Nico turned heads wherever she went, so beautiful that an envious friend claimed even the furniture groaned with anticipation when she came into a room.
Men went wild for the willowy German ex-model and archetypal ‘ice maiden’.
Her lovers and admirers in the 1960s constituted the cream of rock music: Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Brian Jones, Iggy Pop and her Velvet Underground bandmate Lou Reed, as well as the French film star Alain Delon. And it wasn’t just the boys — Nico may have had lesbian affairs with French movie star Jeanne Moreau and fashion icon Coco Chanel.
Her sonorous baritone voice was unforgettable, too, though not always so fondly remembered. Andy Warhol, who launched her music career, said it was like ‘an IBM computer with a Garbo accent’.
Nico turned heads wherever she went, so beautiful that an envious friend claimed even the furniture groaned with anticipation when she came into a room
And yet the enigmatic singer-songwriter spent most of her final years living in obscurity in grey Manchester suburbs, hopelessly addicted to heroin and mired in accusations of racism. She was only 49 when she died in a bizarre accident from a cerebral haemorrhage after falling off a bicycle and hitting her head while on holiday in Ibiza in 1988.
Today, she’s largely remembered as the ‘Queen of Weird’, a comically over-serious Teutonic femme fatale who made unlistenably gloomy records, or else as an over-sexed super-groupie who showed just how far you could get in showbusiness with great bone structure.
Now, a new biography — You Are Beautiful And You Are Alone — sets out to rescue her legacy and portray her as tragically misunderstood. Traumatised by her early years in a war-shattered Germany, she was vulnerable, isolated and even naive.
As for her notorious aloofness, which could reduce the cockiest rock star to a quivering wreck, that was really down to a crippling shyness.
Her lovers and admirers in the 1960s constituted the cream of rock music: Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Brian Jones (pictured with Nico), Iggy Pop and her Velvet Underground bandmate Lou Reed, as well as the French film star Alain Delon
In a flattering, feminist take on the eccentric singer, biographer Jennifer Otter Bickerdike also claims that her ethereal beauty came to be Nico’s biggest enemy, obscuring her talent. Nico, she says, was the victim of misogynists and hypocrites who tolerate male pop stars sleeping around and taking drugs but not women.
However, there’s no denying Nico lived up to her desolate reputation. A close friend described sharing her home with Nico as like ‘living in a funeral parlour’.
But it’s little wonder, says her biographer, that Nico should be such a misery given her early life. Born Christa Paffgen in Cologne in 1938, she was four when her father was killed in battle.
She and her mother struggled by with little money. Nico — who said they tried to pass food and water to Jews as they trundled by in trains to the concentration camps — recalled hiding in the family bathtub as the bombs rained down around their tiny flat in Berlin. The solitary and friendless little girl’s favourite place to play was a nearby graveyard.
She was 12 when she started talking in her strange way, drawing out every word, and ignoring appeals to speak normally.
‘Christa was a very strange girl,’ recalls her Aunt Helma. ‘She walked very upright. And she was either shy or conceited. Or both.’
Nico claimed she was raped by a black U.S. soldier when she was 13. She left war-devastated Berlin as soon as she could, heading off to Paris to become a fashion model at 16 and changing her name to Nico. She struggled to stay slim and had her first experience of drug addiction when she became over-reliant on diet pills.
Coco Chanel was said to flirt with her female models and Nico said the fashion designer ‘corrupted her’ in Paris. But given Chanel would have been 73, an affair seems unlikely, says the new book.
Nico never liked modelling and got a chance to move into acting when she met the celebrated Italian film director Federico Fellini in 1959. ‘I have dreamt of you,’ he gushed and gave her a memorable cameo role in La Dolce Vita.
Her sonorous baritone voice was unforgettable, too, though not always so fondly remembered. Lou Reed is pictured with Nico
That led to other roles during which Nico reportedly said she had an affair with French actress Jeanne Moreau. ‘She had this notion that it was chic to be a lesbian,’ said a friend.
Nico also met French heart-throb and inveterate womaniser Alain Delon. They had a ‘whirlwind affair’ on the Italian island where he was filming, which blew Nico away — but not Delon who was involved with his co-star Romy Schneider.
A friend recalled Nico as ‘very happy and excited: ‘I’ve just slept with Alain Delon!’ It was like Snow White had met her prince. She was obsessed with this ghastly man.’
After a subsequent one-night stand in New York, she became pregnant and decided to have the baby. Friends were gob-smacked that she genuinely believed Delon would marry her. He has always denied being the boy’s father.
Nico left her son Ari in Ibiza with her mother, who was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, so she could go off and earn money for all of them from acting, modelling and — so she hoped — singing.
It was a disastrous move. The toddler was largely left to fend for himself and Delon’s mother, Edith, ended up rescuing and eventually adopting Ari after finding him ‘crouching like an animal’ in a dark room that stank of faeces and vomit.
On the occasions she ‘borrowed’ Ari, Nico was a chaotic parent. The child sometimes went around after concerts drinking all the leftover alcohol he could find. Otter Bickerdike writes: ‘It has been written, but not confirmed, that Nico allegedly smeared heroin on the child’s gums to calm him down.’
American artist Andy Warhol and singer Nico posing as Batman and Robin in 1967
Nico appears to have been much more worried about her career. Her music ambitions got a boost when she met Bob Dylan in Paris in 1964.
Legend has it that Nico invited the folk singer up to her apartment, where they stayed for ‘an evening and a week’. Nico gushed to an interviewer about Dylan’s ‘heavenly blue eyes’. She says Dylan reciprocated, writing the song I’ll Keep It With Mine about her.
Her next rock conquest was the trickier Rolling Stones co-founder Brian Jones, whom she met after a Paris concert. ‘He was charming, until he locked the door,’ she said of his violent bedroom behaviour, a consequence supposedly of his frustration at his drug-hampered sexual performance.
Nico described how he punched her, and worse. She said she often tried to talk to him about poetry and music ‘but he was really too stoned to talk about anything, and often so was I’.
Fellow model ‘Zouzou’ insisted Nico — almost 6 ft — had the upper hand as she towered over Jones, who was barely 5ft 5in. ‘He was scared of her and frightened of confrontations with her,’ Zouzou recalled.
‘We would be at parties and if Nico came into the room Brian would say: ‘Oh no, you’d better disappear for a bit’. She was a big, threatening woman.’
Nico made a record in the UK with the Rolling Stones manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, which he described as ‘f*****g awful’.
Even so, he liked Nico. ‘She wasn’t aloof at that point. She was one of a new breed of woman, like Anita Pallenberg and Yoko Ono, who could have been a man,’ said Oldham. ‘Far better that, than the silly little English teacups around at that time.’
What some might see as her shameless opportunism with famous rock stars was actually a ‘naive vulnerability’, insists her biographer.
She headed to New York with little Ari to make some easy money from modelling but instead met Andy Warhol at a Mexican restaurant.
‘She was sitting at a table with a pitcher in front of her, dipping her long beautiful fingers into the sangria, lifting out slices of wine-soaked oranges,’ the Pop Art king recorded.
On spotting him, Nico ’tilted her head to the side and brushed her hair back with her other hand and said very slowly: ‘I only like the fooood that flooooats in the wiiine’.’
Warhol was smitten and recruited her to his art enclave, The Factory. Everyone else there had verbal diarrhoea but Nico barely spoke. Some Warhol acolytes assumed that was because she had nothing to say, while others concluded it was simply because she had hidden depths and was happy to observe. Everyone, especially the women, were intimidated by her.
The Velvet Underground — the black-clad, avant garde rock band fronted by Lou Reed — considered her a ‘fly in the ointment’, said Welsh member John Cale.
Reed, notoriously temperamental and jealous, was furious she had been foisted on them but Warhol, who was masterminding the as yet unknown band, insisted they needed glamour.
Their seminal first album in 1967 was duly titled The Velvet Underground & Nico.
Nico had wanted to sing on every song but the band thwarted her, saying her broken English wasn’t good enough.
But Reed warmed to Nico’s presence in the band sufficiently to have an affair with her, a fling Cale described as ‘both consummated and constipated’.
Nico would later complain that Reed was manipulative, but fellow band member Sterling Morrison saw Nico as the real Machiavelli, always manoeuvering herself close to whoever was dominant.
Nico ended the fiery relationship, telling Reed: ‘I cannot make love to Jews any more,’ during a band rehearsal. She lost their subsequent battle of egos and left the band.
While John Cale (who also later had an affair with her) insisted she was simply indulging in the band’s twisted sense of humour, Nico critics marked it down as evidence of her racism — as they did an incident in 1971 in which she smashed a wine glass in the face of a black girl who was complaining about racial inequality.
The singer reportedly shouted: ‘Suffering? You don’t know what suffering is!’
Nico called it a ‘fit of madness’ while she was high on drugs, but facing threats from the Black Panthers, she was forced to leave the U.S. for a time.
Her attempt at a solo music career met with critical contempt and empty venues, even as big male stars continued to swoon over her.
Leonard Cohen was besotted but admitted: ‘Within five minutes of our conversation, she told me to forget it because she was only interested in young men.’ He was 33.
It does seem that all the male adulation went to Nico’s head. She flew to London in the late 1960s and turned up out of the blue at the home of photographer David Bailey, expecting to stay with him.
He foisted her on Paul McCartney, who allowed her to stay for several weeks, but was saved from the embarrassment of his girlfriend Jane Asher’s imminent return when Warhol pitched up in London and took Nico off his hands.
She met the Doors singer Jim Morrison in 1967 and the glamorous pair shocked fellow Doors members with the noisiness of their nights of passion, drinking and drug-taking.
He was the only one of her many musician lovers who encouraged her to write her own material and play an instrument. She took up the harmonium (reed organ).
‘She was very serious about it, dreadfully serious, like a Nazi organist,’ said a flatmate.
‘She’d pull the curtains across and do this funereal singing all day long.’
What really sealed the fate of her career was her drug-taking. Nobody can agree which of her rock friends introduced Nico to heroin in the 1960s, but by 1970 she was injecting.
Friends were appalled to see her neglect her appearance as she became heavily addicted.
She continued to perform to fund her habit, relocating to the UK where she was championed by New Wave bands who revered The Velvet Underground.
She was so far gone that when, in 1979, she was finally united with her son Ari, now 17, Nico ended up injecting heroin with him.
‘While it does seem horrifying, it may also be understandable,’ says her biographer.
Why? Because Nico ‘did not have much experience as a parent’ and the drug provided a ‘mutual bond’.
Nico spent her last seven years in London and Manchester, mostly the latter which had a reliable heroin supply. She lived in squats and rancid bedsits, going out in a long black cape and biker boots.
‘Her days were often spent in bed, shooting up, or trying to score drugs,’ says the new book.
Ironically, Nico had got herself off heroin shortly before her death. In those final years, she made a point of not trying to prettify herself — she’d lost her teeth and put on a lot of weight — confiding that her worst regret was that she hadn’t been born a man as she would have been taken seriously.
But would she really? The supporting evidence, sadly for the ever hopeful Nico, was very thin.
You Are Beautiful And You Are Alone: The Biography Of Nico by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike will be published tomorrow by Faber at £20.