Photo: Allan Tannenbaum/IMAGES (Getty Images)
On Oct. 12, 1978, Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious called 911. His girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, had bled out on the bathroom floor of the Chelsea Hotel from a stab wound. Who killed her remains a mystery. Was it a suicide? A lovers’ quarrel turned fatal? Did someone else enter the hotel room to do her harm? Those questions remain unanswered. On the 40th anniversary of Spungen’s death, we take a look back on who Spungen was, how she became involved in the punk rock scene, and the legacy she left behind.
From the very start, there was something off about Spungen. At birth she nearly died from oxygen deprivation, choked by the umbilical cord. For the first few years of her life, she wouldn’t stop shrieking and wailing. Eventually, the doctors prescribed a liquid barbiturate to keep her quiet. As a child, she lashed out at people. Once she even bit a mailman on the ankle. She also threatened to kill a babysitter with scissors and occasionally hit herself. At one point, a doctor diagnosed her as schizophrenic. At the very least, she lacked emotionally stability.
Despite all this, she happened to be quite clever and ended up skipping the third grade. At 16, she graduated from high school. Months later, she began attending the University of Colorado Boulder. (Of course, they quickly expelled her for buying marijuana and hiding stolen property in her dorm room.) By 17, she’d been banned from the state of Colorado and was living by herself in New York City. That’s where she began using heroin.
Working as a stripper and sometimes-prostitute, Spungen often attended rock concerts. She soon became a groupie and ended up chasing the New York Dolls all the way to London. When the Dolls’ drummer Jerry Nolan refused to sleep with her, she attempted suicide. That’s when she met the Sex Pistols. Lead singer John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon hated her, so she ended up pursuing bassist John Simon “Sid Vicious” Ritchie. They soon developed an extremely close, and occasionally violent, relationship.
The Craziest Couple
Interviews and period footage all imply that Spungen practically controlled Vicious. She cut up his food, helped him answer interviewers’ questions, and more. After they moved to New York City, she somehow convinced the nightclub Max’s Kansas City to book him for a few nights at a rate of $2,000 per show. This crazy couple did everything together, including sex work (you don’t want to know). Spungen looked after Vicious like a strangely incestuous mother…or an especially loving talent manager. They were dependent on each other and on the heroin they shared. Speaking of which, some people say Spungen introduced Vicious to the hardest drug of all (as if their relationship weren’t twisted enough already).
Murder or Suicide?
In the early hours of the morning on Oct. 12, 1978, Sid Vicious called 911. He’d woken up to find his girlfriend dead. Blood drenched the bathroom floor. On the phone, he apparently sounded panicked and in shock. Of course, thanks to his reputation and lack of alibi, Vicious became the prime suspect. It certainly made for a good story.
Judging by police photos, Spungen was stabbed in the bedroom, removed the knife, and then wandered into the bathroom. Her final hours were spent bleeding out on the cold, tile floor.
Was Spungen’s death a suicide? Risk factors for suicide include previous suicide attempts, history of mental disorders, a history of substance abuse, and aggressive tendencies. Spungen certainly fits that profile. The positioning of the fatal wound (right side of her lower abdomen) could have been self-inflicted. Still, Vicious had a violent reputation and homicide is a leading cause of death for young women. According to the CDC, more than half of female murders are related to intimate partner violence. The least likely explanation for Spungen’s death is the intruder theory. If she’d been attacked by, say, drug dealers, she probably would’ve tried to escape or would’ve cried out for help, waking Vicious.
Whatever the cause of Spungen’s death, the lurid details of the crime resulted in a “trial by tabloids.” Within days, most people thought Vicious had murdered her. The police thought so, too, and Vicious was charged with second-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty and was released on bail. Vicious overdosed on heroin before the trial could begin so the NYPD closed the case. Now we’ll never know what really happened to Spungen.
Spungen dated a rock star and died young. Hundreds of other women did the very same thing. Yet people still remember her. There’s something so intense and unforgettable about her. This random Jewish woman from a Philadelphia suburb made herself into an icon. A universally-hated icon, sure, but an icon all the same. After her death, she became a bizarre punk rock symbol. Some still refer to the stereotypical heroin-user lifestyle as “that whole Sid and Nancy thing,” especially when there’s romance involved. Even Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love seemed a bit obsessed with the couple at one point. For better or for worse, she’s immortal.