What do you think when you hear of a 49-year-old singer-songwriter, fashion model and actress who was famous throughout the world, who fell off her bike, hit her head, passed out and was taken to an emergency room where she was diagnosed as having heat stroke and then died from a brain hemorrhage that can usually be cured by surgery to remove the extra blood around the brain?
Chaotic Early Years
Christa Paffgen, one of the most fascinating entertainers of the 1960s, was born in 1938 in Cologne, Germany to a Yugoslavian father and a Spanish mother. Her early life was nothing but trauma. In 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland to start World War II. Her father was conscripted onto the German army, suffered severe brain damage and spent the rest of his life in a psychiatric institution. In 1941, her mother and grandfather moved to the Spreewald forest near Berlin to get away from the bombing of Cologne. When the war ended, her mother took her to live in occupied Berlin where they were exposed to brutal treatment by Russian troops and she was raped by an American soldier. At age 13, lack of finances forced her to leave school and work as a seamstress, yet her bright mind allowed her eventually to learn to speak seven languages fluently and she taught herself to sing and play the harmonium. By age 14 she was 5′ 10″ and gorgeous, and was hired by Berlin’s most exclusive department store to sell lingerie. She wanted to be a model or an actress, so every day she stood outside the store talking to people who passed by, waiting to be “discovered.” Sure enough, one day she struck up a conversation with a German couturier named Ostergaard who started her on a modeling career.
She began to model for photographer Herbert Tobias after they met at a fashion show. He thought she should have a more distinctive name, so they chose Nico, after a friend of his. She moved to Paris where she worked for Vogue, Elle and the other major fashion magazines, and then went to New York to continue her modeling career and to study acting. After appearing in several TV commercials, she got small parts in two movies: La Tempesta and For the First Time, which starred Mario Lanza. At age 21, she showed up at the filming of La Dolce Vitawhere the famous director, Federico Fellini, took one look at her standing on the sidelines, talked to her and offered her a role in the film.
She split her time between Paris and New York. At age 24 she starred in a French movie called Strip-Tease and made her first recording of a song with the same name. By age 26, she was recording songs regularly and worked as a singer at the Blue Angel Lounge in New York. The next year she gave birth to a son called Ari and claimed that the father was French actor Alain Delon, who denied paternity. Ari was raised by Delon’s parents.
Her Turbulent Life
At age 30, she recorded The Marble Index based on the Niebelungenlied, an 11th-century German poem that told of drowned monks, decapitations, rape and revenge. At age 31, she met film director Philippe Garrel in Italy and made ten movies with him over the next five years. In Paris, she met Bob Dylan, who sang with her and introduced her to Andy Warhol who began to feature her in his experimental films. Andy Warhol cast her in his film, The Chelsea Girls, and she teamed with Paul Morrisey in The Velvet Underground.
Songwriter Jim Morrison taught her how to write songs and became one of her many famous lovers. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen wrote songs about her. The Underground’s John Cale produced and arranged her solo albums. In the 1970s, she left The Underground and lived with Garrel, acting and providing songs for his movie soundtracks. She then lived with French-Greek filmmaker Nico Papatakis. She claimed to have had many other famous lovers, but some denied having had any contact with her. In her late 30s, she separated from her manager and friend Lutz Ulbrich, and moved to London to record albums. In her forties, she was still releasing new albums, but she showed signs of serious mental problems. She was a “middle-aged junkie trading on her old fame, and even engaging in knife fights on their band bus.” There is a strong association between early childhood trauma and serious emotional disease in later life.
Descent into Darkness
In her 20’s and early 30’s she had been a tall, blond, beautiful actress, model and singer who was famous all over the world. By her forties she was nearly incoherent, her teeth were rotten, her hair was unkempt, her skin was bad and she had needle tracks everywhere. She drank heavily and had been addicted to narcotics for 15 years. A close friend reported, “We’d be walking in New York at night and she’d have to pee, so she’d squat down between two parked cars. One time a cop came by and said, ‘Hey, that’s not very lady-like.'”
In 1988, she went to the Spanish island of Ibiza for a vacation with her son, Ari. She had stopped using heroin and was trying to follow a program of healthful eating and daily exercise. One day she was found unconscious lying on the road next to her bicycle and was taken to the Cannes Nisto Hospital. The doctors treated her for heat stroke but failed to recognize that she had bleeding into her brain from a head injury. She died that night of a brain hemorrhage.
Lessons from Nico’s Needless Death
• Always wear a helmet when you ride a bike.
• Any unconscious person needs immediate medical attention.
• Since the brain is enclosed in the skull, a tight box that cannot expand, the increased pressure from bleeding into the brain can crush the brain. A surgeon can remove the extra blood to relieve the pressure to reduce the risk of brain damage or death.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com