‘My Mama, Cass’ debunks ham sandwich death while lauding her magic

‘My Mama, Cass’ debunks ham sandwich death while lauding her magic
‘My Mama, Cass’ debunks ham sandwich death while lauding her magic

Mama Cass. What does that name conjure?

It should summon memories of The Mamas & The Papas, which also included singers John and Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty, and their harmonizing ’60s hits “California Dreamin’” and “Monday, Monday.”

But it might also surface a less flattering music history artifact: that “Mama” Cass Elliot, who throughout her 32 years battled weight issues, had died in London in 1974 after choking on a ham sandwich.

A new book, “My Mama, Cass: A Memoir,” is an effort by her lone child, Owen Elliot-Kugell, to not only debunk the ham sandwich tale, but also to celebrate an entertainment pioneer who died just as she was starting to realize her solo showbiz dream.

“My mom passed before she was able to tell her own story,” says Elliot-Kugell, 57, who was 7 when her mom decamped for a London concert date and never returned. “I guess I realized from a young age that eventually I was going to have to be the one to set the record straight.”

“My Mama, Cass” is unique among rock biographies, given the storyteller had an intimate if truncated relationship to the star in question. Elliot-Kugel supplements her own limited memory banks with stories from family and friends who knew Mama Cass to create a full picture of her tragically short life.

Here’s a Mama Cass first revealed in “My Mama, Cass”:

Who was Mama Cass Elliot?

Mama Cass Elliot was a pivotal voice in the hit-making singing quartet, The Mamas & The Papas, who epitomized the folk-rock vibe that sizzled in the late ’60s.

She was born Ellen Cohen and grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, the granddaughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Her stage name was an inversion of her real initials, and involved a nickname, Cassandra, followed by a name she liked.

“My great-grandparents came over from Europe in 1913 or so, so it’s crazy that a granddaughter of those people had this huge success and got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame,” says Elliot-Kugell. “It’s truly an American dream type story.”

How did Cass Elliot die?

Not while eating a ham sandwich. Elliot died from a heart attack after a year of bad health that included five trips to the hospital. The singer was clearly overworked, and her weight, which at one point was 275 pounds, did not help matters. One starvation diet took her weight down to nearly 175 pounds, but it also put her in the hospital.

“She was really tired and run-down, and why people around her didn’t take notice I don’t know, but we wouldn’t ignore those signs today,” she says.

As for the ham sandwich, Elliot-Kugell reveals that a good friend of the family’s who was a publicist at the time of Elliot’s death was asked by Elliot’s manager to create a story to make sure no one thought she died from a drug overdose. “He was trying to protect his client from him I guess,” she says. “In a weird way, I’m grateful. That story has kept her in the eye of the pop culture storm a bit.”

Did the Mamas and the Papas make fun of Elliot’s weight?

Elliot hardened “no shortage of fat shaming in her day, comments and the like from people that we just wouldn’t do today, and it’s hard to imagine that it didn’t hurt her a lot,” says Elliot-Kugell.

In fact, there’s even a line in one famous Mamas and Papas song that would appear to insult Cass. In “Creeque Alley,” a tune about the rise of folks-rock, there’s a repeated coda line that goes: “And no one’s getting fat except Mama Cass.”

But Elliot-Kugell is sure that, in the lingo of the day, that line actually was writer John Phillips’ compliment to his bandmate. “That’s often misinterpreted as an insult to my mom, but ‘fat’ was a term at the time, a jazz term, that meant ‘cool,’” she says. “John was paying tribute to her.”

Who is the father of Cass Elliot’s daughter?

As a famous rock star, Elliot did not want for male companionship. But her love for co-singer Denny Dougherty was unrequited, and so a one-night stand with another musician, Chuck Day, brought Elliot-Kugel into the world.

“My mom wasn’t looking for a husband, she was looking for someone to give her a baby, a little person who would never leave her,” she says. “For that, I’m super grateful.”

When Elliot-Kugell was in her 20s, she was reunited with Day. But she kept the relationship at arm’s length. “I didn’t love that he would talk to the press about having fathered a child with Mama Cass,” she says. “But he lived a very colorful life and was a very talented guy, and now that he’s gone, I can appreciate him for that.”

Where was Mama Cass’s career when she died?

The Mamas & The Papas formed in 1965 and had meteoric hits. But internal strife led to a dry spell and a disbanding in 1968. Cass immediately set out on a solo career, which ranged from Las Vegas performances to an attempt at her own TV variety show to a guest-host gig on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show .”

“People really don’t know how versatile she was,” says Elliot-Kugell. “Just think about the ‘Tonight Show,’ she was one of the first women to sub in for Johnny regularly. “She was so smart and funny and quick, plus she knew all the famous guests personally.”

While Elliot’s voice blended seamlessly with the quartet, she “really wanted to be a solo act. The last Mamas and Papas single was ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ which was really mostly my mom, and that gave her a taste of what she could do. If she were still around, I can see her doing Vegas residencies.”

 
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