Written by Naomi Wallace
Content warning: This article contains discussions of substance abuse, intimate partner violence, self-harm and suicide.
Since the body of Nancy Spungen was found on October 12, 1978, her death has been enshrined as one of the greatest pop culture myths of the twentieth century. To this day, many still speculate about what happened to the girlfriend of Sid Vicious that fateful night in Room 100 at the Chelsea Hotel. This article will not endeavour to solve a case that has remained unclear for almost fifty years, nor will it claim to offer new evidence on the subject. Instead, I hope to present the existing theories plainly, and challenge the romanticism and sensationalism by which Sid and Nancy’s relationship, and ultimately their deaths, are shrouded. Though, the content warning that precedes this article is arguably sufficient evidence itself to prove that this is not a romantic tragedy.
Nancy Spungen was born in Philadelphia in 1958 and had a troublesome childhood. She was expelled from school and began taking drugs at a very young age before being diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was fifteen years old. In 1976, after a short while living in New York City as a sex worker amongst various other odd jobs, the teenager moved to London and became immersed in the world of British punk. It was here that she met Sid Vicious, the bassist of the Sex Pistols, and the pair began a relationship.
Sid (real name John Simon Ritchie) had also faced a difficult upbringing, with a mother who was heavily addicted to heroin and opiates. Many disturbing accounts emerged about his childhood; he was kicked out of his home, displayed suicidal tendencies, and even allegedly tortured and killed cats. By 1977, when he joined the Sex Pistols following the departure of the band’s original bassist, Glen Matlock, Sid was already embroiled in London’s punk scene, surrounded by heavy drugs and alcohol. Meeting Nancy was merely a catalyst for the destructive path down which he was already heading.
The relationship was hardly a healthy one, even if we were to overlook the fact that much of it centred around taking substances together. Sid’s fellow band members and friends detested Nancy because they thought she was crazy, and she could be very aggressive. Nancy admitted to her mother that Sid had beaten her more than once. Both were known to self-mutilate and shared an obsession with knives. According to Jordan Mooney, a model and friend of Sid, Nancy Spungen was “probably the worst person he could have met”, which is true to an extent, as the pair’s abuse of drugs escalated rapidly within the relationship, and Nancy was extremely unstable. Evidently, the couple were disastrously toxic influences on one another, and it is known that the relationship had oftentimes turned violent and abusive. But to blame Nancy for the tragic downfall of Sid is an abundantly unfair judgement that demonises a girl with severe mental illness who was ensnared in her addiction.
After the Sex Pistols disbanded in 1978, Sid and Nancy moved to New York City where Sid could attempt to make a name for himself in the American punk-scene, but more importantly, where heroin was cheaper. By this point both Sid and Nancy were desperately sick with addiction, and it consumed every aspect of their lives. They stayed at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, surrounding which there was already substantial legend, as it had famously been home to many artists and poets alike. What was to take place in Room 100 that October, however, would become immortalised in the hotel’s legacy forever.
It is exceedingly difficult to construct a clear chronological account of the night Nancy Spungen died, because the evidence is so convoluted. It would perhaps be more coherent to begin after the fact and attempt to fill in the gaps retrospectively.
Nancy Spungen was found dead under the bathroom sink in the hotel room at around 10:30am on October 12, with a single stab wound in her stomach, wearing only her black underwear. She was twenty years old. Sid is said to have phoned room service, saying “something has happened to my girl”, and the police were called. That same afternoon, he was arrested and taken into custody, accused of second-degree murder.
Did Sid kill Nancy? This is the question that has been asked ever since. Unfortunately, the details of the event exist in fragments, and snippets of hazy, drug induced recollections. Nevertheless, there are certain points that stand out, and have led people to various conclusions about the identity of the perpetrator.
Sid and Nancy certainly were not the only two people to enter the room that night – according to sources, they had an open-door policy, and were visited by at least one drug-dealer from whom they bought Tuinal, a barbiturate of which Sid took over thirty tablets. This volume of substances in his system should have killed him, but instead he passed out cold on the bed. When he woke, he followed the trail of blood that now led from the bed to the bathroom, where he found the body. Everything that Sid Vicious remembered or claimed about Nancy’s death must be approached tentatively. Whilst talking to the police, he allegedly confessed to killing her, but this may well have been because, as Phil Strongman argues, when he woke up from his drug-induced sleep “he genuinely had no idea whether he was guilty or not.”
Those who knew Sid have consistently upheld his innocence. Malcom McLaren, the band’s former manager, said that he would not have killed Nancy as he loved her deeply and planned to marry her. Strongman, like Sid’s friends and family have maintained, does not believe that he was responsible for the murder. Instead, he draws attention to a man named Rockets Redglare, a drug-dealer who was there that night. Thanks to the success of his own version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, Sid had just come into nearly $20,000, which the couple stashed in a drawer in the hotel room. Strongman therefore suggests that Redglare attempted to steal some of the money, and when confronted by Nancy, he stabbed her.
It is important to note that the accounts of two witnesses from the night do not corroborate this theory, as they claim that Sid and Nancy were left alone in the room by 5am, Nancy still very much alive. Additionally, another guest in the hotel stated that she heard loud female moans coming from the room at 7:30am, further supporting the belief that Nancy was still alive after Redglare left.
Deborah Spungen, Nancy’s mother, has her own idea as to what happened. She believes that Sid truly loved Nancy but asserts that she “had no doubt he killed her”. Her theory is an unsettling one, but it is based on her knowledge of her daughter’s capabilities and aligns with the evidence. Nancy herself had bought the knife that killed her, and her mother believes that she engineered her own death, instructing Sid to stab her:
“it wasn’t hard for me to imagine what went on that night at the Chelsea. It wasn’t hard to visualise Nancy handing Sid the knife she’d bought and ordering him to prove his love for her by using it on her”
Nancy had insisted that she would not live to see her twenty-first birthday, which would have been the February after she died. As Deborah tragically observes, she wanted to die. And the previously mentioned disturbing elements of Sid and Nancy’s relationship make it impossible to rule out the idea that she had employed his help to end her life.
Two other vital pieces of evidence in this case are the letters Sid Vicious wrote to Deborah following Nancy’s death. His words are distressing to read; his grief is visceral, and he is clearly suicidal. Much of the letters focus on his total loss of a will to live now that Nancy is dead, and he stresses his love for her an obsessive and almost neurotic number of times. Oddly, but perhaps poignantly, he signs off both letters telling Nancy’s mother “I love you”. Deborah recalls feeling stunned that “the punk monster” had shown such emotion and vulnerability in these letters, but she also points out one particularly alarming section of the second letter in which Sid writes:
“Nancy once asked if I would pour petrol over myself and set it on fire if she told me to. I said I would, and I meant it.”
These were the words that prompted Deborah to believe that her daughter had asked Sid to stab her. They have also led some to suggest that Nancy’s death was part of a suicide pact gone wrong, and Sid’s desperation for death afterwards was his wish to fulfil it. Nothing is impossible to rule out given the lack of reliable accounts from the actual event.
Of course, the principal reason that no real closure was achieved surrounding Nancy’s murder was that Sid himself was dead four months later, before he could be brought to trial. On February 2, 1979, less than twenty-four hours after his release from prison on a $50,000 bail, Sid died from an intentional heroin overdose. He had attempted suicide previously, just eleven days after his initial arrest, by slashing his wrists and attempting to jump out of a window. When, in the final interview he ever gave, Bernard Clarke asked him where he would like to be, he had promptly and sincerely answered, “under the ground”. Upon his death, the investigation into the murder of Nancy Spungen was closed. As I stated at the beginning, I will not make a judgment about who killed Nancy; it is up to individuals to draw their own conclusion. Mine is that I do not know. What exactly happened at the Chelsea Hotel is a confounding mystery.
Following the deaths of Sid and Nancy, the pair were subject to a great deal of sensationalism and became something of romantic legend. This had begun to emerge almost instantly after Nancy died – Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren designed shirts with Sid on the front accompanied by the words “she’s dead, I’m alive, I’m yours”. Alex Cox’s 1986 biopic starring Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb brought the story of the couple to the big screen, albeit in a highly glamorised interpretation. Former fellow Sex Pistol John Lyndon was asked what the film got correct, to which he replied, “the name Sid”. More recently, and in grotesquely poor taste, Kourtney Kardashian and then fiancé Travis Barker dressed as Sid and Nancy for Halloween. It is difficult not to feel that the humanity of these individuals has been lost, and they have been obfuscated into symbols of the nihilism and hedonistic chaos of 1970s punk. As Deborah Spungen poignantly observes, “the media had made Nancy and Sid into personifications of the punk movement.”
Nancy Spungen was someone’s daughter. The villainization she has suffered posthumously is inexcusable. She is seen as the junkie groupie who ruined Sid Vicious. In reality, she was a girl who suffered tremendously from her schizophrenia and addiction, in a time where the resources and support for these mental illnesses were not readily available, and an intense stigma surrounded them. Her mother’s book, And I Don’t Want to Live This Life, stirringly advocates for her daughter, and criticises the failure of medical practitioners as well as the media who profited from the scandal. It is wonderfully humanising and is the noble attempt of a grief-wrought mother to reclaim her daughter’s reputation. Nancy was a broken girl who never got the help she needed and met a gruesome death as a result. She deserves to be remembered with compassion.
There is nothing glamorous or romantic about what happened to Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Their story is filled with harrowing substance abuse and violence, and its end is profoundly sad. Sid and Nancy were not the star-crossed lovers of the punk movement that many remember them to be. They were a pair of damaged, vulnerable, and gravely ill young people who brought about their mutual destruction.
Bardach, Ann ”The Not So Lonesome Death of Nancy Spungen”. SoHo Weekly News, 28 October 1978. http://www.philjens.plus.com/sid/sohonews.html#nancy (Accessed February 24, 2023)
BBC News. “1978: Sex Pistol Vicious on Murder Charge,” October 12, 1978. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/october/12/newsid_2543000/2543439.stm.
BBC News. “1979: Sid Vicious Dies from Drugs Overdose,” February 2, 1979. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/february/2/newsid_2523000/2523601.stm.
Griffin, Louise. “Nancy Spungen Was ‘Worst Person Sid Vicious Could Have Met,’ Close Friend Says.” Metro, May 23, 2021. https://metro.co.uk/2021/05/23/sex-pistols-nancy-spungen-was-worst-person-sid-vicious-could-meet-14628101/.
Savage, Jon. “Sid Vicious: Little Boy Lost.” The Observer, January 18, 2009, sec. Music. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2009/jan/18/sid-vicious-death-icon.
Segell, Michael. “Sid Vicious Dead at 21.” Rolling Stone, March 8, 1979. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/sid-vicious-dead-at-21-234850/.
“Sid Vicious’ Final Interview.” Accessed February 26, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2d2o6jKOzVg.
Spungen, Deborah. And I Don’t Want to Live This Life. Fawcett Books, 1984.Strongman, Phil. Pretty Vacant : A History of UK Punk. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2008.
Westwood, Vivienne, and McLaren, Malcom. “She’s Dead, I’m Alive, I’m Yours” T-shirt. 1978, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/185222 (Accessed February 26, 2023)
Featured image credit: Sid and Nancy. Photograph by Richard Mann. Accessed via The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/apr/23/frozen-in-time-sid-vicious-nancy-spungen-1979-joe-allen-london. Used under fair use policy.