Christa Päffgen, the actress and singer better known as Nico, was born in Nazi Germany in 1938. Her father died in combat when she was a year old, and his family disowned the child and her mother. Nico spent much of World War II in an orphanage, the largest in Europe and now infamous for cruelty inflicted upon children. After being released to her mother’s care as her country faced defeat, Nico claimed to have been raped by an American G.I. (This is still unconfirmed, but sadly, the rape of women and children in wartime is all too commonplace.)
She first came to the world’s notice with her supporting role in Federico Fellini’s 1959 classic, La Dolce Vita. She then had a son, Ari, by actor Alain Delon, but in a case of history repeating itself, the Frenchman disowned them both.
Attempting to break into the music business, Nico moved to New York and became one of Andy Warhol’s ‘superstars.’ Her deep, mournful voice would grace the Velvet Underground’s debut album. She embarked on a solo career, making a series of experimental albums that were mostly ignored at the time, but are now considered masterpieces.
Unfortunately, Nico was a troubled soul who battled heroin addiction for many years, and was largely forgotten by her famous friends. At the time of her curious death in a 1988 cycling accident, the 49-year-old had been free of heroin for two years and was living quietly with her son in Ibiza.
With her sophisticated glamour and icy demeanour, the enigmatic Nico has been compared to Greta Garbo, but there are also some parallels with Marilyn, in their unhappy childhoods, crippling drug dependencies and untimely deaths, following a lifelong quest for respect that often eluded them.
In a new biography, You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone, author Jennifer Otter Bickerdike notes that Nico claimed to have taken classes at the Actors Studio, and that she had met Marilyn there. Although Marilyn began her studies in 1955, she would attend regularly until her death in 1962. So while the author is understandably sceptical – Nico was prone to name-dropping, and exaggerated tales – it is possible that she brushed shoulders with Marilyn there at some point.
“I was acting a role that I had to do,” Nico said of an early musical performance on the cult British TV show Ready Steady Go! “It was like being back with [Lee] Strasberg at the Actors Studio. It was fun, really. But I was not acting a role on stage or on a record. I was acting for contracts. I was too shy to be me, and it’s easier to play someone else, isn’t it?”
Strikingly, Nico also had a luminous beauty which was observed by her friend David Croland in 1966, during a month-long residency with the Velvet Underground at the Dom, a spacious hall turned nightclub at St. Mark’s Place in the East Village.
“It was like Marilyn Monroe, she was lit from within. She had that thing, and it’s not just because they were both blondes. She was a beacon of light, because of her looks and the way the light hit her face and her extremely pale hair. It was the visual of seeing her on a black stage and everybody dressed in black, and she was the only platinum blonde up there.”