Flashback: Nancy Spungen Found Dead at Chelsea Hotel

In 1975, a 17-year-old Philly girl named Nancy Spungen dropped out of the University of Colorado and moved to New York City. She pushed her way in with the emerging punk crowd – meeting seminal rockers like Johnny Thunders and Cheetah Chrome. Spungen quickly established herself in the punk scene as a new kind of groupie, as punk journalist Legs McNeil told New York Magazine in 2008 – and she embodied the nastiest parts of the scene. “We were tired of being nice. It was like, fuck you,” McNeil said. “The left… invented that political-correctness stuff. Punk was supposed to piss off everybody and make people think.”

Though most found Spungen abrasive, one person didn’t seem to mind her crass exterior: Sid Vicious, the bassist for the Sex Pistols. The two met in London in 1977 and quickly became an item. The couple rattled around the U.K. and the United States – first with the Pistols and then, when the band broke up, just the two of them on their own.

And then, on October 12th, 1978, 20-year-old Spungen bled to death on the bathroom floor of a room in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. Months later, while awaiting trial for her murder, Vicious died from an overdose. For many, it was the end of an era. 

“She brought drugs for the bands”
Born in the Philadelphia suburbs in 1958 to a middle-class family, her mother Deborah Spungen described Nancy as a difficult child. In a memoir written after her daughter’s death, And I Don’t Want To Live This Life: A Mother’s Story Of Her Daughter’s Murder, Deborah describes Nancy’s physical assaults, screaming tantrums and bullying her siblings.

At 11, Spungen was expelled from school and sent to a boarding school in Connecticut for children with special needs, from where she graduated at age 16, according to Philly.com. She also spent time in a mental institution and was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teen, according to New York. Spungen attended the University of Colorado briefly before dropping out to go to New York City.

She arrived right as the punk movement was blowing up – and the heroin epidemic in New York City was white-hot. “She was blatantly honest about it: She brought drugs for the bands,” photographer Eileen Polk, who knew Spungen, told New York magazine. “In order to be a groupie you had to be tall and skinny and have fashionable clothes…. And then here comes Nancy. She’s not trying to be cute or charming. She wasn’t telling people she was a model or a dancer. She had mousy brown hair and she was a bit overweight. She basically said ‘Yeah, I’m a prostitute and I don’t care.'”

In 1977, Spungen followed Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan of the Heartbreakers to London. It was there that she met John Simon Ritchie, better known as Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious. 

“Deep down [Sid] was a shy person”
The Sex Pistols initially formed in 1972, but it wasn’t until 1975 – when their manager, Malcolm McLaren, found John Lydon, changed his name to Johnny Rotten and stuck him in the band – that the Pistols really took off. The following year they were signed to EMI. 

In late 1976, they broke into the mainstream with their caustic hit, “Anarchy in the U.K.” A few months later, bassist Glen Matlock left the band after “clashing” with Johnny Rotten. So in February of 1977, John Ritchie, one of the group’s earlier fans, took the stage name Sid Vicious and joined the band – despite not knowing how to play the bass.

Vicious’ mother was a heroin addict, according to Rotten, and Sid seemed drawn to stronger personalities. “Deep down he was a shy person,” wrote Dennis Morris in Never Mind The Bollocks: A Photographic History of the Sex Pistols, as reported by People. “I think he was frightened of the audiences.”

Once Nancy Spungen and Sid Vicious met, they were inseparable. “Nancy…taught Sid all about sex and drugs and the lifestyle of a New York rocker,” wrote Malcolm McLaren on The Daily Beast in 2009. But the other members of the Sex Pistols hated Spungen – a woman viewed by even people who liked her as domineering and combative. Their contempt ran so so deep that they banned her from their 1978 tour, according to New York.

As the Heartbreakers tour manager Leee Childers said of Nancy in Legs McNeil’s seminal Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, “[S]he was a junkie, a drug supplier and an all-around lowlife. … She was a very, very, very, very, very, very bad influence on people who were already a mess. She was a troublemaker and a stirrer-upper.”

Sid Vicious was one of those people who was already a mess. Even the Sex Pistols’ official website acknowledges Vicious’ drug addiction hindered band, interrupting their 1978 tour that was already riddled with “in-fighting.” Spungen had fueled their mutual addictions – including, it would seem, to each other. As the Sex Pistols’ tour manager Nils Stevenson told People, Sid began to “dislike everything – except heroin and Nancy.” After a last performance in January 1978 in San Francisco, the Sex Pistols broke up.

“She was his first and only love of his life”
On August 24th, 1978, Vicious and Spungen moved into the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, a place that had housed the likes of Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Jackson Pollack, according to Sherill Tippins’ Inside The Dream Palace: The Life And Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel

On the night of October 11th, “several visitors to the room saw Sid take as many as many as 30 tablets of Tuinal – a far larger dose of the barbiturate than most of us could survive, and one certain to put nearly anyone into a deep state of unconsciousness for hours, and he remained comatose for through the morning’s early hours” wrote Tippins. 

According to New York magazine, the night of the murder went like this: At 2:30a.m, Spungen asked Rockets Redglare – a sometimes bodyguard for Vicious who also sold drugs, according to The New York Times – to get some Dilaudids, an opioid painkiller. Around 7:30a.m., “female moans” were heard from the room from other guest in the hotel. At 10a.m., Vicious called down to the front desk, asking for help. Nancy Spungen, who had been stabbed in the stomach with a knife, bled to death on the bathroom floor. She was 20 years old.

“Vicious, who was found wandering the hallways in an agitated state, was arrested and charged with her murder,” according to the UK’s Independent. “Though he initially confessed to the crime, he later denied it, claiming he had been asleep when she died.”

“Botched double suicide”? 
Theories of who killed Spungen are still swirling to this day, and many suggest Sid Vicious was not responsible.

Some wonder her stabbing was a robbery or drug deal gone bad, according to New York, or perhaps that Spungen, with her flair for the dramatic, stabbed herself and Vicious wasn’t able to help her because he’d taken too many drugs. The 2009 documentary Who Killed Nancy? suggests that Vicious couldn’t have murdered her because he was “out cold” from his barbiturates.

That’s the view of the Sex Pistols former manager Malcolm McLaren, who was adamant in a piece in The Daily Beast that Vicious would not have killed his girlfriend, unless her death was actually a “botched double suicide.” McLaren writes: “She was his first and only love of his life. … I am positive about Sid’s innocence.” McLaren notes how money was stolen from the room while “stupid, clumsy fool” Vicious was “passed out on the bed.”

One theory is that Rockets Redglare, the drug dealer who supplied the opiates that night, killed Spungen. According to author Phil Strongman in his book Pretty Vacant: A History of Punk, Spungen confronted Redglare when he tried to steal cash from their hotel room so he stabbed her in the stomach and split. “Noticing Sid flat out and grey on the bed, Redglare decided to help himself to a bit more of the couple’s cash,” Strongman writes. “Nancy saw the attempted theft and flew at him, nails flying – and copped a Bowie knife in her lower abdomen. Nancy slumped to the floor immediately. With no one standing in his way, Redglare took everything but pocket change and left behind what he believed to be two corpses.”

Strongman continues that in January of 1978, Redglare was heard confessing about the theft and murder at the punk rock club CBGBs. “Rockets Redglare casually admitted to several fellow drinkers that it was actually he who’d robbed and stabbed Nancy Spungen – and produced a handful of her blood-stained dollars to prove it,” Strongman wrote. (Redglare died in 2007.)

‘Nancy’s murder was never really investigated’
In the days days following after Nancy Spungen’s murder, Sid Vicious was released on $25,000 bail supplied by Virgin Records, their label at that time. In his despondency over his girlfriend’s death, he tried to commit suicide by slitting her wrists, according to the Guardian, but was unsuccessful.

A short time later, Vicious’ bail was revoked after he assaulted Patti Smith’s brother, Todd Smith, with “a broken Heinken’s bottle” in a New York City bar, according a New York post clipping in Please Kill Me. He was was sent to Rikers Island, a New York City jail and freed on an additional $10,000 bail, according to the Guardian.

Following his second release from jail, Vicious and friends had a party at the Greenwich Village apartment of his new girlfriend, Michelle Robinson. His mother Anne Beverley, was in New York City, and scored some drugs for an evening of celebration, according to Strongman in Pretty Vacant. On the morning of February 2nd, 1979, in Robinson’s apartment, Vicious was found dead of a heroin overdose by his mother and Robinson. According to the Guardian, police found a syringe, a spoon and a substance near Vicious’ body. He was 21 years old.

Friends of the couple and old-timers from the punk scene are disappointed that Spungen’s killer was never seriously pursued by police. “Nancy’s murder was never really investigated,” Eileen Polk, the photographer, told the Independent. “There were a lot of dangerous people hanging around them both back then. If he hadn’t died and the case went to trial [Vicious] may well have been acquitted.” In 2014, a regretful Johnny Rotten told the U.K.’s Independent he felt responsible for Vicious’ death for having invited him to join the band in the first place. “He didn’t stand a chance,” he said.

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