interview

Living with Cookie

By Alysia Abbott
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Living with Cookie
Cookie and Max. Photo by Nan Goldin, courtesy of Max Mueller.

Cookie Mueller may be best known as a cult actress and muse to filmmaker John Waters—playing alongside Divine in Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble—and photographer Nan Goldin. But she was an artist in her own right: she was an art editor for Details magazine during the 80s and wrote an irreverent health column for the East Village Eye called “Ask Dr. Mueller.” She also published a number of poetry and prose works, like How to Get Rid of Pimples, Walking Through Clear Water In A Pool Painted Black, which has just been translated into French, and Drugs, a play written with Glenn O’Brien, now in print for the first time this year.

Mueller was born in Baltimore in 1949. As a teenager she wore loads of makeup and dyed and sprayed her hair into towering bouffants. “Whenever you’re depressed, just change your hair color,” she quoted her mother as saying.

On November 10, 1989, at age 40, Mueller died of AIDS, a few months after her husband, artist Vittorio Scarpati, also died from the disease. “Cookie Mueller wrote like a lunatic Uncle Remus—spinning little stories from Hell that will make any reader laugh out loud,” John Waters once said. “She was a writer, a mother, an outlaw, an actress, a fashion designer, a go-go dancer, a witch doctor, an art-hag, and above all, a goddess. Boy, do I miss that girl.”

Besides the writing and film legacy Mueller left behind, she is also survived by a son, Max Wolfe Mueller, who was 18 when his mother passed away. Max spoke to The Recollectors about his memories of his (in)famous mother.

Cookie. Photo by Nan Goldin, courtesy of Max Mueller.

Cookie. Photo by Nan Goldin, courtesy of Max Mueller.

 

Thanks for talking with me for The Recollectors Project.

I’ve never really talked with other people who’ve been through the same thing I did. Never seemed to be the right time to say something. Maybe now it’s time.

What are some of your earliest memories of your mother?

My mother in Provincetown just before we moved to New York right before my 7th birthday in 1978, onto Bleecker Street [in the West Village]. Me and my mother, and maybe Sharon too—my mother’s lover. It was a second-floor railroad apartment, [with] four rooms and a bathroom. Nowadays they’d make it into two apartments. The apartment was right off Seventh Avenue, above Ottomanelli’s meat butcher shop.

I had temper tantrums because she wanted to leave me at home. But wherever we went—The Mudd Club; people’s houses—I would find a place to sleep, often on people’s coats. I remember waking up in places I’d never been. I didn’t know where I was and I was alone, but I couldn’t leave. Sometimes she’d leave a note. I had a fear of abandonment that has affected me my whole life because of stuff like that. Then, at a certain point, at about 11 or 12, I started to want to stay home.

At one point did you realize your “normal” wasn’t the same as other kids’?

I never gave it much thought, to tell you the truth. I was a baby when I started hanging around with John Waters’ whole crew. I kind of felt that was more normal. Other people were too square. I played Baby Noodles in Pink Flamingos. John still comes to town [Provincetown] every summer and he says, “Little Noodles, how you doing?” He’s an uncle figure.

Cookie Mueller with John Waters at a New York party, 1977. Photo by Bobby Grossman, courtesy of Max Mueller.

Cookie Mueller with John Waters at a New York party, 1977. Photo by Bobby Grossman, courtesy of Max Mueller.

You grew up in New York City but you’ve settled in Cape Cod, where you spent your early childhood. How do you feel about New York today?

I still love the place and have friends there, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Especially in the summertime. When my mother moved to the city I spent the summers with my father in the Cape.

I left the city after I lost my mother’s apartment, after she passed. I was dissolute. I had this stupid idea to stay and let my friends move into our apartment and be my roommates. But the rent wasn’t being paid. Bills weren’t being paid. I had some rough friends. And eventually I was evicted, after 20-something years of living there. It was a rent-controlled place, $600. It was a disaster.

What was your relationship with your mom’s scene as a kid?

I was so involved with her life. I’d watch her write; I’d talk to her as a friend about whatever she was working on; I would always go to her poetry readings. I remember going to St. Mark’s Church poetry reading. And she and Allen Ginsberg were deciding who’d go first. “Why don’t you flip a coin?” [Ginsberg] asked me, but I didn’t know how. So he taught me. “You gotta put your thumb under it and flick it so it spins.”

But there was definitely that point when I became a teenager and wanted my own identity. And I wasn’t as enthusiastic about all that she was into. Especially a lot of the heavier, weirder stuff, like her selling drugs out of the apartment. I was aware of it but I was keeping my distance. I don’t know when it started, but my memory was there were always people coming in and out. A lot of friends staying over—crazy artist types, poets, including Gregory Corso, who was my godfather. They’d come and party. They’d come from out of town. I still sleep better with the murmur of people talking.

I used to call Sharon [Cookie’s lover] “Sergeant Granny” because she kept the order. She was the only strong figure in my life. My mother was always very lenient with me. Sharon was a stricter person.

Cookie and Sharon, aka "Sargeant Granny," dancing in Provincetown.

Cookie and Sharon, aka “Sargeant Granny,” dancing in Provincetown.

How did your mom handle you as a teenager?

I’d started drinking and smoking pot and spending a lot of time in Washington Square Park. It was a different place then. It was a circus, a fair. Everything and anything. It was awesome. We used to sneak into NYU buildings, like Tisch Hall, and smoke blunts.

Graffiti and pot were an important part of our lives. That and rap. I was listening to KRS-One, the Jungle Brothers. Eric B and Rakim. At a certain point we just started smoking weed in my apartment. We thought we were adults. Her attitude: she tolerated my friends.

I hardly ever argued with my mother. But when I was 14, in 1985, I got arrested a couple of times. I was already a seasoned veteran at shoplifting. We would always go out stealing spray paint. We didn’t have money to buy so we stole it all. We broke into a local home improvement store and stole 300 cans of spray paint. It was a bunch of us, and we filled garbage bags. When we ran out two months later, we went back. We didn’t know the place had been alarmed.

What was your first memory about HIV/AIDS?

A lot of her friends were dying of AIDS. We went to a lot of funerals. Jackie Curtis’ was one of the first I remember. I knew him more as his/her persona. As opposed to just him or her. We went to his wedding in the East Village. This was long before marriage equality. He had his name changed, then got his sex changed on paper, and became a women legally.

I was maybe a preteen when I knew he was sick. My mother talked about it. She treated me like an adult. His funeral was just sad. It was on the East Side at a funeral parlor on Second Avenue. I just remember everybody being there and everybody crying.

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When did you learn your mom was HIV-positive?

I never  imagined that she would possibly get sick and die. I was 16 when I was told she had AIDS. But she couldn’t tell me. She had my father tell me, in Provincetown. He lived there year-round. It was rough. I kind of had some suspicions; I had seen medical paperwork and stuff like that. But I was in denial about it. It wasn’t until he told me that it sank in—that this was reality. I had to support her and take care of her. By this time, Sharon had been gone for years.

After my mom her her stroke, it was hard for me to deal with. Sharon came back and helped. She really stepped up. She was there until the end.

There were a lot of people who would come and help make food and help clean. Just come and spend time with her. My father said “Come and live on the Cape.” My grandmother wanted me to move to Baltimore with her. I kind of decided that I was going to stick it out then be an adult and live on my own. I thought, it sucks but I’m going to try to move on with my life.

You’re a father now.

I have a daughter named Razilee, which means “my secret” in Hebrew. She’s 14 and very smart and achieved high honors in one of the best schools in Massachusetts. I’m very proud of her.

Is your daughter aware of your mom’s cult status?

She knows a bit. She’s seen a lot online. Her mother [Max’s ex ] and I share everything with her, giving her all the books. But I don’t think she’s seen any of the movies.

Where are your mom’s ashes?

Some are in P-town, in the dunes. Her friend Richard brought some to Rio [de Janeiro] and put them under the Jesus statue. I put most of her ashes with Vittorio’s when I went to Italy in 1990. When I went to Berlin two years ago for Chloe Griffin’s book [Edgewise], she and I flew to Italy, and found the Scarpati family mausoleum in the town of Meta. I hadn’t been since 1990, so it was hard to find and I never knew if my mother was on the gravestone. Her name was there, alongside Vittorio’s, and the other members of his immediate family who’ve since passed. It was a beautiful day. It felt like a big burden was being lifted from my shoulders.

I will give the last words to Cookie:

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.” – Cookie Mueller, written shortly before her death in 1989.

 

 

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