A counterculture scene queen revisited

Chloé Griffin’s Edgewise documents the life & times of John Waters actress, NYC art critic, columnist & dealer to the superstars Cookie Mueller.

Cookie Mueller & John Waters
John Waters and Cookie Mueller
From her acting days in her native Maryland, where she performed alongside Divine in the films that made John Waters’ name (Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble), to her years as an art critic and columnist for Details and downtown NYC magazines The East Village Eye and Bomb, Cookie Mueller was on the periphery of some of the most exciting cultural movements of the late 20th century.

Like so many suburban misfit youths in the ’50s and ’60s, Mueller spent time in a mental institution and ran away to the nearest big city (Baltimore), landing the go-go dancing gig that led to her career in underground film. She’s also remembered as a queer icon, fashionista, drug-party hostess and storyteller.

Chloé Griffin, a Montreal artist living in Berlin, documents the life and times of the actress and writer in her exhaustive and visually stunning 336-page illustrated oral history, Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller. I spoke to Griffin ahead of the book’s launch this Thursday at Drawn & Quarterly.

Lorraine Carpenter: When did Cookie Mueller appear on your radar?
Chloé Griffin: I was first introduced to Cookie through John Waters films. I think the first one was probably Female Trouble, where she plays Divine’s misfit classmate girlfriend Concetta. I was just out of high school at that point and I had had a lot of problems, so I kind of identified with this tough-girl, badass, rebel-type crew of people. To me, they made all the trouble I got into seem fun and glamorous.

It was some years later when I picked up her collection of short stories, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black. Reading that, you come in contact with her presence in a direct way because her voice is so immediate and so present. I fell in love with her sense of humour and her way of approaching life and the way she would observe things. She was a very adventurous woman, and she had this way of describing these adventures, which were sometimes quite heartbreaking, and turning them into these comical, philosophical revelations.

Edgewise_CoverLC: I understand that this project has taken nearly a decade to complete. How did it begin?
CG: After I read that book I wanted to do a homage to her, but I didn’t know if it would be a book or a film — I had mostly made these no-budget films at that point. I wasn’t able to get any funding for a film so I decided to go out and see what I could find on my own. I was going to be in New York visiting my cousin and I just set out and started asking people, “Do you know anyone who knew Cookie?”

I got a clue that Cookie’s very close friend and ex-girlfriend Sharon Niesp was in Provincetown, working in a pizza shop. I made my way out there — it was a 10-hour journey to have coffee with this woman — and we clicked instantly. In a way that was the most significant moment because meeting her, and then the next day meeting Cookie’s son Max, who also lives there, it was like arriving at the heart of Cookie. Basically those friendships fuelled the search to go on and to mature over the years, and led me to all the other people I ended up speaking with.

Image by Gwenaël Rattke
Image by Gwenaël Rattke
LC: Can you think of any contemporary parallels to Cookie, anyone out there now that could be compared to her?
CG: The thing about Cookie was the way she was so uniquely her own person. The times are so different now; I don’t know if someone could live the way she did and work the way she did — I mean they could, but I don’t know that anyone does. She worked outside the structures of qualifications and proper job credentials; she got by with her wit and her charisma and character, basically, and of course her way of capturing the moment in her writing, her ability to see and understand the zeitgeist.

She certainly has influenced a whole wave of writers following her, by way of her personalized style of chronicling scenes and art movements; this mixing between the personal and public and the professional and the amateur.

LC: Her life had its tragic elements, of course [Mueller died of AIDS in 1989], and was marked by some unwise decisions, but overall do you find hers to be an inspiring story?
CG: Oh yeah, for me it definitely was. She was a very inspiring character, despite the risky and difficult and tragic events, but that’s life. I had different points in my relationship to her where I felt disillusioned, but for me that made her into a real person. In the beginning you have this idea of someone like her, through films, and it’s very fantastical and exhilarating, and as the picture unfolds you find their insecurities and their vulnerabilities, but in a way it makes you love them more as a person. ■
Chloé Griffin launches her book Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly (211 Bernard) on Thursday, Oct. 9, 7-9 p.m.