Nancy Spungen was no bit player in the story of the groundbreaking British punk band the Sex Pistols. Brutally killed at the age of 20 under uncertain circumstances, she was the girlfriend of Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious, born John Simon Ritchie (via the official Sex Pistols website). Vicious was charged with killing Spungen, although he died from an overdose before the trial could begin. English actress Emma Appleton plays Spungen, alongside actor Louis Partridge as Vicious, in the FX and Hulu series "Pistol," based on "Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol," the 2016 memoir of life in the band as told from guitarist Steve Jones‘ perspective.
Born in a middle-class Philadelphia household in 1958 and with signs of mental health issues from a young age, Spungen moved to New York in the 1970s, only to be swept up in the punk rock culture of the time, and then sadly lost to rock ‘n’ roll excess. Examining Spungen’s short life reveals that the signs were there from the beginning that she could come to a violent and tragic end.
Nancy Spungen had a troubled youth
Published in 1984, "And I Don’t Want to Live This Life: A Mother’s Story of Her Daughter’s Murder" is a memoir written by Nancy Spungen’s mother, Deborah. In it, Deborah Spungen recalls her daughter’s difficult birth. Nancy was born with severe cyanosis, an issue with blood oxygen levels which can stem from the heart, lungs, or simply from the blood itself, according to Boston Children’s Hospital. Nancy was also born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, which nearly killed her. Physical issues aside, signs of potential mental health challenges emerged for Deborah Spungen’s young daughter not long after birth, as her mother outlines in her book.
From her time as an infant, Nancy Spungen exhibited violent outburst and emotional episodes long after those types of behaviors are expected to subside in children. She would lash out at her younger sister, but the same can’t be said for her younger brother, whom she treated with kindness. In one especially severe episode, Nancy Spungen threatened a babysitter, and she later attacked her psychiatrist. Spungen underwent treatment with medication, to little effect, and attempted to commit suicide. At the age of 15, Nancy was diagnosed with schizophrenia, as her mother later wrote in her book.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Spungen was academically inclined
Despite the social-emotional challenges she faced early on in her life, Spungen was intellectually gifted, and in that regard, she did well in school. However, behavioral issues would see her expelled and otherwise disciplined all throughout her academic career, as her mother recalled in her memoir. Nonetheless, at the young age of 16, Spungen was accepted and, for a short while, attended the University of Colorado Boulder.
Only a matter of months after she started college, though, she crossed paths with the law, on charges related to marijuana and for storing stolen property in her dorm room. As a result, she was expelled — and not just from CU Boulder. As part of her plea deal, which was negotiated by her own father, Nancy Spungen was not even allowed back into the state of Colorado. After returning home, Spungen spent time in Philadelphia, but before long, she found herself in New York City, entranced by the burgeoning punk rock music scene of the era, as Biography explains.
Spungen met Sid Vicious in London
In the wild and reckless environs of ’70s-era New York City, home to the Ramones, Nancy Spungen seemed to have found her place among the other punk and hard rock bands of the time. Though her self-destructive behaviors continued, she mixed with bands like Aerosmith but also punk artists like the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, and Richard Hell, who later commented on Spungen in Jon Savage’s 2011 book about punk rock, "England’s Dreaming." Hell said that Spungen was driven "to be where the action was." That drive took Nancy Spungen from New York to London in 1977, following Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan from The Heartbreakers, according to New York magazine.
It was in London that Spungen met Sid Vicious, who had only just replaced Glen Matlock on bass in the Sex Pistols, then England’s hottest band. At that point, the couple’s troubled and doomed love affair began. Soon enough, though, the Pistols fell apart after releasing just one album and their only U.S. tour. By 1978, Sid Vicious joined Spungen back in New York, and both Vicious and Spungen — then acting as manager for Sid Vicious’ solo career — were living in the infamous Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, a place, over the decades, that many artists, ill-fated and otherwise, have called their home (via Vanity Fair).
Sid Vicious was charged with Spungen’s murder
The one thing consistent thing in the short and turbulent love affair between Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen were substance use issues, including alcohol, barbiturates, and heroin, among others. And although Vicious tried to establish a solo career through a number of projects managed by Spungen, those substances soon caught up with the couple, such as when both Spungen and a visibly intoxicated and barely conscious Sid Vicious appeared in the punk rock documentary "DOA" directed by Lech Kowalski (via IMDb). Even the nihilistic New York punk scene, including many artists and musicians who had their own issues, were starting to avoid the young couple, as New York magazine goes on to relate.
Shortly thereafter, Nancy Spungen was found dead. She’d bled to death after having been brutally stabbed in the abdomen in the bathroom of the Chelsea Hotel room that she shared. She died after a hard night of partying, during which Vicious was mostly unconscious, having ingested large quantities of a strong barbiturate mix called Tuinal. In the morning, Vicious was found in the hallway, still barely lucid, according to authorities once they arrived on the scene. At that point, Vicious admitted he killed Spungen, but he later retracted his statement. Vicious would be dead of a heroin overdose only four months later, before his trial could begin, as Biography notes. He was only 21 years old, per Rolling Stone.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Questions remain about who really killed Nancy Spungen
Because Sid Vicious died before the trial could begin, questions about who really killed Nancy Spungen remain to this day. Some suspect the American comedian and actor who performed as Rockets Redglare, and from whom Spungen had tried to score drugs on that same evening, had a hand in the killing. (Redglare died in 2007, reports Rolling Stone.) Others believe that any number of people who came and went from the hotel room that night could be guilty, while still others think it might have been a failed murder-suicide attempt between Spungen and Vicious. Some speculate that Spungen may have even killed herself.
Nonetheless, few close to the situation believe Vicious did it, and that his initial confession to the crime was because he had no clear memory of what had happened the night before, as New York Magazine relates. New York photographer Eileen Polk, who knew Nancy Spungen said (via New York Magazine) "I think when Sid awoke stoned out of his mind and realized she was dead, he might have assumed he did it." However Nancy Spungen died, though, one of rock ‘n’ roll history’s darkest and most storied love affairs came to an end.