“The word ‘future’ wasn’t in my vocabulary”: On Cookie Mueller’s “Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black: Collected Stories” – lareviewofbooks | Candle Made Easy

IN THE FALL OF 1967, The Doors played a concert at the Berkeley Community Theater. The crowd was fast and heavy. The visionary artist Cookie Mueller was also part of the motley crew of hippies, dropouts and junkies. After fleeing the Baltimore suburbs, Cookie stood at the back, eyes bright, clutching an empty beer can. Her friends Kathy and Eve tried to get backstage to fuck Jim Morrison but Cookie wanted to go home to the Haight-Ashbury. She suffered from stomach cramps from LSD laced with detergent. When she stumbled into her room after midnight, she was leaning over her desk with her notebook open. She wanted to write about her insatiable adventures, the summer was just over. But before she could grab a pen, a voice said over her shoulder, “We’re going to have some fun, Cookie.” She didn’t hesitate to join in.

Years later, after moving to New York, she wrote voraciously. This highly varied body of work—fragments of memoirs, quirky vignettes, and often hilarious newspaper columns—was collected in the 1990 volume Walking through clear water in a pool painted black, which has now been reissued. Though much reads like autofiction, at times Cookie’s life was too fantastic to be captured in that form. According to her friends, she really did burn down a house in the Canadian Rockies and leave their toddler Max tied to a tree; you did fucking Jimi Hendrix before summoning demons on Mount Tamalpais in San Francisco; you did fleeing a hotel half-naked, refusing to pay the bill, and scaling the Berlin Wall to yell at confused passers-by.

One of the many delights of this collection is the introduction to the incredible cast of good-for-nothings that populated Cookie’s world. When she lived in a cheap Baltimore neighborhood known as Lovegrove Alley, her house was full of weirdos. “I still have nightmares about this place,” she writes. Pretty lesbian Babette never wore a shirt indoors, while Nash, the homeless hippie philosopher, sold LSD and spent days on the sofa wrapped in dark fabrics. Cookie had a pet monkey that would hunt roaches, swing from the exposed pipes, and sip from bottles of cheap champagne.

It was around this time that she met filmmaker John Waters. Although she was working on a novel, she put it aside to star in his 1970 film. Several madmen. “I danced around in the movie topless in shorts and explained to my mother, Divine, how great it is to be tear gassed at anti-war rallies,” she writes. “I was terrible in that movie, I couldn’t remember any lines.” But she would soon be an underground star. Waters worked hard on her, as he did on the entire cast. When Cookie appeared in Pink flamingos (1972), the film for which she is best known, the improvement in her acting was evident. She had observed the techniques of Waters’ experienced actors. One lesson was to scream. Because of the low-budget sound system, no one would hear you unless you screamed. “There are many brave people in the world: those who climb Mount Everest, those who work in the Kentucky coal mines, those who fly into space as astronauts, those who dive for pearls. Few are as brave as actors who work with John Waters.”

In a play called “The Pig Farm,” Cookie moves to Pennsylvania with an illiterate man named Herb Eickerman. The story encapsulates the best of her writing: vivid, immediate and raw, it evokes a fleeting moment in time that had profound consequences. Cookie traipses through vast fields of mud, throws down hay, adopts a piglet, and spends days riding a black horse high on grass. The lovers sing country hits and sleep on the same horsehair mattress Herb was born on. “It was very romantic.” But when Herb is jailed for growing marijuana, Cookie soon forgets about him. “I was the last woman he saw. He was probably jerking off every night because he was thinking about me. I felt guilty about that. I should have sent him some porn magazines or found him a pen pal.” Her scruffy realism not only takes you among the farm animals, but also into their nonconformist worldview. She shows the immense beauty of having no plans and rejecting what was then called “straight life”. Cookie wants something different, to live in it the extreme present. She wants access to a fleeting emotion or angle that comes from chasing the moon and avoiding the crowd. “The word ‘future’ wasn’t part of my vocabulary.”

In the early 1980s, she was in New York working on a play about Edgar Allan Poe and learning hard lessons about the craft of writing. Ultimately, with such a popular historical figure, it was best to ignore authenticity: getting too close to biography would obscure Poe’s dramatic appeal. He took opiates, married his 13-year-old cousin, and drank himself to death. Cookie wanted to highlight those details, but her co-writer Matt Beyer became obsessed with the details of Poe’s life. “I called the producer to tell him the play looked retarded. The costumes could save it, but basically it was a snore festival.” She was right. The play never made it out of rehearsals.

After that misfire, Cookie, like many would-be writers in New York, found depression at the door. Her solution: travel. She tried it in Italy. The food, the pace, the sea air might change your brain chemistry and make you forget Central Park ever existed. There are no shadowy bums waiting to rob you, only handsome men. They ride motorcycles and buy you red wine. “After being in New York without male attention for months, I loved it. Most of them looked cute, fluttered their long Bambi lashes at me, and talked to me for miles.” After a few months of frolicking in the sun—“the Italian cure”—Cookie met her future husband, the artist Vittorio Scarpati. know.

Back in New York, her foray into journalism included a column on art for details Magazine. Having a deadline made her sweat. “A journalist’s job is the second most stressful job for air traffic control.” She wrote about the Coney Island Wax Museum, the royal embalmers of ancient Egypt, Van Gogh and the Sistine Chapel. She was fascinated by performance art, particularly the work of Piero Manzoni, who made cans of his own shit, and Chris Burden, who was crucified on the hood of a Volkswagen. Her approach to art was intuitive and scattered. She had a shrewd talent for separating the truly inventive from false imitations. Bad art was everywhere in the East Village. It all looked the same and was largely inspired by money. She was also cynical about art history:

Perhaps by 2058 (if they exist) American art history textbooks in art schools will have chapters on East Villagerism or the East Villager period. Midterm exams include questions like: What was the East Village? When did it happen? Who were the forerunners? Students will remember the names of the painters and even the names of some of their paintings.

According to her friend Susan Lowe, Cookie moved to New York to become famous. Since working with John Waters, the artist has embraced what she saw as her destiny. “Everyone wanted to be a star. Everyone, all over the world. […] It’s modern human nature, a new biological urge.” But her exposure to the art world revealed the cost of fame and its pursuit. She loved Jean-Michel Basquiat and found his art vital and new. She called him a genius. And yet, watching his fate changed her attitude towards fame, exposed his false promise and inhumanity. She saw that packing for the trip was better than getting there, the climb more rewarding than the summit. In a heartbreaking episode, she writes about how Basquiat left his own party and sadly drifted into the night like a cool breeze. She wants to shake him and say, “Don’t you appreciate all this, Jean? Don’t take this achievement so seriously. It’s just a ball, it’s all a party, enjoy. It’s all a facade.”

In a column for the Ostdorf EyeShe took the AIDS crisis with humor. “I think sick people can still see things that might seem funny to them, even if it hurts to laugh.” Cookie is asked what happened to a famous person’s asshole. After a story in the New York Post, it was removed. She replies that the famous asshole was claimed by adoring fans and now the person looks like a Barbie doll. Her observations on the crisis were not those of an outsider. The full force of his confusion, terror, and cruelty licked at her knees. As her husband lay in the hospital with collapsed lungs, she simply wrote, “I hope he comes home soon.” He never did. Cookie himself followed him months later, succumbing to AIDS-related pneumonia at the age of 40. In Nan Goldin’s famous portrait of the artist in her coffin, she finally lies still. Her friends remarked that it seemed impossible, some kind of performance – how could such boundless energy be stopped?

Cookie writes as if one were hearing American slang echoes in the marble halls of a Florentine museum. Each sound is magnified. And there is no place for squares. Read them for all the drugs you’ll never do, for all the people you’ll never fuck. Read them as a reminder to seek out those behind the church gate, the artists, street dwellers and freaks. She will take you on her Moto Guzzi and crush you with her will to live.

¤

Nathan Dunne is the author of Lichtenstein and editor of the collection of essays Tarkovsky. He wrote for The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The guard, slate, LitHuband art forum. His website is: www.nathandunne.com.

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