TV Content: Fiction and Memory Collide Over a Single Image

The season 3 premiere of The Deuce was just as rattling as I feared it might be when they foreshadowed it in S02 by showing and discussing this image of Cookie Mueller at the Nan Goldin character’s exhibition in a midtown bar. The scene is actually anachronistic: it takes place in ’78, but Nan didn’t take the picture until ’83. Cookie is referred to as an actress from Baltimore who was in John Waters’ movies.

The Deuce is about the creation of the porn industry in the 70s. Now that it’s 1984/85 they have waded into the AIDS era; none of us who survived it can remember it with comfort. One recurring character has the disease; everyone else is afraid to get it, unsure of what it really is, as many of us were at the time — I stopped having sex altogether.

I was somewhat peripheral in Cookie’s world, but I still saw her quite a bit, several times a month, either at her apartment on Bleecker, at the seminal nightclub Area or one of the many, many gallery openings downtown. She made me persona non grata when my now-former business partner bounced a sizable check on her during his descent into rehab. Eventually she forgave me for the introduction and the vouch, but she was forever wary of me.

I became useful again when she married Vittorio, a Neapolitan artist. Like most Italians of our generation, he didn’t speak much English, and nobody in our world except me spoke a language as esoteric as Italian, so I was able to keep him company at social events — for those who don’t know my history, I was raised in Rome and speak unaccented Italian, albeit always at a teenage level given that I moved back to NYC when I was sixteen.

I never understood why they were married if they couldn’t really communicate, as sweet and loving as Vittorio was. Then the scandal broke across the downtown scene: both Cookie and Vittorio were battling HIV, the first straight people, along with Tina Chow uptown. I was one of the few who visited Vittorio during his stints at Cabrini Hospital. He told me that he believed he was infected by a West African woman he had an affair with on a two-week-long ship voyage between Lagos and Naples. He and Cookie married for mutual support through the illness that would kill them within months of each other at the end of 1989. By then I was in the middle of my first feature in Kashmir. There was little communication with the world beyond the Valley; civil unrest and violence, which was just beginning then and is still raging today, was erupting all around us. I was twenty-six and hadn’t had sex for close to four years.

That dry spell broke in the beginning of ’90 when I met my first boyfriend on the streets of Juhu in Mumbai. He followed me to NYC, and catapulted himself to the sort of stellar self-made career that Americans rightly hold in high esteem. Our relationship burned up in the process, so I retreated back to India to work on various creative endeavors. I rented the palatial Seaforth Lodge high above an old British hill station in the Himalayas, as a place to struggle with my first novel for Viking, a folly I abandoned after six months, and literature is all the more grateful for my self-awareness. During that time, the ex came to visit, carrying a portion of Cookie’s ashes in a medicine bottle, to be scattered in Gangotri, the source of the Ganges half a day’s journey from my house. I thought it was ghoulish and presumptuous for someone who had never met Cookie to undertake a task reserved for a close friend or relative. But Cookie’s legend and halo had expanded to such an extent that for him it was a tremendous badge of honor. I seem to remember he and another friend traveled on the roof of a bus to get to Gangotri, no joke on perilous Himalayan roads in peak monsoon.

The glimpse of a familiar image on a TV show, less than ten seconds’ mention of someone you new for years, and not even her name, just described as a John Waters actress from Baltimore, the hometown of the show’s creator, David Simon, which is presumably why Cookie is included in the first place. But for those of us who were there in those Season 3 years, the memories are never so casual and fleeting, they never fade to black.

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Cookie and Vittorio’s Wedding, Nan Goldin, 1986
Cookie by Vittorio’s Casket, Nan Goldin, Sept. 1989
Cookie in Her Casket, Nan Goldin, Nov. 1989
James Killough

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