calcified by it.”

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