It is said that the shabby rooms of New York City’s fabled Chelsea Hotel are inhabited by ghosts—of Mark Twain, Janis Joplin and other luminaries who once occupied them. But none of the wandering souls could tell a more haunting tale than the spirits of Nancy Spungen and her lover, Sid Vicious. For it was in the early morning hours of Oct. 12, 1978, in room 100, that Sid ended his tempestuous 21-month relationship with Nancy by stabbing her to death with a hunting knife. Four months later, in agony without her, he ended his own tortured life as well.
At the time, Sid was 21 years old. As bass player for the Sex Pistols, which had broken up a year earlier, he was a member of one of Britain’s most influential and incendiary punk-rock bands. Nancy, 20, had been his most ardent fan. Together, the couple were in the forefront of rock’s avant-garde, two dog-collared nihilists who brought their twisted, gothic romance to its ill-fated end.
The daughter of an upper-middle-class Philadelphia businessman, Nancy had problems “almost since birth,” says her mother, Deborah Spungen. “She was volatile.” An emotionally disturbed high school grad, she abused drugs and repeatedly attempted suicide. But when she met the 19-year-old John Simon Ritchie in 1977 at a friend’s London flat, she could hardly be described as aimless. “Nancy came to England with the express wish, much like a groupie, to bed a Sex Pistol,” says Pamela Rooke, a buddy of Sid’s who was working at a punk clothing shop on London’s trendy Kings Road at the time. “And in a way, Sid was easy meat.”
Raised in southern England by his mother, Anne Beverley, now 63, a troubled single mother who had her own history of heroin use, Sid was lonelier offstage than his bad-boy persona suggested. “Deep down he was a shy person,” wrote photographer Dennis Morris in a pictorial history of the band 1991’s Never Mind the B*ll*cks. “I think he was frightened of the audiences…. Sometimes he showed no emotion at all.” At 16, after his first few one-night stands, says Beverley, Sid told her, “Mum, I don’t know what people see in sex. I don’t get anything out of it.”
Nancy, who had worked as a prostitute in London, figured out how to turn him on. They moved into Rooke’s flat, not far from Buckingham Palace, sharing a mattress on the dining room floor. “Everybody wanted to be with Sid, but unfortunately he came with Nancy,” says Rooke, now a veterinary nurse on the southern coast of England. “She was unbelievably thick-skinned, one of the most unlikable people I’ve met. Everybody could see through her—except Sid.”
The two were archetypally codependent. “Sid didn’t have any normal, ordinary relationships, and I think the sex part overtook him,” says Rooke. “I always saw him as being the child to Nancy as mum. She was one of those doting people, and he had never had that in his life.” Predictably, Nancy’s overbearing presence soon led to friction with the band. Lead singer John Lydon (then billed as Johnny Rotten) “would plead with him to get rid of her, but to Sid she was like a crutch,” writes Morris. “When they were together he was like a kitten, but without her he would go crazy.” In time, says Nils Stevenson, the Sex Pistols’ tour manager, Sid came to “dislike everything—except heroin and Nancy.” Things came to a head in 1978, on the Pistols’ only major tour. Throughout the American concert dates, Sid “was erratic,” according to Morris. “No one knew why. It seemed he missed Nancy. Sometimes he wouldn’t eat at all. He’d drink heavy and take lots of drugs.” Fed up, John flew back to Britain halfway through the tour. Nancy joined Sid in New York City.
After the couple moved into the Chelsea Hotel in August, their relationship took an even stormier turn. “There was a violent episode four days before she died,” says Deborah Spungen. “She said he’d been hitting her. I spent the next days worrying. And then she didn’t call. And never called again.”
On the morning of Oct. 12, responding to a report of a domestic dispute, police entered their Chelsea Hotel room and found Spungen, clad in blood-soaked bra and panties, crumpled under the bathroom sink, dead of a single, deep stab wound to her abdomen. Sid, in a drugged haze, was charged with her murder and released on $50,000 bail. In several telephone calls to Deborah Spungen after his arrest, Sid “never said he was sorry,” she recalls. “He never said anything about it happening at all.” Ten days later, Sid attempted suicide, slashing the full length of his forearm with a knife and reportedly screaming, “I want to be with my Nancy! I want to be left alone!”
After Nancy’s death, Beverley flew to Manhattan to be with her son who, despite a stint in rehab, was still nursing his drug habit. On Feb. 1, 1979, fearful that he would be arrested in a drug buy on the street, she bought a supply of heroin for him, and was with him in the Greenwich Village apartment of a friend that night while he injected it. Afterward, “I swear to God he appeared to have a pink aura around his whole body,” she remembers. The next morning, when she brought him a cup of tea, “he was lying there quite peacefully. I shook him until I realized he was very cold and very dead.”
Late one night, a few days later, Beverley climbed the wall to a cemetery outside Philadelphia and, against the wishes of the Spungen family, scattered her son’s ashes in the snow over Nancy’s grave. Although authorities never officially determined whether Sid’s death was by accident or design, Anne Beverley has little doubt. As evidence, she offers the worn piece of paper on which Sid scrawled a poem, simply titled “Nancy,” to his departed love: “You were my little baby girl/ And I knew all your fears/ Such joy to hold you in my arms/ And kiss away your tears/ But now you’re gone/ There’s only pain/ And nothing I can do/ And I don’t want to live this life/ If I can’t live for you.”