The true life of Nico, the pop heroine

Few female figures in the world of music-fashion-art are so unknown and at the same time so treated bibliographically.

26 September 2022 Monday 00:59
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The true life of Nico, the pop heroine

Few female figures in the world of music-fashion-art are so unknown and at the same time so treated bibliographically. About Nico, in fact, there has always been a halo of mystery that has oversized a person and a career that is already very attractive. A brief objective list of her assets places her as the vocalist of The Velvet Underground, muse of Andy Warhol, renowned solo artist and one of the bets of film director Philippe Garrel.

Much has been written and speculated about the life of Christa Päffgen, the aforementioned Nico, about which a work now appears that seeks to put the maximum possible clarity and has been written by the historian Jennifer Otter Bickerdike: You are beautiful

The German Christa has gone down in artistic history for, among other things, having worked with Federico Fellini or for having been part of The Velvet Underground for a while, one of the most iconic references in New York pop art. Her look was unmistakable, as was her artistic uniqueness, which caused her to be considered as the gothic Greta Garbo or the punk Marlene Dietrich. In this regard, his unsettling solo album, The Marble Index, from 1968, is rightly considered a masterpiece for its doom-laden Germanic atmospheres, for the sonority of his harmonium, with a low ecclesial intensity, and for the sepulchral tone of his overwhelming voice.

"It has not been an easy task to disentangle fiction and folklore from facts, often forgotten," writes the author in the introduction, although she immediately answers the first question. Nico was born on October 16, 1938 in Cologne, where her mother earned her living as a seamstress. Her father, a Wehrmacht conscript, was apparently shot dead by his commanding officer. She had a traumatic education in Hitler's Germany –in a model boarding school included– and in which she followed him.

Somehow, what she experienced during World War II and its consequences haunted her for the rest of her life. The future star tells that when she was only 13 years old she was raped by a sergeant of the US Army. According to her, the attacker was black; this appreciation explains, according to some of her, her supposedly racist acts at certain moments of her life. In any case, there is no record of that attack in the files of the US Army, so, according to Bickerdike, its certainty cannot be assured.

Her relationship with her own beauty was ambivalent from a very young age. It opened the doors to a very attractive way of life, recognition and economic support, but, on the other hand, the author of this biography writes, “she hated that it was the only quality that she was judged for, that they were not even taken into account their potentialities beyond the physical”. In any case, in 1956 Christa Päffgen adopted the name Nico on the advice of German fashion photographer Herbert Tobias, and she toured Europe for posh photographers and magazines, starting with Vogue.

It is possible that he had relationships with the French movie star Jeanne Moreau and with the fashion designer and businesswoman Coco Chanel, whose Chanel No. 5 was his favorite perfume. This bisexual rumor mill only increased the fascinating mystique that was beginning to surround her. A mystique also very real, on the other hand. In the mid-fifties she was dating Ernest Hemingway in Paris and was courted by Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan (who wrote I'll keep it with mine for her).

A trip she made to Rome with friends was decisive, and Federico Fellini met her and without hesitation offered her a role in La dolce vita (1962), which he was shooting at that time. It was also in that world of cinema that she met one of the most decisive people in her life, the actor Alain Delon. She fell in love with him and in 1962 she gave birth to her only child, Christian Aaron Boulogne, whom she named Ari. Delon always denied paternity of her although her physical resemblance was obvious; and it was Delon's mother, Edith Boulogne, who raised him despite Nico's efforts to prevent it.

And it was also through that film that Andy Warhol already knew who it was when he met Nico in Paris. A little later he would end up in New York, when he was already clear that he also wanted to be a singer. There Warhol made her his muse, the image of the Factory –creative symbol of pop art– and an actress in his films such as Chelsea girls (1966)... and singer of the first album of the group The Velvet Underground, created by Lou Reed (with who had a brief and tempestuous affair) and John Cale. That album, better known as "the one with the banana" because of the cover created by Warhol and where she gave lead vocals to jewels like Femme fatale, was the only one she recorded with that line-up, immediately beginning an undervalued and also bleak solo career.

And it was also through the cinema that he met the damned director Philippe Garrel, with whom, in addition to appearing in films such as La cicatrice interieure (1972), he turned to heroin consumption, which would mark much of the rest of his life. She came to spend time with him in Paris living in misery. After 15 years he gave up opiate addiction, although according to Bickerdike "he was still using various other substances", and focused on making a living from music in England.

He had known Eivissa for many years, and in that final stage of his life, he "had found a spiritual and emotional home" there. She returned to the island in 1988, with the ambition of a budding writer and to restart her relationship with her son Ari, who was already 25 years old. One day in July she went by bicycle from the country house where she lived to the city to buy hashish and everything indicates that she fell and rolled down an embankment.

Passersby found her, unable to speak, and an ambulance was called. Three hospitals refused to admit her: she was mistaken for a bum, or she was foreign and had no health insurance, or they thought she was an old hippy who had been in the sun a lot. The one from Can Misses did... but they couldn't diagnose that she was suffering from a cerebral hemorrhage and not just sunstroke. On July 18, she passed away.

Her son Ari now remembers, as can be read in the book, that fifteen days before her death, his mother "reviewed her memories and was beautiful, beautiful, at peace again." If she heard him, she would tell him: “Arilein, you make me very happy”.



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