Nancy Gurley (Felice Reisman) was born July 12, 1938. Nancy met James Gurley in Detroit at a local beatnik coffeehouse, the Cup of Socrates. She was working as a waitress and was a straight-A student at nearby Wayne State University, where she got her masters degree in English literature. Nancy was twenty-two when she and James moved to San Francisco in 1960. She had a sister named Sharon and a brother named Alex. Her son Hongo Ishi (“mushroom man” in Spanish and Yaqui Indian) was born in 1966.
Janis had been with the band only a few weeks when she and James began sleeping together. Once James and Janis became involved, he moved out of the apartment he shared with his wife and lived with Janis for two weeks. According to Janis, that arrangement ended the day Nancy came barging through the front door of Janis’ apartment. “What an embarrassing situation,” Janis told Jim Langdon later. “His old lady comes marching into my bedroom with the kid and the dog and confronts us.” James has no memory of a bedroom confrontation; he does recall Nancy’s showing up at a band rehearsal and asking him to come back. “It was sort of melodramatic,” he admits. James continued to sleep with Janis for a while, but he did go back to Nancy. Soon all was forgiven. Nancy moved in with the rest of the band and their girlfriends, wives, and children at Langunitas. The women spent long hours at night doing speed and stringing beads manically into necklaces and elaborate wall-hangings. Dave Getz doubts Nancy was deeply concerned about James’ dalliances. After all, she embodied “the hippie ethic of freedom, ‘everybody do their own thing.’ ” Also, Janis “really liked Nancy,” recalls Peter. And Nancy “loved Janis,” says Dave. “In fact, she loved Janis as much as anybody.” James thinks one reason the two women got along so well was that Janis was “very, very smart. And Nancy was one of the few people who was up to her caliber.” Nancy was a companion who thrived on meaningful discussions of the books that were as much a part of Janis as her music was. Nancy was an Earth Mother figure and a vision of a modern woman to Janis. Nancy also inspired Janis’ clothing. She emulated Nancy’s look of granny gowns-hand-me-down dresses redone into Earth Mother fashion.
In 1969, Nancy, who was pregnant again, had cut back on heroin which she wasn’t enthusiastic about. James, who had been strung out on smack for some time, was still struggling to get clean. After living apart for a while because of hard times in their relationship, Nancy and their son, Hongo, had moved back in with James and his roommate, Richard Hundgen. The weekend of July 4, the Gurleys decided on the spur of the moment to take a camping trip with Hongo. James apparently saw the trip as an opportunity to get clean, but he took along a $100 bag of heroin. After an afternoon of drinking as they rafted down the Russian River, the couple camped and shot up. James was so wasted he missed his own vein entirely. Nancy wasn’t so lucky. The heroin was powerful, her tolerance low, and James scored a perfect hit on her. As Nancy started to read a story to their three-year-old, she suddenly fell forward. James rushed her to the nearest hospital, but before they got there Nancy’s face had already turned black. She was thirty when she died.
“My whole world was destroyed,” says James Gurley today. “I was destroyed, everything was leveled. I was with her when she died, and I’d had the heroin too. I was talking to the police and I was in no condition to conceal anything or to deny anything. I said, ‘We were doing heroin and she died.’ It’s against the law to use it and I gave them what was left of the heroin, so they had that evidence right there.” James was charged with murder because he had injected the dope. Janis sent twenty-five thousand dollars to help pay for James’ legal expenses. With the help of Michael Stepanian, a lawyer who, with Brian Rohan, had founded the Haight-Ashbury Legal Organization, James ended up with only two years probation. It took about a year and a half to fight the charges.
Chet Helms describes Nancy as “a fiery spirit and a loving person.” At the time of her death, Richard Hundgen was asked to help the stricken family. “James and Hongo were totally distraught,” he remembers, “and I went to the city morgue at Healdsburg to identify Nancy. Hongo was left for a few days as a ward of the court, and then Nancy’s relatives got Hongo out.” Shortly before Nancy’s death, she’d sent Hundgen a letter saying, “Please take care of Janis, our canary.” She’d named the bird after Janis, says Hundgen, “because it sang so well, and Hongo really liked this little bird.”
The first thing Janis did upon hearing of Nancy’s OD was to go out and buy dope. Then she shot the heroin intravenously. Janis honored Nancy’s memory by dedicating the LP she was working on, Kozmic Blues, “to Nancy G. love.” Also, the song “For Nancy (Elegy)” on James Gurley’s Pipe Dreams is dedicated to his late wife.