Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller

by Chloé Griffin, b_books Verlag, €22 (softcover)

By Helen Sumpter

Chloé Griffin’s illustrated biographical tribute to Cookie Mueller (who died in 1989 at the age of forty), a pivotal character in downtown New York’s punk avant-garde during the late 1970s and 1980s, reveals Mueller’s roles as actress, performer, nascent writer and critic, wife, mother, lover, sometime go-go dancer and drug dealer, and fulltime partygoer. Griffin tells her story through the words of the friends and family who knew and loved her best. These include cult film director John Waters, whose early films she acted in; Mueller’s son, Max; her longtime lover Sharon Niesp; and a host of other underground artists, writers, poets and filmmakers, a total of 80 interviews, undertaken over a seven-year period.

With little context as to who the less well known members of this vast cast are (the biographies are all at the back), Griffin’s use of edited quotes from these interviews as the main text makes this book initially difficult to engage with. The more one reads, however, the more this approach pays off. Not only does the reader gradually get to know Mueller, who was by all accounts a likeable, inspirational, creative free spirit, often chaotic but also caring and warmhearted, but one also gets to know the entire cast as members of a big, if somewhat dysfunctional, extended family.

Most, like Mueller, emerge as lower-and middle-class suburbanites with a desire for a more creative life, a desire that drew them all to a New York that was, at the time, rundown and virtually bankrupt, where property and drugs were cheap, where sexuality was acceptably fluid and where creativity and club culture could flourish – that is until AIDS decimated the community, taking Mueller with it. Not all embraced that life with quite the degree of enthusiasm, optimism and openness that Mueller did, but those are the qualities that attracted others to her at the time, that drew Griffin – herself an actress, artist, author and underground filmmaker – to want to research her story and that will draw readers, this one included, to want to read more of Mueller’s own writings. 

This article was first published in the January & February 2015 issue.