What is it about a certain sort of authoress that triggers a reader’s instinct for self-identification? Enough ink has been spilled on the topic of women who think they are Joan Didion to slouch us all the way towards Bethlehem and back. Eve Babitz, too, has become an eidolon for a certain set of bookish women who long to strip down to their skivvies for a game of chess with Marcel Duchamp. It seems to me that Cookie Mueller, who shares with Didion a talent for capturing a cultural scene, and with Babitz a life lived at the center of the party, is the latest writer to be elevated to this kind of type. Though Mueller is perhaps best known for starring in the early films of John Waters—and especially the infamous sex scene in Pink Flamingos involving a ménage à trois with a chicken—the publication of her collected stories and articles, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, is sure to bring her writing to the fore.
Mueller’s pieces are incredibly short—she once likened her stories to novels for people with attention-deficit disorder—and so the book is a wonderful companion for the bedside of a debauched insomniac. Although the collection includes some fables and advice columns, much of what is in Walking Through Clear Water reads rather like diary entries, starting when Mueller was 15. Unlike most teen girls’ diaries, however, what the young Mueller wrote is often hilarious on purpose and actually interesting to read. In one entry, written in 1967, when she was 19 and living in Haight-Ashbury (in a house with 11 other people, across from Janis Joplin’s place), Mueller was woken up by an earthquake. She left the house and soon met the Manson Family on a San Francisco sidewalk, who invited her to join them on a road trip to Los Angeles, but declined because she thought they looked like suburban poseurs. “These people,” she wrote of the Manson girls, “were weaned into peace and free love straight from their parents’ Wonderbread and Cheese Doodles so they were disgustingly enthusiastic.” She then encountered a woman bragging about having slept with Jimi Hendrix the night before: “It seemed silly,” Mueller wrote. “I’d fucked him the night before she had.” When she returned home, she stumbled upon a “capping party” in the living room, where she and her housemates took turns measuring out hits of acid into gelatin capsules for the dealer they lived with, until they started tripping too hard as the LSD leaked onto their fingers. Later, while walking off the drugs, Mueller stumbled upon a Catholic church, where she got into the priest’s side of the confession booth and relaxed until a man slid open the priest side window and whispered “Let me eat you” repeatedly. She ran out of the church, where she was almost hit by a truck… carrying the Grateful Dead. Then—and this is all on one page of the memoir—she met a friend who brought her along to some kind of “black magic” ritual involving peyote and, potentially, human sacrifice. She stole a car to make her escape, got home, took a bath, went out to see Jim Morrison, and then was raped by a man who used the promise of meeting Stokely Carmichael as a lure to get her into his car—which she writes about as if it were merely a fact of life.
“It wasn’t even done well,” she noted, “and he was stupid besides. Just like the young girls on the Manson bus.” She jumped out of the car, and some hippies gave her rapist a massive dose of acid to debilitate him. When she returned home, “a bit shaken,” and told her housemates what had happened, they “got upset for a minute…and then asked why I was the one who got to have all the fun.” Then they encouraged her to chill out with cocaine and crystal meth, after which they “ushered in the dawn talking about aesthetics, Eastern philosophy, Mu, Atlantis, and the coming apocalypse.”
Mueller recalls this time as if it were just a lark. And because the collection has been arranged chronologically (from her teenage years in the late ’60s to her death in 1989), it is only once you reach the end that she writes openly about how her stint in San Francisco landed her in a mental institution in ’69, where she received electroshock therapy. This was not an intended part of her treatment plan: She waited on the wrong line for her pills and ended up in the electroshock room, but in the end she found the experience “rather pleasant,” and it had the added benefit of wiping her memory of all the “stupid literature” she’d ever read.
After her time in Haight-Ashbury, now back home in Baltimore, she was incorporated into the “Dreamland” of John Waters, the director’s movie-making answer to Andy Warhol’s Factory. He first cast her in Multiple Maniacs (1970), where Mueller befriended Divine, the actor and drag queen who would star in most of Waters’s films. She then moved to New York in 1978, where she was at the center of a downtown art scene that included Basquiat and Kathy Acker and Richard Hell. She starred in Gary Indiana’s play The Roman Polanski Story (1987) as Sharon Tate, though, of course, she had met most of the other characters in the flesh in San Francisco. And she played muse to dozens of others—Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, the list goes on, Madonna allegedly jacked Cookie’s style. She was best friends with Nan Goldin, who took photographs of Cookie partying, her scary-beautiful mug thrown back in laughter; of Cookie’s wedding to the Italian artist Vittorio Scarpati; of Cookie in her casket three years later, after she’d succumbed to AIDS.
As a chronicler of what feels, at a remove, like the heyday of American countercultural life, it makes sense that Mueller has been grouped with Didion and Babitz, but her work is quite different from theirs. If Didion was an obsessive stylist, set on presenting herself as a lotus flower bobbing gracefully above the river of lunacy that was her time, Mueller writes more like, as Waters described it, “a lunatic Uncle Remus, spinning little stories from Hell that will make any reader laugh out loud.” If Babitz spent hundreds of pages pining for famous men who didn’t love her anymore in a sort of roman à clef style, Mueller writes about famous people as background characters to the wonderful time that she and her friends were having. But there is still something about the way these three women have depicted their lives in writing that makes it compelling to break them up into a triad of types: Didion as the consummate insider-outsider, a detached scholar who witnesses life from above; Babitz as the anhedonic party girl who is often in the Hollywood scene but rarely ever happy there; and Mueller as a burst of energy, someone whose operative mode lacks the self-reflexivity of a person who is fashioning a persona for themselves. You can tell she is too busy living.
Cookie is closing out the club, she is saving the life of a friend from a heroin overdose in a bathtub and then popping a bottle of champagne to celebrate, she is a junkie Patrick Leigh Fermor—scaling a wall in Berlin in a miniskirt to avoid paying a friend’s room service bill; traveling around Jamaica with her son and some livestock; slipping through customs with an underwire bra packed full of heroin and ecstasy; flying to Italy with a backpack and no plans, and meeting her future husband in Positano. From her writing, you can tell this is someone who loved being alive, who loved caring for people, which becomes especially tragic as you read about the lives of her closest friends, and then her own, being brutally cut short by the AIDS crisis.
Mueller paid the rent and supported her young son as a drug dealer, a go-go dancer, and then mostly by writing art criticism for Details and BOMB, advice columns, and journalism, all of which is collected in this book and is not only entertaining—you understand why people so desperately wanted her around, even when she writes about burning her friend’s house to the ground by accident—but also provides an enlightening record of the Lower East Side cultural scene in the 1980s, written by someone at its center. It’s one that is especially vital now, as we see the work of those artists—casualties, like Mueller, of AIDS and heroin—stripped of meaning and context, sold for millions at auction houses uptown, used as backdrops for Tiffany’s ads and as nostalgia porn for boring lifestyle-magazine shoots.
Through Mueller’s nonjudgmental eyes, this downtown scene becomes animated again, with all its bleakness, its love, and its tragedy, in a way that other works fail to do, even as they try to write the scene’s hagiography. In a moment when this cultural product is being mined so brazenly for capital, it’s a shame that Cookie, the consummate hustler, couldn’t stick around to see it, to joke about it, and even make that buck.
As Mueller’s aesthetic (much like Didion’s and Babitz’s) is memorialized by the fashion world—the designer Raf Simons dedicated a collection to her in 2018—Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black shows us that Mueller’s cultural insights still ring true today. In her column for Details in 1987, she wrote: “Never have so many with so little become so big for a duration of time so short. Never before has such a shiftless bunch of life’s lightweights hewn such formidable nests for themselves in so many people’s minds. Never before have the woody meandering paths of directionless plodders led to the blazing floodlit clearing in the forest, the center ring for the mini-history makers.” I posted a photo of this paragraph with the date crossed out on my Instagram story, to which a sociologist I know replied, “Dying to know which one of my friends this is about.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified a demographic cohort. The article has been amended.