Cookie Mueller’s Collected Stories Retrace the Life of a Downtown Icon

The Semiotext(e) reissue of Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black re-traces Cookie Mueller’s cultural impact chronologically, from her rebellious teen years in Baltimore to her time as a single mother in the East Village.

by Greta Rainbow
Originally Published: 

Cookie Mueller portrait, crossing her arms looking directly into camera
Courtesy of Getty Images

Every art writer girl in New York wishes she was Cookie Mueller, even if she doesn’t know it. Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, published after Mueller died in 1989, collected the essays and short stories of the woman beloved from the Haight-Ashbury to Mudd Club to Capri. Semiotext(e)’s reissue, out April 26, more than doubles the text, including her Dr. Mueller advice column, a novella, and four recently discovered, previously unpublished works. It is a guidebook for a life lived freely but with care, fleeting but sublime. If a vibe shift toward hedonism is real, then total surrender to adventure—as in, not just taking pictures of friends smoking cigarettes inside, but actually breaking the rules—should be the blueprint.

Mueller is always introduced as a multi-multihyphenate, perhaps because writer types, wasting away in dark offices, can’t believe she experienced all that she did. She was a John Waters Dreamlander, fashion designer, alternative health columnist, sailor, art critic, go-go dancer, drug dealer, and a single mother. Semiotext(e), the indie press popularized by Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, structures Walking Through Clear Water as chronologically as possible. We meet Mueller as a teenager in Baltimore in 1964, already busy breaking the social contract. We get to know her in San Francisco—the druggie years that ended in hospitalization—and in Waters’s queered version of her hometown. (For Pink Flamingos, he cast Mueller in a sex scene with decapitated chickens.) She moves to Manhattan but takes romps to Berlin and Jamaica. By the end of her life stories, you can read the subsequent fiction and scene reports, and envision Mueller typing them up in her East Village apartment, son on her hip and cigarette between lips.

When Joan Didion and Eve Babitz passed away last December, the feminine raconteur became an inescapable trope. Bookstores sold out of their essays on 20th-century American oddity and columnists prostrated themselves in the paper, admitting to stealing Didion’s jargon-free style. With bell hooks’s passing that same week, the poetics of Black feminism were broadcast on the radio. The woman who observes was made so visible, a rarity—Didion claimed that her only advantage as a reporter was being “so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive and so neurotically inarticulate” that people forgot she was there taking notes in her head. But Mueller, with her wild hair and bad skin and weird-sexy wardrobe, could never get away with that. She didn’t want to. First and foremost, she was a participant. Reading Mueller’s eulogy to Jean-Michel Basquiat, it’s clear that her calling wasn’t to describe his paintings but the bad mood he was in at his own jacuzzi party—thereby critiquing commodification of the artist.

This is the opposite of the fly-on-the-wall technique; instead, Mueller looked like someone who should be invited to the function. One summer at a nude beach on Cape Cod, her tattoos were turning heads. This was sometime in the 1970s, when ink on a woman’s body was very much a taboo, and strangers wanted to know who drew the Pisces sign on her arm and the lizard eating its tail on her thigh. When she told them she did them all herself, she couldn’t stock up on India ink fast enough to give all the hippies on the Cape permanent third eyes.

“A lot of people got tattoos that summer. Some got hooked,” she wrote. “That following winter, in Provincetown, tattoo fever overtook the town… It was better than hanging in a bar, more sociable than Canasta, more exciting than Monopoly, as challenging as Scrabble, and cheaper than gambling at poker. In the old traditional New England way, it was an arty masochist’s version of a sewing bee.” We have Mueller to thank—or blame—for the cottage industry of Brooklyn handpoke artists.

Still, it’s hard to imagine where Mueller might fit in during this current era; she would be 73 if she hadn’t died of AIDS-related pneumonia at age 40. She likely would have had thoughts on the current health crisis. Prior to her own diagnosis, Mueller used her column–where she is illustrated as a bombshell with a stethoscope–to urge readers with AIDS to try homeopathic methods. “Like some bizarre sci-fi CIA plot the [American Medical Association] seems to be trying, albeit unwittingly, to obliterate the following groups: queers, voodooers, drug fiends, hemophiliacs who need transfusions often, and straights who share Sabrett hotdogs with gays,” she wrote. “I’m tired of going to wakes. I miss these people.”

As mistrustful as Mueller was of government groupthink, she was even more tolerant of weirdo human beings with their quirks and pathologies. “The One Percent” was one of her proverbial fiction stories that garnered recognition while she was alive. In the story, a man with a urine fetish is shamed, then accepted, then sick with the virus—“How could the beautiful golden fluid, the pure honest liquid, have been so bad, so evil, so unsafe?” she wrote—until he is cured by drinking his own urine, just as it was claimed Mohandas Gandhi did in his lifetime.

In her introduction to the Semiotext(e) reissue, writer Olivia Laing notes Mueller’s ability to make even the terrifying “a communal pleasure rather than a private humiliation,” and “it goes without saying this is not the dominant style right now.” Since we started leading double lives on the algorithmic internet, we have lost moments of collectivity and chance. Less happens out in the world, because if you do your banking on an app, you won’t witness the woman in line emptying her bowels on the tiled floor, like Mueller saw and described as a morning confrontation with aging for everyone there. Autobiographical fiction, the style du jour, reflects this narrowing. Often radically, emotionally open, these narratives also center the self and its dull minutiae. 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. 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.

On almost anyone else, an air of nonchalance about extraordinary things would start to irritate, like Le Labo spritzed one time too many. Mueller stressed that she was not trying to be so interesting. When a couple whose house she cleaned propositioned her to be their third, she wondered, “Why does everybody think I’m so wild? I’m not wild. I happen to stumble onto wildness. It gets in my path.” She made it feel possible for all of us to find ourselves in situations worth writing about, should we walk out the door and start living.

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